One summer in the 1960s when Rick Caro was a teenager in Scarsdale, NY, he worked three service-related jobs. He served as an activities director at a day camp on weekdays, a salesperson in a department store's camera department on weekday evenings and Saturdays, and a ticket agent sitting in a tiny wooden booth at the World's Fair on Sundays. For anyone who knew the tall and thin oldest of four children, it should come as no surprise that he not only displayed this same work ethic throughout his life, but that he also pursued a service-oriented career that's all about relationships.
Caro, this year's Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro Lifetime Achievement Award winner and president of New York-based consulting firm Management Vision, has dedicated 33 of his 60 years to the fitness business. During those years, he has worn many hats, some of them simultaneously. He's been a club owner, a consultant, an author, a speaker, founder of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) and a cheerleader for the industry to the financial community.
His business associates and friends (they are often one in the same) describe Caro in glowing terms, calling him gentle, highly intelligent, dedicated, loyal, humble and a giving man with a good sense of humor, an excellent memory and a love of sports but few athletic skills.
“He's a sports junkie, but he can't play anything,” jokes long-time friend Curt Beusman, who is retired from his Saw Mill Management clubs.
They all marvel, however, about how despite his long hours and hectic travel schedule, he keeps in touch with each and every one of them.
“He is a wonderful person at maintaining relationships. He works hard at it,” says Brian McBain, who has known Caro since the late 1960s. McBain is president of Club Market Vision, the marketing research sister company to Caro's Management Vision consulting company.
Caro sends birthday and anniversary cards to hundreds of friends, their spouses and their children. In fact, his wife of five years, Sue Denison, says he shops almost weekly at three local card stores, personally picking out cards. He also sends a thousand Christmas cards to business associates and 250 personal Christmas cards, each with a handwritten note.
“One of the most important things in life is people so I keep up with my friends, many of whom were introduced to me through the industry,” Caro says. “I've been fortunate that many are lifetime friends — fortunate that I found an industry where I could make those kinds of friends.”
Being close to several friends and their families has brought Caro joy, says his sister, Cathy Caro-Bruce.
“A lot of people consider him Uncle Rick,” she says. “Being in a marriage that's relatively new, in a way, a lot of those families were his families. I think that was part of the way that he wanted to be in the world — to have those families in his life.”
In fact, Tim and Liz Rhode, co-owners of the Maryland Athletic Club in Timonium, MD, and their children call Caro “Papi Rick.” The Cuban-American originating nickname stems from a Super Bowl party at the home of an Orioles player that Yankee-shirted Caro attended with the Rhodes. One of the guests asked if Caro was Liz or Tim's father. Liz, who is Cuban-American, laughed at the time and told the guest, “No, but in a lot of ways he is.”
Tim, who talks to Caro at least monthly, says, “He's been standing in as our adoptive father ever since.”
Caro is also close to his own family, who live in the Madison, WI, area. His mother passed away this year, but he rearranged his schedule to visit her often during her illness. He continues to visit his father regularly and calls him every night, often discussing the Yankees.
Caro waited until he was 55 to say “I do,” claiming he was either a slow learner about the concept of marriage or he was doing a lot of market research.
“It has been a wonderful situation for me because I didn't expect to find someone at this point in my life,” Caro says about his marriage to Denison, who is an executive recruiter in the media and entertainment industry. “No matter what you do with friends and what enjoyment you have, you'd always like to have someone to share your life with on a continual basis.”
It's More Than Business
It's no wonder Caro didn't marry sooner. After all, he was busy shaping an industry. After earning a bachelor's degree in psychology from Tufts University, he went on to earn an MBA with distinction in 1967 from New York University, where he also served as assistant dean and faculty member at the age of 23. Caro then worked for an advertising agency and later served as a management expert to correct problems at the New York Youth Services Agency.
By 1973 Caro and two friends dreamed up several business opportunities, including one they pursued — the purchase of indoor tennis clubs. Even though the tennis club craze was booming, Caro and his partners saw that many of the clubs weren't in great locations, and supply would soon outpace their demand. Therefore, the group diversified activities in their newly purchased CitiSport Inc. facilities, which were former tennis clubs. They converted courts to other uses including racquetball courts, weight rooms, a pool, aerobic rooms and snack bars to provide more revenue per square foot. The multi-sport concept was somewhat novel at the time.
Caro found day-to-day operation of the clubs to be exciting, especially since the company's rapid growth meant operational challenges popped up daily.
“I saw a real value in connecting with people — customers and associates working on your team,” Caro says.
He learned that staff members made a difference in the success or failure of a club. The better trained and supported staff members were, the more satisfaction existed for members and the employees.
“If you are satisfying the constituency, then everything else will follow — profits, retention of members and staff,” he says.
And profits did flow, but eventually the three partners sold their clubs, and Caro found his perspective on club business in high demand. Initially, friends asked him to offer an owner's insight into their clubs to verify their direction and business. He offered his insights for free, but the friends insisted on paying him, which is when Caro realized that others felt his insights had value.
“So the consulting business found me,” says Caro. He took the leap into full-time consulting in 1983. Since then, he has focused on several areas of expertise including market analysis, market research, member research, club evaluations and giving counsel on club finance. He also serves as an expert witness in court cases related to health club lawsuits or disputes between health club partners.
However, Caro's role in shaping the industry doesn't stop there. By authoring Financial Management (the “Bible” for health clubs, says Beusman), Caro brought law and order to the financial part of the fitness business, says McBain. Caro was part of a committee that developed a chart of accounts so the industry would have a uniform method for reporting financials. Also on the financial side, Caro researched valuation formulas from other industries and how they could be applied to the club industry.
Caro also led the industry onto Wall Street's radar.
“He's worked hard at getting them (financial markets) acquainted with how the industry works, which has made it easier for club owners to get financing and attain credibility,” says Jim Gerber, owner of Western Athletic Clubs in San Francisco.
In the meantime, Caro helped create a group of business roundtables for health club owners to share information and suggestions in various areas.
Perhaps Caro's crowning glory is the role he played in founding IHRSA. In 1982 while still a co-owner in the Citi-Sport clubs and serving on the boards of the National Tennis Association and National Court Clubs Association for racquetball clubs, Caro suggested to both boards that they combine associations since their agendas often overlapped.
“I saw value in taking the limited resources of each one and combining them into a greater concept that would include fitness industry people also,” Caro says. The boards of both groups agreed, and IHRSA was born.
“IHRSA created a united voice for people who were voiceless,” Caro says. “It created more professionalism than before and more education.”
The association offered lobbying power in legislative issues, group buying power and educational materials from videos to handbooks.
When You Care Enough
Sharing information and communicating is a big part of Caro's life.
“All information in the industry seems to come from Rick,” Gerber says. “If I need help and financial advice or information on what clubs are doing, he knows who in the industry or outside of it can provide that information.”
Norm Cates, one-time club owner and current publisher of Club Insider, says, “He is willing to help people regardless of whether it's a consulting relationship or not. I know many people he's helped, and he's never gotten a dime for it.”
That willingness to share stems from a concern for the industry that Caro has maintained over the years.
“I'm not sure there's a person out there who cares more about the industry than Rick,” Tim Rhode says. “It's so evident when you talk to him. He can't turn down a request for anything that will enhance or protect the industry.”
Caro considers himself blessed to have found a career that has become such a passion and source of satisfaction that it goes beyond being a job.
“As time goes on, when you accomplish things and get recognized by peers, it is nice, but it wouldn't mean anything if you didn't enjoy doing what you are doing,” Caro says.
Finding that passion in an industry that helps others only makes the experience sweeter for a hardworking, sports-minded teenager from Scarsdale, NY, who has dedicated much of his life to connecting with and helping others.
Rick Caro will be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 5, at the Club Industry show in Chicago. For details, visit www.clubindustryshow.com.
Q&A with Rick Caro
Q: If you could have changed anything about the fitness industry during your career, what would you have changed?
A: I'd love to have the industry not have created such ill will with the public that we had to have special health club laws in every state to protect the consumer. I'd love to have had fairer and more consumer-oriented methods of payment early on so that people didn't feel as if the club industry was either difficult to deal with or didn't seem to respect their rights as a consumer. If we could have started out with a clean slate and not been criticized for some of the behavior we exhibited toward consumers, it would have been an easier time building credibility and not have led to such scrutiny.
Q: What surprises you about the industry as it is today?
A: It's the good news/bad news thing. We reached 14 percent of the United States as members, but also that we've only reached 14 percent. We educate people as an industry but we don't get them to take actionable steps. We are an industry that can help people lead better lives, healthier lives and less stressful lives, and we aren't having an impact on as many people as we should right now.
Q: Where do you plan to go from here?
A: I'm still loving the industry as much as ever. I'm still passionate about the industry. I will continue to consult in areas I have some strength in. I may have a chance to participate at a senior level — perhaps on a board level — at a company that may not be large today but could be in the future or a company that could combine a few of the better club groups together. It would be fun to have a leadership role at a company where I'd have a chance to be a part of a business on an ongoing basis rather than being invited in just to consult.
Why the Cowboy Hat?
Those who have been around the industry for awhile probably recall Rick Caro's black cowboy hat with the blue feathers. He used to wear it to certain IHRSA events. Why would a boy from New York City wear a cowboy hat? Sentimental reasons, it turns out.
Caro had long admired the cowboy hat worn by fellow IHRSA board member and Boise, ID, club owner Bob Peterson. When Caro left his first term as president of IHRSA, the board members chipped in and bought Caro the black Resistol cowboy hat.
“It meant so much to me emotionally that I've worn it to many IHRSA events as a symbol of what the early days of IHRSA meant,” Caro says, adding, “My wife doesn't feel that I need to wear it a lot in New York City.”
And then there is the pair of leopard-print tights he was spotted in once…but if you want to know that story, it's better left to Caro to explain. Just suffice it to say, it had to do with being a “good team player and not knowing how to say no,” Caro says.
Sidebar: Wedding Stories
More than 100 people from the industry (out of 300 guests) attended the wedding of Rick Caro and Sue Denison, who is an executive recruiter in the media and entertainment industry. Few people turned down the invitation to be at the ceremony.
“They wanted to be witness to the fact that I was actually able to ‘close the deal,’” Caro says.
Rudy Guiliani, former mayor of New York and Caro's friend of 30 years, officiated at the wedding, which was held at Tavern on the Green in Central Park just six weeks prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
When Caro visited Guiliani at city hall prior to the wedding to review the ceremony with him, Guiliani closed his door and asked Caro if he really wanted to get married.
“He said ‘If it doesn't work out, do you have an exit strategy?’ I said, ‘Rudy, I'm trying to have an entry strategy’ because before then I hadn't had one,” Caro laughs.
On the morning of the ceremony, the couple practiced putting on the rings but found that Denison's band wouldn't go over her finger. A jeweler friend suggested that spraying Windex on the finger would help, which it did. Prior to the wedding, Caro handed a bottle of Windex to his best man to hold onto during the ceremony, explaining to him and Guiliani, who was in the room at the time, the contents of the bottle and its possible role in the ceremony.
The Windex wasn't needed, but the possibility of its use resulted in a photo of Guiliani leaning in with his head almost on the rings waiting to see if it would be needed.
“He was so disappointed that I didn't have to use the bottle,” Caro says.
Sidebar: Secrets Only Caro's Friends Know
Rick Caro isn't that comfortable using a computer. He often hand writes his correspondence and someone else in the office types it into e-mail and sends it. At the end of the day, he gets print outs of all the e-mails that have come to him. But, says Norm Cates, publisher of Club Insider, “He's good at using the fax machine.”
Coming to his defense, Brian McBain, president of Club Market Vision, says, “He can actually send an e-mail now.”
Caro is the “smallest note taker in the world,” according to Cates. When Caro visits clubs, he takes notes in a Daytimer about 7 inches high and 4 inches wide and it is full of his tiny writing.
Caro's office is a mess. He mind is organized, but his office has “more paper than you've ever seen in your life,” Caro admits.
McBain says, “He's a pack rat, but he claims to know what's in every pile. No one has the nerve to test him on it.”
Caro can't dance, although as frequent dance partner and Maryland Athletic Club co-owner Liz Rhode attests, he has gotten better over the years.
“I don't know if he takes direction from a woman very well,” she says.
In his home office, Caro displays industry-related memorabilia and certificates that individuals made for him years ago referring to him as the “Father of the Industry.”