It is 9 a.m. on a Monday in August at East Bank Club in Chicago. The weekend sun-worshippers have come and gone, having enjoyed their time on the club’s 60,000-square-foot sun deck. The members from the morning rush have completed their workouts and are settled in their downtown offices.
Yet the buzz still remains in the club. Patrons from the neighborhood are enjoying their morning. Children not yet back to school are taking swim lessons, dribbling basketballs or creating arts and crafts at the club. A pregnant woman dressed in her workout clothes enters the club. Just before she checks in, a friend spots her.
“How are you feeling?” she asks her.
Other members hustle through the front doors. As they check in, they can pick up copies of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times that are stacked up for them. In 2013, people still read copies of newspapers at East Bank Club, which offers just about everything for everybody.
More than 33 years ago, none of this was around, and the surrounding River North neighborhood in downtown Chicago was all but dead. As one longtime Chicagoan described it, you wouldn’t want to drive through the area back then, not even during the day.
That all changed in 1980 when 50-year-old real estate developer Daniel Levin opened East Bank Club. Some people were skeptical that this health club idea would fly, especially in this area, which was once a railroad turnaround, complete with barns and sheds. The health club industry as a whole was still young, and not many big city, large multi-purpose clubs existed at the time.
At the pre-opening party that December, however, eager members rushed to get to their lockers.
“Oh,” Levin thought. “This may work.”
And it has. Today, East Bank Club has 11,400 members and 650 employees. This year, the 450,000-square-foot club was No. 18 on Club Industry’s Top 100 Clubs list with a reported $55 million in 2012 revenue. For the past several years, East Bank Club has been the highest-ranking single club facility on the Top 100 Clubs list.
“The whole club, I had no idea it was going to be as successful as it is,” Levin said earlier this year. “When we opened, we thought if we had 4,000 members, that would be great.”
Some of those members have included famous celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Billie Jean King, Rahm Emanuel and a then-little-known University of Chicago School of Law professor named Barack Obama. They have all blended in among the not-so-famous members, who are treated with the same respect as anyone else, many club staff members say.
As the Club Industry Conference and Trade Show returns to Chicago next month, Club Industry will honor Levin for his work at what has become a Chicago institution with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Levin joins the likes of Joe Gold, Jack LaLanne and last year’s recipient, Joe Cirulli. Many of the 10 previous recipients worked their way through the health club industry as bodybuilders or fitness trainers. Levin took a different route, and although not as well-known throughout the fitness industry, he shares the same qualities as all the other recipients: a vision and a keen business sense.
Law, Politics and Real Estate
Theodore and Rhoda Levin were each born in Chicago to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, but they raised their family of four children in Detroit. Daniel Levin was third in line among his two brothers and sister, born on July 24, 1930.
The Levin family is steeped in law. Theodore Levin, the oldest of eight children, ran a family law practice in Detroit for 26 years with his brother, Saul. He opposed the Michigan Alien Registration and Fingerprinting Act with other immigration lawyers and succeeded in having the act declared unconstitutional.
In 1946, President Harry S. Truman nominated Theodore Levin to become a federal judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. After U.S. Senate confirmation, Levin served as a federal judge until his death in 1970. (He was chief judge of the court from 1959 to 1967.) The Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in Detroit was named in his memory in 1995.
Daniel Levin’s older brother, Charles, served as a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court from 1973 to 1996. Their first cousins include two members of Congress: Carl Levin, the U.S. senator from Michigan, and Sander Levin, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan’s 9th district.
All signs pointed Daniel Levin toward following in the family business. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1950 and later earned his law degree from there in 1953. He went on to serve as a law clerk in Washington, DC, before joining the family law firm.
“That’s what we did. We became lawyers,” Levin says.
Yet something was missing in his life.
“I wasn’t enjoying the law that much,” Levin says. “I wasn’t that good at it.”
In 1957, after creating work connections in Chicago, Levin was hired to a low-level house counsel position for Chicago real estate developer Herbert Greenwald, who worked closely with famed German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In 1959, Greenwald was among more than 60 people who died in a plane crash at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
The tragedy opened a new chapter for Levin, who became more involved in the real estate business. He later formed a partnership with James P. McHugh of James McHugh Construction Co. called McHugh Levin Associates.
The first major development for Levin and McHugh was South Commons, a 28-acre urban renewal project on Chicago’s south side. The success of that project led Levin to found The Habitat Co. in 1971.
Since then, Levin has directed the financing and structuring of more than 20,000 rental and condominium units in 80 locations and six states and has more than $2 billion in assets under management.
The company attributes its philosophy to a quote from Levin: “No project is only an investment in real estate. It is an investment in the future of the community and in the lives of the people who live and work there.”
One could apply the same philosophy to the opening of East Bank Club. But this particular project was not easy to get off the ground.
The Origins of the Club
In 1973, Levin and McHugh obtained an option to buy a 142,000-square-foot parcel on the east bank of the north branch of the Chicago River for an apartment complex. They applied for financing with the Illinois Housing Development Authority, noting that 20 percent of the apartment complex units would be affordable housing. But the Authority turned them down. Levin and McHugh were told people would not want to live in the neighborhood.
A few years later, Levin and McHugh thought a health club would better suit the space. The cost estimate was $15.5 million, with one-third coming from investors. Construction began in 1978, and Levin and McHugh needed to put up more capital.
“It was difficult to raise the money because people didn’t have confidence in a club this size or in another health club or a racquet club,” Levin says. “At that time, the industry wasn’t nearly as popular as it today.”
Many insurance companies turned down Levin and McHugh on the health club idea, but they finally received a small loan from Continental Bank, which no longer exists.
“I wasn’t pessimistic about the area,” Levin says. “I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t get financing for the apartment buildings. I was so involved in it for so long, I almost wasn’t worried about the risk anymore. I just wanted to see it happen. The money that I put in, I knew I could go on living without it. It wasn’t going to break me.”
Rick Caro, president of consulting firm Management Vision, New York, says Levin was ahead of his time.
“The good news is he went into a market where others had not been,” Caro says. “The bad news is it was a completely untested, unproven market and one that clearly would not have been an obvious choice to support the size and scope of the facility that was created.”
The East Bank Club of 1980 certainly is not the East Bank Club of today. The club has evolved to keep up with the times and the trends. In the beginning, it did not include even a single treadmill, Levin says. Today, it has a 20,000-square-foot cardio room. The number of indoor tennis courts has been reduced over the years from 12 to seven. One tennis court was recently converted into a training center similar to the studios that have populated the industry in recent years.
In addition to the massive cardio room and the tennis courts, East Bank Club offers a quarter-mile indoor running track, three racquetball courts, a squash court, a free weight room, five aerobics studios, a Pilates and Gyrotonic studio, physical therapy, a 60-bike cycle studio, four swimming pools (two indoor and two outdoor), two regulation-size basketball courts, a day care center, a juice bar and a pro shop.
Any club with those amenities would be the envy of competitors. But East Bank Club also has an indoor golf driving range, a dry cleaner, a full-service salon and spa, a car wash, a casual grill, a gourmet deli, a restaurant, catering facilities and the aforementioned 60,000-square-foot sun deck.
“There’s not another place in the city that has a deck like this,” Levin says. “We can have 800 to 900 people on the deck on a good weekend day.”
And let’s not forget underground parking, a premium in downtown Chicago, or the club’s building facilities department where union workers construct specific projects for the club, which spends between $1.5 million and $2 million a year in capital improvements. The club also has an annual budget of $96,000 solely for flowers and landscaping in and around the club.
“I don’t think [Levin has] ever seen it as a money venture,” says Club Manager Simon Meredith, who has worked at the club since its inception in 1980. “He just wants it to be a great place, well run, and people will have great things to say about it.”
Attention to detail is in everything at the club, from the nameplates outside office doors (there are meetings about how those are designed) to the mannequins in the window of the pro shop. The club also commissions art murals. The latest piece on the right-hand side of the entryway is entitled “Our Kind of Town,” a skyline of Chicago that prominently features East Bank Club.
“What we all in the industry admire is not only did [Levin] take a risk and have a concept and then knew how to find people to execute it, but he has continually reinvested his creativity and financial resources to continue to always reconfigure the space, to find ways to meet changing interest and demand of types of facilities that support new programs,” Caro says. “He is really a genius in some ways because he did something that almost all of the pundits at the time would have said made no sense. He then did it and has continued to do it over all of these years.”
Caro, who received Club Industry’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, says Levin continues to inspire him whenever he visits East Bank Club.
“His commitment is no less than the 21-year-old who is fervently committed to helping an individual get healthier and live a better life,” Caro says. “His commitment to his staff is immeasurable. His commitment to the member is beyond standard norms. He is just so passionate to make East Bank Club more significant and more successful tomorrow than it was yesterday. I consider myself very passionate about the industry already, and he makes me more passionate.”
Still Hard at Work
Both of Levin’s companies, East Bank Club and The Habitat Co., continue to fuel his fire. He does play golf (he didn’t take up the sport until he was 65), and he does travel. He and his wife, Fay Hartog-Levin, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to The Netherlands from 2009 to 2011, recently went to France for a vacation and to see one of his daughters who lives there. (Levin also has another daughter who lives in the Chicago area and a son who is a senior attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC.)
While in France, though, Levin responded to an email from Meredith about a minor question regarding the club. Work is never far behind, and Levin is in on all the major decisions at the club.
“I work every day because I enjoy it,” Levin says. “I don’t feel the stress of starting from scratch and building a business. No one can fire me, and I need two jobs in order to feel safe.”
Levin and his wife drive together to work every morning. He parks the car in the garage at East Bank Club in what is no doubt one of the best parking spots in all of Chicago. While she heads to work at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Levin might eat breakfast at the club or chat with club executives for a quick rundown before heading across the street to his office at The Habitat Co.
Levin turned 83 in July, and the thought of handing over the reins of the club has popped up a time or two. But for right now, he is still in charge.
“It’s going to happen,” Levin says about retirement. “I enjoy what I’m doing, and everyone seems to get along with me. But I’m not going to live forever, and I have to think about an arrangement of how I’ll be replaced, as you think about in any job.”
Meredith does not see Levin retiring anytime soon.
“He’s fascinated by every aspect of business,” Meredith says. “He has boundless energy, an interest in every detail. He can just keep going as long as his health holds out.”
And why would Levin retire now? Four office and residential projects not related to The Habitat Co. within blocks of East Bank Club could produce a gold mine of future members. And, in addition to The Habitat Co.’s Kingsbury Plaza high-rise apartments that went up in 2007, the company is completing a $140 million 43-story apartment tower called Hubbard Place, due to open in October, right next door to East Bank Club.
“He’s not one that’s ever wanted to be involved in self-aggrandizement,” Hartog-Levin says. “He didn’t build the club or other buildings as monuments to himself. He built all of these things to make other people happy and comfortable.”
On this August day at East Bank Club, Levin is dressed in a summer tan suit and tie with a matching handkerchief in his suit pocket. He pops into the pro shop before noon and mulls over purchasing a cashmere sweater for his wife. Soon, he joins the executive staff for lunch at the club’s grill, getting up a time or two to speak to members he has spotted. After lunch, he steps into his modest office at the club for a quick video interview.
The interview is done, yet he has more work to do. A 1:30 p.m. meeting at The Habitat Co. is fast approaching. Levin says his goodbyes at East Bank Club before he steps out through a side door, crosses the street and heads to his office, anonymously.
Sidebar: The Famous and a Future President Work Out at East Bank Club
You do not see photos of the famous members who have come and gone at East Bank Club. But their time spent at the club and their associations with the club and CEO Daniel Levin have become the stuff of legend.
Oprah Winfrey has worked out almost unrecognizably in the club’s vast cardio room. Levin’s wife, Fay Hartog-Levin, remembers a time when her husband gave Winfrey a vegetable juice drink after a workout.
“You’re my hunk of love,” Winfrey told Levin that day, according to his wife.
One famous former member perhaps represents the vision that Levin has for the club and for others. Levin first met President Barack Obama one day after Obama played basketball at the club. At that time, Obama’s career was moving forward, and a few years later in 1996, he was elected to the Illinois state senate. Still somewhat unknown in Chicago, Obama launched a campaign for the 2004 U.S. Senate.
Hartog-Levin had met Obama when she served as an executive at Chicago’s Field Museum. Her husband set up a meet-and-greet wine and cheese party for Obama at East Bank Club. Around 50 members attended.
After Obama won the Democratic nomination for the Senate that March, the Levins hosted Obama and wife Michelle at their house in Winnetka, IL, for a small dinner party. A chef served Chinese food that evening for the 10 or so guests.
The rest is well-known history. Obama won the Senate seat in the fall, announced his candidacy for president in 2007, was elected president in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012.
“He was someone you knew that was going to have more public prominence somehow,” Levin says. “We became very close to him and still are close to him.”
However, Levin gets only so close to the president these days.
“He’s still the president,” Levin says. “I don’t call every morning and say, ‘How are you doing?’”
Sidebar: Longtime Employees Lead to Success of East Bank Club
East Bank Club founder and CEO Daniel Levin attributes the success of the club to his staff and executive team, many of whom have been at the club for years.
Of the 650 employees at East Bank Club, 45 percent (292) have worked at the club 10 or more years. And of those 292 employees, 79 have worked 20 or more years, 37 have worked 25 or more years and seven have worked at the club 30 or more years.
Among the executive team, Club Manager Simon Meredith has been at East Bank Club since the beginning. Not far behind are Senior Manager Joe Rossie (28 years) and Mike Romano, director of food and beverage (27 years).
“He’s our boss, but he’s also our friend, and he enjoys the friendship,” Rossie says of Levin. “He covets the friendship.”
Romano adds: “What keeps me here is I can’t imagine a better place to work. I couldn’t possibly think of leaving the guy.”
Kevin Brooks, director of human resources, has served 19 years at East Bank Club, and Chief Financial Officer Dale McCarrell has worked at the club 11 years.
Sidebar: Club Industry Lifetime Achievement Award Recipients
Profiles of all Club Industry honorees are available at: www.clubindustry.com/awardsrankings/lifetime-achievement-award.
2003 —Joe Weider, Weider Publishing
2004—Joe Gold, Gold’s Gym, World Gym
2005 —Judi Sheppard Missett, Jazzercise
2006 —Rick Caro, Management Vision
2007 —Alan Schwartz, Midtown Athletic Clubs
2008 —Dr. Kenneth Cooper, Cooper Aerobics Center
2009— Jack LaLanne, TV Fitness Personality
2010 — Curt Beusman, Saw Mill Club
2011 — Red Lerille, Red Lerille’s Health and Racquet Club
2012 — Joe Cirulli, Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers
2013 — Daniel Levin, East Bank Club