He saunters into a jam-packed convention hall, gospel music blaring in the background, his robe draped from his shoulders. Brother Beusman is in the house, and he's about to preach from the Bible of Fitness Business. His congregation leans forward en masse, awaiting his next word with bated breath.
It's the early 1980s, and the entire industry is still in its nascent stages. That's why club operators have come to this International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) convention to hear from the prophet of profits himself, like Moses down from the mountain, offering his Ten Commandments.
The congregation grows quieter. Then, the Rev. Curt Beusman utters his First Commandment:
“Thou shalt know all thy customers and their total spending at thy club, yea, even better than thou knowest thine own wife's charge accounts.”
That's the essence of Curt Beusman. He's a character. A showman. A storyteller. A businessman. A very successful businessman, mind you. And one of the most influential club owners this industry has ever known.
Beusman, founder of the Saw Mill Club in Mount Kisco, NY, is this year's recipient of Club Industry's Lifetime Achievement Award, which he will receive at the Club Industry Conference and Trade Show on Oct. 7 at McCormick Place in Chicago. His feats in this industry are merely a fraction of what he has accomplished in his life. You might even say Beusman is the Renaissance man of the club industry.
“He's one of the brightest people you'll ever meet,” says Rick Caro, president of Management Vision, New York, who received Club Industry's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. “He's one of the funniest people, too.”
SHOOTING FOR THE MOON
“I say to you, worship not solely the ancient god of tennis, nor the flashy idol of racquetball, for there are other fitness activities for the greater multitude that surely will benefit thy overall gross income, and insure thine own retirement plans.”
Born in 1931, Curt Beusman graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School, less than 10 miles from downtown Chicago, at age 16. He had skipped two grades during his elementary school years.
He graduated from Northwestern University soon after turning 20. There, his lifelong love of tennis blossomed. He played on three Big Ten Conference championship teams and captained the 1951 title-winning squad. He also won a singles Big Ten title and went on to play Junior Davis Cup tennis.
While on the Evanston, IL, campus, Beusman's love of the theater blossomed, too. He met his future wife, Jane, in a Northwestern musical review.
“She was a producer, I was a dancing boy, and she seduced me on the producer's couch,” Beusman jokes. “We got married about a year later.”
In his early life, Beusman's calling was chemistry. He studied nuclear engineering at the Oak Ridge (TN) School of Reactor Technology doing graduate research paid for by the government. That led to a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Cincinnati, which allowed his work at Oak Ridge to serve as his thesis project. (Beusman later received a master's in business at Columbia University.) He moved his young family to Mount Kisco in 1957 and worked as a chemical scientist on classified nuclear programs in White Plains, NY.
In 1960, while still in his 20s, Beusman founded Curtis Instruments with Edward Marwell. Beusman had obtained a patent license for a small elapsed time meter called a mercury coulometer, an electrochemical timing device. In 1969, that device was used by NASA on the Apollo Lunar Lander on the moon. The local newspaper's headline blared, “Mount Kisco on the Moon.”
By 1970, Beusman, still not quite 40 and with an invention of his still on the moon, grew weary of the scientific nature of his life. He got a taste of politics by running for and eventually winning election to the local school board. After he and Jane took a few days off, he sat up in bed the next Monday morning, turned to Jane, and said, “I don't want to go back to Curtis Instruments.”
“What do you want to do?” Jane asked him.
“You know,” he replied, “I think I'd like to build a tennis club.”
And with that, the Renaissance man opened a new chapter in his life.
AHEAD OF HIS TIME
“Thou shalt follow thine own true counsel on marketing and pricing, unfettered by thy naysayers of lesser vision at thy competitor's club.”
Saw Mill Club quickly became more than just a tennis club, adding racquetball, fitness options and pools to become a bona fide 135,000-square-foot multi-sport facility. Nestled in New York's affluent Westchester County, Saw Mill Club began doing something most other clubs wouldn't do: It raised dues.
“Everybody thought profit was a four-letter word,” Beusman says. “Profit is not a four-letter word. You can only grow if you're profitable because then you have cash and capital to do stuff. The bank's not going to give you any more money if you're losing money.”
Besides raising dues, Beusman did other things most club operators didn't do. He did away with an annual dues system and charged regular monthly membership fees. (“I didn't invent it, but I was noisy enough in trying to convince people that it was the right way to go,” he says.) He also practiced open-book management,in which he shared the company's financials with others on the club payroll. (Commandment No. 5: “Gather thy disciples and employees unto your conference room and teach them thine own marketing plans, that they might spread the gospel of monthly billing.”)
“Back then, it was shocking in the 1980s to be sharing financial information with people that work for you,” says Rick Beusman, Curt's son, who runs Saw Mill Club and three other clubs as president of Saw Mill Sports Management.
Curt Beusman also had an advisory board, complete with executives from other walks of life. He also was one of the first club operators to actively use electronic funds transfer (EFT) and measure members' club usage to help track retention levels.
And, battling the energy crisis of the early 1980s, when utility costs were going through the roof, Beusman severed ties with utility companies and went to co-generation.
“He was ahead of his time,” Caro says. “He tried things no one had the nerve to do.”
Beusman's business acumen soon became the blueprint for all club operators, especially those who ran high-end facilities. And he was more than willing to spread his knowledge.
“Curt became the spokesman for the highest-quality clubs,” says John McCarthy, the former executive director of IHRSA. “He has always been a price leader. He's always been encouraging people to not be afraid to increase their prices. He was the intellectual leader and the moral leader of that segment of clubs. Everybody in that period was trying to keep up with Curt.”
Beusman was part of the Faust Roundtables, where club operators would share their issues and problems. Beusman, a past president of the National Tennis Association, also co-founded IHRSA. Other co-founders were Caro, Dale Dibble, Todd Pulis, Norm Cates, Peter Donahue and Jennifer Wayt Saslaw. IHRSA has honored Beusman with its Person of the Year and Distinguished Service awards.
“Discounteth not thy membership fees, nor thy court fees for thy local corporations, for they shall forever more demand concessions.”
When Beusman wasn't preaching to the masses at conventions, he offered advice on a less grandiose scale.
Mitch Wald, the chief operating officer at Maryland Athletic Club, Timonium, MD, first met Beusman in the early 1980s. Beusman spent some time with Wald at his club, which at the time was in Virginia.
“He was one of my mentors,” says Wald, a member of the early roundtables. “It wasn't just the information, which was great. It was who he was and the way he shared it. Whenever you were around him, you felt better.”
Patricia Laus took over what is now The Atlantic Club in Manasquan, NJ, in the early 1980s. The club was less than a two-hour drive from Saw Mill, so Laus asked Beusman for advice. He soon became a hired consultant.
One day, Beusman asked Laus, “Do you have the guts to go to $58 a month?”
“Of course I do!” Laus replied, trying to hide the gulp in her throat.
“I don't know that I would have had the guts to raise my dues every year had it not been for Curt pounding that into my business brain,” Laus says now. “We are who we are because we were parented by Curt Beusman. He was, is and always will be on my personal executive board. I still find myself quoting some of the things that he would say to his members. I'll say, ‘I'll say yes if I can, but if I can't, I'll tell you why.’”
Beusman always wanted to improve his club's performance, and it didn't matter where he received advice. One time, Robert Cialdini, an author with a hot new book called “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” was in New York to speak at IBM. Beusman somehow persuaded Cialdini to speak to his sales staff at Saw Mill Club.
Larry Krieger, general manager of the San Francisco Tennis Club, remembers that story well. Krieger was the general manager at Saw Mill Club from 1979 to 1993. Among other things, Beusman taught Krieger and his wife how to ski.
“You couldn't hang around him without learning something,” Krieger says.
A FAMILY OPERATION
“Yea, though thy profits be zero and thine neighboring clubs be multiplied, despair not, for thy real estate value shall multiply all the days of the year in spite of thine own stupidity.”
Curt Beusman knew his limitations, especially when it came to running his club. As he came up with ideas for the club and kept up staff morale, it was Jane who ran the club. Jane did just about everything, from running the pro shop or the front desk to handling food service to helping clean the club.
“She did all the stuff that I wasn't good at,” Beusman says.
By the mid-1990s, Curt and Jane had carefully planned to hand over the reins of the company, but it wasn't automatically going to Rick, who was running Saw Mill's Sportsplex club in New Windsor, NY, at the time. (The Beusmans raised two other children: Blair, who died of breast cancer in 1988, and Robert, who won an Academy Award for best documentary short subject in 2005.) Curt and Jane hired an outside small business consulting firm to help them successfully transfer a family business.
After an extensive search and evaluations, the Beusmans hired Rick to run the company.
“That was an interesting process, but what was even more interesting was the complete lack of ego or possessiveness from both my parents once they had agreed to make the change,” Rick Beusman says. “That kind of rigorous discipline is not easy when you're the founder of a small business because it's their baby. They were really selfless in that.”
In addition to Saw Mill Club and the Sportsplex/New Windsor club, Rick Beusman oversees the Mount Kisco Athletic Club and the Sportsplex/Stamford (CT) club. (The company sold one other club a few years ago.) Saw Mill Sports Management generated $19 million in 2009, placing it at No. 49 on Club Industry's Top 100 Clubs list this year. The Beusmans had a third generation working at Saw Mill Club this summer — twin sisters Callie and Blair Beusman.
As for Curtis Instruments, the company Beusman founded 50 years ago, it pulled in about $100 million last year. But Beusman has never bemoaned not holding onto a piece of the company in order to cash in on some of that profit.
“We tease him about that to this day,” Rick Beusman says. “This is a guy who has no personal attachment to money.”
Sadly, when Curt Beusman receives his award next month in Chicago, Jane will not be there. She died in January at the age of 81 after a battle with Alzheimer's disease.
Curt and Jane were married 58 years. Curt's membership number at Saw Mill Club is a reminder of their union: 9151 — the date of their anniversary.
These days, Curt spends a lot of time at the club he founded. His lifelong passion with tennis, which began when he won his first tournament at the age of 9, continues at the age of 79.
“He's one of my most active members,” Rick Beusman says. “And he behaves like a member, which is great. He doesn't behave like an owner.”
Curt Beusman's advice is for everyone to be active, too, whether or not they belong to a fitness club.
“I don't care if people join a club or not,” he says. “As long as they walk four times a week, that's fine. Walk! If you can't afford the club, come to the club, get educated, and then go do your thing, but do it.”
Another commandment from the Rev. Curt Beusman himself.
ON THE WEB
For profiles of past Lifetime Achievement Award winners, visit the Awards and Rankings page on Club Industry's website at www.clubindustry.com/awardsrankings.
GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY
Curt and Jane Beusman always gave back to their Mount Kisco, NY, community.
In addition to their activity on the local school board and a local drama group, Jane created the Chappaqua Summer Scholarship Program in 1968 in which high school students from the Bronx, NY, are brought to Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, NY, to help ensure their success in college. That program continues to this day.
Curt and Jane also served on the board of directors of the Mount Kisco Child Care Center. In June, the center hosted the first annual Jane H. Beusman Children's Fund Celebration at Saw Mill Club in honor of Jane, who died in January at the age of 81. The event raised $175,000 to help support tuition assistance for the center's families.
A CONGRATULATORY NOTE FROM CURTIS INSTRUMENTS
Curt Beusman co-founded Curtis Instruments in 1960. The Mount Kisco, NY-based company praises Beusman on his Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I have known Curtis Beusman for over 50 years,” Stuart Marwell, CEO and president of Curtis Instruments Inc. and the son of co-founder Edward Marwell, said in a statement. “He is one of the original founders of our company, Curtis Instruments, and he is now a highly respected leader in the health and fitness industry. This is a deserved honor, as Curtis Beusman is a visionary entrepreneur whose health clubs are widely recognized as the most progressive and well managed. He is also a stellar member of the local community who is involved in several key nonprofit organizations, including the Mount Kisco Child Care Center where he recently launched the JHB Children's Fund in honor of his wife, Jane. We salute him for this important Lifetime Achievement Award.”
PREVIOUS CLUB INDUSTRY LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD WINNERS
2003 — Joe Weider
2004 — Joe Gold
2005 — Judi Sheppard Missett
2006 — Rick Caro
2007 — Alan Schwartz
2008 — Dr. Kenneth Cooper
2009 — Jack LaLanne
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT CURT BEUSMAN
“In those days, it was like coming to the mountain, coming back to hear Curt Beusman and what he learned in the last year. It was the one thing you didn’t want to miss. It was the most important presentation at those conventions.”
—John McCarthy, Former Executive Director, IHRSA
“Curt was a successful businessperson before he embarked on tennis and building Saw Mill. He is just wired for entrepreneurism.”
—Patricia Laus, Owner and CEO, That Atlantic Club
“As smart as he is, he is someone who believes there are other perspectives.”
—Rick Caro, President of Management Vision and 2006 Club Industry Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
“The Ten Commandments performance was just an offshoot of many years of hamming it up. My dad is a ham.”
—Rick Beusman, Son of Curt Beusman and President of Saw Mill Sports Management.
“He had it figured out before most of us did.”
—Mitch Wald, Chief Operating Officer, Maryland Athletic Club
“Curt was probably one of the most creative minds I’ve ever been involved with. He always had a different view of the world and always posed interesting questions. He was very creative and a great thinker. He is a very theoretical thinker and always wants to know why.”
—Tom Lyneis, President, VillaSport