Tennis anyone?

Kay Yuspeh innovated to grow Elite Sports Clubs


In the late 1980s Kay Yuspeh, owner of the Highlander Tennis Club in Brookfield, began evaluating whether to expand her club to include recreational facilities and swimming pools.

This would be a big step for her so she decided to consult with a group of her male colleagues in the recreation business to get their take.

Their advice: either sell the facility or turn it into condos.

They underestimated Kay, entrepreneur at heart and daughter of the well-respected business leader Harold Sampson.

Instead, she decided to visit successful athletic clubs on the coasts and study the demographic trends in fitness. She learned that fitness and healthy lifestyles were beginning to grow in popularity among Americans in every age group.

At the time Nike was only beginning to discover that jogging could become a serious endeavor for many Americans.

So she took a risk and decided to double down and create a family-centered approach to fitness centers. She added an outdoor pool at the Highlander that very few people used the first summer it was available.

But that did not stop her. Instead, she added 35,000 square feet of space, which included a gym, fitness center, expanded playroom, an indoor pool and in the process transformed the tennis-only club into an all-encompassing recreational facility.

She had discovered the true “blue ocean” in the market, the untapped need by existing tennis facilities.

She expanded programs that offer services to every member of the family. Building on her experience as a camp counselor in northern Wisconsin in her youth, she added day camps for children to her sports facilities.

Those camps proved very successful and led her to start purchasing other tennis facilities. That included locations in Brookfield, Glendale and Mequon.

Every one of her clubs, now known as Elite Sports Clubs, offers robust programs for men, women and children in virtually every sport, from soccer to basketball to yoga, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, jogging and on and on.

Recently, her success attracted interest from the private equity world and she sold her successful clubs to Peter Goldman, owner of Lakeshore Sports & Fitness clubs in Chicago, who will continue her tradition of never-ending innovation in the various sports facilities that he now owns.

What can we all learn from Kay when we are in an industry that is being disrupted? (These days there’s hardly an industry that doesn’t require dramatic change to survive.)

  1. Do not evaluate your market from the perspective of traditional players. Do your homework. Look for trends in your industry that are just beginning but seem to capture new approaches.
  2. Examine the demographics of the market you serve and ask yourself, “Can it be expanded?” A target market should capture expanding target demographics that provide new sources of customers.
  3. Attract and retain employees who relish the idea of constant innovation and are willing to contribute their own ideas. So many of the creative ideas that are now offered by her clubs originated because her staff was listening to customers.
  4. Expect pushback from existing customers. Most of us are creatures of habit. We don’t necessarily want change. But who 20 years ago thought we’d be checking out our own groceries? Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, ‘faster horses.’” He identified potential customers who would be willing to take a risk on new technology embodied in the automobile.
  5. Innovation does not mean that you have to abandon core products or services. To date the Elite Sports Clubs are known for the state’s largest professional tennis program.
  6. Don’t hesitate to visit up-and-coming players in your industry and do on-site visits. Those are real learning experiences. Remember when Japanese executives used to visit American car companies and now lead the auto industry in the United States with three of the best-selling car brands in Toyota, Nissan and Honda?

Kay deserved to have a big pay day for her hard efforts and determination to be innovative. We could all learn from her, especially the men who thought they knew their industry!

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Dan Steininger
Dan Steininger is the president and founder of BizStarts. He is also the president of Steininger & Associates. The firm focuses on teaching the tools of innovation to drive growth for companies in all sectors of the economy. Steininger is a former president and CEO of Catholic Financial Life and a graduate of Marquette University and Boston University's School of Law.

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