The evolution of Milwaukee’s private clubs

Managers work to dispel stuffy image and adapt to modern life

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:13 pm

Each morning, he puts on a crisp shirt, a tailored suit and a tie. He goes to work in an ornate historic mansion set behind tall, black, wrought iron gates filled with carved wooden walls, plush oriental rugs, flowered wallpaper and tick-tocking clocks. As members enter the club, he greets each one by name and attends to their needs.

When John Constantine became general manager of The Wisconsin Club in 1990, there were only 370 members and the private downtown Milwaukee club was struggling.

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Through a series of initiatives to maximize its amenities and offerings throughout the year, Constantine has grown The Wisconsin Club to 1,400 members and $13 million in annual revenue, and soon will have to start a waiting list.

Private clubs across the country struggled through the Great Recession as consumers cut discretionary spending, and a few closed. But by all accounts, Constantine has helped the Wisconsin Club survive – and even thrive – in the new normal economy.

He and his peers have worked to dispel the image of private clubs as stuffy, outdated bastions of entitled machismo by adapting them to modern life. Those that have found success have invested millions of dollars in renovations and mergers, many aimed at including families and accommodating more casual dress.

Historic beginnings

Most of the private clubs in the Milwaukee area date back to the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

Built in 1848, the mansion housing The Wisconsin Club was the home of Alexander Mitchell, grandfather of World War I hero and airport namesake
General Billy Mitchell.

Alexander went on to become the first president of The Milwaukee Club in 1882 and his wife founded Milwaukee’s oldest private club, the Woman’s Club of Wisconsin, in 1876.

Mitchell’s Wisconsin Avenue mansion was sold to the Deutscher Club in 1898, after his death, and the club was later renamed The Wisconsin Club.

When Constantine came on the scene, the club had bowling alleys on the basement level. He undertook a dramatic transformation of that level, turning it into a casual sports bar and dining area where members are free to wear jeans and shorts when they bring their families in for Friday fish fry.

“As soon as we built it, we started getting younger members,” Constantine said. “We’ve recognized that society is going casual and we’re adapting to it. I expect people to look good, but if someone’s going to a Brewer game, you can’t expect them to be wearing a sport coat.”

The Wisconsin Club has also eliminated its men-only room and instituted a concierge service to help members get tickets to arts or sporting events, drawing them in to eat dinner at the club, then shuttling them to the front door of downtown venues.

John Constantine, general manager of The Wisconsin Club, at the city club location.
John Constantine, general manager of The Wisconsin Club, at the city club location.

And the biggest move of all was the 2009 acquisition of the distressed Brynwood Country Club on Milwaukee’s north side, now known as the Wisconsin Club’s Country Club, opening up a whole new world of amenities, including a golf course, tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool, to members while expanding its membership.

“Both clubs are very successful right now financially, so I think that it’s worked out extremely well,” Constantine said.

The Wisconsin Club has spent $30 million on improvements since Constantine arrived, including the recent addition of an outdoor bar and patio at the country club.

Members pay about $2,700 per year in dues for dining and social memberships, and can upgrade to higher tiers of membership that include golf or tennis. It has no initiation fees and no food and beverage spending minimums.

“We’re one of the few clubs in the city that has no minimums at all (for food and beverage). If we can’t do a good enough job to get you in, why am I forcing you into the restaurants?” Constantine asked.

Constantine is constantly working to improve member engagement, hosting golf and tennis lessons for all ages and family events. “Minions” night was a recent hit, as was a 4th of July party with bouncy houses and cotton candy.

Value added

In late May, The University Club of Milwaukee in downtown Milwaukee and Tripoli Country Club in Brown Deer (near the Wisconsin Club’s Country Club) announced they would merge, following in the footsteps of The Wisconsin Club. Like the Wisconsin Club’s Country Club, Tripoli offers golf, tennis and an outdoor pool.

“I think you’ll see more and more (of city and country club mergers),” Constantine said. “I think there’s too many clubs in Milwaukee. I don’t know of any major city that has six dining clubs within a two-mile radius of each other.”

Julie Tolan, president of the University Club board of directors, echoed Constantine’s sentiment and said it made sense for the University Club and Tripoli to merge while they are on strong financial footing.

“We probably have at least one, maybe two more city clubs than are sustainable for the long run and probably more than that in terms of country clubs,” Tolan said.

Declining membership is a trend among clubs across the country, Tolan said, driven by three external factors: the tax code changed in the late ’80s so club memberships could no longer be deducted; clubs lost their footing as the best restaurants in town when talented chefs opened competing restaurants; and today’s consumer is not as much of a “joiner.”

“People want membership on their own terms, so the challenge of a private club is to rise to the level of relevance and value,” she said. “You have to constantly be working at that. You can’t just rest on your laurels.”

The planned University Club-Tripoli merger is up for vote by both memberships at the end of September. The combined organizations would have $8.1 million in annual revenues and 800 members.

“It’s not that we’re struggling, it’s just that we think to ensure our long-term success and vitality, it made sense for the two clubs to combine,” said Charley Weber, president of Tripoli’s board of governors and managing director and senior associate general counsel at Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc.

The merger will allow members of both clubs to take advantage of each other’s amenities, and make it easier to attract new members. It will also increase membership and engagement at both clubs, keeping dues low while boosting cash flow that can be invested back into the clubs, Weber said.

“We certainly think that there’s some opportunities to achieve synergies in terms of the clubs being open (seasonally), having employees work at both facilities, and also consolidating vendors, for instance,” he said.

Over the past five years, Tripoli has renovated the men’s and women’s locker rooms and upgraded the pool area, complete with a gazebo-style bar.

“We think that the merger between University Club and Tripoli will be attractive in terms of attracting younger members, particularly as we see more and more young professionals choosing to live and spend more time downtown, and yet we believe they want options to play golf or to swim or play tennis with country club amenities,” Weber said.

Tripoli could accommodate another 40 or 50 members without impacting the current membership or damaging the golf course, Weber said.

Exclusive but welcoming

Pristine environments, professional level golf, a personal level of service and exclusivity come at a price. That price – member initiation fees and annual dues – is the main revenue stream for private clubs, most of which operate as exempt 501c7 social clubs.

Most private clubs in the area welcome those interested in membership to come in and check the place out. Some, like The Wisconsin Club, allow non-members to host events like weddings there, in part because it’s a potential marketing tool. Others, like The River Club of Mequon, have a public restaurant while retaining a private portion of the club.

But the fact remains that money is a barrier to entry. Clubs took note of this during the recession, lowering and in some cases eliminating their initiation fees, which once could stretch into the tens of thousands.

“While we have an initiation fee, it’s much lower than it used to be,” Weber said.

“The initiation fees, like many clubs, had continued to drop and we ultimately were down to zero,” said Dan Kwiecinski, a principal at Hays Companies in Wauwatosa and president of Tuckaway Country Club in Franklin. “Last year, we reinstated the initiation fee and then made an increase on July 1 (this year).”

Most clubs offer lower dues for members under the age of 40. There are usually three levels of membership: social, or use of the dining areas; social, pool and tennis; or golf, which includes use of all the amenities. Annual membership dues usually range between $7,000 and $12,000 at area clubs, Kwiecinski said.

In many cases, members consider club membership a business expense with social benefits. Taking clients out for a round of golf or closing a deal in a comfortable but discreet setting – like the private dining rooms at The Milwaukee Club – can provide a return on the investment to belong.

Adam Rick, director of wealth management at West Bend-based Commerce State Bank, joined Tuckaway four years ago for the golf but has since developed business contacts at the club, he said.

“I take my clients out to golf, to entertain, and this is a great venue to bring clients to, whether they’re golfers or not, just to have dinner or lunch,” Rick said. “I do seminars, and it’s also a great venue to do some business lunches, business presentations.”

He and his young children also use the pool and golf course together often, Rick said.

Tuckaway offers golf, tennis, swimming, children’s activities and a social medium for its 431 members. Of its 300 golfing members, about 50 are under 40, which Kwiecinski said skews lower than most clubs.

A constant investment

If they aren’t investing in improvements, private clubs are falling behind their competitors and may have a harder time attracting and retaining members.

Most have an annual budget item for renovations, which almost always receive member approval and can be funded through operations, debt or member assessments.

The most popular renovation for Milwaukee area private clubs of late has been the installation of an outdoor patio and bar space that allows for casual dress. Tuckaway, Tripoli, Moorland Country Club and Blue Mound Golf & Country Club all recently added, or plan to add, outdoor bar and patio space.

Tuckaway has also renovated the pool and tennis facilities and installed new carpeting, tables and chairs in the clubhouse over the past couple of years, Kwiecinski said. The projects cost a total of about $1 million over the past three years.

“When you have a population that runs from, call it early 30s into their 80s, you’re certainly catering to a pretty large group. Everything that we deliver, you have to show the value to the overall membership,” he said.

Family atmosphere

Gone are the days when the patriarch of the family would take off to golf and smoke cigars with his male buddies at the club all day. The family dynamic has changed and life has become more hectic. Families want to enjoy the club together, managers say.

“With kids’ sports and all these things going on, there’s limited free time for families these days,” Kwiecinski said. “They have limited time and limited money, so to ask any family to put out $7,000 to $12,000, call it, just so daddy can go golfing, isn’t going to fly in most homes. If, for that same $7,000, you can deliver a family experience that includes stuff for the kids, stuff for the wives, a social environment for all, it’s a much easier sell.”

When Kwiecinski joined Tuckaway in 2004, the whole club was open to men only on Thursdays. Other clubs have also had similar policies in place for years. But those are gradually going away at many places.

“A lot of these clubs around here still have a lot of old line club to them, was a lot of good old boys sitting around playing cards and boozing it around the bar,” he said. “Today’s clubs are only going to survive by bringing that whole family experience into them.”

Blue Mound has compromised on that front by including the installation of a private men’s grill in a $2.5 million renovation its members just approved last month. That way, its men-only nights in the golfers’ grill will be eliminated. The renovation also includes the patio, a new entryway, bar and an expansion of the golfers’ grill, said Tom Kirchen, account executive at Waukesha-based R&R Insurance Services Inc.

Kirchen, who has been a member of the club 13 years, said Blue Mound has continued to add members – it now has about 270 – and bring the median member age down despite being in a tough industry.

He joined because he wanted to access the “fantastic, top condition” course on a regular basis. Kirchen also entertains clients at Blue Mound.

“That’s one of the benefits, obviously, is to have a venue that is attractive and people feel comfortable and you get good service and you get good food and that makes you want to bring clients and your fellow employees,” he said. “That’s part of the Blue Mound experience is not only to help the individual member from a personal standpoint but from a business standpoint, too.”

The River Club of Mequon prides itself on being open and inviting, rather than stuffy and secretive, said Ken McIntyre, general manager. Formerly Mequon Country Club, it was purchased by Tom Weickardt five years ago and completely renovated.

It costs $3,000 to join, but the fee is waived with completion of a two-year commitment, McIntyre said. A social/fitness membership is $750, while the top-level family golf membership is $6,700 per year. The club’s annual revenue is about $4 million.

“We offer many alternatives that a lot of clubs can’t, whether it’s 27 holes (of golf), pools, tennis,” McIntyre said. “We have what tends to be a younger membership base” and those members recruit others in their peer groups.

“The club becomes an addition to their social life, not the hub of their social life,” he said. “That’s a big change. People, we ramble and we explore and we try different things. That’s the modern person.”

Westmoor Country Club in Brookfield also works to appeal to families, with golf, tennis, swimming, a fitness facility and full-service dining.

Westmoor has 525 family members, with tiered pricing for “intermediate” members under 40, said Joe Coan, chief operating officer and general manager.

“When I first came here in 2001, we had zero intermediate members and that was very concerning,” Coan said. “Today, we have 33 families in the intermediate program and then we also have 23 families in our legacy junior program. It’s so nice to have that many, because they’re your membership for the next, hopefully, 30 or 40 years.”

Scott Luzi, 31, a partner at Walcheske & Luzi LLC in Brookfield, joined Moorland in August 2014 for both personal and professional reasons, he said.

“The golf at Westmoor is great; the course is awesome,” Luzi said, and while he and his wife, Alecia, don’t have children yet, they liked the family atmosphere.

It’s also a comfortable setting in which to meet new business contacts and entertain clients, he said.

“The majority of the people that I interact with, golf with, hang out at the pool…are individuals that own their own companies,” Luzi said. “That was attractive – I’m going to be in front of the right people in the right atmosphere at the right time.”

A club for clubs

About 70 percent of Wisconsin’s private member equity club managers talk to each other about the business of private clubs, mentor, network and participate in continuing education through the Wisconsin Badger Chapter of the Club Manager’s Association of America, said chapter president Tom Maliszko, who is also president of the 320-member Milwaukee Yacht Club. The majority of the CMAA’s 27 Wisconsin chapter members are in the Milwaukee area.

“The people at our clubs are all professionals,” Maliszko said. “They’re all well-versed in the day-to-day operations of their business and they expect their club to be run the same way, so we have to be accountable to them with everything.”

Still reeling from the recession, many members are expecting not just culture, but added value from their memberships, he said.

“We’re serving people that are paying to be here,” Maliszko said. “The millennials have proven a difficult sell for everyone just because what they want today isn’t what they’re going to want tomorrow and they embrace change, just because everything is instant gratification for them.”

But clubs can’t change too much or they risk alienating old line members and changing the sense of familiarity at someone’s “home away from home.”

“Once you come inside the confines of your club, whether it be a golf club, a tennis club or an athletic club, you feel safe. You’re going to be taken care of,” Maliszko said.

The casualization of America has driven one major change in most private clubs – the more relaxed dress code, Maliszko said.

“There are a lot of clubs that if they haven’t already, they definitely are in the process of accommodating denim,” he said. “Millennials don’t want to get dressed up.”

City club traditions

The Milwaukee Club is across the street from The Pfister Hotel in a bright red building that is nonetheless discreet – no signage. It has catered to some of Milwaukee’s most important businessmen, with storied names like Plankinton, Allis, Uihlein, Bradley, Pabst and Pfister.

Its membership is relatively small – though general manager Dick Roehrborn wouldn’t give an exact number – mainly because its clubhouse is the smallest. But it still attracts some of the most prominent business and civic leaders in the city.

It can be difficult to tell how many people are in the club at any given time, since it has 10 private dining rooms seating between two and 60 people, in addition to its main dining areas. For this reason, it is popular among the business crowd.

“All the business is conducted kind of behind closed doors and in the public area of the club, it’s more of a social club,” Roehrborn said. “We’ve got a culture that the members are protective of a little bit because it harkens back to an earlier time.”

Its dues are on par with the University Club, though Roehrborn wouldn’t disclose them. The Milwaukee Club is in the black, he said.

“Ten years ago, 15 years ago, our members would belong to multiple clubs, maybe three,” he said. “I just think that you have to really concentrate on operational efficiency. We’re fortunate because we don’t need 500 members.”

The Woman’s Club of Wisconsin is one of the best kept secrets in Milwaukee – but the leadership doesn’t want it that way. The club has about 300 members, down from a peak of 600 in the mid-’90s.

“In the ’70s and ’80s women started to work and so they had less leisure time to be able to participate in a club like this,” said Betsy Prinz, president of the Woman’s Club board. “Most of our activities happen during the day.”

But the club is changing that, and running a promotion to waive its $1,200 initiation fee. Its annual membership dues range depending on the member’s age, but average about $2,500.

“The other thing that we do that attracts a lot of younger women is our community service. We are not just a private social club. We are a social welfare club,” Prinz said. “I know the impression of us could be that we’re a bunch of women who sit around, drink tea and play bridge but that’s not what we do.”

The Woman’s Club Foundation awarded $60,000 in grants last year.

The history and philanthropic bent of The Woman’s Club appealed to Rachel Allen Larrivee, 34, who joined as a junior member in January. She got involved with the foundation committee, which raises funds from members to support the endowment.

Larrivee, who three years ago purchased her grandparents’ event rental business, Props Unlimited Events LLC, which is based in the Miller Valley area, appreciates the Woman’s Club as a downtown location to meet for coffee or check her email, while networking with members.

“One of the things I find as a younger business owner is I learn something every day and I enjoy learning different perspectives from different people,” Larrivee said. “Any part of business is just meeting people that you wouldn’t have maybe met under other circumstances. To be able to meet people and then do some good out of it, as well, is a win-win.”


Milwaukee Yacht Club
Founded: 1898
Location: 1700 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive, Milwaukee
Members: 320
Annual revenue: $2.2 million
Initiation fee: $1,000
Annual dues: $3,300


IMG_1346

The Wisconsin Club
Founded: 1891
Location: 900 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee and 6200 W. Good Hope Road, Milwaukee
Members: 1,400
Annual revenue: $13 million
Initiation fee: None
Annual dues: $2,700


The Milwaukee Club
Founded: 1882
Location: 706 N. Jefferson St., Milwaukee
Members:Undisclosed
Annual revenue: Profitable, but undisclosed
Initiation fee: Undisclosed
Annual dues:Undisclosed


1486

Woman’s Club of Wisconsin
Founded:1876
Location: 813 E. Kilbourn Ave., Milwaukee
Members: 300
Annual revenue: Undisclosed
Initiation fee: $1,200 (waived through Dec. 31)
Annual dues: Average $2,500


River Club of Mequon
Founded: 2011
Location: 12400 N. Ville Du Parc Drive, Mequon
Members :400
Annual revenue: $4 million
Initiation fee: $3,000 (waived with completion of two-year commitment)
Annual dues: Between $750 and $6,700


Westmoor Country Club
Founded: 1925
Location: 400 S. Moorland Road, Brookfield
Members: 525
Annual revenue: Undisclosed
Initiation fee: Undisclosed
Annual dues: Undisclosed


Blue Mound Golf and Country Club
Founded: More than 100 years ago
Location: 10122 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa
Members: 270
Annual revenue: Undisclosed
Initiation fee: Undisclosed
Annual dues: Undisclosed


outside-2-ZF-7358-86020-1-0531-600x450

The University Club of Milwaukee
Founded: 1898
Location: 924 E. Wells St., Milwaukee
Members: 450
Annual revenue: $3.6 million
Initiation fee: Undisclosed
Annual dues: Undisclosed


IMG_1417

Tripoli Country Club
Founded: 1921
Location: 7401 N. 43rd St., Milwaukee
Members: 350
Annual revenue: $4.5 million
Initiation fee: Undisclosed
Annual dues: Undisclosed


IMG_1359

Tuckaway Country Club
Founded: 1924
Location: 6901 W. Drexel Ave., Franklin
Members: 431
Annual revenue: Undisclosed
Initiation fee: Undisclosed
Annual dues: Undisclosed


Milwaukee-Athletic-Club-1

Milwaukee Athletic Club
Founded: 1882
Location: 758 N. Broadway, Milwaukee
Members: 1,000
Annual revenue: Undisclosed
Entrance fee: Young executive (under 34): $250; Executive: $1,000
Annual Dues: YE: $1,500; Executive: $2,200; Executive athletic: $3,300


North Shore Country Club
Founded: 1920 as Michiwaukee Golf Club in Bayside
Location: 3100 W. Country Club Drive, Mequon
Members: Undisclosed
Annual revenue: Undisclosed
Initiation fee: Undisclosed
Annual dues: Undisclosed


Other area private clubs:

  • Hidden Glen Golf Club, Cedarburg
  • Kenosha Country Club, Kenosha
  • Milwaukee Country Club, River Hills
  • North Hills Country Club, Menomonee Falls
  • Oconomowoc Golf Club, Oconomowoc
  • Ozaukee Country Club, Mequon
  • Pine Hills Country Club, Sheboygan
  • The Club at Strawberry Creek, Kenosha
  • The Legend Clubs, Wales, Waukesha and Hartland
  • The Town Club, Fox Point
  • Racine Country Club, Racine
  • River Tennis Club, River Hills
  • Wauwatosa Woman’s Club, Wauwatosa
  • West Bend Country Club, West Bend
  • Western Racquet Club, Elm Grove

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Molly Dill
Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.