Columbia's recreation czar to lead trade association for fitness clubs

May 29, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Rob Goldman, director of Columbia's mini-empire of recreational facilities, will spearhead an effort during the next year to improve the quality of athletic clubs worldwide.

Mr. Goldman, membership services director for the Columbia Association, begins a one-year term Wednesday as board president of Boston-based IRSA/The Association of Quality Clubs, an international organization of 2,400 health and sports clubs. He was elected by IRSA's nine-member board.

"It's an honor to the Columbia Association and a recognition of how fine and respected the recreational facilities and programs are, as much as it is a personal honor," said Mr. Goldman, a Columbia Association vice president since 1989.

IRSA Executive Director John McCarthy said Mr. Goldman is "one of the most respected club operators in the United States. He brings to the position a passion and commitment for customer and membership service. He's also an innovator. He doesn't believe in standing still."

As IRSA's president, Mr. Goldman said his goals will be to continue developing ethical and safety standards for the fitness industry, helping to implement a public service media campaign on the benefits of exercise, and working with medical and sports associations to influence health care reform legislation.

"We believe individuals who stay fit and healthy and employers or HMOs who encourage that should get incentives," said Mr. Goldman, 44. "Data shows that those people spend a lot less on health care and that's a significant effort of IRSA."

IRSA originally stood for the International Racquet Sports Association. When the nonprofit organization began adding fitness clubs, it dropped the name, but kept the acronym.

Mr. Goldman's position with the trade association can be a "big advantage" for the Columbia Association, said Columbia Association President Padraic Kennedy.

"You can get the best ideas and advances from all over the country and bring them to the community," he said.

It's a prominent post for a college English major and former tennis teaching professional who once thought he'd pursue a career as a writer. Mr. Goldman's prowess as a tennis player steered him toward tennis club management and eventually to his current position in which he oversees 32 membership facilities serving about 45,000 members, a staff of about 800 full-time and part-time employees, and an annual operating budget exceeding $9 million.

"I've been very fortunate along the way," said Mr. Goldman, who will serve as IRSA's president in addition to his current duties with the Columbia Association. "My employers have been a diverse group of businessmen. They've taken the time to teach me different aspects."

During the Columbia Association's 1993-1994 fiscal year, Mr. Goldman earned about $95,000, second only to Mr. Kennedy among association staff.

The Ohio native graduated from Trinity College in Connecticut in 1972, where he played on an undefeated tennis team. After college, he won prize money in small-purse regional professional tennis events while managing a Cincinnati tennis club. He also served as executive director of a business association representing 12 Cincinnati indoor tennis facilities.

In 1985, he was hired as general manager of a large racket and sports club in Denver. In 1986, he moved to Pittsburgh to become regional general manager of the Tennis Corporation of America, which operates about 40 clubs nationwide. Instead of relocating with TCA in 1989, he sought other opportunities and contacted Mr. Kennedy through IRSA.

"He brings a tremendous amount of experience in clubs in many parts of the country," Mr. Kennedy said. "To bring in fresh, new and exciting ideas is very important for CA. He brought that and everything we hoped he would bring -- an ability to listen and work well with people, to train and set objectives, and a vision of what can be for staff."

Mr. Goldman also brought welcomed ideas to the Family Life Center as a board member of that Columbia-based nonprofit counseling agency, said Jane Walker, executive director. The center's board adopted his fund-raising idea for the fall -- an all-night sports marathon for young people, who would raise pledges.

"Without Rob, that never would have occurred," Ms. Walker said.

Mr. Goldman had been involved in a similar fund-raising venture for a hospital in Cincinnati.

In his five years at the Columbia Association, Mr. Goldman said the membership services division has established standards to improve operations, including safety, service, maintenance, training and development and programming.

The division also has undertaken several major projects, including the $6.5 million Supreme Sports Club, the Hobbit's Glen Racquet Club and renovations to the Columbia Ice Rink and Columbia Athletic Club. The Supreme Sports Club drew nearly 600,000 visits last year, making it the busiest private fitness club nationwide, according to IRSA.

The membership services division is exploring how to serve Columbia's aging population.

"That will be a major challenge to us in the next decade," Mr. Goldman said. The Columbia Association is watching the development of Wellbridge Center, a chain of private health clubs catering to the 45-and-over age group, he said.

It also will open the Ice Rink this summer as a test site for a in-line skate hockey league, he said.

Since recreational memberships peaked at about 41 percent of Columbia households and residential development is nearly complete, Mr. Goldman said the organization will be looking to the expanding corporate sector for growth.

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