By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Apr 24, 2019 at 4:31 PM

Fitness, like everything in our lives, is constantly changing. But its principles and places can stay the same while innovating with the times. That’s what Elite Sports Clubs have done in greater Milwaukee.

Kay Yuspeh and her husband, Richard, bought their first club, The Highlander in Brookfield, in 1986. It was just a place to play tennis. But Kay Yuspeh knew that she wanted to grow it and make it much, much more.

Today, Elite Sports Clubs has more than 400 employees and nearly 15,000 members across five locations in Brookfield, Mequon, Glendale and River Glen. And, just recently Yuspeh was named a Women of Influence from the Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee for the Entrepreneur category. 

I talked to Kay about fitness, elite, the future of wellness, the current state of racquetball and more. Enjoy this installment of Milwaukee Talks.

OnMilwaukee: Can you give us an overview – crystallize your life in two or three minutes? Who you are, where you grew up and how you got to where you are now. That's a big question, I know.

Kay Yuspeh: Alright, how did I get here, where I am now? Alright ... that's a tough question, Jeff.

I grew up in the North Shore in the middle of Nicolet area. I’m a Nicolet grad, so I've been in this area for my entire life, except for the four years I went away to college. I went to camp for 10 years for eight weeks each year (in Eagle River) and was very involved in sports, then became a camp counselor. A lot of the stuff that I do at the club is based on that experience I had over the summers.

I was a math major, and back then, I was probably the only woman in half of my advanced classes – occasionally there would be another woman in the class – so I understand numbers. I double majored in psychology, and when I graduated from college, I wanted to get into market research. Basically there were no opportunities at that time so I went into freelance bank marketing, and a year later I started writing a newsletter for South Racquet Club, which was a pure tennis, eight-court tennis club and eight-course racquet ball club. So, I just grew up in the industry and have been in the industry.

I started the Indoor Tennis Association, GMITA, and I was in contact with all of the tennis clubs and were very heavy into racquet ball at that time, and when my husband and I found that Highlander (in Brookfield) was for sale, we ended up buying from FDIC. And that's how we got started. He said this to me: "Why don't you buy a club and you could run it the way you want?" And so that was our first club that we bought in 1986, and the rest is history.

Your long-term team is a testament to the culture and the family-based business that you built, for sure. A lot has changed in the industry since you started, though. What have you been most surprised about, and what do you think is the biggest opportunity then to grow in the fitness club space? What's been your biggest surprise through the years, and then what's the biggest opportunity for growth in the future?

Well, it used to be hard to (break into) this industry because (you needed a) big facility. Now with the upstart of franchises and smaller clubs, it’s lowered prices. Some (of the smaller) facilities have really, I think, hurt the industry since they don’t always have the right people and knowledge.

But a lot of the boutique (fitness places) and at all of our centers, people have degrees in our field and also have additional certifications – plus we're all CPR certified.

Obviously the Quad has been Elite’s latest renovation, and everything’s new out there. How has that renovation helped Elite grow and change as a brand?

The Quad is really a game-changer. When we bought the old Le Club, 2001 N. Good Hope Rd., it was literally an aging tennis club – an aging facility, wasn't a lot of money invested into it, and we also had to upgrade a lot of the HVAC and the pool – and aging based on the membership base. So what the Quad has really done is create a space for everybody to enjoy, for kids to exercise and run around and be kids. We now can bring in families into the Quad and really expose them to everything that we have to offer, from swim lessons to basketball, volleyball and tennis, and our day camp and programs.

It's a great dense space. We do a lot of fundraising out there, we work with the school districts, we work with nonprofits, and we also do birthday parties and bar mitzvahs and anniversary parties in that area. So it's really been a great asset. And it surprises me how many people in Brookfield will drive across town for three or four hours so their kids could be in the Quad or work out there while their kids are running around.

There's not a space like it in the country. When we brought in some other club owners and managers, when we told them what we were gonna do, they said we were crazy, that why would we do that. And we just went ahead and did it anyway. And as I said, it's just been a great success – and we left a lot of open space so we can constantly keep changing. We brought in a climbing wall; we brought in laser tag for a party. We can change the environment with a band and lighting and curtains and canopies and make it a very nice, social adult event. It just gives us a lot of flexibility. It has its own entrance so we can even close that area off, and the people don't have access to the rest of the club.

There seems to be a new class or a new venue popping up almost every month. What trends do you like, which ones are not so good for the user and which ones don't you like as much?

I like that they've been stressing more stretching and relaxation in classes with mat classes, yoga and hot yoga. The trend that I don't really like is CrossFit. Many of the people in it are going for power versus form, and the people certified often in the CrossFit area really only certified CrossFit and not by any national organizations or background with the program. And that goes for a lot of the other boutiques; they have their own training program for just that, and they don't cross over into the entire body.

You're really anchored in tennis at Elite; how has youth tennis changed and evolved over the last 10, 15 years?

I think one of the biggest changes with tennis is the 10-and-under program. It started with the USTA. Tennis was one of the few sports over the years that kids were taught with adult-sized racquets and played on an adult-sized court. Today, it’s lower nets, different stages of balls and smaller racquets, to start. In other sports, like basketball, they’ve always had a lower net for kids. Soccer, it's a different field, a different ball, so by doing this we have a better success rate getting kids involved in feeling good about tennis.

I do think the mini nets and the three stages of ball we have – the orange and green – and then also a smaller court for them to work with, have been successful. And it's all about having success at first. If kids keep hitting the ball into the net, they're not having fun. So it's really helping to fill the game of tennis again. And I think we'll see more results in the next five or ten years with these kids growing up.

Do you still have racquetball? What's the current version of racquetball and what's the future of that sport?

Well, it's interesting; most clubs have taken out racquetball, and we've taken it out at some of the clubs – we're down to one court in Brookfield, and we have three courts at North Shore.

At North Shore, we're the racquetball community for the entire market because we're the only one and we run late. But we've still seen an influx of 30-somethings wanting racquetball, and there's just not enough courts around to get those younger players into the game.

So I guess everything's cyclical to an extent. Tennis went up and down; golf up and down. Maybe racquet ball's poised for a come back.

Yes, but there's just not courts for them to play on unfortunately.

Do you have any predictions as to how health clubs and fitness centers continue to grow and evolve? Is it adding new services and member engagement, or is there something that the heart of the club experience that you see will grow?

I see more franchises opening up and more franchises closing down; the market has already lost some Gold's Gyms and LA Fitness (closed at Bayshore Town Center in 2015). It's not as easy a business that everybody thinks, but I think we're well positioned because I believe is exercise is a lifestyle and the sooner kids learn it, it's part of their life. Then they work out at the club, they play tennis and they have fun. They go off to college, they work out, and they do play tennis or run.

I think the future is really in family fitness as opposed to one-stop-shop where you can only do one thing. You could spin at this place or at OrangeTheory, you get an intense workout. I see those as being very short-lived. You join for two or three months, and then you move on to something else, whereas you get all of that at our club and you can pick and choose what you want to do and when you want to do it.

What's an initial lifestyle change someone can make now and their home club can manage?

We have just recently gone into a new program called Healthy Care, which is all nutrition, education and then also exposure to classes. I was the one that orchestrated bringing it to the club; I went through the program, the pilot program, and it really opened up my eyes to what is really healthy eating and how important it is to get all of your vitamins from natural foods. I think that's going to be a big growth area: learning how to eat healthy and exercise really for the rest of your life.

You work with a licensed dietician, and I always thought I ate healthy until I went through this class. So I'm pretty chemically free internally. I'm back to cooking – and when I think back at how my mom used to cook, that's how everybody cooked.

Alright, do you have a favorite TV show that you're watching now, or something that you guys really like to binge?

Well, I've been watching "Good Girls." I guess I like good stuff: "Good Girls" and "The Good Place." I think they're just a lot of fun. And then I really enjoy "Ozark" and "Goliath," too, so it's two extremes; it's either the fun and entertaining, or I don't even know if you call it, legal or the underworld or whatever.

I expect that you're big reader; any favorite books that you're reading right now? Or any type of book you like to read?

Basically I pretty much read all industry or management books. But I just recently started the Michelle Obama book, and I've really been enjoying that.

Do you have a favorite area restaurant?

We really like Pastiche at Hotel Metro. We really like supporting local restaurants. Our area in California opened up a bunch of chain restaurants, and a lot of the locally owned or privately owned ended up shutting down. And so when we go out we prefer to hit either the local chain, like a Bartolotta, or something like that. Or the Surg group restaurants. Or the locally owned restaurants. We have a lot of great ones now all over the city.

If you could go to a restaurant or have a drink with anyone, who would it be and why?

Well, Warren Buffett has always been one of my idols for several reasons. One thing is, he's a "give your kids enough that they could do anything, but not enough that they can do nothing" person. And then also he gives back so much money to so many needy causes that he doesn't just pocket the money. He and Bill Gates really support clean water around the world, education, women's rights, the environment. I've just upped all of my charity donations over the last couple of years because of what they've been doing in the world.

That dovetails really well into the final question. I always like to ask this of everyone that I talk to: What's your definition of success?

I just love helping people, and I'm just in the perfect industry for that. So I would say happy employees and happy members. And I feel good. I love going to events and seeing everybody enjoying themselves and having a good time at the club or feeling better because they came to our club.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.