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Wednesday
Jan022013

"A Pretty Weird Animal"

The Cambridge Club in Toronto has been successfully serving “men only” for 40 years! 

Since the mid-1990s, one of the trends that’s characterized the fitness industry has been that of specialization—the creation of new niche business models. We’ve witnessed the proliferation of women-only clubs, budget facilities, and yoga, Pilates, and group-cycling studios, and, most recently, CrossFit “boxes” for functional training.

Many of the entrepreneurs and club companies that have pursued these approaches have done quite well.

But what about “men-only” clubs?

When was the last time you even heard someone make mention of one? Today, the very notion seems somewhat antiquated, slightly dusty, like faded black-and-white photos of men with handlebar mustaches in saloons festooned with cigar smoke and spittoons. It’s a concept that seems to have fallen victim to changing tastes and a growing concern with cultural correctness. Even the legendary, oft-criticized, 80-year-old Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, the home of the Masters Tournament, finally abandoned its men-only rule last August, admitting banking magnate Darla Scott and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But if you think that the day of the men-only club has passed—please don’t mention it to Clive Caldwell.

This month, the Cambridge Club, in Toronto, Canada, the one men-only bastion in his four-club group, will celebrate its 40th anniversary. And all indications are, it’s still in its prime. How has Caldwell managed to defy the passage of time and the fickleness of fads so successfully? If you were to meet him, you’d know why immediately. A former squash professional—he won the World Hard Ball Singles Championship in 1980 and 1982, and the World Doubles Championship in 1981—he’s now 61 years old, and, standing 6' 2", is fit and trim, and still plays squash several times a week. 

He styles himself as a bit of a charming rogue, and, of all his facilities, the Cambridge Club, his flagship, most clearly reflects his persona, passions, and priorities. The man and the business seem inseparable. His conviction that clubs exist to provide members with excellence—in terms of setting, equipment, programs, hospitality, entertainment, and customer service—is the bedrock that ensures the club’s appeal, popularity, and longevity.

“You don’t hear it said often,” Caldwell remarks, “but my partner, Dean Brown, and I consider ourselves to be in the hospitality industry. We don’t run gyms or facilities. We run clubs where people come to meet friends, and where bonds are forged, creating relationships that persist beyond these walls. The Cambridge Club may be particularly ‘clubby,’ but I’m convinced that this ‘sense of belonging’ is the most valuable benefit we provide.”

It may be a simple formula, but it’s one that “delights” his members—and one that any club operator anywhere might do well to reconsider.

The Cambridge Club

The Cambridge Club is one of the four facilities that compose the Cambridge Group of Clubs, which, together, serve more than 11,000 members and generate $31 million in annual revenues. Caldwell was hired as the first squash professional shortly after the club was founded in 1973 by Jim Bentley, who subsequently became Caldwell’s mentor. In 1991, Caldwell bought the club with the help of the late Jack Lawrence, a legendary Canadian financier, and now serves as president of the Cambridge Group.

The Cambridge Club occupies the penthouse on the 11th floor of Sheraton Centre; the view from the expansive windows of its restaurant takes in City Hall and the breathtaking Toronto skyline. Caldwell functions as something of a roving ambassador at each club, but his headquarters—and his heart—reside here.

To broaden its membership, Caldwell dropped the club’s $3,000 initiation fee shortly after he purchased it, but reinstated one—it now stands at $1,500—a few years later. To attract a younger clientele, he introduced age-based pricing (monthly dues are $189 for members aged 35 to 65; those 30 to 35 pay 80% of full price; and those under 30 pay 60%). 

This exclusive enclave provides the well- or relatively-well-heeled male executive with a place to let off some steam with an intense workout or a competitive game of squash, or to enjoy a refreshing swim in the pool, followed by a relaxing session in the sauna, steam room, or whirlpool, or with a massage therapist.

It’s the final word when it comes to the “man cave”—a secluded drawing room, a comfortable haven of male camaraderie to which men can retire to vicariously indulge in the blood sports of politics, athletics, business, and whatever else they might choose.

“Today, there are very few men-only clubs anywhere,” Caldwell acknowledges. “That makes ours rather unique. Most of the grand old clubs were originally university clubs, and, for the most part, they disappeared because of concerns about ‘power.’ Women argued that business had long been conducted in these clubs, and that their exclusion limited their access to networking opportunities, making it more difficult for them to move up the corporate ladder—that’s quite a fair argument.”

The Cambridge Club has never faced such complaints or opposition both because of its members’ deep and enduring satisfaction with the product, and because of Caldwell’s sensitivity to the feelings of his clients’ wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. Members are welcome to bring women to the club, and Caldwell is often there to greet them in person when they make use of its restaurant or attend special functions. Caldwell’s wife, Lorna, is the manager of another one of his clubs, the Toronto Athletic Club.

The Cambridge Club man

Think of Caldwell, if you will, as sort of the industry’s white-haired version of George Clooney, someone who’s as comfortable in a tuxedo as in workout wear; someone who, while refined, enjoys off-color humor; and someone who, while disciplined, indulges in friendly locker room horseplay.

An avid art collector, Caldwell has decorated the Cambridge Club with the pieces he’s assembled over 40 years. The walls are adorned with paintings, photographs, and posters of famous athletes; the French Open’s Roland Garros posters; and dramatic images of Canadian icons, ranging from Niagara Falls and the Canadian Rockies to Gordon Lightfoot, author Pierre Berton, New York Rangers Captain Pat Flatley, and Alexander Graham Bell.

Throughout the year, the club hosts a variety of events, including a speaker series; wine and single malt tastings; and squash, tennis, golf, and backgammon tournaments. Its busy social calendar culminates, in November, with a black-tie extravaganza that features a weekend of squash, dining, socializing, and gambling. Last year, folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, a 30-year member of the club, performed for the crowd, and the Bentley Cup (named for founder Jim Bentley) attracted internationally ranked players to Toronto to compete in doubles squash.

The club will mark its 40th anniversary with a series of festivities this spring, and everyone who’s ever won the Bentley Cup will be awarded a complimentary club lifetime membership.

“I joined the Cambridge Club in 1983,” says Steve Kaszas, the managing director of BMO Nesbitt Burns, a brokerage firm. “It’s very much a men’s club—just guys being guys.

“There are hard athletes, hard drinkers, hard partiers—a great membership,” he explains. “There’s the morning crew, the afternoon crew, and the evening crew; the fitness guys and the squash guys; the new young guys and the old guys; the runners and the guys who lift. Some just hang around the bar. ... We’re famous for our social events: we’re having a Glenlivet Scotch tasting this week, and, next week, golf journalist Lorne Rubenstein is giving a talk on Murray Irwin ‘Moe’ Norman, who Jack Nicklaus called the best pure ball striker he’d ever seen.”

The experience Kaszas describes is the Cambridge Club’s raison d’être. The business has prospered for four decades, even as the world around it changed, simply because Caldwell provides his members with what they want—exactly what they want.

“Clive doesn’t cut corners,” Kaszas points out. “If he needs another trainer working in the weight room, he gets one. When we changed from the hard ball to the soft ball, he had to decide whether or not to rip out our hard-ball court and put in two soft-ball squash courts: he did it. It’s always about the members, and we appreciate it.

“Clive and the Cambridge Club are one and the same,” he continues. “He glides through the club patting guys on the back as though they’re fellow players on the team. He tries to be outlandish, affecting this roguish attitude, but everyone knows it’s a fake. He’s a gentleman. He never utters an unkind word about anyone.”

Pat Brigham, a member of the club since the mid-1970s, describes Caldwell’s formula for success succinctly: “There’s a vibrancy about this place—something magical about it,” he says. “It fills a gap that can’t be filled anywhere else.”

Caldwell acknowledges that the business model could be duplicated elsewhere, but concedes, “It’s a pretty weird animal.”  

THE CAMBRIDGE GROUP: FOUR CLUB IDENTITIES    

The Cambridge Club is one of the four clubs that compose the Cambridge Group. The other three are the Adelaide Club and the Toronto

Athletic Club, in Toronto, Canada, and the Club Sportif MAA, in Montreal, Quebec. Each is distinctive and serves a different market, but all reflect the attention to detail and commitment to excellent member and guest service that Group President Clive Caldwell expects.

The Adelaide Club, situated below street level in First Canadian Place, the tallest building in the country, might be considered the hippest of the four. Now in the midst of a $2-million renovation, the Adelaide features, among other things, a young executive’s membership for individuals under 30, a women-only exercise area, and a number of pieces of original artwork, paintings, and sculptures by legendary American artist and sculptor Frank Stella, one of Caldwell’s close friends. 

The Toronto Athletic Club occupies the penthouse on the 36th floor of the TD Waterhouse Tower, a building that was designed by legendary architect Mies van der Rohe. A coed club, it caters to the financial district crowd, and is renowned for Stratus, its elegant restaurant. The club has recently hired a veteran of the Four Seasons Hotel group to take Stratus another step higher, and has begun work on a bar overlooking Lake Ontario. “We’ve painstakingly chosen top chefs in the city to run our restaurants,” notes Caldwell’s wife, Lorna, who manages the club, “because beautiful food is important to both of us.

“The real art at the Toronto Athletic Club exists outside the windows,” she adds, referring to its stunning views of the lake and the city.

Club Sportif MAA, the oldest club in the country, is ideally situated in the financial district of Montreal. It’s been promoting fitness, sports, and well-being in Canada since 1881, and, in its early years, garnered more than its share of awards, including the 1931 Grey Cup, presented by the Canadian Football League, and four Stanley Cups (1893, 1894, 1902, 1903). Until 1999, it was a members-owned, not-for-profit club.

Today, it continues to serve its original mission with fitness and group exercise programs, and a multisport menu that includes, among other things, squash, aquatics, basketball, badminton, volleyball, indoor soccer, and boxing.

The club also offers a spa, a bistro, massage, and a wide range of sports medicine services.

Reader Comments (1)

Way to go Clive! Perhaps time for some notoriety for our little 'treehouse'.
January 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames Burron

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