Growing the Oaks with Sheila Cluff
One woman’s account of building a top destination spa.
In early 1977, the path to my dream unfurled at my door.
I’d been looking in the town of Ojai, California, for a property where I could build my first women’s fitness spa. The ‘70s was the time when women had started taking charge of their lives, and I felt the market was ripe for a place that offered health and fitness and wholesome, nutritious food. I’d fallen in love with Ojai for many reasons: it was holistic, beautiful, intellectual, artistic, movement-oriented—perfect. And of course 310 days of sunshine a year was enticing.
Then I got the call. A Los Angeles company called Roberts Management had just purchased an old run-down hotel there called The Oaks. The idea, I was told, was to renovate the place and turn it into a destination spa. Turns out they had heard about my interest in breaking into the spa world. They wanted my company, Fitness Inc., to run their fitness center.
I vividly remember the first time I went to look at the place. The Oaks was built in 1918 and must have originally been quite impressive with its Mission-style architecture, grand rooms, and vast surroundings. When I first saw it, however, the only occupants were transients, the bar and the dining room had been shut down by the health department, the add-on porch looked as if it was about to fall off, and the pool and deck needed total renovation. Still, its potential was obvious. I immediately loved the big stone fireplace in the lobby, and what used to be the ballroom would make for a good fitness center. There were plenty of rooms that could be converted for various uses, and the location was ideal: right in the heart of the picturesque town surrounded by orange and lemon groves and situated in a gorgeous valley. True, it took some imagination to envision the lackluster edifice as a destination spa, but I knew it could be done.
After several months of negotiating, planning, and renovating, in October of ’77, we finally opened the new incarnation of The Oaks. The first weeks were extremely busy, with new processes, rules, and routines to introduce. Everybody involved worked hard to ensure we had a successful start. On my end, I was proud to unveil the new fitness program and pleased to see its execution was nearly flawless. Seven days a week, Fitness Inc. provided up to six classes a day, and to make it financially viable, I taught about 40 percent of the classes! It was equally stressful and exhilarating, demanding and rewarding.
While the fitness program was going smoothly, that unfortunately, wasn’t the case for other aspects of the operation. For one, the food didn’t fit with the concept of the place. How can you promote health while offering canned fruit and diet soda? In addition to the food, there were problems with the hotel management, the spa services, and the housekeeping. Plus, the look of the place was off. Much of the original architecture has been destroyed in the renovation, and almost the entire place was swathed in a brown color palette. Since I was the person many of the guests saw most often, I was the recipient of guest complaints, so I knew that people weren’t happy.
At first, I waited. I wanted to give management a chance to get their act together. But when things didn’t improve after a few months, I began to voice the guests’ unhappiness. Considering my position, I felt uncomfortable challenging authority, but I was afraid that my own company would suffer by association. So, I complained, and complained some more. For six months I tried to work with the powers-that-be. Yet for one reason or another, nothing changed, and finally I went to Roberts Management. “This,” I told them, “is unacceptable to me. I’d rather break my contract than risk losing what I built for so many years. I am very sorry it has come to this, but I am out.”
Now if complaining to The Oaks’ management was uncomfortable, then this was scary. What if they sued me? I would clearly be in breach of our contract; how would I survive their lawyers? Bracing myself for the worst, I tried to prepare for every possible scenario. But the company’s response took me completely by surprise. Yes, they were aware of problems. They were not willing to let me out of the contract, but they had a proposal. How would I like to take over?
I hadn’t expected that!
I felt a mixture of confusion, excitement, and disbelief. I knew I’d wanted a destination spa for many years, and here was my chance. But was I ready? I had been stretching myself just to run the fitness program—how could I think of running everything? Then again, this was an amazing opportunity. If I let this one pass by, would I ever get another chance?
And then there was the money. I estimated I would need about half a million dollars to rent and run the place the way I envisioned it. For somebody making about $3,000 a month, that was quite a bit.
Did I say I was scared before?
I talked to my husband Don and together we mulled it over. There were so many hurdles to clear. There was the money issue, the question of experience, and then perhaps the biggest one: With our children still at home and Don at work for the better part of every weekday, how would I manage? We talked and talked. But the more we discussed the matter, the clearer it became: “Don,” I said, “we just have to try.”
We borrowed money against our home and my business; we cashed in some investments; we asked out parents for support; we even took the money out of Don’s retirement. We put it all on the line. Soon, all the contracts were drawn and signed, and as the new owner of The Oaks, my first executive decision was to fire the chef and half of the management. This was it. There was no going back. As it turned out, I had no idea what I was getting into.
Yes, You Can
Our first months were excruciating. There is no other word for it. With only a couple of fitness and spa employees and a handful of housekeeping staff who’d previously been working at The Oaks, I had a lot of questions to answer. I was in overdrive making what seemed like a million decisions a day, many of them in areas where I had virtually no experience. I also had to keep Fitness Inc. running to ensure a cash flow and fulfill my recreation department, school, and YMCA contracts. On top of that, I taught at least twenty-five fitness courses a week at the spa to keep our overhead down. With all of that to juggle, eighty-hour workweeks soon became the norm, and many a night I came home crying. This did not feel like “pursuing my dream.” Soon, my five-foot-two body had been worn down to a mere ninety pounds. I was miserable and exhausted — and we had used up most of our cash.
Surely, it must have been David Roberts’s fault, I mused. To offload a failing business, he had pushed me into it. How could I have been so stupid? To make matters even worse, on top of my apprehension, frustration, and anger, I also started feeling guilty. I had jeopardized my own financial future but also Don’s and the children. I had gambled their college funds and sacrificed the time I could have spent with them on something that was making us all miserable.
So I went to David Roberts and demanded he take back The Oaks. He flat-out refused. I was furious, but I was also desperate, and so I asked him, if he wouldn’t take it back, would he at least consider becoming a partner? At this point, I think I would have accepted anything, but he turned me down again. I was trapped. I felt as if I were locked in a room without windows or a door. What could I do?
In our conversation, David did say something that struck me. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Sheila, I know this is difficult, but I also know something else. I know you can do it. I just know it.” Of course I wanted to swat him, and yet, it did boost my confidence a little. Maybe I was giving up too early? Maybe he saw something that I didn’t? I had known it wasn’t going to be easy. That night I talked to Don. He took me in his arms. “I told you,” he said. “I told you. We are going to make it. Don’t worry.”
Fortunately, I wasn’t in this alone. Don and all four kids had been pitching in as maintenance staff, pool scrubbers, assistant cooks, dishwashers, plumbers, and housekeepers. Now they each upped their commitment another notch. Slowly things began to change. My energy and attitude began to lift. I was so pleased that my family was chipping in, plus all the employees were working very hard to make things happen. Everybody did what was needed to get results.
To this day, our girls are great plumbers and electricians and our son is a great cook. It was never a question of who had what role; everyone did what needed to be done. This is still the attitude of all of our Oaks employees, many of whom have been with us for thirty years. It proves that a strong community culture, once in place, will last for decades. It simply works. It was this effort and our philosophy of taking the best of European and American spa styles that led readers of Spa magazine to elect us the best destination spa in the United States.
After one year of operation, Don came to me and said, “I think we ought to get a bottle of Champagne and celebrate.” I looked at him expectantly. “I just finished the books,” he said, “and I’m happy to say that we had our first month of profit!” I was speechless. “Let’s make that two bottles,” was all I could reply.