Club Insider

Stephen Tharrett

The Consummate Gentleman (1953 - 2020)

  • For this article, Log In to:
  • View eVersion View eVersion | Download PDF Download PDF
  • Stephen Tharrett
  • Stephen and Denise Tharrett, 1976
  • The Tharrett Family, 1988
  • Childhood Stephen
  • Martial Arts Stephen
  • Teacher Stephen
  • Russian Stephen

Born January 14, 1953, a health and fitness club industry advocate and veteran, a leader, a legend, a mind, and a friend, Stephen Tharrett, passed away on December 22, 2020. Surviving him was his beloved wife, Denise, and their two children, Alyssa and Travis. As kind as he was brilliant, striving to make the industry a better place for us all, Stephen was the consummate gentleman.

As an author, I would love to say the words "consummate gentleman" were my idea, but that would not be true. As I read through the comments from Stephen's industry colleagues and friends that appear in this tribute, John McCarthy shared those words, and all of the subsequent comments supported it as more than an anecdotal observation. It became clear it's more of universal fact to all who knew him, worked with him, loved him. Additionally, and as the author of this tribute, my own experience with Stephen, working with him on various projects over the past decade, as well as catching up in person at conferences and trade shows, also supported those important words that become part of his legacy.

In recent years, with Co-Founder and Co-Principal, Mark Williamson, we have come to know ClubIntel as a truly valuable resource for industry data, forecasts and trends. They worked tirelessly to put out a staggering amount of content. But, that would not have been possible without Stephen's previous experiences.

From 1987 - 2004, Stephen served as a Senior Vice President of ClubCorp, charged with overseeing dozens of facilities across the country. Along the way, he served on the IHRSA Board of Directors, and further, as its President in 1996 - 97. Following his time at ClubCorp, in 2005, Stephen made the leap into consulting with Club Industry Consulting. A few years later, Stephen then made the interesting move in becoming CEO of the Russian Fitness Group, serving in that role from 2008 - 2010.

All of this experience led to the creation of ClubIntel in 2012. The old adage, "Knowledge is power," will always ring true, and Stephen's passion was to share that knowledge/power with all who were willing to take the time to learn. A teacher at heart... something he also did at the high school level years ago.

The remainder of this tribute will consist of comments from many industry colleagues and personal friends. But, first, you will hear from his wife, Denise, followed by friend and business partner, Mark Williamson. Please read on.

An Interview With Denise Tharrett,
Beloved Wife of Stephen Tharrett

Club Insider (C.I.) - When, where and how did you meet Stephen? When did you both get married?
Denise Tharrett (DT) - We met in college. Stephen was a junior, and I was a sophomore. I often teased him that he was the only good thing I ever got out of the Education class that we took together. We married in June of 1976, eight days after I graduated from college.

C.I. - Please tell us about your children, Alyssa and Travis.
DT - Stephen loved being a father. During Travis' childhood, they enjoyed participating in Scouts and karate together. Recently, Steve was a business partner with Travis in a video gaming company called Dinosaurs Games. Even though Steve rarely played video games, he liked the challenge and working with a younger generation. With Alyssa, he liked playing sports, including tennis and basketball, and he attended every track meet where she threw the shotput and discus. He was especially proud of Alyssa when she graduated from his alma mater, the University of Michigan, with a degree in architecture. Her career has been influenced by her father and focuses on designing fitness and recreation facilities.

C.I. - Please tell us about Stephen's background in sports.
DT - As a boy in the 1960s, Stephen's favorite sports were any pickup game he could play with kids in his neighborhood. In high school and college, he played golf and football, wrestled and threw the shotput and discus in track. His passions were golf, weightlifting and body building. He formed weightlifting clubs at college, and later, at the high school where he was a teacher.

C.I. - What was your favorite thing about Stephen?
DT - He was definitely an optimist. He strove to find good in people. There was a passion for living and contagious energy about him. He loved his family openly and unconditionally.

C.I. - What was Stephen's favorite thing to do?
DT - Spending time with his family and friends was the most important activity for Steve. He relished in talking and spending time with the people he loved and could never get enough of them.

C.I. - Please share something others might not know about Stephen.
DT - When Stephen was a teenager, he caddied at a local country club. Some pro golfers were playing on the course, and he really wanted to get their autographs. He was told that it was not possible, so Steve climbed up on the club house roof and hung down over the doorway just as Arnold Palmer was entering. Palmer admired Steve's ingenuity so much that he gave Steve his autograph. Outside of the fitness industry, Steve had a profound interest in Eastern philosophy and traditions. He had several black belts in karate and spent over 20 years practicing the Art of Bonsai.

C.I. - Stephen was truly a health and fitness club industry advocate, leader, legend, mind, veteran and friend. What did the industry and the people within it mean to him?
DT - Most of his adult life has been spent reading, writing, presenting, teaching and working in the fitness industry. Most of his friendships have been from the fitness industry. He has traveled all over the world learning about and promoting the industry he had such a passion about. He genuinely believed that Exercise is Medicine and increases the quality of all aspects of our lives.

C.I. - Please share any closing comments you'd like to make about the great man, Stephen Tharrett.
DT - Steve was a leader and mentor to many people, including his family. His passion and selflessness were evident in everything he did and every relationship he made. He wore his heart on his sleeve and always believed in self-improvement and the good in others.

An Interview With Mark Williamson,
Co-Founder and Principal of ClubIntel with Stephen Tharrett

Mark WilliamsonMark Williamson

Club Insider (C.I.) - When and how did you and Stephen Tharrett meet?
Mark Williamson (MW) - Steve and I met at ClubCorp where we both worked at the corporate office in Dallas. Initially, Steve led the global operations strategies for fitness and tennis division. At the time, we officed next to each other and worked closely on developing fitness programs and facilities in country clubs that, at the time, did not typically have a fitness component. Steve and I teamed together where I conducted the member feasibility studies, and he used the data to develop the programs and facility design.

C.I. - Please take us through how ClubIntel was created and its mission within the health and fitness club industry.
MW - ClubIntel was born in 2012. Just before launching ClubIntel, Steve was the CEO of the Russian Fitness Group (RFG), and I was Executive Director of Research for Applebee's and also consulting in the club business. Steve, and Russian Fitness Group, was one of my clients. We conducted some of the first-ever member and employee satisfaction studies in Russia with his tenure at RFG. After three years, his contract with RFG was coming to a close, and I was looking for an opportunity to exit the corporate world. Steve and I discussed creating a consulting group that combined my experiences with research and his experience with operations. We conducted our own study among top fitness industry leaders who resoundingly said that what we were looking to offer the industry was missing. This feedback gave us the incentive to build ClubIntel. With that said, after more than 50 combined years working with private clubs, spas, resorts and fitness clubs of all sizes across the globe, we came to know one simple truth: the most successful, most profitable brands are those that understand their customer and can turn that understanding into a personal connection. Our mission with ClubIntel was to help operators make that connection.

C.I. - What is your best memory of Steve?
MW - Steve and I truly were the 'Odd Couple' of business. Privately, we kiddingly jabbed each other and laughed at our differences. We had a lot of fun, worked hard and really enjoyed each other.

C.I. - What made him so unique?
MW - It's rare to find someone who so freely builds relationships and maintains those relationships for the duration of a career. Steve called his business colleagues 'friends,' and they truly were his friends who he could call on at any time.

C.I. - What were his contributions to the health and fitness club industry?
MW - Many have said Steve was the industry's historian; he literally wrote the book on the history of the fitness industry and loved to impart his knowledge. He read incessantly and stored facts which were freely shared to everyone he encountered.

C.I. - Stephen was truly an industry advocate, leader, legend, mind, veteran, etc. What did the health and fitness club industry, and the people within it, mean to him?
MW - It goes without saying, Steve was passionate about the health and fitness industry. Fitness, the industry, was in his DNA; he was an athlete, studied wellness in college and built a career around his passion. His passion became a devotion, and that devotion inspired him to be the leader we all came to know.

C.I. - Please provide a final message to Steve and/or his family.
MW - Steve and I spent the better part of the past eight years traveling the world together and talking on the phone or texting nearly every day. We had a lot of alone time together where we discussed everything from religion, philosophical values, political dynamics, business strategies, and more personally, our relationships with family and friends. Steve had a soft side to him, and he cared deeply for the people within his circle. On many levels, in addition to being my business partner, he was like a big brother to me. I'll miss our talks but will hold tightly to the many memories we shared throughout the years.

Comments From Industry Colleagues and Friends

Comments From Norm Cates,
Co-Founder and First President of IHRSA and Founder and Tribal Leader Since 1993 of Club Insider

Norm CatesNorm Cates

Stephen Tharrett was one of the greatest and most dedicated teachers and educators in the history of our industry. Stephen's vast depth of knowledge and the significant breadth of his contributions to our industry, an industry that he loved so very much, is rivaled by a very tiny few in our industry. Stephen was partners with Mark Williamson in a company they called ClubIntel. When I say these guys, Stephen Tharrett and Mark Williamson, working together in their multiple approaches towards industry education and teaching, were true TITANS in our industry, I'm not exaggerating. I wish to extend my sincere condolences to Stephen's family, and to his business partner and friend, Mark Williamson.

Comments From Rick Caro,
President of Management Vision, Inc.

Rick CaroRick Caro

I have known Steve for perhaps 30 years or more. I watched as he developed a rising career and became a real leader in the high-end, high-service sector. He had a chance to develop his leadership skills by working directly with ClubCorp's Founder & Owner, Bob Dedman. He studied their unique culture and built upon it. His career grew as he led the Athletic Division, the tennis and swim component, and later, the Golf Division. He was a great student to Mr. Dedman and built upon that foundation:

He was devoted to staff development. He created an online training program with online testing. This was unheard of at that time. He fostered a supportive attitude with regular handwritten notes of praise to employees, especially those at lower levels. He created a team of senior executives to share best practices.

He was always learning. As ClubCorp developed new clubs, even internationally, Steve learned about market analyses, membership concepts, different business practices and staffing challenges. He was building his storehouse of knowledge, so he could deploy it in later years. He was always in the field learning and questioning to further his knowledge.

He participated in the industry as a whole. He got involved with IHRSA. He was elected to the IHRSA Board and then became its President. He often wrote articles and spoke frequently at industry events.

He was precise about his expertise. He helped develop the Standards for the industry, writing a textbook that framed them out. He edited version after version of them over the years. This led to his work in later years as an expert witness for the industry.

He participated as an active member of the club industry's first Executive Roundtable group, the Faust Roundtable, for years. The participants to this day refer to his sharing and significant contributions.

He then took on a most difficult assignment as CEO of the major Russian Fitness Group of Clubs. Besides living in freezing conditions with no local friends in Moscow, no support mechanism and a lack of the Russian language, he succeeded. He inherited a company labeled as 'black' because of its failure to conform to legal requirements in business. In short order, he got it reclassified as 'gray' and soon 'white,' fully legitimate and accountable. It then attracted a major Wall Street company as an investor.

When he stepped down as CEO, he returned to the United States. He then developed a leading market research firm with his partner, Mark Williamson. Club Intel did individual assignments for club companies as well as industry research as a whole. It discussed topical trends and took the lead in providing concrete consumer data during COVID-19.

Steve loved the club industry. He revered its history and wrote books on it. He shared its insights and created a variety of textbooks for all to use. He frequently shared his thoughts in oral presentations. He was a force in the industry. His legacy is grand. He left us all too early, but he touched so many of us along the way. He will not be forgotten. He truly made his mark in the fitness industry.

I miss him already.

Comments From John McCarthy,
25-year IHRSA Executive Director Emeritus

John McCarthyJohn McCarthy

Club Insider (C.I.) - How did you know Stephen Tharrett and for how long?
John McCarthy (JM) - I have known Steve Tharrett for over 35 years. I first knew him when he was, in effect, the CEO for all of ClubCorp's fitness and athletic clubs. He was the one who brought all of those clubs into IHRSA. He was also on the IHRSA Board of Directors and was elected by his fellow Board Members to be the President of the Association. In the four years he was on the IHRSA Board, and particularly when he was the IHRSA President, I had the pleasure of working closely with him.

C.I. - What is your best memory of him?
JM - Steve was the consummate gentleman. Always thoughtful, kind, committed to his work, friendly, warm, a man of the utmost integrity, enormously hardworking and productive. In addition to all of his work and responsibilities, he wrote at least ten books. He was an amazing man and always a good friend to me, as well as so many others.

C.I. - What made him so unique?
JM - Tough question, because he had so many strong traits. The one thing that always impressed me the most was his thoughtful and kind humility. He never boasted, never bragged, never tooted his own horn. And, this was just one of the reasons why he was so well liked and admired by so many.

C.I. - What were his contributions to the health and fitness industry?
JM - Another tough question, because his integrity itself was a huge contribution, but when he brought all of ClubCorp's high-value and highly-esteemed clubs into IHRSA, that by itself, broadened IHRSA. It said that every club from the smallest and least well-known to the largest and most prestigious can comfortably join and contribute to IHRSA as he himself did so magnificently.

C.I. - A final message to Steve and/or his family.
JM - To his wife and children I say this: Your husband and father was a uniquely kind, thoughtful and generous man whom all of us were privileged to know, and all of us were elevated simply by knowing him. A true and great man, and as I said above: the consummate gentleman. Admired and beloved!

Comments From Dr. Art Curtis,
President of Curtis Club Advisors, LLC.

Dr. Art CurtisDr. Art Curtis

It all seems a bit surreal as I sit here at the keyboard collecting my thoughts about the many years that I have had the good fortune to know Steve as both a colleague and friend.

We first met back in the late 1970s, early 1980s by way of our involvement with the American College of Sports Medicine, then eventually with IHRSA. Through the years, we have often served together on various IHRSA committees and been speakers on various panels that one or the other of us has moderated. In the last few years, on several occasions, we have recommended one another to potential clients when we were either too busy to accept an engagement or may have had a conflict of interest with another client.

One of the characteristics that I have always relished about the fitness industry is the willingness of so many people to unselfishly give back to make the industry stronger and help it to grow. No one has exhibited that trait more that Stephen Tharrett. He has always been ready, willing and able to help the industry whenever it was needed. There's no better example of that than the work that Steve and his partner, Mark Williamson, at Club Intel, have done since the start of the COVID 19 pandemic. As we all wondered how our members and consumers would respond to the pandemic, they jumped in and started to conduct research that would prove invaluable to the industry as we all try to navigate through this most difficult time. Their work has clearly provided insights and inspiration while being impactful to so many.

So many of my fondest memories of Steve are connected with IHRSA-sponsored events. One event that stands out in particular was a dinner in San Francisco that was held in conjunction with the annual Convention and Trade Show that year. It was attended by many of the early Founders and former Board Members of IHRSA. The dinner was hosted at one of ClubCorp's City Clubs that, of course, was arranged through Steve, who had been a CCA Vice President. Steve and I walked over from the Marriott Hotel to the dinner that night. He was struggling with a very painful hip, but he never complained. We both enjoyed the opportunity to catch-up on family and friends during the walk to the event without the distractions of the Convention. It was those quiet moments where we were just friends that I will remember most.

Hopefully, Steve's wife, Denise, and children, Travis and Alyssa, will find some comfort in knowing how much Steve meant to so many people and how much of a difference he made during his time with us. He will be greatly missed but very fondly remembered. Rest In Peace, my friend.

Comments From Gale Landers,
Founder and CEO of Fitness Formula Clubs

Gale LandersGale Landers

Stephen Tharrett was a good friend to me and a good friend to the entire fitness industry.

I got to know him in the 1990s when he would come through Chicago while on the staff of ClubCorp, overseeing their dozens of fitness facilities across the country. He often worked out at various FFC locations, and we developed a friendship over meetings and meals. I also had the good fortune of working with him when we overlapped briefly while serving on the IHRSA Board.

His knowledge and history of the United States fitness industry was immense. That knowledge expanded to an encyclopedic level when he combined it with his international fitness consulting amongst various nations of the world. He was a one-of-a-kind in that he created deliverables for virtually all sectors of our industry: commercial clubs, fitness studios, private clubs and recreation centers in order to provide an angle for club owners and operators to use to differentiate and create their value propositions. He had a prolific ability to interpret data and turn it into valuable white papers, reports and books. He could publish information like few I have ever seen.

Steve had a unique analytic capability and an uncanny ability to communicate in clear, understandable and useful information along with his partner Mark Williamson. He worked tirelessly to advocate on behalf of the benefits of exercise, market research, industry trends and future forecasting, and provided credible data for use by organizations looking from the outside into our industry.

His passion for our industry and support of IHRSA's initiatives reached no end. Our industry is thankful for all of his contributions. He will be sorely missed.

Comments From Brent Darden,
Interim President & CEO of IHRSA

Brent DardenBrent Darden

Steve was truly a gentleman and a scholar. A personal friend and colleague, he was always willing to help in any way that he could and regularly contributed his time and expertise for the benefit of myself, IHRSA and the industry. Steve possessed a brilliant mind, evidenced by his prolific research, presentations and writings. He was a passionate student and teacher of health and fitness, using his analytic prowess to foster understanding, professionalism and credibility. He was a servant leader that will be dearly missed.

Comments From Bill McBride,
Co-Founder, President & CEO of Active Wellness, LLC. and Founder, President & CEO of BMC3, LLC.

Bill McBrideBill McBride

I have known and cared about Stephen Tharrett for more years than I can remember. Steve was a wonderful man, a great friend and someone who connected others. My strong friendship with Brent Darden was a result of Steve bringing us both to Moscow to present for his company, World Class Clubs. Steve was a proven leader in many organizations. He delivered results and success, but more importantly, culture. Steve had a brilliant mind and with his partner Mark Williamson, and ClubIntel created a lot of credibility in our industry through data analytics. Steve was always humble. I'm not sure he realized the massive positive impact he had on our industry and all of the individuals he touched and made better. Steve was an industry icon and true friend. Rest In Peace Steve.

Comments From Chris Clawson,
CEO of Life Fitness

Chris ClawsonChris Clawson

Club Insider (C.I.) - How did you know Stephen Tharrett and for how long?
Chris Clawson (CC) - I first met Stephen in the mid-90s on the trade show circuit as he'd always come by our booth to chat about the industry while in his ClubCorp role.

C.I. - What is your best memory of Steve?
CC - Seeing him working with the Russian Fitness Group and sharing his vast knowledge of the global industry with them as they rapidly changed the face of the country's fitness landscape.

C.I. - What made him so unique?
CC - Stephen always had a smile on his face. I don't know that I ever had an encounter with him where he wasn't optimistic about the future. He was an advocate for the fitness industry, and his crucial research during the COVID Pandemic proved he could not be dissuaded from his positive outlook on fitness' recovery.

C.I. - What were his contributions to the health and fitness club industry?
CC - For decades, Stephen not only encouraged major industry shifts, but he helped to make them happen.

C.I. - Please provide a final message to Steve and/or his family.
CC - We've seen dozens of people cycle through the fitness industry over the past 50 years but only a few who have maintained a meaningful presence across the decades... Stephen was one of those insiders that constantly evolved and stayed relevant throughout his career. I will miss his kind spirit, and I know that I'm not alone in that realization.

Comments From Steven Schwartz,
CEO of Midtown Athletic Club

Steven SchwartzSteven Schwartz

Club Insider (C.I.) - How did you know Stephen Tharrett? And, for how long?
Steven Schwartz (SLS) - I got to know Steve when we served together on the IHRSA Board from 1994 - 1997.

C.I. - What is your best memory of Steve?
SLS - When Steve ran for President of IHRSA, he made a speech to the Board. He had carefully prepared it and written it out. Halfway through, he broke into tears and said something to the effect that, 'This was his life's dream... To lead the health club industry, an industry that he had devoted his life to that allowed him to follow his passion to help people.' It was a deeply moving drop the mic moment.

C.I. - What made him so unique?
SLS - He had great integrity and was always constructive, positive and kind.

C.I. - Please provide a final message to Steve and/or his family.
SLS - I was shocked and saddened by Steve's untimely passing. He had a lot more to give. We are better off as an industry for his ongoing efforts and insights, and he will be missed.

Comments From Ed Williams,
President & CEO of Wellbridge

Steve Tharrett was a great guy and a great asset to our industry. I first met Steve when he worked for CCA. We were working for Rosewood Property to help develop an athletic club near SMU in Dallas. I was a yahoo from Denver. Steve took the time to meet with me, show me around a couple of clubs and offer to help where he could, and he did. We continued our friendship for the years after, and I had the opportunity to meet his daughter when she went to work for OLC Architecture. She is as warm as Steve. The latest showing of his character was a few months ago when we talked about what was happening in the industry, and he again offered to be a sounding board when I needed to talk. Steve Tharrett, a friend to all, he will be sorely missed by me and the industry.

Comments From Greg Lappin,
President of Lumahai, LLC.

Greg LappinGreg Lappin

Club Insider (C.I.) - What is your best memory of Steve?
Greg Lappin (GL) - My strongest recollection of Steve was that he always possessed such a zest for life. He was always so friendly, always enjoyed himself. My best memory was him telling stories of his time as a consultant to the clubs in Russia. For example, not many clubs in the United States had members come in with two bodyguards carrying submachine guns who would guard their boss during his workout...

C.I. - What made him so unique?
GL - Steve was one of the 'good guys.' He was a sincere, humble man who treated everyone with dignity.

C.I. - What were his contributions to the health and fitness club industry?
GL - Steve had a tremendous work ethic. He was very dedicated to the club industry. He was a real student of the industry and business trends. He wanted facts to back up his reasons for doing things. He was an 'out of the box' thinker.

C.I. - Please provide a final message to Steve and/or his family.
GL - Steve, you were one of the 'good guys,' you will be greatly missed.

Comments From Tim Rhode,
Owner of Rhode Management Company

Tim RhodeTim Rhode

There are few people who dedicated themselves to the industry at a greater level than Steve. His vast experience and firm grasp about things really worked and offered so many a reliable resource when making important decisions. You couldn't have a conversation with Steve without learning something valuable. I am fortunate to have had him as a colleague and friend and will always treasure the times we had together.

Comments From Chuck Leve,
Senior Business Consultant for Association of Fitness Studios

Chuck LeveChuck Leve

The fitness industry lost a true giant with the sudden and untimely passing of Steve Tharrett, my good friend of over 30 years. A brilliant man of impeccable ethics, Steve will always be remembered for his intellectual generosity as first in line to offer help and guidance to any who needed it. Having worked closely with Steve on many projects over the years, I will always cherish our time together. From a day of self-touring storefront temples in the inner neighborhoods of Hong Kong to tirelessly removing redundancies from the first draft of his latest research study, my life was incredibly enriched by his. Kind and sensitive, Steve brought dignity and professionalism to our industry, traits often in short supply. He is already missed.

Comments From Grant Gamble,
Owner of GIG Consulting

Grant GambleGrant Gamble

I first met Steve when I joined the Faust Roundtable #1 almost 20 years ago. Steve immediately struck me as an incredibly intelligent, articulate and humble human being. He welcomed me to the group openly. Over the ensuing years, I learned a great deal from him and the other Roundtable members. With the late Dr. Gerry Faust leading this group and Rick Caro's stewardship, meeting Steve in this forum was indeed enhanced. After Steve left the group, I stayed in contact with him and had the opportunity to catch up intermittently and employ his services on several occasions. At all junctures, Steve operated with the upmost integrity, professionalism and humanity. I counted Steve among my friends and feel that the fitness industry and world at large lost a great man with his passing. My heartfelt condolences go out to Steve's family. Such a loss!

Comments From American Council on Exercise

For the past two decades, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) was honored to work closely with Stephen Tharrett. As an industry expert who authored the ACE Fitness and Business Forms Handbook, developed continuing education courses and contributed as a member of the ACE Industry Advisory Panel and to multiple ACE blogs, Stephen generously shared his wealth of knowledge to help ACE Certified Professionals and other exercise professionals learn and understand the business side of fitness. His legacy and impact on the fitness industry will continue to live on throughout the numerous resources he has shared and the individuals he has taught. We will miss Stephen dearly, and we extend our deepest sympathies to his wife and family.

• • •

Thank you to Denise Tharrett for sharing their story and her memories of Stephen during this tough time. Thank you also to Mark Williamson for his comments about his friend business partner in ClubIntel. Additionally, thank you to Norm Cates, Rick Caro, John McCarthy, Dr. Art Curtis, Gale Landers, Brent Darden, Bill McBride, Chris Clawson, Steven Schwartz, Ed Williams, Greg Lappin, Tim Rhode, Chuck Leve, Grant Gamble and ACE for taking the time to comment about their friend and colleague, Stephen Tharrett.

May Stephen Tharrett Rest In Peace.

Back to Edition