Spa Pioneer Sheila Cluff on Living Her Dream

by Kristine Hansen

4 min read

Sheila Cluff, founder of The Oaks at Ojai in California, is known not only for starting America’s first real spa in 1977, but also for helping to create the International Spa Association for spa owners.

The 76-year-old — who says she now works 40 hours a week, down from 80 hours — published a memoir in February. Living Your Dream is not the typical business book. Although it’s packed with advice about juggling family and career responsibilities, Cluff also discusses her 3-year-old son’s tragic death and nursing her husband back to health after a car accident.

“So many of my business friends were writing ‘Look how I did this’ kinds of books, but I wanted to do more than that. There is a perception that with entrepreneurs it’s all ups and no downs,” Cluff says. But there are definitely peaks and valleys, and “it’s how you approach [the valleys] and how you learn from them — and turn a horrible situation into something — that’s meaningful to others.”

The Intuit Small Business Blog asked Cluff to share her secrets for how to keep a small business on the cutting edge.

ISBB: In your book, you thank your team at The Oaks at Ojai. What has led to low staff turnover?

Cluff: We call them a “team,” not a “staff,” and they really like each other, cooperate with each other, and nurture each other. As a small company, we believe in keeping our employees fit and healthy. We’ve always supplied health insurance and psychological counseling.

We have a lot of employees who don’t have a car and have to take public transportation and are on a limited budget. We will go to their manager and say, “What can do we about this?” not “No, you can’t change your schedule.”

We have a lot of employees who are sons and daughters of employees we’ve had for 20 years. It’s a true family feeling, and that makes a big difference. We — my husband and I — never walk into The Oaks and just walk by our employees.

What were some of your challenges in introducing Americans to European spa concepts during the 1970s? How did you overcome those hurdles?

Spas were considered “fat farms” for the obese, [places] where they starved you and punished you. And “massage” was a dirty word in this country. “Facials” were a foreign language or the luxury of a woman who had her own corporate jet. I had all those roadblocks to overcome. I said, “This is a healthy vacation, and someone is going to pamper you and make your meals.”

Over the years, I gradually introduced healthy eating. The original client in 1977 would go down the list and try to do everything. There was this feeling that “I’m paying for it and want to take every class.” It took a long time to introduce people who were brand-new to fitness that you do these classes, and if you’re young and fit, you do those.

We still have my signature class in mind-body awareness, where I explain why we’re doing things a certain way. [This is] so that people have a really good understanding of how they can condition the body, what’s right for them at the current level, and what their goals might be. We have about 70 percent return guests.

Was aerobics a hard sell back in the 1950s? You initially called it “cardiovascular dance,” right?

It was a difficult sell, because what woman in the 1950s and the 1960s dared to run her own business!? That was one roadblock. Also, people thought of exercise as a form of punishment. I tried to wipe out the words “diet” and “exercise” from their vocabulary. If you turn wellness into a positive, not a negative, then that changes the attitude toward movement and working out.

What advice do you have for moms who want “to do it all” with raising kids while being an entrepreneur?

We have to be realistic. Choose the thing that is most important at the moment. Let your husband or your parents or your employees take over the one thing that, at the present moment, causes you a great deal of stress. Go back and shift it around.

When I was doing carpooling with my four kids and trying to keep my business successful and be a good wife and put dinner on the table, I realized I couldn’t do it all. Use your strengths and hire people for the rest. You have to learn to be a good delegator.

In the face of adversity, how did the loss of your son and your husband’s auto accident inspire you to not put your own dreams on hold?

Despite my husband’s very serious auto accident, he has always been my greatest supporter. Although I knew I had to spend more time with him, he also encouraged me to continue on with my dreams. I don’t think there are any I’s in success. It’s always we.

Someone stopped me the other day on the street of Ojai and said, “I don’t know how you do it.” I said, “You know I don’t do it by myself. I have a great assistant, Judy, who organizes my life, and there’s my husband, and I have about 130 employees at The Oaks at Ojai who all pitch in.”

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