Santa Barbara Athletic Club general manager Robert Graham believes in fostering long-term relationships with members as well as his staff. “Everyone is extended family,” he says. “We truly care about all our employees.”  (Jenn Kennedy photo /

Californians are known worldwide for their preoccupation with health and fitness, and while Santa Barbara is a city with reasonably good weather year-round and a host of outdoor exercise options, many residents still hold on tightly to a gym membership. Robert Graham, general manager for the Santa Barbara Athletic Club, strives to bring a bit of the British approach and make “the Club” a destination for networking, fitness and friendship.

Graham grew up in England playing all sports, but says he excelled mostly at squash. He was the British junior champion several years running and ranked sixth worldwide at graduation. He deferred college to play squash professionally and finished a successful career ranked 30th in the world. At age 25, he decided to look for a job coaching squash in the United States. The Santa Barbara Athletic Club offered him the position of racquet sports director, and the rest is history.

Over the next 17 years, Graham worked his way up to assistant manager in 2007 and then general manager in October 2009, after a 14-year career teaching squash. His said his early experiences of traveling extensively and playing squash worldwide fed his love of people and fostered his ability to work with a team.

“I want to keep SBAC the premier health club in town by offering the latest developments in industry fitness classes and equipment in a clean and uncrowded facility,” he said.

Graham noted the importance of the employee culture, which he said contributes to members feeling good in the space.

“Everyone is extended family,” Graham said. “We truly care about all our employees.”

The club is structured so that each department has a manager tasked with monitoring his or her area of focus (membership, fitness, café, squash, etc). The mangers brainstorm with their staffs and give Graham feedback and suggestions for efficiency. As general manager, he says he can plan only about 60 percent of his day, with the rest dependent on what comes up. He said some days he’s dealing with customer complaints, and other days he’s sourcing parts for broken equipment or planning special events. He said he likes both the pacing and problem-solving aspects of his job.

The Santa Barbara Athletic Club, 520 Castillo St., was purchased by West Coast Athletic Clubs, which is owned by SIMA Management Corp. chairman Jim Knell. He also took over clubs in Colorado and Utah in 2009.

With the economy beginning to stabilize, Knell has authorized a makeover of the club, which will include new carpeting, an expanded socializing area in the lobby, an updated women’s locker room and an expanded small group fitness room. Graham said he wants to increase the “wow” factor for members and guests of the club, adding that although the club runs well and offers a lot, it’s in need of a facelift.

The club has 2,020 members, a healthy roster considering the $500 joining fee and $150 average monthly dues. With a cap on memberships at 2,100, Graham said he focuses more on retaining members by keeping them happy than on recruiting new ones. He said there is modest turnover, about 35 members monthly who are replaced by incoming locals. Most members have been with the club long term, which Graham said helps breed an atmosphere of familiarity and fraternity. But he’s careful not to call it a gym.

“We are a club and offer much more than fitness,” he said.

As part of that effort, the club offers wine, movie, golf and food clubs. It also brings in live music, offers beer on tap and hosts salsa dancing on Saturday nights. It also plans events such as “Dancing With the Staff,” pairing club members with staff members for a dance contest, which packs the club.

The Santa Barbara Athletic Club offers 108 group classes. Most popular are the JFX boot camp and hip hop classes. Click here for a full schedule.

Noozhawk contributor Jenn Kennedy can be reached at Click here to see more of her work. Follow her on Twitter: @jennkennedy.