On first blush, Sheila Cluff comes across as the quintessential California girl. She’s blond and athletic, smart and funny.
But her recently published memoir, “Living Your Dream,” reveals the Sheila Cluff behind the persona of a successful entrepreneur in the fitness business and owner and developer of The Oaks at Ojai.
We learn that as a young mother she lost an infant child to meningitis. Her dad ran away from the family farm as a teenager and was largely self-made. A teen sensation on ice in her native Canada, Cluff was a professional skater and a hit in New York — before she ever attended college.
She moved to Ventura after her husband, Don, got a chance for advancement in the paper industry and left a syndicated TV show behind in order to start all over again in a new and unfamiliar place.
After struggling to get The Oaks off the ground, Cluff’s decision to take on a second property, the Palms in Palm Springs, was a bigger struggle than she bargained for. She and her family have survived terrible car wrecks and a nasty spill on the ice that nearly crippled her for life.
Through it all, Cluff’s gift for telling a story makes her passage from teen sensation to entrepreneur all the more compelling.
She writes a lot about her passion for exercise, fitness and being an independent woman. She writes about professionalism and the importance of working to a standard of excellence in everything — whether it is skating for an audience or making a bed at her spa. And she writes about persistence — a particularly necessary characteristic for a successful entrepreneur who often experiences roadblocks on the way to achieving a goal.
And finally, Cluff writes about her fourth “P” — power — whether it is the power that comes with owning a business, being an achiever or getting in front of the media to deliver a message.
Throughout much of “Living Your Dream,” Cluff reveals how much of her journey in entrepreneurship relied on the support of her husband. Donald Cluff wasn’t the flashiest guy she dated and he didn’t have an island empire in the Caribbean like one of her beaus. But he valued her judgments, supported her efforts, allowed her to be an independent woman in an Ozzie and Harriet world, and gave her an inner confidence that’s hard to replace.
Don is the unsung hero of this book, and as somebody who always enjoys catching up with him about the state of business in Ojai and at the Oaks, I can testify to his level-headed ability to analyze a situation and come up with a solution. It is a rare skill in business and even rarer to find in a spouse.
One of clearest lessons of “Living Your Dream” is that Cluff never pretended to be somebody she wasn’t. She was not wired to be a housewife, but she channeled her way into a lifestyle that accommodated being a loving mom and successful professional. She loved the limelight and used her flair for marketing to her advantage in building her fitness business in Oxnard and her destination spa.
She gave back and helped a new generation of women entrepreneurs get their MBAs and a step up on the ladder to success.
She had a keen eye for a trend and she was able to build the fitness craze of the 1980s into a very successful and enduring enterprise. But her gift was understanding the connection between fitness and nutrition, and that became the driving force behind her efforts at The Oaks, one of the largest woman-owned businesses in the Tri-Counties with some 120 employees at the time of the Business Times’ latest survey.
What we learn in “Living Your Dream” is that Sheila Cluff’s dreams did not become reality without a lot of struggle and quite a few tears.
Cluff’s memoir is available for sale on the Oaks’ website and at the spa gift shop for $16.95, it will soon be available on Amazon.com in print and e-book format.
I know that the Great Recession took its toll and in recovery the spa business has become extremely competitive. But whether it is as teen ice star, fitness guru, spa entrepreneur, mom or grandma, Sheila Cluff enjoys playing the role.