Vander Weide NBA MVP VIP

October 10, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — When he was young, Bob Vander Weide had an idea of what he would do when he grew up.

“I just grew up in a fun family that competed. We competed in small business. We competed on the hard court and on the grassy surface,” he said. “I guess I kind of grew up thinking I would play baseball for a living.”

He wasn’t even in the right ballpark.

Although his father had played professional baseball in both the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox organizations, Vander Weide’s future would lie not behind home plate, but behind a desk. Fortunately for the sports-loving 47-year-old, neither of his desks is too far from a basketball court.

Vander Weide is the president and CEO of both the National Basketball Association’s Orlando Magic and of three health and fitness centers. After more than a decade in central Florida, Vander Weide has moved back home to Grand Rapids to oversee the creation of two new MVP facilities and the birth of a partnership with Spectrum Health.

Hometown Boy

Vander Weide is the youngest of three brothers. With an ex-ballplayer-turned-plumber for a father, he learned both the competitive drive of an athlete and of a small business owner. The family competed with one another — in sports and in impromptu games — and was always up for a challenge.

The biggest challenge the family faced came early, when Bob was just starting his studies at Grand Rapids Christian High School.

“When I was 14, my father had massive strokes. He’s still alive today. He’s lived through cancer, strokes, open-heart surgery twice, carotid artery surgery twice. I swear he has nine lives,” he said. “But it became apparent to me that if you don’t have your health, you really don’t have anything.”

Vander Weide kept that message with him as he moved forward in life. He played baseball, football and basketball at GR Christian. He then went on to study at Calvin College. After two years, he transferred to Aquinas College, where he “got really serious” about his business studies.

He also got serious about a girl he met in high school. Vander Weide married Cheri DeVos, the only daughter of Amway co-founder Rich DeVos, in 1984.

Moving Up

Early in his professional career, Vander Weide worked in real estate development. His most notable work in West Michigan was in creating the Crystal Springs golf community in Gaines Township.

“My track was development, real estate, construction. You know, kind of the lingering effects of growing up in a construction family,” he said. “And how that made the bridge into professional sports, is that my family pursued major league baseball for Florida.”

Vander Weide and the DeVos family did not get the franchise. It went to Wayne Huizenga — of Waste Management Inc. and Blockbuster Entertainment fame — and became the Florida Marlins. Not to be dissuaded, Vander Weide and company turned to the next major league down the alphabet: the NBA.

Orlando Magic Founder William duPont III “had some financial problems,” and looked to the DeVos family for help.

“I remember back then, our family, other than myself, really knew nothing about basketball,” Vander Weide said. “And at the same time, I had a brother-in-law (Dick DeVos) who was looking for some change in his life and said, ‘I’ll be the governance piece, but I don’t know the sport. Let’s talk to Bob and see if he and Cheri would be willing to commit.”

The Vander Weides committed to move to Orlando for a three-year term, getting the DeVos ownership of the Magic up to speed. Around the same time, the team signed a promising young center from Louisiana State University by the name of Shaquille O’Neal.

“Eleven years later, we were still there,” he said. “We had great success and we were a little lucky. But we’ve since learned that you need to be a lot more than lucky.”

The Magic reached their zenith in 1994 with a trip to the NBA Finals. In 1995, O’Neal was plagued by injuries and decided to leave the team for Los Angeles.

“He wanted to play for the Lakers,” Vander Weide said. “I offered him $19 million. He wanted to be Hollywood, do rap songs … It was a big Laker sell. I couldn’t do anything about it.”

With the most dominant center in the NBA gone, the Magic has struggled since. Even after acquiring a handful of All-Stars, the team’s win-loss record has hovered around the .500 mark for the past decade. Now, Vander Weide says, the team is poised for a return to greatness.

In the midst of trying to recapture NBA success, Vander Weide has been working on a couple other projects.

A few years ago, RDV Sports partnered with Florida Hospital to build a “world class sports and fitness facility.” More recently the company made a similar deal with Spectrum Health and created the MVP Sportsplex at Burton Street SE and East Paris Avenue SE. Just last month, the most recent member of the RDV Sports health and fitness empire, the MVP Metro Club, opened in downtown Grand Rapids.

Vander Weide said that the hospital partnerships are important because they shift the club’s brand image away from an all-sports venue and more toward health and wellness. The partnerships also allow for the clubs to be specialized to serve their geographical markets — not that MVP has immediate plans to spread nationwide.

“Everybody else in the industry — right, wrong or indifferent — is going about it where they create a prototype and they just move it across the country. Whether it’s Bally’s or Lifetime Fitness or 24-Hour Fitness. We’re trying to approach it a little differently. And whether we get there in markets other than Orlando and Grand Rapids, I really don’t care. But, I’d love to see it happen.”

Vander Weide thinks that the way it might happen is by forming other health-care partnerships. He also has some specific ideas for different size clubs that MVP might build in the future.

“We’d like to have a big-box opportunity called a SportsPlex, then maybe we’d go to a little lesser price point called a SportsCenter and then maybe we’d go to an urban or mall market that’s called Express, where for 19 bucks a month you can go in and get a 30-minute workout… So that’s kind of where we’re focusing.”

At The End Of The Day

The business may be focusing on expansion, but Vander Weide is giving more of his attention to his family. Since moving back to Michigan in 2003, he has been taking a more active role in his already-active family. The sports bug is definitely hereditary — during his interview with the Business Journal, he recounted his daughter’s five-goal soccer game the day before. And while he encourages his family to be active and competitive, his father’s strokes are never far from his mind. The fact that he has been able to make a career of inspiring others to get involved in sports and to take their health and wellness into their own hands is what motivates Vander Weide.

“When people are walking out of the (MVP) building and they say something as silly as, ‘Thanks, Bob. This is really working out well for me. I’m feeling better and my family’s doing better … God, that’s pretty cool. You might not think it’s as cool as winning an NBA championship, but I think it’s really cool to have that kind of impact on a family. So that’s what drives us.”   

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