James H. Chambers founded the H. Chambers Co. in 1889 as a painting and wallpaper firm working in Baltimore's religious institutions and the homes of the city's upper crust.
Over the next century, the business grew into one of the country's elite interior design firms, participating in decoration of the Baltimore Country Club, the Maryland governor's mansion, the White House library during the term of President John F. Kennedy and three ships for Princess Line Cruises.
Chambers, which has added architecture, planning, purchasing and installation to its services, now focuses on private clubs, and has projects going in more than 15 states. In May, Chambers announced it would acquire Dallas-based CCI Club Design. The company is considering opening offices in other locations.
Rick Snellinger, who worked his way through the University of Baltimore, started at the firm in 1991 as chief financial officer and controller. He became Chambers' president and CEO in 2008, when he purchased the company.
How have private clubs evolved in the last few decades? And how has this changed the kinds of amenities in demand?
The private club industry has changed significantly over the last decade, primarily due to the development of a very family-friendly, or family-centric, approach to membership programs and services. Historically, the decision to purchase a membership in a private club was often the result of the prospective member reaching a certain position or level in a corporation or due to the success of one's business. The initiation or joining fees as well as the monthly dues and charges were often for the benefit of entertaining clients and considered a business expense. While entertaining clients is still a very important activity at a private club, these expenses are not considered tax-deductible. Now the decision to join a private club is often a family decision, with two of the primary reasons for membership being the availability of activities for the entire family and whether the monthly expense fits within the family's finances. For a private country club, the No. 1 reason for joining has always been the golf course; but now we see resort-style pools, fitness or wellness centers, family activity centers with ultra-casual family dining, child care, year-round family activities and junior golf/tennis programs and services — all of which cater to the entire family enjoying the club.
Working with country clubs, you report to the membership as a whole, responding to changing boards and a roster of influential people. What strategies do you use to navigate that dynamic?
Our approach is to stress with boards that long-term planning is essential to providing continuity within the private club. It often surprises club leadership that Chambers, being a design and architectural firm, recommends to stop doing "projects" and instead take the time to plan and look at all the pieces of the facilities puzzle, recognize the trends within the private club industry, develop a fiscally conservative financial model, involve the membership in the rationale for change and communicate the plan effectively to the members. If you involve the membership and recognize that it is not the board's plan or club management's plan, but rather the members' plan, and are willing to listen and realign the plan based on the member feedback from informal informational meetings, you will be successful.
Chambers has received accolades for everything from the JFK White House to a new golf clubhouse in Birmingham, Ala. What project makes you proud?
I am very proud of the firm's legacy and of the work of the previous generations that created many outstanding design programs in our history. Whether working in some of the grand homes of Baltimore, designing the interiors of Princess cruise ships or designing the White House during the Kennedy administration, our staff both past and present has always created classic and timeless award-winning design solutions for our clients. Personally, I am very proud that Baltimore Country Club, located in our hometown of Baltimore, was our first club project in the mid-1940s, and with them we continue to enjoy an ongoing relationship. I am also very proud of our work at Charlotte Country Club in Charlotte, N.C., which won a national award for their historic clubhouse restoration. Being recognized by the national golfing community and awarded the No. 1 New Clubhouse of the Year by Golf Inc. Magazine for the new Inverness Country Club Clubhouse in Birmingham was especially gratifying.
You've recently acquired a onetime competitor based in Dallas. Do you anticipate expanding more in the next decade?
We have been very fortunate to continually be engaged by clubs throughout the United States and subsequently growing through the recent recession. We continue to expand our offerings for our clients such as strategic planning, operational assistance and brand development — services that are not traditionally offered by design and architectural firms. The Dallas acquisition was a natural outcome of our success in the private club industry. In our firm's own strategic planning process, we will continue to seek additional acquisitions that will take us closer to our clients, as will organic, internal growth. Post-recession, private clubs that plan for the future (hopefully with Chambers' assistance) will see resurgence in their membership levels and plan for continued improvements in their facilities.
You didn't grow up as part of the country club set and you're not a big golfer. What do you do during your downtime, and how do you respond if people criticize clubs for their exclusivity?
I think not being a member of a country club growing up is probably an advantage because I really appreciate the private club industry and what clubs provide to local communities across the U.S. from a business perspective. It is a multibillion-dollar industry that provides thousands of jobs and is a big contributor to the local economy in large and small towns across the country. Private clubs provide excellent wages and opportunities for employees' personal growth, and they fuel the local economy. Since I am in a private club somewhere in the U.S. three to four days a week, it is good to have some downtime, which I enjoy spending with my family — especially my two granddaughters.
President and CEO of the H. Chambers Co.
Previous Job: financial services industry
Education: University of Baltimore
Family: Wife Cathy (38 years), daughter Katie and son John; two granddaughters — Lauren, 2, and Harper, 6 months.
Hobbies and interests: University of Baltimore Foundation board, St. Casimir School board, renovation of a waterfront home, the Ravens, and spending time with family.