Stephen Ross, majority owner of The Related Companies, which owns the fitness chains SoulCycle and Equinox, hosted a fundraiser for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign in the Hamptons this past weekend. This news caused a Twitter firestorm with many celebrities canceling their memberships and some calling for boycotts on Ross’s other interests including the Mami Dolphins and New York City’s Hudson Yards.
- In the Trump era, are companies prepared to find themselves in the middle of a partisan storm? Are CEOs and executives now being treated by the general public and consumers as politicians were in past election cycles?
- Should Equinox and SoulCycle acknowledge fault and demonstrate empathy for the customer, two actions experts say are critical for crisis response?
- Many of the fitness firms’ customers are upset because they were asked to set aside their values. If you were the CEO of either firm, how would you address the topics of Mr. Ross’s relationship to your organization and his hosting of the political fundraiser?
- The fund-raiser took place at Ross’s home on Friday afternoon, and guests included Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary. A hundred-thousand-dollar ticket bought a donor lunch and a photo op with the President; two hundred and fifty thousand dollars bought a seat at a roundtable discussion.
- “Hey @Equinox,” the comedian Billy Eichner tweeted. “What’s your policy for canceling memberships once a member finds out your owner is enabling racism and mass murder?”
- New York Sports Club trolled Equinox and SoulCycle on Instagram: “FYI: This Friday, August 9th we’re not doing anything in Southampton. Come work out with us.” And “Commit to something better.”
SoulCycle embraces liberal causes as a way to attract new customers. In 2018, the company launched an “All Souls Welcome” marketing campaign to highlight its “openness” and celebrated the LGBTQ community.
The company’s creative director, Roxana Zegan, said the campaign’s purpose was to “celebrate the real LGBTQ+ humans that fearlessly make this brand what it is.” The message being, “You are not alone, your soul is worth something, and you’re welcome here.” SoulCycle also offers plenty of Pride-themed merchandise, like a $46 t-shirt.
SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan tried to defuse the controversy by describing Ross as a “passive investor” in SoulCycle. But, as Judd Legum of Popular Information pointed out, this isn’t true. “A passive investor is someone who invests money in a company but otherwise has no role in the company’s operations. SoulCycle is a subsidiary of Equinox. Ross is the chairman of the Equinox board. That means Ross is not a passive investor — he is Whelan’s boss.”
In a statement, Ross tried defending his decision to hold the fundraiser at his house for Trump. He said his motivation was to hold the event because of his “deep concern for creating jobs and growing our country’s economy.” Ross went on: “I have known Donald Trump for 40 years, and while we agree on some issues, we strongly disagree on many others and I have never been bashful about expressing my opinions…[I am] an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability, and I have and will continue to support leaders on both sides of the aisle to address these challenges.”
Ross believes he can be a “champion of racial equality” and “environmental sustainability” while collecting $250,000 checks for Trump’s reelection.