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Chicago Tribune

Chicago TribuneA Wink And A Lair

Sybaris Owner rarely rests in his laps of luxury

Life on the edge is a natural for Lake Zurich resident Ken Knudson, a hyper kinetic entrepreneur whose career has been in overdrive since he opened his first business at age 8, selling Kool-Aid from a neighborhood corner where he test-marketed experimental flavors slipped to him by someone who worked for the company.

“I like going to the edge. You don’t know what you’re capable of until you push yourself,” Knudson said. “Bring yourself into a controlled environment and push until it doesn’t work. Then you know you succeeded to reach the max.

“You can never succeed until you’ve failed.”

The perception of failure is only a transitory interruption for the trailblazing Knudson, who intuitively shifted gears in 1977 as a world champion karate master and owner of nine martial arts schools in the Chicago area and one in Indianapolis. At that point he began selling off the schools after having opened his first Sybaris Club in 1975 in Downers Grove.

Knudson, 47, was a man ahead of his time, and he contends that it has been an uphill battle to overcome a puritanical stigma that his Sybaris Clubs are hotbeds of iniquity flamed by an unspoken social taboo that denies the existence of the eroticism in marriage. But times are changing as Knudson envisions a day when there will be 50 Sybaris Clubs across the nation.

“I saw [Sybaris] as a need for married couples to have a romantic escape from the responsibility, such as the kids, the in-laws, telephones,” Knudson said.

“Looking back, I was evolving from the sexual revolution, which carried with it massage parlors, swingers, wife-swapping parties, free love, so the average person on the street could not comprehend that Sybaris was for real. It was [and is] for married couples.

“From a marketing standpoint, common sense tells you that married couples need it more that anyone else.”

Today, Knudson and wife, Charlene, are the sole proprietors of two other Sybaris Clubs in Northbrook and Mequon, Wis., in addition to the Downers Grove location. And the Knudsons will soon break ground in Frankfort in the far south suburbs.

“People run away from fear, run from attack, from problems. From the time I was a child I always ran to it…always wanted to confront problems aggressively,” Knudson said.

Knudson is a complex man. On one hand he has made a business out of everything he touches, working incessantly to make a project solvent. On the other hand, he said he never has done anything in his life to make money. Money only facilities his ventures.

“The one thing I admire most about him, aside from our friendship, is his ability to focus on whatever he’s doing and following through,” said former radio personality Fred Winston, now a broadcast talent manager and a Chicago musician.

Eight years ago Knudson married his soul mate, second wife Charlene, 45, both of whom are workaholics, each putting in more than 60 hours a week.

“They work non-stop,” Winston said.

When they’re not working – and that is seldom – home is a lakefront house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Lake Zurich, where a pet lovebird named Pete nestles in bed or splashes in the bathtub with his transient “parents”.

As a couple, the pair complement each other’s personalities.

“I’m everything in moderation and he’s everything [to] the maximum,” Charlene Knudson said. “He’s pedal to the metal and I’m 30 miles per hour. I slow him down and he keeps me going.”

Shatter those stereotypes of a yuppie coupling; this successful duo does not have a swimming pool in their back yard, Ken never buys a new car, and Charlene drives an Oldsmobile. Vacations are a luxury only because of time spent away from their shared passion, work.

No, the Knudsons do not relax in the hot tubs and saunas of the Sybaris on a regular basis. They’re much too busy, unless it is time to check out a room.

Friendship, however, is an investment the Knudsons have nurtured both in their own back yard and with childhood friends.

“It’s kind of a strange relationship…[It] comes naturally,” said Roger Stromberg, who has known Knudson for 38 years. “We’re not inseparable, but he’s my best friend. He’s friend with a capital F.”

“Friends shouldn’t have to ask. If you see a need, whatever it is, and if you have it to give you should do that,” Knudson said.

Bob Wojcik, a neighbor of the Knudsons, remembers when he and his family just moved into one of the six houses that line the cul-de-sac and Knudson was driving by. He stopped to say hello, and Wojcik’s oldest son ogled a Blackhawks jacket Knudson had on, telling his dad it was neat.

“Ken took it off and gave it to our son,” Wojcik said. “That’s just the way he is.

It is this camaraderie of neighbor knowing neighbor , block parties and lending a hand that Knudson said reminds him of his roots growing up in the Austin neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

Knudson has fond memories of pies cooling on a back porch, “tress that canopied the street [Central Avenue]” and hot rods roaring down makeshift racing circuits around the area.

“We lived the ‘American Graffiti’ [movie] and then some. We bent the rules. Fortunately we came away unscathed,” said longtime friend Fred Hoffman, owner of six area nightclubs and restaurants. “It was exciting taking chances and made us both what we are [today].”

Knudson was obsessed with speed, from the time he was 12 when he motorized his bicycle and his innocuous gang of seven preteens wheeled around until he graduated to rocket-powered go-carts, motorcycles and cars, Hoffman said.

It was the era of the “strict John Wayne code of ethics,” according to Knudson, in which men – or boys for that matter – weren’t supposed to cry, fighting fair was with fists, not kicking, a man’s role was the bread-winner, and male generations were groomed to follow in their father’s blue-collar occupations.

“In our neighborhood, you either worked for International Harvester or the Chicago and North Western railroad,” Knudson said. “Further education was a wistful aspiration, and dating, marriage and babies fell in a domino effect among the guys who hung around with one another.”

Knudson married his first wife, Elaine, at age 20, and their only child, Scott, was born two years later. (Scott now helps his father in the business).

“You always tried to live up to fathers back then. I was part of the changing guard. In essence, when my father died [when Ken was 18], it release me,” said Knudson, who worked in the same factory and trade as his Norwegian dad at International Harvester until the day Ken graduated as a toolmaker.

At the same time, Knudson began to pursue an avocation that would later win him kudos, fame and respect among the great and near-great in the marital arts arena.

“Ken was one of my better students,” said James “Jimmy” Jones, the karate master Knudson credits for his early training. “He’s always been very, very driven. I think he has [always] been a good businessman as well because of his ambition and stamina.

“Ken was my only Caucasian student, but it was never a problem because in martial arts, it is a brotherhood,” Jones said. Jones taught hard-hitting karate at the Southtown YMCA at 65th Street and Union Avenue.

Growing up, Knudson said, he sensed early on that there was a void; choices were limited because academics were secondary.

“We did not have the proper exposure to business and education,” he said.

Though Knudson is a pragmatist, he is also a tenacious optimist who looks at a glass and not only sees it as half-full but says he can fill it, according to those who know him.

“He’s very persistent and never would give up,” said Knudson’s mother, Gail.

When Knudson opened his first marital-arts school on Grand Avenue on Nov. 1, 1967, at age 23, he spawned a legacy that would include, according to Knudson, the larges privately owned chain in the world at that time with a total of 10 schools under the trademark Olympic Karate Studios, more than 100 personal first-place championships and two years in the Top Ten Nationals, a distinction that he shared with no other competitor.

Knudson also pioneered protective gear for karate matches as well as opening the first garment factory outside Asia to mass-produce authentic karate uniforms. He since has sold that business. He created the first home audio karate instructional kit, known as the Circle System of Self Defense. He was the first Midwesterner to be on the cover of Black Belt Magazine.

“The thrill of the business was being able to be the first…being on the cutting edge of new fields,” Knudson said. “I lived it, loved it. It didn’t matter if you’re richer or smarter than I was. Everyone started at the same level, and my instinct, more unorthodox, have me a winning edge. We carved karate’s new frontier.”

Knudson trained with the likes of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris and fought and won against such legendary martial arts giants as Joe Lewis and Bill Wallace putting his bursting power against the brute force of Lewis and the speed of Wallace.

Park Forest Police Sgt. Mike McNamera met Knudson in 1969 and ran one of his schools for a time. He said he often sparred in the gym with his boss, but all he remembers is that when he was done, he was bruised.

“He was always winning. He was a ferocious, an aggressive fighter but not a dirty fighter,” McNamera said. “One thing about Ken: He was never afraid to lay it on the line. I learned more from him. If ever a situation came down, he would be [ready].”

Knudson appeared as a thug in a stint in the Chuck Norris film “Code of Silence,” in which Norris hurled Knudson across a pool table. Norris, a buddy from competition days, had asked Knudson on the spur of the moment if he wanted to do the stunt.

In the summer of 1978, life imitated art as Knudson turned the tables on two thieves in a mad chase down Ogden Avenue in Downers Grove, ending in a harrowing confrontation between the perpetrators and the 7th-degree black belt.

Knudson had bought a 24-foot Sea Ray powerboat, dubbing it Summer Madness. He also purchased a trailer and a Jeep to pull his prize.

But it all became the booty of two thieves early one summer morning. That afternoon, Knudson said, he was at his Downers Grove Sybaris when the thieves drove past, pulling his boat on his trailer.

Immediately, he jumped into his car and sped after them, cutting them off. As he approached the car, the two thieves tried to shift into reverse.

Knudson said he had to make his move, drawing on an old Chuck Norris stunt he had seen and fueled by his own adrenalin, he dived over the hood of the moving car and shot through the windshield with a powerhouse kick.

He then dragged one thief from the car, plunging his thumb into the criminal’s eye-the Ken Knudson like detector, as he called it – and demanded to know where his Jeep was.

Within seconds, a Downers Grove police officer was on the scene, threatening to arrest Ken Knudson. Later, Knudson said he was told that the FBI had the pair under surveillance even as they stole his boat, all part of a major chop shop sting. Knudson, the vigilante, had blown their gig and made national television news.

“Once in a lifetime are you blessed with an opportunity to have such immediate reward and justification. As you get older, you handle things differently,” Knudson said.

Knudson keeps himself in fighting condition by competing at every five-year increment in age. For example, he will start training in earnest soon to compete at age 50 then again at age 55.

One year before his street drama, Knudson said, he had seen that the karate market was being impregnated with amateurs and youngsters. So Knudson began to sell off his schools and semi-retired to Hawaii, holding on to his Sybaris. But after a year in Hawaii, he found that the islands were not paradise.

“Hawaii, when you live there and you’re relatively young, you find out that the island is very small,” Knudson said. “By April I was lusting after a traffic jam and carbon monoxide.”

So he returned home to tend to his business.

Back when Knudson had opened his first Sybaris, he did so amid the skepticism of not only the town fathers, the community and the bankers but even among his own consultants, Knudson said.

But attorney Tom Stern, a friend who occasionally represents Knudson, was believer from the start.

Knudson is an “individual with tremendous capabilities, tremendous drive to succeed and absolute honesty,” Stern said. “If you ask me what characteristics or what he did that made him successful, [it’s] his absolute honest in all things and his

continual drive and his pursuit of excellence to get things done just the right way.

“Never the concept, never the reality, never a hint of any problem at Sybaris. The man came up with a good idea and developed it by working [more than] 15 to 18 hours a day to put it together.”

Sybaris means sensual, romantic and is take from an ancient Greek city dating from 700 B.C. to 200 B.C. in which romance and luxury were abundant, according to Knudson.

To an extent, he can credit his wife for the business idea. “My wife had dragged me out to Woodfield Mall. There was a store there that had been designed for interior decorating. They specialized in bedrooms.” Said Knudson, who implemented the love-nest concept in the Knudson home. “every one of the wife’s girlfriends who would visit expressed themselves by saying, ‘My God, this is beautiful. I wish I had something like this.’ It seemed like this is such an obvious need.”

Knudson’s Sybaris is not and never has been a hotel or motel. It is a private club.

Its slogan is, “We’re dedicated to romantic marriages.” People don’t just drop in; they become club members and supply more extensive personal information at check-in than they would, say, at the Holiday Inn. This is to help ensure that Sybaris is used as its creator intended.

These are no hot-sheet tawdry cheap joints. The tabs for creating the two latest locations run into the millions: 38 rooms at the Northbrook Sybaris (56 million and eight year to complete) and the 30 rooms in Mequon ($3 million). Knudson estimates it will cost $3 million for the Frankfort Sybaris.

All the rooms are luxuriant tropical havens, some equipped with swimming pools, saunas, Jacuzzis, all with a waterbed, whirlpool and the infamous basket and X-rated movies.

Although the basket involves an old Oriental form of making love, and even though X-rated movies are cabled into hundreds of homes, those two perks have been the band of the Sybaris’ existence, according to Knudson, who said the basket is not available at the Country suites in Mequon and won’t be in any new location. Tapes of X-rated movies will be optional.

When Knudson tried to subtly phase out the basket and X-rated movies, his management was deluged with complaints from customers who, in all likelihood, never even used the basket.

“If I’m going to take Sybaris across the nation, you cannot do it with a [perception of] pornographic material as your backbone,” Knudson said. “I anticipate building Sybaris into a $100 million-a-year business, but I want to do it not too fast, to take the risk out of it.”

Knudson is setting his initial sights on a regional expansion, perhaps a suburb of Detroit or St. Louis.

“Our lifetime is to deliver a perfect experience that caters to a married couple. If anything changes that, it destroys the company,” he said.

Knudson said that a couple from Wisconsin drive down every three to four months, telling their kids to take care of the farm while Mom and Pop go shopping the Chicago for the day.

Instead they end up at Sybaris. Funny thing, he said, is they never return home with anything.

“We were so pre-programmed with puritanical background and so fearful about this sexual perception that it was not correct to be sensual with your wife [or husband],” Knudson said.

While some couples are open about heir nuptial interludes at Sybaris, some still sneak around as if there were something illicit happening.

“Being at a place like the Sybaris is it’s not just about sex. It’s about being together, uninterrupted time that stimulates you to feel close and is physically relaxing,” said Judy Kuriansky, CNBC-TV (New York) psychologist and author of “How to Love a Nice Guy.”

“In my opinion, places like the Sybaris are the answer to a lot of couples’ problems in the ’90’s,” she said in a phone interview.

Knudson is out to se the record straight, but he still must dispel bias when dealing with municipalities and zoning boards so as not to get bogged down in game playing.

“Yesterday’s trophies don’t win today’s battles,” Knudson said. “This is not what [some] people thin, and yet most people are guarded to say they went there.”

Some guests, such as Rolling Meadows mayor Carl Courve, admit that Knudson would have a tough sell to build a Sybaris in their own towns.

“He [Knudson] came up with a concept to enhance marriages, not to say marriages are in trouble, but as a plus for marriages…to get away from the normal hustle and bustle of routine…no phones, no kids,” Couve said.

Couve and wife Barbara have spent a couple of anniversaries at the Northbrook Sybaris.

“This was just a very decent place that caters just to married couples…and it makes it a kind of private getaway in the metropolitan area,” he said.

“This business is such an economic barometer and has weathered two recessions, the one in 1981 and now we’re halfway through the 1991-1992 recession,” according to Knudson.

Advance paid-for room sales dropped off marginally each time, but rooms are still booked on the weekends, Knudson said. And don’t thing it’s a smaller matter to get a room the Sybaris. Rates range from $50 for an afternoon getaway in Mequon to $495 for a weekend night in the fully loaded Sybaris Chalet.

He “always has ideas. Ken is the ultimate entrepreneur. He’ll never retire.” Said longtime friend and marketing consultant Charles “Chuck” Allen of Woodridge.

And he is, despite hi avocation in karate, a testament to the expression: make love, not war.

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