Not Taking Advice from the Big Players

Those of us who have their own money at risk don't have a lot in common with CEOs from large companies managing someone else's business.

I think I've become a snob, but in reverse. The longer I am in business for myself, the less impressed I am with fitness industry big-wigs, corporate leaders and well-financed club operations with fancy boards of directors. It's not that I don't think I can learn from them, or that I don't wish for some of the financial success that they seem to have. It's just that I'm not bowled over by the people running them, and the reason is simple: It's not their money at risk.

What do we have in common?

I cringe every time I see a cover story in an industry trade magazine that bestows celebrity status and "listen to this guy" creditability to the newest CEO of the latest chain that changed hands, or large facility that was bought and sold. The guys and gals who are new to the industry and preparing to lead this-or-that chain are especially unenlightening to me because they haven't done anything yet! At least let them prove that their ideas are worth listening to before you plaster them on magazine covers.

Even if these CEOs are out there every day, making their ideas work, their impact on me is rather small because I have so little in common with them. The CEOs of these large, well-financed club operations have a safety net under them that I, or any other independent club operator, will never have. The businesses they are running are not theirs. If they fail, they get on with their lives. If I fail, I can't just walk away.

In this respect, the fitness industry is no different than any other industry. CEOs come and go, succeed and fail, and I don't think any of them end up homeless. The business news of the last year has been ripe with stories of large companies suffering in the wake of the housing and credit crises, but the CEOs of those firms are doing just fine, thank you. Heck, if your firm is big enough, the federal government might even bail you out!

Nobody's going to bail me out if my business fails. There's no golden parachute waiting for me if things don't go well. My business finances and my personal finances are wed together in a way that a corporate CEO will never experience.

What can I learn from them?

I'm not down on all big-club owners and managers. I'm a big fan of Lifetime Fitness founder Bahram Akradi, who started with one fitness center, built a chain and took his business public. Like any company founder who can take his business to the top, I think he deserves every dollar he's earned. I just don't feel the same way about hired guns who come in, maybe succeed and maybe fail, and then move on to the next high-paying job. I'm just not sure what I am going to learn from them.

To be clear, I enjoy learning from other facility owners, and so many others in this industry. The best part about being at a trade show is swapping stories with other club owners. If there is a "best practice" that I can learn from someone else, I'm happy to steal it. However, the well-financed, non-business-owner CEOs often seem to have their heads in the clouds. For example, if I listened to the seemingly endless advice of big club industry leaders, I'd be spending most of my (copious) free time working on branding. It seems I must brand. The funny part is that I don't think I've ever seen a workable definition of branding - but we're all supposed to be obsessed with it.

I think my fitness centers have a great brand. We are known for having high-quality clubs, friendly and knowledgeable staff, and being on the high end of our market. I just don't have the time or safety net to think much about it. I have too many members who want a piece of me, too many staff members who need coaching, and too many day-to-day problems and opportunities that need my attention.

Grounded in reality

I'd like to sit around and think about more ethereal things, but I've got a mortgage to pay on one club and a rent to pay on another, and there's got to be enough money left over to pay me so that I can pay my own mortgage. I don't think those are the same things the latest-and-greatest big club CEO has to worry about.
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