I've been in the fitness business for more than a quarter-century — most of my adult life — and I thought the start of a new year might be a good time to take a look back and see how this industry of ours has impacted me personally. I've come away with at least eight lessons learned.
1. Trust your instincts
As an owner and GM, I do a lot of problem solving. Some problems, as you might imagine, revolve around money — billing dates, late fees and bounced payments ("I swear there was money in my account"). After handling enough of these, you get a feeling for who is being truthful and who might not be totally forthcoming. When there is a problem with a payment, the first thing I do is look at their history. Have there been previous problems? Only four bounced payments in the past six months. Chances are, this was not a mistake on the part of our billing system.
2. Resist judging someone by their appearance
This lesson took me a little longer to learn. Right after we bought the club, we implemented automated monthly dues (this was 1995, remember). One day this young guy walks in to join, and he's covered in tattoos, has his hair slicked back and is wearing a muscle T, jeans and work boots. The entire time I'm doing his paperwork, all I can think is that this guy is going to bounce payments and I'm going to have to chase him. He was a member for 10 years and bounced ONE payment when his credit card expired. (He came in two days later with his new card.) He became one of my favorite people. Turns out he worked as a manager for several halfway houses for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
3. Don't become cynical
So much of my day-to-day job revolves around problem solving that it's easy to start to think that the world is full of jerks. It's not. Every single day, 100 to 300 people walk through our doors. Five of them always have a negative comment. "The pool was cold." "That radio station is terrible." "That guy on the treadmill was looking at me." For the other 295 people, we made their day just a little bit better. Maybe we remembered to ask about that new grandchild, and they couldn't resist showing us a photo. Maybe we asked about their wife who has been ill and we gave them a chance to talk about something they had bottled up inside. For the overwhelming majority of people we reach on a daily basis, we help improve their day. Never forget that.
4. Do the right thing
Health clubs don't exactly have the best reputation with the average consumer (thanks, Bally's). We always try to be up front and honest about everything, from our membership contracts to the services we provide. When we switched from month-to-month memberships to a 12-month contract, we added terminology to make sure customers knew they were making a long-term commitment, and had them initial it. If there was ever even the slightest hint that we might have made an error, we apologized and corrected it.
5. You can't prepare for (or forget) certain things
Years ago, we had a fatality at our club. A member had a cardiac incident in the pool and died. Two staff members attempted CPR but he was already gone. There were things that had to be addressed — dealing with staff involved, answering questions from other members and the media, giving detailed reports to the police and our insurance carrier, etc. — but the one thing I remember most is going to his house to deliver his belongings and his car to his wife. She thanked us and told us how much he enjoyed swimming at the club, and we told her how sorry we were for her loss. We spend a lot of time training for emergencies, and I know the staff did everything they were supposed to do, but no amount of training can prepare you for certain things.
6. Pass along what you know, even if it seems no one's paying attention
From time to time, we get interns from the local university. Every once in a while, we even offer one of them a part-time job after their internship is over. Most of the time, however, they show up, observe and move on. One day, I got a letter from an intern who seemed pretty disinterested in the club during her time with us a year earlier. She had been paying far more attention to the way we did things than I thought, and her letter was to thank us for preparing her for the "real world." She said she learned to ask questions and to take responsibility for things that weren't necessarily part of her job description. She told me she didn't just want to sit back and collect a paycheck. She wanted to be a part of the success of her new employer.
7. Enjoy a healthy personal life
As the owner of a small business, I spend a lot of time at my club — sometimes, too much time. I often would think that I had to be there in case something went wrong or there was a question no one else could answer. That's dumb. I can't be at work every minute of every day, and I have a staff that I trained to handle things when I'm not. Go home. Have a healthy personal life. It will make you a happier person and a better boss. My staff sometimes tells me, "You're cranky. Go home before you make everyone else cranky."
8. Realize that you have a tremendous impact on people
I've had members pull me aside to tell me that they survived a bout with cancer, and that their doctor told them that if they hadn't been in such good shape they might not have made it. I've had members tell me that when they were going through their divorce, the club was the only place they could go to keep from going crazy. I've had members thank me for helping them lose weight so they could play outside with their kids without feeling exhausted. It doesn't happen every day, but when it does, it really makes me thankful that this is what we do for a living.
This article originally appeared in the January | February 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "8 lessons from a quarter- century in business." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.