Club Insider

Jeff Sanders

Lessons in Leadership, Alliances and Advocacy

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  • The Sanders Family - Jeff, Randi and Jaxon
  • Jeff Sanders
  • Energy Fitness - "The most supportive fitness family in the world."

We are the culmination of our life's experiences. Throughout that time, some events lead us to the top rungs of success; others bring us to the lowest depths of failure. But, each is an opportunity to learn and grow. Then, it is our duty to share much of that with others. This creates a never-ending circle of knowledge, and in business, this process can mitigate many failures before they occur.

If I am in a trench, fighting for my life, the person I want next to me is the one who has seen it all, not the person who just got there. In the health and fitness club industry, where many are still fighting for their professional lives, Jeff Sanders, Chief Growth Officer of Energy Fitness, is the former. He is a person who has seen a lot! And, he shares a lot. This month, we are thankful that Jeff wants to share with our readers.

What follows is an in-depth interview with Jeff on the topics of Leadership, Alliances and Advocacy. There is a lot here, and even more to unpack if you read between the lines, so to speak. So, I invite you to read it all, then maybe, read it again. Like a great movie in which you see new details every time you watch it again, every Club Insider Cover Story produces the same result... You will always read and learn something new that you did not know and/or understand before. And, we thank you for reading.

With that, enjoy our interview with Jeff Sanders, Chief Growth Officer of Energy Fitness.

An Interview With Jeff Sanders, Chief Growth Officer of Energy Fitness

Jeff SandersJeff Sanders

Club Insider (C.I.) - Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Jeff Sanders (JS) - I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and I grew up in the Dallas Fort Worth area. It's funny, because if you're in Texas and are from the Fort Worth area, you get offended if someone says you're from the Dallas area. But, yes, I'm from the Metroplex, and downtown Fort Worth is really where I spent most of my adult years.

C.I. - Where did you go to school, and what did you study? Did you play any sports?
JS - This is one of the interesting points of my story. Obviously, I went to grade and high school like everyone else. But, I only made it through about two years of junior college. However, in my story, I've been living on my own since I was 17. At that age, I was having to pay bills and figure out balancing checkbooks and all that stuff. So, unfortunately, while I was in junior college, it became apparent that I really had to focus a lot more on work than schooling. So, I ended up not finishing my degree. I found my documents the other day and I have only 13 credits needed to get my Associates degree. But, I had to pull out and really focus on work, and I've just really kind of grown up working in various industries ever since. I did play some sports recreationally, and soccer is what I enjoyed playing most.

C.I. - Wow, so school wise, the school of hard knocks. The real world.
JS - Yes, that's it. Learning the hard way. I had to sleep in my truck a couple of nights, which was kind of eye-opening. It was really a transition point for me and established a better, stronger work ethic. I didn't always have a great work ethic, but a couple of those harder times hit you when you're on your own figuring things out, and it kind of really forces you into a different mindset.

C.I. - But, you worked through it and made it. Please take us through your early non-club-related career highlights.
JS - My friends always gave me a hard time, and the running joke in my circle was that, if you let Jeff talk long enough, you'll learn about another job he had. That's because I've had so many over the years. I've worked for AT&T Wireless. I was the sales guy there, moving into management. I worked for a locally-owned farmers' market, unloading all of their fruit and then heading up their sales for the Christmas tree lot in the winter. I've worked as a substitute teacher within a private school sector. I spent time with an excavating company. Then, I owned a lawn mowing business, followed by working for a church. I'm a licensed ordained pastor in the State of Texas and did a lot of that.

I mean, I've had a lot of jobs. A lot of them, but many times, I ended up falling into a sales role. And, I think that was just because I was really good with people. I've always been really good at discerning and reading people's intentions or what they're truly looking for or wanting. So, I think I just ended up always getting labeled as a sales guy. Later in life, that kind of irritated me as I was trying to redefine who I was.

Then, I decided to jump into a franchise. A friend and I put our heads together, and we went and bought a Smoothie Factory. We ran that for a while and sold it. I've just kind of climbed from there and have done anything and everything I can to learn about business.

Looking back, I found I tended to get bored, and on paper, I was probably not the best-looking employee for someone wanting to see someone staying put for any length of time. I'd go somewhere to work for two or three years, then someone would make me an offer and I'd jump at it. But, I learned a lot of things while working in different industries, which has now contributed to who I am today.

C.I. - I completely understand what you mean. During resume workshops in college, they would always explain that you have to build time at a job before moving on. Companies don't like serial jumpers because they are wary of their investment in a new employee. But, the problem with that is the amount of experience and the people you met along the way that can't really be shown on a resume. It doesn't always have to be a negative thing. And, there are ways for companies to mitigate that risk while gaining what someone like you has to offer.
JS - Yes, exactly. Coming from that type of environment, what really got instilled in me was problem-solving and a method of creating solutions to problems. Critical Thinking. I couldn't have survived without figuring out how to critically think about anything that was coming my way, which in my opinion, is one of the most important traits anyone can learn. It's what I am trying to teach my three-year-old. Even at his age, I believe he needs to learn how to be a critical thinker, because to me, that's one of the biggest assets you can have in business and really in life.

Entering the Health and Fitness Club Industry

C.I. - Absolutely! Very, well said. And, what a story! Moving into your health and fitness club industry experience, when and how did you become involved in the industry?
JS - My first venture into it was really when I stepped in and bought the Smoothie Factory franchise in Texas. We had a supplement component in the business, so we got a lot of our business from the gym up the street. And, I had to learn quickly! I was not in shape at the time, and I learned very quickly that people value someone looking the part if they are going to take advice from them about supplements. I was in my early 20s, and I had to make a transformation. That's when I jumped into soccer, started working out regularly and built relationships with gyms.

I really became intrigued with the whole fitness industry and how people have goals and what they do as well as need to achieve them. At the end of the day, they just need as much support as possible to reach their goals, and if they can get the right support, not only do they hit their goals, but they maintained them and really just have healthier lifestyles. So, that's how I jumped into it. I really began to see this passion that people had for fitness and how they were motivated. It just really intrigued and inspired me, which led to my growth in the industry from there.

From there, following the sale of our Smoothie Factory franchise, my next venture into fitness was at a place called Energy Fitness (and not the one that we'll talk about a little bit later). With this Energy Fitness, I talked the owner into hiring me to run their front desk and helping them launch a successful smoothie business within the club. Unfortunately, I showed up to a shift one day, and there were chains on the doors. He had shut down, and no one got their last paycheck. It was frustrating, but it forced me to further jump into this industry.

C.I. - Wow, the WRONG WAY to close a club! What happened next?
JS - From there, I went to LA Fitness. I sat down with their Executive Vice President, Larry Lopez, and I remember him looking at my resume saying, 'You're so overqualified for just a sales position here. Are you sure this is what you want?' And, I just told myself: I don't plan on being in sales for long. I plan to move up. Sure enough, I was the fastest guy to move into an Assistant GM position, doing so within 30 days, then very shortly after that, I moved into a GM position. From there, I moved on to Athletic Apex, and now, Energy Fitness, where I hope to stay until the end of my fitness industry journey. We will talk about all of that.

C.I. - That's exciting stuff! Well, this next question might put the cart in front of the horse a little bit, but you've already taken us through some of the highlights. Please take us through some of the key lessons you've learned from some of your health and fitness club industry roles.
JS - I learned an important lesson at LA Fitness. When you are working in an organization as large and with as many locations as LA Fitness has, things will occur that are outside your control. In this instance, it was actually with other GMs in the area. Sometimes, they would contact members of our location and offer to flip them into membership at their location. Members would come in and complain about this, and I would get so frustrated and irritated about it. I just wanted to go over there and yell at them because their actions would affect our business, our numbers, our bonus, and ultimately, LA Fitness' bottom line. You don't switch existing members from EFT to Paid-In-Full for a lower rate; that is moving backwards in revenue for the company.

Larry Lopez, LA Fitness EVP, called me because I made this known, and I'll never forget what he said: 'You can only control what you do. You can only focus on your moving forward.' And, he had a phrase from football that he always used: 'Move the chains.' He would ask, 'Are we moving the chains, guys?' And, he would explain that you need to stay focused on that no matter where you're at or what you're doing in life. There's always going to be something out there that, if you allow it to, will affect not only your performance but distract you from moving the chains forward. And, your job in life and work is to move the chains forward, always. So, that was a really good lesson to learn, especially in this industry. It's so easy to get distracted with everything that goes on, especially with what we have going on because of the pandemic. But, if you can keep your team focused on things, like blinders on a horse so to speak, you will move the chains forward, and things you can't control will not affect your ability to move forward. Regardless of what anyone else does outside the organization, I still need to hit my numbers, I still need to reach my goals and my team needs to do so as well. That was a really key lesson for me, and I push my team to focus every day.

C.I. - Being a football guy, myself, I love that!
JS - It's funny; he would say that all the time, and I knew not everybody knew what he was talking about. At one point, I remember my AGM asked, 'What is moving the chains? Are we playing tug-of-war?' I said, 'It's going for the first down, man. We're trying to get down the field, whether one yard at a time or ten yards at a time. We're just trying to move down the field towards our goal.' I love the analogy, and I love it because sometimes you're going to move them ten yards at a time; other times, it will be 30 yards at a time. Sometimes, though, it's one yard at a time, but as long as you're moving forward, that's the goal. So, it was a very good lesson, an important lesson.

Athletic Apex

C.I. - When and how did you become involved with Athletic Apex? What were your roles?
JS - This was also a funny, interesting way in which things happened. When I worked at Energy Fitness (the one that closed), the owner of Athletic Apex was renting out space there. At the time, I had some shoulder issues. I saw Olympic athletes coming in and out of there, so I figured, let's see what this guy is all about. I sat down and spoke with him, and he showed me a couple of exercises. My shoulder pain went away, and I built up my strength. Personally, we hit it off. There was just mutual respect there. Later, after I had moved on from Energy after it closed, I ran into him at a car wash. We talked a little bit, and we updated each other on what was going on in our lives.

Not mentioned earlier, but I was actually in the process of launching a consulting business focused on importing coffee. Well, he wanted to have a private label coffee for his club, so a later meeting between us was initially about that. We met a few more times after this, and he eventually asked me if I had ever thought of moving out of Texas. He wanted to bring me on the team to expand out of Texas. I joined the company, and my role starting out was Director of Sales and Marketing.

I moved to Florida where the next location was going to be. We went into pre-sales, and the team that I brought on and trained put up some great numbers. We had over 3,500 members signed up before we opened our facility up, which was pretty amazing. Along the way, we had a lot of construction issues, contractor issues, etc., but we worked through all of it. And, when we opened up, we had a massive and strong presence. Despite all of those challenges, we were winning Best Health Club in our area every year the location was open, beating out many of the big brand names everyone knows. This was a testament to my team. When you have the right team in place, you can do anything.

Following this, the owner saw what I could contribute and wanted to give me more responsibilities. I moved into the COO role then a Co-CEO role. Within, I do all the negotiating with landlords and development, as well as manage training and operations. We have a great sales staff, as well as a great management staff in place.

Along the way, the company was dealt some rough cards. Prior to COVID, we had a hurricane hit a spot we had committed to for expansion, and we took a $500,000 hit. Ultimately, though, this did lead us to our next venture. And, from this, our owner pushed forward with a whole new concept out of the ashes and learnings from that experience.

C.I. - Please take us through the negotiation and purchase process of Athletic Apex (previously Penfield Fitness Club) in Penfield, New York.
JS - Interestingly, they came to us. The owner had been there over 40 years and had made a very good name for his location. He had a great reputation in the industry. He was also part of the REX Roundtable for a while, too. Just really top-notch at what he did, but he was ready to retire. He wanted to sell the entire business, building and everything. At that time, we were not in a position to pursue that because of everything we were dealing with and had been hard hit.

Almost two years later, they approached again. We were interested, but I explained that because of the age of the building and being unsure of some things related to that, we'd be more interested in taking over the business aspect and keeping them on as a landlord, working out a structure that works for both parties.

Over the years, when dealing with Simon, now Washington Prime Group (WPG), I've learned they want to work with people, but because they are so big, they get hit with everybody just trying to lowball and take advantage of them. And, many times, it affects their negotiation. So, I am very big on making a deal as fair as possible. I want to be fair to you. I want you to be fair to us. I want to move forward. When this occurs, you tend to get a lot further And, in my opinion, you seem to get a lot more than you expected. That was my approach here. It was hit or miss a couple of times with a broker involved, so I just went straight to the owner. We had a one-on-one conversation, and we worked through it.

I relocated to New York with my team, and we took over the business component and paid rent to him. At that time, he was on a 14% year-over-year loss for a few years preceding to our stepping in. So, something that I'm proud of my team for doing is that we came in, and within six months, had completely reversed that downward trend and outperformed the previous January's numbers.

C.I. - That's fantastic. Let's discuss two elements of that. First, it really came down to you and the owner, two businessmen sitting down in good faith and negotiating to get the deal done.
JS - Yes, it ended up with my sitting down and just saying, 'I know what you want, but what do you need?' Ultimately, he wanted to sell the entire thing, building and all, one payment, but that was not going to be a reality with us. So, moving past that, what could we provide to allow him to retire and feel good about it, as well as feeling like he was ending ahead on the deal? He put some things and numbers on paper. I came back with what some of our recent leases at similar square footages were at. We went back and forth to get to a number we were both comfortable with, as well as iron out some issues of concern.

One of the things we weren't comfortable with was the age of the building because we've had issues with that in our past, and we could not truly know what issues were taken care of and what issues were on the horizon. To mitigate this, we offered to only be responsible up to a certain amount on items that may come up with mechanical, electrical, plumbing, etc. Again, we went back and forth to come to a number that worked for both. We were willing to take on some expense. We didn't want him to feel like he was going to be nickeled and dimed, but in fairness to us and because we were not there for 40 years, we wanted to be protected as well. We didn't want to sign on the dotted line one day and be fully responsible for a $30,000 HVAC unit the next.

We finally came to a fair market value for rent, and we proceeded with a ramp-up of twelve months. Conversely, he needed certain things, too, such as us completely taking care of the property taxes. So, it was just a matter of being patient and getting creative in making sure that, at the end of the day, he was ready to move forward, we were ready to move forward and the numbers were happy, i.e. they worked for both parties.

C.I. - Second, what were some of the changes you made to the club that enabled you to turn around the numbers so quickly?
JS - We did do a remodel. We knocked down a wall, and we extended the workout area to be able to spread out the equipment. We added a few more pieces. But, one of the big things we did was that we converted the basketball court into a turf area. Basketball used to be huge, but now, boot camps can better utilize that space. We also just modernized things a bit. Simple things like changing the color pallet and getting rid of carpet in areas where it shouldn't be, such as the entire fitness area where the machines and dumbbells tear it up. Instead, putting down a wood-patterned laminate. Modernizing the space played a role because more people wanted to sign up when they came in because it was really nice and well done.

But, I think probably the two biggest impacts, to be honest, was the new and proprietary training program Apex had and the energy that was brought in by the team and the drive we had in wanting to make sure the member experience was the best it possibly could be. We wanted to come in and get the club back into the community: We're here to serve you. We're here to make sure that you feel first. We brought in some fun contests, and we brought in some nice apparel. So, it wasn't just one thing; it was really multi-pronged. Modernizing the space, revitalizing the staff, bringing new programs and energy, putting renewed focus on members...

C.I. - Fresh faces and new blood. You can renovate all day long, but in the end, it's the people that make that difference, always.
JS - Yes, exactly.

Energy Fitness

C.I. - As this edition reaches our readers, you will have begun your new role at Energy Fitness. When and how did this transition come about?
JS - As I mentioned, this is a totally different organization than the previous Energy Fitness I was with. The Energy Fitness I worked with in Fort Worth shut down. This Energy Fitness is in Long Island It's kind of funny, but it wasn't until recently that I made the correlation. Energy's CEO, Michael Tucci, is on the Board of the New York Fitness Alliance with me, and we also participate in the same REX Roundtable. So, we've established a friendship over the last couple of years and have just really connected related on how we think about business. Our business approaches are very similar. Our energy is very similar. Our transparency and how we want to operate are very similar. So, I just think there was a whole lot of similarities that really grew this friendship, and he's been trying to bring me onto his team for a while now in various positions that just weren't the right fit or the timing was not right with what Apex had going on.

But, he pursued and pursued, and recently, he made an offer I, or my family, could not refuse. They've got a plan that I'm excited about, and it has been a smooth transition because there was such a strong friendship. We had a few years of really getting to know how each other and how we operate, and that is great, because it kind of knocks the walls down when moving the relationship forward.

C.I. - What is your new role?
JS - That's another thing I really think companies need to take note of. When they pursued me, we sat down, and they basically said, 'We have a few ideas on what we think you would be as far a C-level Executive within our team. We think these roles would be great for you, but we would really like to hear from you. What are your thoughts? What are your passions?' They wanted to know what drives me and what I want to be part of to make sure I am put in a spot that accomplishes those objectives. That is a lesson I have learned, and that's how I want to hire people to work on my team. Tell me what makes you wake up in the morning excited and drives you in your work. If you just force it, even if the pay is good for you, it's going to end in a way that's probably not great for either side. Don't take a spot because you are getting paid versus enjoying it.

C.I. - You've got to address people's why!
JS - Absolutely. So, out of that conversation, they had suggested a few roles such as Chief Growth Officer, Chief Revenue Officer, Chief Solutions Officer because I think, again, they were recognizing my critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as how I approach things. They then put it on my plate so that I could throw in a couple of options. I initially came back to them and said there are two roles I feel passionate about: Chief Growth Officer and Chief Experience Officer. Finally, Chief Growth Officer really was more appealing because of my diverse background and how many things I have been a part of, whether it's been the IT/tech side, the sales side, the operations side, the finance side, accounting, negotiating, etc. The Chief Growth Officer role really kind of speaks to me on being able to focus on the next 10 to 15 years and what we have to do now to try to partner with our whole team here to get us there. So, that is the role we agreed for me to ultimately step into.

Energy has been in business for over 18 years. They're established and successful. We are opening our fifth location right now. It's under construction and is set to open on January 15th. And, we want to do three to five more in the next five years, of course depending on how this one takes off (mandates in New York are still a challenge). So, for me to be able to bring in my talents and combine it with theirs is exciting. There's no ego here. There's zero ego in their leadership team, and for me to be able to be a part of that now, is what I'm excited about.

C.I. - You've already mentioned critical thinking, but what lessons and learnings from the previous portions of your career do you believe will be pertinent in this role?
JS - Being teachable and willing to learn. It's so important, and it doesn't matter who you're speaking to. It could be a front desk associate, a sales associate, a maintenance person, a member; remaining teachable is vitally important. And, it's a two-way street. Yes, you can teach them, but they can teach you. It's imperative to succeed in any career, especially in this industry.

For example, when you hire someone in a maintenance department and they're having to scrub toilets and urinals, pressure wash showers and mop floors, the energy you breathe into them when you go and scrub the toilet next to them and ask, 'Do you have any ideas on how to make what you're doing more seamless or how we can set you up for success in your job?' Those conversations are the building blocks of a successful team that makes the member experience that much better.

So, being and remaining teach-able, and then, what I just mentioned in making sure you're asking for feedback from your team. What do they need to be successful? We have a manager meeting here every morning. We're tracking revenue, were tracking operational needs, we're tracking member requests, and at the end of it, I say, 'If you need something for your task and for you to be successful in your task and you don't have it, let me know.'

Those are the two lessons outside of critical thinking. I think being/remaining teachable and making sure you're setting up your team and other people for success rather than failure.

C.I. - That's fantastic. I love it. I don't know if this is answerable or not, but what will you define as success in this role?
JS - Early on, I would have defined success as having locations all over the U.S., thriving, having profits coming in and being able to pour those profits back into the community via outreach. Honestly, now though, as I've gone through so much, I think the way I would define success is if the company can make an impact in people's lives and support them in their journey, while staying profitable and providing an amazing culture for people to work in. The thing I love about Energy is their Mission Statement. 'The most supportive fitness family in the world.'

Further, I think success should be driven by, or rather, defined as are you doing everything as a company to support your members and growing while doing that? To me, you're not successful if you're just making millions of dollars a year. Having a constant revolving door of staff and members is not success. Success should be: Are you helping people get results, are you helping change lives and are you supporting all of that while being able to maintain growth or even just maintaining what you have?

I think one location, making a change and impact in the community and affecting lives in a positive way in the fitness industry while being able to survive and make a profit, is successful. That is success, and it should be the focus. Again, these are easier to see now having gone through the mistakes that have been made in the past.

C.I. - Well said. I totally agree with you on that.

Alliances and Advocacy

C.I. - If we ever needed a reason why alliances and advocacy is so important, the past two years have provided that testimony. You have been involved in the New York State Alliance. When and how did that happen?
JS - Of course, we were shut down for COVID. During that time, I joined the REX Roundtables, and that's where I made some great connections, including Bill Lia, who was the original Board Chair of the New York Fitness Alliance. He had reached out to a few people in the industry to ask who would be valuable to put on the Board. Eddie Tock, who leads and runs the REX Roundtables, was one of the people he reached out to, and he recommended me.

Bill called me, and we had a quick conversation about it. He chose to make the offer for me to come on as a Board Member, and I accepted. As an organization, we had some very successful media days. We did some things I really think moved the needle and pushed us to where we needed to be for the local industry. Our philosophy was that we needed to work together and make sure we didn't compromise our belief system when it comes to fitness, the importance of exercise and how we believe that we are the solution for immune system boosting and keeping people healthy. All the while, we can do that while working with State and local officials to figure out a way to make it work for everyone. We grew, we raised money, we hired a lobbying team, and we affected a lot of change.

So, that's how I got brought into it. Bill had several businesses, and as the Alliance gained momentum, he came to the Board and essentially said, 'I definitely want to stay on the Board and am going to be involved with this, but with where things are now and how we're going, this is going to be a permanent thing moving forward. I really think we need to have someone else step in as Board Chair.' I didn't expect it, but everybody voted unanimously to have me step in as the Chair that day.

C.I. - Wow, incredible! What has the Alliance further achieved?
JS - We made a big impact on why gyms eventually did get reopened up here. This was when they had these different zones up here: orange, yellow and red. We were a big reason why the zones were adjusted related to our industry. We just kept giving data and facts to the Governor. Having previously been lumped in as high-risk with bars and restaurants, I'll never forget the day Governor Cuomo got up for one of his daily briefings, and he actually made the comment that gyms are actually in the Bottom Five industries for risk. As we knew, we are actually one of the lowest-risk industries! That was then used in California, so I think that was our biggest victory to date.

Continuing to work with the media across the State, we have gotten more information out there. More recently, we've been fighting for relief, and there was a State grant program here that had a very, very low max revenue threshold, which pretty much cut out 90% to 95% of fitness facilities, no matter what size they were. We were able to come in and start a conversation with our lobbying team and work with them, and the next thing we knew, the State increased the max threshold from $250,000 to $2.5 million, which brought in a lot of fitness facilities. I know we weren't the only industry pushing this forward, but again, being part of that conversation with others really meant a lot to us.

Then, immediately, we had people reach out and say, 'Hey, I don't qualify because of various rules that didn't make sense.' In one instance, someone had an LLC that was formed in Delaware for taxation and legal preferences, and they were licensed to operate in New York, but they were getting denied. So, we were able to work with the lobbying team to bring those up to front of mind, and they got changed as long as they were licensed.

So, we've had some really big wins. I think the other big win that we're excited about is working with the New York City Small Business Services Department. We had a good conversation with the Commissioner and are working on an actual marketing plan in New York City that he wants to do in conjunction with the Department of Health about exercise and fitness being imperative and necessary to grow your immune system. That's huge!

C.I. - You also became part of IHRSA's State Alliance Headlight Team. What did this accomplish?
JS - Yes, when Brent Darden was IHRSA's Interim CEO, I was invited to be on the State Alliance Headlight Team. There was a handful of us basically trying to help figure out how IHRSA and State Alliances could work together as the Association was also rebranding and redefining itself. That was really good, and I think having that input really makes a difference on how we can work on it from both the Federal and State levels. IHRSA has had a long-time reputation of advocating at the Federal and State levels with success. But, I think there are challenges on the State level. You have to establish relationships with those people, and IHRSA saw that it made sense to really let State Alliances advocate and fight on behalf of their organizations utilizing the relationships they have.

So, it was really interesting to kind of see that dynamic transition and be part of those conversations. Then, also just being on the State Alliance where you're learning from everybody as well as being able to help. In New York, we're defining it differently. We have Members and Partners. They're two different things. Membership costs you nothing. We want you to be a member of our alliance. We want you to join us. We want to keep you updated with newsletters and updates on things that are happening. All those things are going out, and we're excited about that. But, we also need partners... financial support. So, some of our members may become partners as well. But, we also want to differentiate those two.

Professionally, it has been really great to be part of these conversations. I'm learning a ton from them. Colorado had massive success during COVID at working with the Government on getting data out there. So, learning their approach and how can we implement that here has been a goal. And, it's definitely been amazing to build those relationships and kind of give and take information, you know, with the other alliances.

C.I. - All of this is crucially important. Not just now, but as we get past COVID, there are so many things the industry has to deal with related to the Government, year-in and year-out. That leads me to my next question. I believe too many out there feel this is only a big club organization problem, and they will foot the bill. But, single club operators are just as important, if not more important in terms of pure numbers if they all come together to support the advocacy cause. So, what do you see the role of even a single club operator being in the lobbying effort?
JS - I think they play a very important role, and I love the term used because of some of the things we're struggling with. There's frustration between small boutique clubs thinking that big box clubs are getting the focus and attention, which has been true to a degree. But, I think my focus and my goal for us is that the New York Fitness Alliance is doing exactly what you said for single club operators or privately owned multi-club operators. I think that really needs to be the distinguishing factor because we have to represent boutiques, mid-size, big box and mammoths because everyone's taking a massive hit right now.

I think the single club operators and the privately-owned operators, even those who have multiple clubs, have to be part of our voice as we're advocating to the State and local officials. The corporate companies have their own in-house lobbying/PR people. They're pushing things that will help the industry as a whole, but they're also pushing things that will help their own organizations. Listen, I love many of these larger corporate companies, but they're not out in the community. That's what these single club operators do. It's who they are. They're networking with other businesses, local assembly people, etc. So, there is such importance in them being part of this conversation and their State Alliances. They are at the forefront of being able to make sure our industry has a voice.

Here is an unfortunate fact: Other industries, such as restaurants, even entertainment venues, have a much more established presence in advocacy. We're talking decades of Associations and Coalitions. They have a much larger footprint, and at the end of the day, financial support, which makes their voice loud. And, that's why you see so many things happening for those industries. They have a louder voice, and the only way for us to get ourselves in that position is to get our State Alliances' voices to be as loud as possible. It's not going to happen in a single year; it will take many. So, we have to have people participate. We have to have funding to get lobbying. We have to have the numbers to be able to come in and affect change when we're going to State and local officials. That's why the single club operators are so important. They have a reach in the community that many corporate organizations typically don't have.

C.I. - That, too, is well said, and I'd like to go ahead and bring IHRSA back into it, as well. With Liz Clark coming on, they're completely retooling and repurposing the Association to affect change on the lobbying side more than ever before. What are the benefits of being part of IHRSA and its advocacy group, the National Health & Fitness Alliance (NHFA) going forward?
JS - Well, first, let me say that I am excited about Liz being here. On a few occasions, Liz and I have had an opportunity to have conversations about the industry and her vision of where we need to be, and I couldn't be more excited for what we're going to see in the coming months and years under her leadership. I think that for the NHFA, having that arm of pushing Federal advocacy for our industry will allow us to become more efficient and effective. I'm relatively newer to IHRSA as far as jumping in and becoming involved, but as I started to learn and talk with people who have been here for quite a while, there's excitement for what's on the horizon.

Final Advice and Lessons

C.I. - You've already discussed critical thinking, being teachable and willing to learn, as well as asking for feedback in order to create success for team members. Whether it's a Department Manager, General Manager, Regional Manager or CEO, because they all read Club Insider, do you have any final advice or lessons to share?
JS - Build a team around you that you can trust to release to do their jobs. Whether you're a manager or a CEO, you can't afford to operate and lead in a fashion where you're concerned with or can't trust someone to do their roles. So, if you hire and surround yourself with strong leaders, you shouldn't be worried. A manager should never worry about if a person is trying to take their job. The manager should be focused on surrounding themself with the best people. And, then, hope you can get them moved up in this industry.

A CEO should be doing the same thing. Surround yourself with Managers, VPs, EVPs and other C-levels who you can challenge and trust to come in and do an amazing job without having to micromanage them. Obviously, putting the right team in place is extremely important, but then, set them up for success. Surround yourself with the best of the best, then lead them with confidence and watch them follow you anywhere. That advice has rung true for me, and I put the best team I can around me. I implicitly trust their decisions. They're the best at what they do, and I still lead them. But, I allow them to lead and to grow without micromanaging who they are and what they should be doing.

C.I. - I bet, if you asked them, they feel there's a lot less stress in a situation like that, too. They can then truly do what they need to do.
JS - Absolutely. When you have someone who's on your team and feels like they have your undying support no matter what they do, not only is it less stress and less pressure, they tend to go at things with a higher energy level and a higher confidence level. And, that tends to make the things they're going at become a better experience and to be done with a higher level of excellence.

You hire people because they have strengths. They have strong points, and they have weak points. I don't ever expect someone who has a weakness to turn that weakness into a strength. I want them to get better, yes, but their strength is what I hired them for. I want them to be able to operate in their strengths freely. I think that's something that is key when you're building a team around you.

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I want to thank Jeff Sanders for his time interviewing for and being involved with this cover story. There are some great insights here, and I hope you find even more new and improved ways to use them.

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