Lawrence McFadden, GM/COO of The Union Club of Cleveland, is the first Certified Master Chef turned General Manager to win The Mel Rex Award for Excellence in Club Management.
When Lawrence McFadden, CMC, General Manager/COO of the private, 148-year-old Union Club in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, decided to trade in his chef whites for a suit and tie, many of his colleagues in the culinary world cautioned him about the move.
But risk in the name of personal and professional growth is an intrinsic trait for McFadden, whose career trajectory was never neatly outlined in an employee handbook.
McFadden, the first Certified Master Chef to have earned Excellence in Club Management recognition (see “Honored By Their Peers,” below), believes that many of the industry’s most competent and effective leaders wear white jackets.
“My mentors held positions outside of culinary,” he notes. “In fact, most were called ‘Mr.’ instead of ‘Chef.’ These individuals offered [proof of the opportunity for] a greater reach and vision for someone like myself.
“Most chefs who transition into management desire not to be awarded, but to be challenged in new and different ways,” McFadden continues. “I appreciate that there is recognition like this for those of us who seize the opportunity and choose a different path.”
Leaving the kitchen to enter the front office brought with it a whole new set of challenges and opportunities that McFadden has not only overcome, but has used as inspiration to execute innovative new programs and initiatives at The Union Club.
The Path to Excellence
Nonlinear career paths are not all that uncommon. Plenty of club chefs have shifted into management positions, but none have the experience and credentials of McFadden.
After earning his Associates Degree in Applied Science, Culinary Technology from Asheville-Buncombe Technical College in Asheville, N.C., McFadden entered the exclusive apprenticeship program at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. When he graduated from the program, he took on a role as Sous Chef at the resort before moving on to top chef positions at The Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago and The Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
His first position in the private club industry was as Executive Chef of The River Club in Jacksonville, Fla. He then moved into the Ritz-Carlton organization, holding Executive Chef positions at its Amelia Island and Naples, Fla. properties, before moving to Washington, D.C. to be the company’s Vice President Culinary/Corporate Chef.
In 2010, McFadden was named Vice President, Food and Beverage for the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, one of the largest hospitality operations in the world, with 7,000 hotel rooms and over 24 food-and-beverage outlets. In that position, he worked with many renowned chefs, including Joel Robuchon, Michael Mina and Wolfgang Puck.
McFadden then took his career overseas to join the Shangri-La Hotel Company in Hong Kong and to become Chief Executive Officer/Managing Partner for the Al-Sunrice Culinary Academy, a for-profit Global Chefs Academy supported by the Singapore Government. He returned to the U.S. in 2015 to take his current position at The Union Club, which has a rich history and has occupied its current five-story, 92,000-sq. ft. clubhouse building in downtown Cleveland since 1905.
Not One, But Two
Much of what McFadden learned in the kitchen positioned him well for his role as manager. He understands the art of service and the dedication and sacrifice it takes to achieve success. He is able to navigate intense situations with a level head and a steady hand. He is calm under pressure and dedicated to the strategic mission.
When he arrived at The Union Club, it counted only 940 members, with an average age of 64. After an impressive series of membership-marketing initiatives, as well as some key hires and new training programs, The Union Club now counts over 1,200 members on its roster, with an average age of 59. representing one of the most significant accomplishments achieved under McFadden’s leadership in the past six years.
An important part of the club’s growth has been its renewed focus on the role of food and beverage in the member experience. McFadden understands how subjective food preferences can be, so he collects and analyzes data through surveys and interviews, to move in a more strategic direction with the full trust and confidence of the membership.
Another important element in McFadden’s success is the dynamic and trust he has with Executive Chef Arnaud Berthelier, who earned his Certified Master Chef designation shortly after coming to The Union Club. Having two CMCs gives The Union Club a distinction that no other private club can claim—and together, these two culinary powerhouses have developed a variety of innovative concepts, including weekly Community Chef’s Tables, an Epicurean Club, Restaurant Week, Employee Dining Programs, and more.
For McFadden, the bar can always be higher, and the drive for excellence is never complete. The CMC test, for example, was only part of his journey, and not the destination. It has simply been a tool to help him achieve greater success in his career, and his life. Much of what he has accomplished as GM/COO falls under the same umbrella.
“Excellence is realized through personalized, engaging service,” he says. “This includes simple things, like name recognition, recalling personal preferences and building on historical behaviors. It also means having the desire to please your membership, enjoying the art of service, and being involved at every point of contact.”
“We must never forget that members have choices—and that we must work hard to make their club one of the first things they choose,” he adds. “We do this through consistency, quality and collaboration.”
Ideas + Achievements
Implemented under Lawrence McFadden’s leadership at The Union Club of Cleveland:
• The Union Club today is the only club in America with two Certified Master Chefs (GM and Executive Chef).
• In 2019, the club was named one of the “Top Workplaces in Cleveland” for the first time in its history. The Union Club was the only club included on the list.
• Catering has grown from 15 weddings annually to 31 (pre-pandemic). These are hosted on Saturdays, traditionally a dark night for the club, and they also give the public a chance to experience club life. In 2020 The Union Club was awarded The Knot’s wedding Hall of Fame award, as the top destination in Cleveland five years in row.
• In March 2020, a COVID-19 plan of action was created, communicated and executed, with measurement for effectiveness. Through this plan, the club successfully obtained PPP government assistance, while also taking actions in finance and membership value to keep the club moving forward until the pandemic ended. The club reopened in May 2020 during a time of civic unrest, ensuring that members and staff members felt safe and welcome at the club.
• Membership grew from 940 members in 2015 to 1,265 at the end of 2019. During these years, the club successfully negotiated mergers with two sister clubs. A total of 265 members transitioned over and in 2019, The Union Club had achieved the largest membership in its 148-year history.
• During the past five years, the club has executed several million dollars in various projects and renovations while operating world-class facilities with uninterrupted service.
• In 2017, the club embarked on a public advertising campaign featuring four different club-value “scenes.” These were placed in The Union Club magazine and mailed to over a thousand households in strategic enclaves of Cleveland. The campaign focused on the theme, “Membership Has Its Privileges.”
• Successfully negotiated a one-week rental of The Union Club in 2016 during the Republican National Convention. The revenue gained considerable resources for the club that could be put toward future capital projects.
Honored by Their Peers
The Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards were established by the McMahon Group, Inc., the St. Louis-based consulting firm, in 1997 and have been co-sponsored by Club + Resort Business since 2006. The National Club Association became an additional sponsor in 2018.
The annual awards are selected through nominations submitted on behalf of qualified candidates by other parties. Award recipients are selected solely on the basis of their achievements at the club they currently manage.
Awards in four categories are given each year:
• The James H. Brewer Award, for a manager of a Country/Golf Club with 600 or more full-privilege members
• The Mead Grady Award, for a manager of a Country/Golf Club with fewer than 600 full-privilege members
• The Mel Rex Award, for a manager of a City, Athletic or Specialty (Non-Golf) Club
• The “Rising Star” Award for an assistant club manager
Lifetime Achievement Awards for a retiring club manager are also included as part of some years’ ECM honors.
A Selection Committee comprised of a peer group of leading club managers conducts the judging for the ECM Awards. A full listing of the judges, in addition to information on past winners and on how to nominate candidates for future years’ awards, can be found at www.clubmanageraward.com.
Because the annual ECM Awards Dinner could not be held this year, the 2020 recipients of the Excellence In Club Management were announced through a special webcast on March 2nd. The webcast, sponsored exclusively by ForeTees, was conducted in an “Academy Award” format that included remarks from the award winners after they were announced. The full webcast can be viewed at https://clubmanageraward.com/project/2020-excellence-in-club-management-awards-broadcast/