Adhering steadfastly to five simple but powerful fundamentals of effective club management formed the foundation of Ted Gillary’s exemplary career and helped him lead one of the industry’s most inspiring turnaround stories at the Detroit Athletic Club. Those same guidelines now also provide best-practice direction for responding to the coronavirus challenge.
A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD IN the club industry does not come without a history of taking on, and conquering, many difficult challenges along the way. That was certainly the case for J. G. Ted Gillary, who was honored with that award, upon his retirement after 26 years as Executive Manager of the Detroit Athletic Club (DAC), as part of the 2019 Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards sponsored by the McMahon Group, Club + Resort Business, and the National Club Association (“The Toast of Texas,” C+RB, March 2020).
In accepting the award, Gillary outlined, with his usual forthright and reassuring delivery, how he followed five simple but powerful fundamentals of effective club management throughout his career, to help him direct the transformation of the DAC from a city club that was struggling when he arrived in 1994 to one that now has a waiting list for membership of nearly 400, and is frequently cited as one of the club industry’s most inspiring turnaround stories:
“I think we in club management develop a unique ability to adapt and stay the course with a wide variety of leadership styles,” Gillary said at the ECM Awards Dinner. “My natural way of looking at leadership is through stories and principles. A good principle is like a promise—once adopted, always kept. These are five that I have followed as my guidelines; I use them to remember important lessons, and to pass on what I have learned to others:
“1. A promise that is good for the present should be good enough to keep in the future. When I first arrived at the DAC, things were not as they are today. It was a bit more challenging. I got the staff together in a room and made three promises: they would be safe, respected and needed. Recently, a member of the staff who earned Employee of the Month recognition repeated that mantra as the reason he likes working at the DAC, some 25 years later.
“2. When I was asked in the late 90s for my management philosophy, I came up with the following: Never relieve myself of the responsibility for the well-being of the club. No matter how tired I am, how little time may be available to do something right, or how inconvenient or tough the issue, I have kept to that principle.
“3. Everything is personal. Every grand scheme, vision or idea is only worthwhile if it resonates on the personal level. That way of thinking tends to clarify the complex.
“4. It is far better to do what is right than to be perceived as the one who is right. Those who put more emphasis on the latter inevitably violate the former. That principle has prompted me to action more than any other.
“5. Effective leadership is vulnerable leadership. Leaders take risks, and leadership is not for the faint of heart.”
Fortunately for the club industry, even with his retirement from an active role at the DAC, Gillary still has more to achieve in his career. In addition to helping to build and manage a new DAC Foundation Scholarship program the club has established in his honor, to benefit its employees and their children and grandchildren, Gillary will also stay involved with consulting and in executive search for the industry.
And his continued presence will certainly have great value, as someone who can draw on his experience and accomplishments to help all managers maintain perspective and shape effective responses to the latest disruption brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“While no two situations are alike, there are similarities” between the latest crisis and others that the club industry has encountered, and survived, Gillary believes. From his own career, he draws lessons from how the industry, and the DAC, responded to “9/11/01 and the start of years of war affecting so many families, then the North American electrical grid failure in 2003 [that created] a sense of vulnerability, and finally the loss of trust in financial institutions that brought everything to a crashing halt from 2008-10.”
Each crisis “requires us to properly frame the issues relative to our clubs and to solve them collaboratively,” Gillary says. “[It] must be followed by new practices that are systematically detailed, documented and followed. To not do so is negligent and assures future failures.
“I’m always positive for about the future,” he says, “but [more so] for those clubs that have made a practice of building on success, and [less so] for those that have been complacent.”
During his time at the DAC, Gillary notes, “Each crisis birthed new and better operating procedures, better ways of communicating, and a relentless focus on the future. We had a sense that nothing was certain assured, so we took nothing for granted. We had to actively focus on crafting our future, rather than riding the wave of intermittent successes and hoping for the best.
“In 2008, at the same time the financial crash happened, the DAC received its first major award for quality practices, something that had been in development for years,” he notes. “We were hit hard by the recession, but we were able to begin a new path to the future from our relentless focus on growing a strong organization. Each subsequent year thereafter, we continued to add new quality practices, as well as to develop our property.
“There is no substitute for building a strong club than by focusing on: 1) creating a sustainable EBITDA (cash) position; 2) building a loyal membership (concentrating on giving members more of what they value, as identified in a regression analysis of members who are net promoters); 3) constant improvement of operations, and 4) excellent HR practices,” Gillary says. “These are game-changing practices for managers and CEOs to focus on. Leaders are paid to live in the future, and to ensure that we stack the odds so that our clubs will have a bright future.
“Human ingenuity changes the course of trend lines when experts say everything is going to crash,” he adds. “Clubs have a wealth of bright minds [among their memberships] who love their institutions and are ready to assist management, and that is the bright side.
“The clubs that have made it a practice to self-assess for areas to improve, follow good business practices and hone their sense of purpose and mission will do just fine, albeit with a struggle. But those clubs where constant improvement has been absent will be far less prepared to weather this storm.”
A Celebration of Excellence
The 2019 Excellence in Club Management winners were honored at an Awards Dinner held at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas on February 8, 2020 (“The Toast of Texas,” C+RB, March 2020). The Awards Dinner was sponsored by Denehy Club Thinking Partners, ForeTees LLC, Izon Golf, Outdoor Lighting Perspectives and Preferred Club.