A culture of change: Communication eases acquisition transition

I recently sat down with Kay Yuspeh, the owner of the Elite Sports Clubs, whose license plate reads the “Q of Clubs” (Queen of Clubs) to discuss the challenges involved in bringing their recent acquisition of Le Club into their corporate culture.

Over the last few years, Elite Sports Clubs have expanded in the greater Milwaukee area through the acquisition of clubs in western Brookfield, Mequon and now northern Glendale. These clubs were added to their existing fitness and tennis clubs in southern Glendale and in northern Brookfield.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when acquiring an existing club like River Glen?

“Once you acquire a club like Le Club (now River Glen) you need to figure out what they did and what has charged in the past. Getting a feel for the club’s current culture and then deciding how to educate and retain the membership during the transition period is a major challenge. Just getting a handle on their past systems and then converting them to yours is itself a challenge. Putting in a whole new software system and then teaching the staff how to do it is the next challenge. Our recent acquisition posed a unique challenge. The previous owner based everything off a country club model and had seven software systems that didn’t communicate with each other. River Glen is now part of a larger organization that has different systems and policies that have proven successful at our other club locations.”

What strategies are you using to get buy in from the employees at River Glen during this transition?

“The first step is to educate the employees at River Glen why we conduct our business in a particular manner. We have the trainers and customer service employees from other Elite Sports Clubs assisting the current staff to better understand how we deliver services to our members. In reality, the previous owners did not provide much guidance, so we have our experienced staff there to answer questions as they come up. The response has been positive, they really enjoy having someone to go to that understands the business and its challenges. We also had a party welcoming the River Glen employees to the Elite team. Personally, I have been spending a lot of time at the River Glen interacting and communicating with the club members and the staff. Until we acquired the club, they had been doing things simply because that was the way they did it. The members of our team have been communicating why things need to change and to get the River Glen employees to buy into our philosophy and operational methods.”

How would you define the culture at Elite?

“Culture is hard to define because it isn’t anything written. It just is. I think teamwork, professionalism and loving what you do is very strong in the Elite Sports Clubs’ culture. There is a great deal of longevity and experience in the staff at all my clubs. The staff is part of my extended family. Over the years, we have had quite a few employees who have left us and then came back because they loved the environment (culture) of our clubs. Often members and staff don’t appreciate what they have until they try something else.”

Have you made any mistakes along the way?

“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t make mistakes. But the trick is to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them. This is the fifth club we have acquired. We have done a rate conversion at the other four clubs and the same will be done at River Glen. The previous owners had a complicated and confusing set of rates. You need to maintain a high level of communication with members and staff, and it can be hard to do. Recently, we have made a few changes without notifying the members prior to the change (removing shavers from locker rooms) and that caused a problem. It is also difficult to control rumors among the staff and members during a transition. Our staff needs to be more proactive, but that does not always happen. We just need to keep everyone better informed and engaged in the transition. We all have the same ultimate goal, a more enjoyable club experience for our employees and members.”

As you can see from Kay’s remarks, bringing a new group of employees and customers into your culture can be challenging at best. It is normal for people to fear change. The status quo is always more comfortable.

When I was at Gimbels and even at JH Collectibles, I encountered a great deal of push back when it came to a change in the way we conducted business. The key is to have the employees involved in the decision-making process and get them to buy into the change.

An example would be when we went from manual to electronic typewriters at Gimbels. My secretary insisted that I keep her IBM machine available until she learned the new computerized machine. It did not take long before all the secretaries were trading in their IBM’s for the new computerized versions.

The same question always arises during periods of change: We always did it this way, why do we need to change? The answer is because we need to be competitive and keep the customer happy.

As a long standing member of Elite Sports Clubs, I know when the new machines arrive, and the club begins to run like a Swiss clock, the employees and the membership will be glad they are part of an organization that prides itself on professionalism and cutting edge fitness training.

Cary Silverstein, MBA, is the president and chief executive officer of Fox Point-based SMA LLC and The Negotiating Edge Coaches & Trainers. He can be reached at (414) 352-5140.

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