Greener Pastures

Nanette Pattee Francini made health club history when she opened one of the country’s first five-star fitness facilities. Now, as the owner and president of The Sports Club/LA, she’s continuing to push the boundary of what a fitness facility can be.

Nanette Pattee Francini says she isn’t psychic, but it sure seems that way.

The buzzword on everyone’s lips in the health and fitness industry these days is “lifestyle,” but when Pattee Francini cooked up the idea for her first sports club back in 1979 her idea of a health club as a community hub was so cutting-edge that the gym owners down the street thought she was nuts.

“And no wonder,” says Pattee Francini. “Honestly, back then I didn’t even think the existing gyms were in the same business we were. We were breaking all the rules – which was easy for us to do since we didn’t even know what the rules were.”

Pattee Francini’s concept for lifestyle clubs wasn’t complicated, but it was completely alien to everything the health club industry had been up to that point. Instead of a cinderblock box full of weight lifters, Pattee Francini put together an upscale club with the elegance of a posh hotel-something the industry had never seen before. People loved the concept, and regular members, celebrities and sports stars flocked to The Sports Connection in droves. The lifestyle concept was such a hit that it’s become an industry buzzword for start-up companies like Urban Active, who espouse the concept as their business plan. In fact, today it’s hard to believe that just a few decades ago, the concept was completely alien to the industry.

“When I started exercising regularly, the places to work out were basically male-dominated weight training gyms, so that’s where I went,” says Pattee Francini. But at the back of her mind, there was always the feeling that a health club could be more than just a gym.

That thought came back to the forefront of Pattee Francini’s mind a few years later when she was modeling in Los Angeles and hanging out with Michael Talla, a college friend, as he opened several of the then-hugely-popular racquetball clubs on the west coast.

“I told Michael that his clubs needed aerobics studios-remember, this was the 70s!-and these new things called Nautilus machines and a dozen or so other things,” Pattee Francini says. Talla wasn’t ready to change up his moneymaking racquetball clubs, but he thought Pattee Francini’s ideas had potential.

“Michael said, I know about a piece of land in Santa Monica,” Pattee Francini remembers. “He told me to go find him a house there, and we’d do a club together.”

Pattee Francini did-and after 6 months of selling memberships out of a trailer parked on a stretch of California dirt with help from their friends, Pattee Francini and Talla opened The Sports Connection on April 16, 1979. Before its doors even opened, the club had 4,000 paying members.

“There are gyms, and there are clubs,” says Pattee Francini. “Gyms basically rely on good equipment, decent classes and an environment relevant to their self-motivated clientele. From the beginning, I knew I was interested in clubs-I wanted to engage members and get them to commit to a fitness lifestyle with their hearts instead of just the rational part of their minds.”

Building this kind of engaged commitment is something Pattee Francini takes very seriously. “We actually follow the hospitality industry’s lead with a 10-page, very detailed checklist and mystery shoppers visiting our clubs quarterly,” says Pattee Francini. “Our focus is on being the leader in five star luxury clubs.”

Pattee Francini’s passion for perfection permeates every aspect of The Sports Club/LA, from the staff she hires to the equipment she provides. “I love enhancing our Members lives-which is our mantra. I think our members are fortunate to have a team operating their clubs who is sincerely focused on making our clubs an oasis of health and wellness, in addition to delivering five star service, a wide array of sports and fitness options and amenities, state-of-the-art equipment and programs and the most educated and professional staff to be found anywhere.”

From the first day, Pattee Francini’s club slogan has been “It’s not just a health club, it’s a lifestyle; it’s not only exercise, it’s fun.” And she’s spent the last 30 years refining the tools she uses to make that statement true for every single one of The Sports Club/LA’s members, adding more luxuries and amenities and pumping up the service quotient to create a style that’s so distinctive equipment companies can point to sleek piece of equipment and say, “That’s the one Nanette would get, but she’d want it in white-and she’d want to upgrade the upholstery.”

Though the health and fitness industry doesn’t boast a lot of women in top positions, Pattee Francini says being a woman hasn’t hurt her career at all-in fact, she says, it’s been an asset.

“Being a woman has helped me tremendously because women trust their instincts and instinct for the marketplace has played a huge role in the success of The Sports Club/LA Company,” says Pattee Francini. “Men tend to want to be analytical. when many times instinct is more important and valid. It definitely helps to have a male partner, or partners-I have more than one now-who also trust your instincts.”

Still, in an industry that’s been historically dominated by men, Pattee Francini has faced a few challenges. “A woman in my position still suffers the usual female-in-business challenges, just like a woman in any other industry would,” says Pattee Francini. “In the foreseeable future there will always be men who don’t want to answer to a woman or who just don’t understand the fundamental difference in the way women approach problems cooperatively rather than competitively.”

Pattee Francini thinks that women will have an increasing edge in the health club industry as the lifestyle focus continues to grow in popularity. “Lifestyle clubs like ours benefit from women managers because many women seem to have a natural instinct for hospitality, which is a big part of our business.”

Pattee Francini also believes the lifestyle club is here to stay. “A lifestyle club is a warm spot in the middle of the big city where people gather and share a common interest,” says Pattee Francini. “We differentiate ourselves by the experience and lifestyle we offer. As competition heightens in many markets, our value proposition is what sustains us.”

For Pattee Francini, that means setting goals that aren’t just about fancy new equipment or amenities, though she’s a firm believer that both of those are important. For her, the most important element for her clubs will always be creating an environment that members want to return to again and again.

“Our members know each other, and our team members know our members and vice versa,” says Pattee Francini. “Sometimes getting to the club might be more about seeing some friendly faces than about the overwhelming desire to work out. And that’s OK-because once you’re there, you do work out!”

For Pattee Francini, the pursuit of perfection is easy-it’s pursuing perfection on a budget and lining up the right people to help her do it that makes for the toughest part of her job.

“I think everyone has a challenge finding and selecting talented people-especially when it comes to selecting talented managers,” says Pattee Francini. “Ultimately, it’s the people who make our business successful-or not. So we put a lot of emphasis on the selection and training process.”

Though finding the right team isn’t always an easy process, when it clicks, Pattee Francini says it’s the ultimate job satisfaction. “I love taking a great team and showing them that anything is possible-that we can make anything happen.”

Now Pattee Francini is leading the way once again, with a commitment to environmentally responsible business – but as usual, she’s taking the smart approach.

“Taking your business green sounds good, but I think people in all industries need to slow down and look at doing the things that really make a difference, not just the things that sound good,” Pattee Francini says.

The Sports Club/LA is taking a measured approach to environmental issues while keeping one eye firmly on the bottom line. “Right now, taking the green route can be too expensive. Eventually things will become more cost effective, but now if you look at the cost of, say, recycled paper, it’s four times as expensive as regular paper,” says Pattee Francini. “The cost of going green just isn’t always advantageous to the bottom line.”

It’s also not always practical. Pattee Francini looked into adopting new employee uniforms made from organic fabrics with sustainable production, but adding them now would mean tossing out perfectly good uniforms she already has, so she’s going to sit on that change until the time is right. Another obvious green improvement proved to be impractical: Solar panels on the roof would have eaten into the space that’s being used as a paddle ball court and putting green right now.

“The solutions to environmentally responsible business aren’t always as simple or obvious as they seem,” says Pattee Francini.

But there are some clear places where environmental responsibility works out in practice, and Pattee Francini has embraced those wholeheartedly. The Sports Club/LA has implemented green laundry facilities, and they’ve switched their primary printing company to one that uses green printing practices.

Pattee Francini has also bravely switched to low-flow shower heads in the club’s bathrooms, a move that she acknowledges comes with certain risks.

“I think there’s no question that it’s easier to start out putting in these kinds of things than it is to change something your members have gotten used to,” Pattee Francini says. “Switching to low-flow is tough. But in the end, this change made sense for us.”

Another change that makes sense for The Sports Club/LA is putting the lights and thermostats on timers so that energy doesn’t get wasted when the club’s not being used. Pattee Francini also recently signed off on a change to replace the urinals in the men’s room with waterless versions, a change that will save 45,000 gallons a year and that has the potential to save up to one million gallons a year.

Pattee Francini’s advice to club owners looking to green up their act is simple: Don’t rush into changes that don’t make sense for your club. Figure out where you can make the most positive environmental changes without overspending and concentrate your energies there.

In fact, it’s good advice for anyone looking to make any kind of change.

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