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Leading by Example


Author, Award-Winning Entrepreneur, Motivational Speaker, Champion Athlete, and Founder & CEO of Canada’s GoodLife Fitness centers are just a few of the words that can be used to describe David Patchell-Evans – a true visionary and one of the industry’s most remarkable men. Text: Kirsten E. Silven

David Patchell-Evans seems larger than life at first glance, and maybe even at second or third glance! As the head of Canada’s largest fitness chain, which is also the largest individually owned and managed club chain in the world, Patchell-Evans is a true innovator who has earned an impressive list of accolades, awards and honors, leading a life that is filled with amazing – yet often hard-won  triumphs. Despite his enormous success and widespread recognition, however, he is known simply as “Patch” by most of his colleagues, family and friends, which is the first of many indications that he is a humble leader who has not been caught up in the superficial trappings of success and notoriety.

Patch’s journey into the fitness industry began almost three decades ago when he was a college student studying Physical Education at the University of Western Ontario. At the time, he had already been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and was successfully running his own snow plowing business to put himself through school. In 1979, he took the next step and boldly founded GoodLife Fitness even though he was still a student, opening a 2,000 square foot facility in London, Ontario.

A long-time fitness enthusiast, Patch is a former champion rower who competed successfully as a Canadian athlete and even trained for the Olympics, giving him a deep understanding of the role fitness can play in leading a happy, healthy life. This understanding, combined with a strong desire to help others, proved to be instrumental in developing the mission statement and core values of GoodLife Fitness. “I really thought I could positively impact people and make their lives better, as simple as that might sound,” he says of deciding to get involved in the fitness industry. “I love to help people and I always have; I can’t change it, it’s just who I am. I think that’s why the company has been successful – because of what it is – people sense it in you.”

And that they do. After spending time talking with Patch, it is difficult to imagine anyone who wouldn’t fall under his spell. Even the sound of his voice has a calming effect, as though he could solve any problem or defend any position. So how does he do it? What are the guiding principles that have allowed him to grow from one small location to 165 clubs, with 35 more in development, over 500,000 members, and ranging from 6,000 to 30,000 square feet – all without the help of outside funding? While it’s true that he has devoted time, energy and resources to the development of innovative systems, ideas and partnerships, the real answer can be found in the company’s core values and his ability to consistently incorporate them into the decision-making process and the business model. “Because I own the company, I can make decisions that will affect a lot of people. You have to manage it properly, and it all comes down to your core values,” he says.

Caring, trust, integrity, passion, peak attitude, happiness and personal fitness are the keys to success that lie at the heart of GoodLife, and to Patch they are not just words. “You have to practice incorporating core values into every decision and tell people to hold you accountable, and then you have to hold them accountable as well. It’s important to be relentless in striving to adhere to your core values,” he states. For example, while GoodLife places just as much importance on great sales ability as any other club, Patch says they will not hesitate to sacrifice a great producer who could damage the company culture. Breaking the rules or doing anything to get the sale, even if it comes at the expense of others, is not tolerated at GoodLife. Although it might cost a club money in the short term because they miss out on a few sales, GoodLife is built around the belief that an unethical person will do more harm than good in the long term.

To prevent these types of scenarios, GoodLife’s People Department has developed a recruitment and training team that is highly specialized in hiring and engaging the right people for the company’s unique culture. Although GoodLife’s in-depth pre-hire screening practices and even more intensive new employee training programs don’t come cheap, Patch sees them as an investment in the future of the company. “It is our goal for the entire staff to be as successful as possible, but we also want them to understand that we are not responsible for their success or happiness. Instead, we teach them that each employee is responsible for his or her own happiness and success,” he shares, adding, “We give them more support systems, advice and coaching than they will need, but each person has to make a conscious choice to use these resources. We don’t tell them what to do, but we tell them how to be successful.”  

As what seems to be the norm in every aspect of Patch’s life, he practices what he preaches when it comes to his employees. For starters, all prospective employees must have a clear desire to improve the length and quality of life for members, and must demonstrate the company’s core values in their daily activities. This helps to ensure that membership satisfaction and service are exceptional for every member right from the start, and has kept retention rates high for both employees and members year after year. For fitness associates, GoodLife prefers to hire graduates in Kinesiology or Physical Education who not only score highly on the hiring and screening interviews, but who also have exceptional people skills. Then, within the first three months of employment, all personnel are required to complete 40 hours of formal training. This includes Super Success, a motivational and personal enhancement course led by Patch, which he says is basically a compilation of the best information from the many motivational speakers he has heard.  At the end of training, each employee has to pass a test in order to remain employed at GoodLife, a practice that Patch believes helps to ensure that the company consistently employs the most qualified associates in the industry.

GoodLife’s employee training program doesn’t stop once someone is hired for a position. In fact, Patch says they have also developed a 10-step process for every position that, if followed, will help ensure employees succeed. Finally, GoodLife employs 175 people, including divisional managers and regional group exercise coordinators, who are involved in operations and are responsible for ensuring that the on-site club staff are focused on service, membership growth, retention and overall profitability. Most importantly, however, Patch says each individual has to be willing to do the time and to learn how to be successful. If a person does this, he says they will do well, and their rewards will be great. GoodLife not only pays well, but the company also assists associates in continually upgrading their skills and education in relevant areas, including nutrition, exercise, personal training and specialty services.
According to Patch, two of the most important traits every club owner should cultivate are adaptability and perseverance. He says he learned this early in life, both as a championship rower and while running his snowplowing business in college. “I learned that the best laid plans will often not work out the way they are supposed to,” he says, adding that there is no sense worrying about the inevitable. Instead, expect that things will happen from time to time that you don’t expect, and be ready to meet new challenges. “One big difference between business and sports is that in sports you only have to be at the peak of your performance on race day, but in business you have to try to be at the peak of your performance every day,” states Patch.

But before you can be great at running your business, you have to focus on yourself. “You need to be capable and prepared to look after your members, and your staff needs to know what you stand for. Once you know what you stand for, you need to become better at it than anyone else,” he shares. In his opinion, it has to be all about helping people, rather than just focusing on selling as many memberships as possible. GoodLife itself could be seen as a testament to this; the company has grown exponentially through years of hard work by the right people for all of the right reasons. Patch is also quick to point out that even a great consultant can’t tell you who you are as a company, they can only help you do it better once you figure it out. “Being focused not only helps you be better than your competition – it also helps make it clear to people who they should choose because they know exactly what you are.”

Patch says his customers choose GoodLife because they care about the value they know they will receive. The company delivers on its promises, including more equipment per member, cleaner clubs, an exceptional staff and superior personal training and group fitness programs. “Do what you promise to do. The more we actually get people into shape, the more the public will trust us and come to us,” he says, “We know exercise helps us regain energy, fights depression, raises self-esteem and helps us feel in control of our lives. Now we just need to get the solution out there and get the masses to believe it. A fit body equals a fit mind!” And this is something Patch has learned firsthand through the events of his own life. After suffering a debilitating motorcycle accident at the age of 19 and developing rheumatoid arthritis in his early thirties, he realized that being fit and exercising were the things that got him through. Today, he not only works out as often as he can, but he also enjoys heli-skiing, rollerblading and riding his horse, Taz, whenever possible.

Not surprisingly, GoodLife has gone to great lengths under Patch’s leadership to provide a club environment that is comfortable and welcoming, with special attention given to maximizing member access to equipment and group exercise. All clubs have a wide range of cardio and strength equipment from such industry leaders as Life Fitness, Keiser, Precor, Hammer, Nautilus and Cybex. Friendly employees are always available to assist members in the proper use of all equipment, and members are able to use their membership at almost any GoodLife location. The company also launched a series of women-only facilities that have equipment that is specifically selected to be better-suited to women. The company’s larger co-ed clubs may have swimming pools and/or squash courts, and most clubs offer well-equipped childcare areas. GoodLife also offers members access to Visual Fitness Planner software, a tool that provides members with 3-D imagery of their current body as well as what it will look like after their fitness goals are achieved. All locations are also designed with ease of maintenance, durability and, ever-increasingly, the environment in mind.

A unique strategy that has served the company well has been the establishment of clubs in innovative venues, most notably in Loblaw Companies Ltd. stores across the country (the largest supermarket chain in Canada) and in Union Station railway in Toronto. The convenience of these on-site fitness facilities in high-traffic areas has proved to be both easy to market and successful to operate. GoodLife has over 50 club locations within Loblaw stores, which are typically between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet and have a standard design that requires less time to construct than a traditional club. In addition, similar member and customer demographics maximize the traffic flow for both Loblaw and GoodLife, enabling the clubs to develop a membership base at an accelerated rate.
Patch says the current economy has not affected him yet, stating that his business is actually up. He attributes this to the fact that people tend to seek out brands they trust during troubled times, and after 30 years, GoodLife has established a reputation for delivering on promises – a strategy that serves any company well during a recession. “If you’ve been doing the right things, a recession can be a good thing for you, if not, you’ll get your butt kicked. I’ve been through three recessions and I’ve managed to come out ahead,” he says. During the recession year, Patch says he plans to boost up capital spending and continue to expand and improve the GoodLife brand.

One of the traits that is immediately obvious is that Patch has a clear desire to give back to the world. He says he does it “because it is the right thing to do,” and his efforts have not gone without recognition. Some of his greatest achievements include winning Canada’s 50 Best Managed Company award from 2003 to 2008; being on the cover of Canadian Business Magazine after getting named Most Innovative CEO by the publication in 2005; and receiving the Canadian Medical Association Medal of Honour in 2007 for his support of autism research and education. This last award might be closest to his heart, since his 12 year old daughter, Kilee, is affected by the disease. Patch says his daughters, Kilee and her younger sister Tygre, who is 10, have influenced him more than anyone else in life, stating, “They have really brought out the humanness in me – both how Tygre interacts with Kilee and how hard Kilee works to persevere – it has made me more deeply appreciate the wonders of life.”

GoodLife encourages all of its employees to volunteer – an attitude that is evident in almost every facet of the company’s culture. Patch says he’s been chastised by some for giving too much, but he likens it to a farmer growing crops, stating that he doesn’t believe you can take and not give. “We exist to be a part of society, not to take advantage of it. In the big scheme of things, I want to give back and my team also appreciates that,” he says. 

Keys to Success:

•    USE your core values to make decisions. They are the backbone of your company and should guide you and be reinforced by everything you do.
•    DELIVER on the promises you make in your advertising and during the sales process. This will reinforce the value members receive and will help boost retention.
•    INVEST time and resources in your staff. In many ways they are your company, so choose and train them carefully.
•    DEVELOP the ability to adapt and to persevere when faced with challenges. They are part of running a business and can provide opportunities for unexpected growth.
•    DECIDE what you stand for and perfect it. This will set you apart from the competition and will help people choose your club for the right reasons.
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