As CEO of New York Health and Racquet Club, Kim Manocherian is leading her family legacy to future greatness.
Growing up with a father that exercises seven days a week, it’s practically impossible not to have fitness engrained in your life. Additionally, if that father decides to open a health and fitness club when you’re 14, it becomes even more likely that you will find a career in fitness.
That’s the short story of how Kim Manocherian became the CEO of New York Health and Racquet Club (NYHRC). Although, Manocherian recognized that today the club business is much different than when she initially left the industry in 1989.
For Manocherian, there wasn’t health and fitness prior to the opening of New York Health and Racquet Club in 1973. She recalled being in Rome and looking across from the Coliseum to see some of the first developments of a fitness facility, but she had never experienced anything like it in her own life.
“Certainly fitness as a lifestyle did not really exist,” she explained. “There was Jack LaLanne, there were gyms, but that kind of luxury health club and lifestyle health club wasn’t in existence until [NYHRC].”
However, Manocherian was witness to fitness as a lifestyle her entire life, watching her father, Fraydun Manocherian, exercise seven days a week. “With nutrition, with life, with everything, he’s a real believer in moderation,” she recalled. “It’s a real lifestyle kind of fitness, it’s not an extreme.”
Thus, when her father made the move to open the first NYHRC, it pushed the more academic 14-year-old Manocherian directly into the fitness industry. “I grew up with the health club at the dinner table — my mother was working there at the time — it was very much a part of my father’s life and interest,” she said. “We called it his baby. It’s something he was very passionate about and believed in. This was not just a business, this is very personal and something that we live and believe.”
From the opening of the club, Manocherian was working inside, helping in any way possible, but also learning the mechanics of the fitness business and what made for a successful club. “The magnet of family business is very strong, and even though I was given the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do, it made it hard for me to even imagine that there was anything I wanted to do as much as I wanted to care about what was already mine,” she explained. “I feel like, although I tried to explore what separates me from the rest of my family, and what I might want to do, it came down to the fact that … it felt natural to continue this and stay here and do this.”
Manocherian worked at NYHRC until about 1989, when she left to be a full-time mother and raise her kids. However, 24 years later, the club continued to beckon her. And, in 2013, after being called back by her father, she took on the role of CEO of NYHRC.
“I was always drawn to this industry,” she said. “It’s a service industry, you are helping people, so it’s not like selling cigarettes — you’re doing good. I feel lucky to be able to do this. My son graduated college last year and he’s actually in the business now as well.”
One of the first acts Manocherian did after coming back on was to reach out to the people she had known before she left. Growing up, as the owner’s daughter, many of the employees knew her and watched her grow. “They all knew I was kind of struggling with the whole boss’ daughter stuff, and sometimes it was hard for me to find myself,” she explained. “There were a lot of people that were really wonderful and supportive, but for the most part I really got to know and like so many people, and still know most of those people from that time.
“What I think is so fascinating about it is what started with one club, with my father very much involved [with] day-to-day operations … we are still, even though we’ve expanded to nine clubs, we’re still small like that. There are conversations between all the different people in all the different levels of employment at the clubs. I think we’ve really kept that feeling of a small family business and that communication.”
Manocherian and her staff don’t want the club to change. Although it’s a nine-club competitor in New York City, Manocherian still knows many of the members and staff that enter her clubs daily. “Some of them knew my father and send me e-mails telling me things like, ‘Chip off the ‘ole block,’ and ‘I’m so proud of you.’ I’ve got this one woman that I joke about [being] my Aunt Barbara. It’s kind of a small town in a big city, which is kind of amazing.”
For Manocherian, her favorite word for describing the club is “comfortable.” Once back at NYHRC, it was Manocherian’s goal to ensure that each member, past and present, felt the comfort that she desired for each of them at the club. “I felt that I had to make changes,” she said. “I know where we started, I know who we were, how we were and how we dealt with people. I wanted to revitalize the brand and go back to, not the same place we were in the 70s because time has changed and life has changed, but I really wanted to be that kind of community for our members. To let the service lead us, and not the business.”
NYHRC, with just fewer than 30,000 members, holds about 620 Group X classes a week, along with nutrition programming and community involvement. In addition, it continually stays on the cutting edge through renovations. “Many New Yorkers of a certain age were part of this health club at one time or another in their life,” she said. “I would like to bring it back to that place where they want to come again. Because of who we are, not because of the price point — we do offer great value — but I want to be about the community.”
Since Manocherian left in 1989, a lot had changed about the industry, but she had watched from the sidelines during her time away. Once she decided to come back as CEO of NYHRC, her first decision was to attend an IHRSA Convention and Tradeshow to get a jumpstart into where the industry was heading.
“I think the biggest change is the corporate factor,” explained Manocherian. “The fact that clubs became impersonal. It’s not like the friendly neighborhood feel — some of the smaller boutiques may have that — but the larger health clubs really, including us at that time, became more about signing up members, and not about health and fitness and wellness, and all the good things we can actually do for people. I felt like that was really sad, and something [that] was possible to bring back, because we aren’t so big that it’s out of our hands.”
What’s important to Manocherian is the level of involvement that the executive staff at NYHRC can have with its members. For an example, she is not so busy working on business development all day that she can’t find time to get back inside each location. She has an open-door policy that allows members to come to her with issues. If the issue is something she believes needs adjusted, she can easily go to the person in charge of that area and make the change.
“I feel like we are a great size to be big enough to access great resources, and small enough to make changes on a personal level,” she explained. “We’ll never be in different cities, we’ll never be publicly traded — we plan to stay intimate.”
For Manocherian it’s crucial to be able to come out of her office and through the front door of each of the nine clubs on a regular basis. She doesn’t strive to seem like she’s micro-managing her directors, but her passion for ensuring a certain level of service to NYHRC members is something she seriously values.
“It’s very important to me,” she said. “I think every one of our directors has that [desire to develop a personal connection with members]. I think all of us do. I feel like if we didn’t do that, how can we really know what the experience is to the member? Our corporate office is above one of our locations, so we are here all the time.”
What Manocherian loves about the director’s meetings is that they can keep in touch with one another regularly, but at the meetings [they] really dive into individual problems. “We’re talking about people, we’re not talking about numbers,” she said. “In terms of knowing the members, one woman, Heidi, has been here … for 40 years. She started about two months after we opened. We have Sal Candella, who is in charge of membership — he has been here for 35 years. We have many staff that have been with us for over 20 years, locker attendants that have been with us for about 33 years. We have amazing loyalty that I am very proud of. It’s a family business for many of our staff, and many of our members as well.”
NYHRC strives to determine what will keep a member, and why a member might leave. “If they leave for any other reason other than moving, we need to know what we did wrong,” explained Manocherian. “We have wonderful people, caring people, passionate people. We have trainers that want to know what they can do to help people on their own. When I first started looking into it, the stories that I read about members that some of the trainers were sharing with me, I was crying for days because they are really touching stories. I think everyone needs to workout; there is no downside to this for your mental and physical health.
“So, if they’re not with us, I want to know why they moved to another club. And if they are doing something totally different, good for them, that’s great. If they are doing something that keeps them working out I think that’s great. I think people need to exercise.”
As CEO, Manocherian wants to hear every story about NYHRC’s members. “I need to hear that’s what a member experiences, and it’s not just in my mind and my experience when I go to the club,” she explained. “I want to make sure that this is what’s happening. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with as many people as we are dealing with, one bad experience with one staff person will make a person feel like that’s not the experience [they desire]. Staying on top of that on a regular basis — that’s the most important thing we can do in terms of customer service.
“Obviously, staying on top of what’s new in the industry, keeping it fun, keeping it fluid, we are always evolving — that’s obvious, and something we always have to do. In terms of our personality, it’s really about making people happy.”
The current ad campaign states: “Only in NYHRC.”
“We want to point out to people, first that we’re New York, and we are very tied into the city,” said Manocherian. “We’ve got quite a number of professional boxers that work as trainers for us. We have an affiliation with a country club in Westchester that our members can use.”
According to Manocherian, NYHRC truly has everything a member could want. The club boasts saltwater pools, saunas, spas, complimentary nutrition counseling and regular seminars on fitness and nutrition. It also possesses a wide range of opportunities for members to enjoy the city, such as a private yacht that is available for rent.
“We are committed to the city, we’re not going anywhere,” said Manocherian. “That’s what we said 40 years ago when [other] clubs were kind of popping up and going away quickly — that we’re not. We’re not going anywhere, and after 40 years you can trust that.”
By Tyler Montgomery
Photos by Aydin Arjomand