There is much more to a fitness club than its walls, equipment and members. Brian Smith, the vice president of operations for Sport&Health, one of the largest fitness chains on the East Coast, understands that concept better than most.
Unlike many executives, Smith enjoys spending the vast majority of his days with his people — the people that help make Sport&Health successful. He enjoys seeing individuals that work for the clubs, helping them to live out their dreams and provide a high-level of customer service for members.
“When I walk into a club, I’m at home,” said Smith. “I feel a lot more comfortable, more confident. Going from being an in-club person to a corporate-office person was a big challenge for me. I’m really comfortable in the club and it took me out of my comfort zone.”
Smith’s success in fitness has come from years of studying and listening to mentors around him. He’s acutely aware of his comfort level, but can easily be coached into areas of growth and evolving opportunities, which is what has helped him in his role at Sport&Health.
“To understand what’s going on, you have to be in the clubs,” he said. “I spend four or five days out of the week in a club. I very rarely go to the office unless I have a meeting.”
Smith has never been a spotlight person. Admittedly he considers himself a behind-the-scenes person, but has had to come more into the spotlight as he has grown and matured into more leadership roles.
Like many in the fitness industry, Smith found himself passionate about sports at a young age. He enjoyed competing on a team and achieving success with others. However, it wasn’t until his senior year of high school that he started lifting weights and exercising in a gym. “It became a passion of mine in college,” he said. “I worked at a few health clubs when I was in college as side jobs, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I got out of college, and I started my career as a personal trainer.”
Being a personal trainer was a natural fit for Smith. It filled two passions: working in fitness and helping others. “Because I was interested in the business side of health clubs as well, I got some advice from someone I consider a mentor, that maybe I should pursue sales,” he said. “I really enjoyed it, and I feel like that’s also a passion of mine — I love the sales side of the business.”
Smith’s very first job out of college was actually with Sport&Health in 1993, but he found himself eventually leaving it for a short time with a company that was just opening its second club. “At one point in my career with that company, I became a general manager,” he said. “Sport&Health ended up buying the company. So, I kind of got purchased back with Sport&Health, and I’ve had various roles ever since, from general manager to regional manager to vice president to senior vice president of operations. This is the only thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t change my path, I love it. I believe in fitness, I love helping people and I enjoy the business side.”
When Smith entered the industry in 1993, he said there weren’t a lot of big players in the Washington D.C. area like there are now. “There were a lot of mom and pops, where someone owned a few health clubs,” he said. “Sport&Health was the biggest player in the area. We were primarily known as racquet and tennis clubs.”
As time has progressed, the industry has changed and Smith strives to keep the business relevant. “I’m always interested in the next — that’s what our business is all about,” said Smith. “I’m open to the new trends and I try it. I’m not a big TRX person, but I try it. I’ve bought Pilates classes so that I could understand it. I think just because I keep an open mind, and I know just for our industry in order to understand what’s happening … for anybody in our industry they need to understand what’s relevant to stay relevant, and apply it to your business model.”
Although testing a new class helps Smith stay relevant, he understands that in his role it goes much deeper. That’s where being in the club regularly comes into play. “I care about the club, I care about the members, I care about the employees within our company, and I’ve done everything,” he said. “I’m not from outside the industry that got brought in to fix something. I understand our business.
“If [employees] don’t know, I can tell them that I’ve probably sold more memberships than anybody else in the company. I know how to do that and I can help. They will laugh at me when I say I was a personal trainer because it was long ago, but I was a personal trainer back in the day, so I’ve earned a lot of respect from our people from knowing our business and caring about them.”
Admittedly, by nature Smith is a doer. He’s quick to pick up the ball himself and move it down the field, rather than wait for someone else to figure out a system. But in a leadership role, he’s learned he has to empower others to make certain moves.
“If I have something in my lap, I’ll do it,” said Smith. “We had a personality test: you had dominators, analytical leaders, free-spirited leaders and you had steady leaders, and I was more of the steady leader, which was kind of odd for an executive leader. I thought, ‘That’s not me.’ But when I read the description, it is. I’m loyal, steady, see things through, get the job done — that’s just me.
“I’ve got this weird thing I’ve been doing for years. I’ve got this piece of paper in my car and I write down all of the clubs for the day. In my day, even if it’s 9 o’clock at night, I call the general manager of the club, just to check in. It could be that we talk about something specific about the club, something that came up during the day, or it could be as simple as me asking how the day went. It just goes a long way.
“It gets to the point where I’ve created a monster. If I don’t call somebody they are wondering why I didn’t call them. For me, I didn’t realize the impact it has on people. It just goes to show that there are [employers] that they work for that want to help them.”
Sport&Health as a brand is continually growing, building new clubs and hiring new people. One of the major struggles for Smith, Sport&Health and the industry as a whole, has been to acquire top talent to operate those clubs.
“We’re constantly looking for high quality, experienced people,” said Smith. “A lot of times, they bring the best practices and the good ideas to you. That’s one way we stay relevant.”
One benefit for Sport&Health is the ability to look within for talent — people that already understand the company and the culture. “We have an incredible personal training department, whether it’s coming up with good ideas for programming to stay relevant, and getting those executed the right way, they are really good at that,” explained Smith. “A lot of times you get your other staff members to come to you with an idea. We partner with companies like Les Mills that help you stay relevant.
“We do a lot of surveying with our member base, and those tell you a lot of what you need, what they want to stay relevant in the club and in our company.”
For Smith, what has helped him learn how to manage a team has been from leaning on mentors within Sport&Health. One mentor he discussed in length was Mark Fisher, the president and CEO of Sport&Health.
“I think one of the biggest things that Mark has helped me with was really understanding our people,” said Fisher. “Being a guy’s guy, I’m not always in-tuned to … I’m not a very sensitive person. Over the years I’ve started noticing people’s body language. They don’t have to tell me something for me to know something’s going on in their life, good or bad. It allows me to have really good, cool conversations with employees. They really appreciate that, and that came all from Mark.”
Fisher would coach Smith through seeing body language. “He would say, ‘Did you see that person’s body language, did you hear what they said?” explained Smith. “It really helps people … your employees really appreciate working for your company and working for you. It helped me grow tremendously as a leader. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned from Mark.”
Today and into the future, one of the major factors for Smith is transferring his knowledge and passion. What Fisher and other mentors have taught Smith, he passes on to Sport&Health’s employees.
“Because I oversee all 22 clubs, plus the new one that we’re getting ready to open [in November], I would think that over the years I’ve been a mentor for a bunch of people,” said Smith. “I have people that have worked for our company that have been promoted that worked for me — I would think they would say I was their mentor, but I’m not sure. My job is to always better people and mentor them. I always approach it that way. I talk with our general managers about getting better and whether things are going wrong in their club or personally. I think I mentor a bunch of people, especially our general managers and our leaders in our company.”
As a leader, Smith finds himself attempting to place credit on his employees and empower them to be great. Although he has to get out in front and be a face of the organization, he enjoys more than anything to be in the background, sharing experiences and helping others grow.
It has been this opportunity that has made him successful and assisted Sport&Health in perpetual growth over the years. With 19 years and counting, Smith believes he will strive to grow the company for as long as it will allow him.
By Tyler Montgomery