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Laurie Smith’s Servant Leadership


In 1970, writer Robert K. Greenleaf penned an essay titled, “The Servant as Leader,” in which he defined servant leadership as, “A philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.”

As Greenleaf explains, servant-leaders are not driven to lead as a means in which to amass power or attain material possessions, but instead, to enrich the lives of those they lead and the communities they serve.

This philosophy is one that Laurie Smith, the senior vice president of operations at VillaSport Athletic Club and Spa, has lived by throughout her 30-year career in the fitness industry.

And it’s a philosophy firmly founded in Smith’s love of sports. In high school and college she was a member of the field hockey, basketball, and track and field teams — which taught her important lessons surrounding teamwork and self-sacrifice.

“Playing sports provides many opportunities to learn what it means to be a great teammate and team player and to take on leadership responsibilities, whether you’re the team captain or a second-string player,” said Smith.

Smith’s love of sports, paired with her high-energy nature, drove her to pursue a career in a sports-related field.

After graduating with a degree in commercial recreation and business from Springfield College, Smith served as tennis activities director at Natick Racquet Club in Natick, Massachusetts. “It paid $5 an hour and I had to get two other part-time jobs so I could subsidize my fledgling fitness industry career,” she recalled.

Despite the low pay, Smith gained invaluable experience, leading her to take a role at Babson Recreation Center in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she oversaw the tennis programs and activities, in addition to managing the pro shop and front desk.

“We had a lot of professors as members,” said Smith. “One of the business school professors was a regular at my tennis events and he encouraged me to go back to school for my MBA. Motivated by his advice, I studied for and took the GMATs, applied to a few schools, and received a stipend to attend Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.”

It was during Smith’s time at Duke that she wondered for the first time if a career in the fitness industry was in the cards. She completed a summer internship at Duke Hospital in the employee relations department, and in the second year of her MBA, went on a number of interviews with consulting and consumer products companies.

However, her heart wasn’t in it. “I could not summon the passion to be excited about any of those positions,” Smith explained. “Then at an awards dinner I met Alan Schwartz, the founder and then-CEO of TCA, now Midtown Athletic Clubs.”

Schwartz offered Smith an opportunity to join TCA’s management training program, and she happily jumped right back into the club industry — but at a higher level and with more knowledge and experience than when she’d left.

For Smith, the club industry was where her true passion lay. “I wholeheartedly believe in the ‘product’ we sell and that we make a big, positive difference in the lives of the people who join and use our clubs,” explained Smith.

This is apparent in Smith’s current role at VillaSport, which she took on in 2011 after a 20-year stint with Leisure Sports.

“I was not looking to leave Leisure Sports, but the opportunity to join a relatively young company with ambitious growth plans and the capital and talent to achieve them was very appealing,” explained Smith. “I felt I could help take the company to the next level.”

Founded in 2007, VillaSport boasts five high-end locations in California, Colorado, Texas and Oregon, with another two in development. The brand’s clubs provide members with access to amenities such as indoor and outdoor pool complexes, five group exercise studios with more than 180 classes per week, and VillaKids childcare centers — enveloped in luxury, resort-style settings.

It is at VillaSport that Smith strives to set the example for servant leadership. The company’s culture is driven by the phrase “We Serve” — embodied by the traits of humility, attention to detail and an adventurous spirit.

“We always believe we can get better at what we do,” said Smith, in reference to humility. “We never settle for average. We try to learn from other great people and companies.”

This trait is complemented by VillaSport’s adventurous spirit, driving the brand to try new things, run experiments and test different strategies  — all in an effort to continually improve. “We are OK with failing if we learn from it,” added Smith.

The ultimate goal of the “We Serve” mantra, said Smith, is to make a positive impact on the lives of the company’s members that goes beyond just fitness. An emphasis is placed on social programming that brings members of the community together, such as “Breakfast with Santa,” and pop-up “Surprise and Delight” events for kids featuring balloon artists, magicians and petting zoos.

“The heartfelt messages of gratitude we regularly receive from members are a testament to [our culture],” said Smith.

The mission to improve the lives of others extends to employees as well, as Smith strives to cultivate a positive, motivating and fulfilling work experience for every member of VillaSport’s team. This is achieved through a variety of initiatives, including the Five-Star Employee Recognition Program, designed to recognize and reward staff for creating magic moments.

Smith also writes a monthly one-page column called “Above the Fray” that is sent to the brand’s leadership teams. It features a different topic each month surrounding leadership, management or self-improvement.

“I keep it to one page because the idea is to take yourself out of the fray of your hectic life at work for a few minutes and read something that may help you be better in your job or personal life,” explained Smith.

In addition, VillaSport is currently developing an online learning management system designed to improve the quality, delivery and tracking of its employee training. According to Smith, the project is driven by the belief that better trained employees will be more confident in their jobs, perform at a higher level and with greater engagement, and ultimately stay longer.

“We want VillaSport to be a work experience that people look back on with fond memories, whether they are with us for a summer job or for 20 years,” said Smith.

This sentiment is felt by employees such as Maggie DeAngelis, the vice president of training and development for VillaSport, who joined the company two years ago. She said she enjoys being part of a company that values employee development and retention.

In addition, the growth opportunities and start-up culture make for an invigorating work experience. “VillaSport is growing so fast, and it’s exciting to be part of that,” added DeAngelis.

Each of these positive aspects of working at VillaSport stem from Smith’s leadership.

“Laurie is one of the best bosses I’ve had,” said DeAngelis. “She’s been such a great mentor. Her door is always open and she’s always there to answer my questions. She cares about my personal success and my success at VillaSport.”

Ultimately, DeAngelis’ experience is the exact definition of what servant leadership strives to achieve.

“At VillaSport, we embrace the servant leadership concept,” said Smith. “Delivering random acts of kindness and creating magic moments for others are what I find most fulfilling.”

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko is the editor-in-chief of Club Solutions Magazine. She can be reached at rachel@peakemedia.com.

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