The word “cooperative” has a dual meaning.
As an adjective, the word is defined as “involving mutual assistance in working toward a common goal.” And as a noun, it is defined as an organization run or owned jointly by its customers, who share in its profits and successes.
Regardless of which way the word is used, the meaning at its core remains intact: to work toward a common good.
Frank Lawrence, the CEO of The Athletic Clubs in Central Arkansas, learned of the benefits of a cooperative mindset in business during his time in the banking world.
Lawrence began working at a bank in high school during the summer, and after graduating from Hendrix College with a bachelor’s degree in business and economics, took a full-time job with Bank of the Ozarks.
However, it wasn’t until he landed a job with Arkansas Federal Credit Union — the largest credit union in the state — that the cooperative mindset really began to sink in.
“Those two years at the credit union were important to learn the cooperative mindset versus the shareholder mindset,” recalled Lawrence. “The mindset at the credit union was so significant in taking care of each individual member, that it has really served me well in the club business. Because even though we are a for-profit business, you still have to have the cooperative mindset of taking care of the members at a very individual level.”
Lawrence entered the fitness industry in 2008, when he co-founded a CrossFit box out of his friend’s garage. At the time, he was in his 30s and on a mission to better his personal health and fitness.
“Like lots of folks, once the organized activity of school was gone, I did very little except for the occasional pick-up basketball game,” recalled Lawrence. “I was taking blood pressure and cholesterol medicine, and something needed to change. I started running; it was awful, and swimming and biking weren’t much better. But I kept at it, it got better, and ultimately led to my passion for endurance races and CrossFit.”
Between 2008 and 2012, Lawrence found himself pulled in two directions — the first being the banking world, where he’d forged a successful career; and the second being the fitness industry, a new endeavor he’d developed a deep passion for.
Starting in 2010, Lawrence’s daily routine involved a morning workout at his CrossFit box, checking in with his manager, and then going to work at his banking job. After 5 p.m., he’d stop back by the gym, and then go home at night to do the books.
In mid-2012, the opportunity to enter the fitness industry full-time presented itself, when Lawrence got a call from one of his CrossFit members.
“He said he had an opportunity to purchase The Athletic Clubs, was putting together an ownership group, and wanted me to be the day-to-day guy at the clubs,” explained Lawrence. “Thirty seconds later, I committed. I had been a member of The Athletic Clubs for many years, so I was familiar with and very excited to take the torch of these fantastic clubs going forward.”
Founded in 1989 by Pat Riley, Jr., The Athletic Clubs had cultivated a strong reputation in the Central Arkansas community as an innovative and customer service-oriented brand.
Its four locations — including Little Rock Athletic Club, Little Rock Racquet Club, North Little Rock Athletic Club, and Downtown Athletic Club — are each supported by strong communities which rally around four key pillars: tennis, swimming, programming and family.
Mary Olson, the club manager of Little Rock Athletic Club, joined the company over 25 years ago, and has been first-hand witness to the power of The Athletic Clubs’ community.
“The members are fantastic,” said Olson. “Some of them have been members for 10 years or more. You get to know them so well, and in most cases it’s very touching. Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of funerals to go to over the years, but to have been able to spend some time throughout a member’s life while they’re here at The Athletic Clubs — it has been a true pleasure of mine.”
Due to the brand’s powerful legacy, Olson admitted that at first, she was fearful when it came under new ownership. What could they expect from Lawrence?
“I was frightened,” Olson recalled. “I had been here quite some time when Frank came onboard, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is at the very least going to be very different.’ But although some processes changed, it didn’t disrupt the legacy we have as The Athletic Clubs here in Central Arkansas. Frank became the champion of that legacy, and has done a very good job.”
Over the past six years, Lawrence has not only upheld The Athletic Clubs’ legacy of innovation and service, but strengthened it through the cooperative mindset cultivated during his time in the banking world.
“The Athletic Clubs are for-profit organizations, operating as if our members are owners, like a cooperative,” said Lawrence.
Driven by this philosophy, each customer and guest are viewed as a member of The Athletic Clubs’ family — much more than just another number on a financial statement. The company’s brand purpose is to be “a platform for the life well-lived,” promising a positive, nurturing environment supporting the mental, physical and emotional benefits of an active, participatory and health-conscious lifestyle.
As stated, its four key pillars include tennis, swimming, programming and family — each of which allow The Athletic Clubs to offer a “sticky” environment, according to Lawrence.
“At the banks we were looking to develop three different types of relationships with a customer — maybe they had a checking account, but then also a home loan, and then a car loan,” said Lawrence, explaining where he learned the “sticky” concept. “When we achieved that, we felt like we had a ‘sticky’ customer, because it’s harder for a customer to change a bank when they have three different relationships with the organization.”
According to Lawrence, this concept can also be applied to the club world — explaining The Athletic Clubs also strives to build three different types of relationships with members, whether it’s through personal training, tennis, swimming, or any other combination of club services.
“I really look at our clubs as more than just facilities where you can come and workout,” added Lawrence. “They’re facilities where you build relationships, you build community. It’s kind of endless the ways we try to connect people and create that community, and in a lot of ways it is church for people. We want to be the third place. Home, then work, and then us.”
Another legacy Lawrence has strived to uphold at The Athletic Clubs is that of innovation. Throughout the organization’s history, founder Riley Jr. had a vision of “constantly reinventing yourself to be relevant,” which has been key to its long-term success.
“We have obviously continued this philosophy,” added Lawrence. “This concept is even more important in today’s environment. The growth of the industry and the speed of change in technology over the last five years is incredible. You have to always be moving and investing in programming, facilities and telling the story to fulfill the brand framework.”
To stay innovative, Lawrence draws inspiration from a variety of sources both inside and outside the fitness industry — studying what other clubs are doing, and evaluating his experiences at restaurants, resorts and hotels.
For example, while attending a 2018 leadership event at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, Lawrence was introduced to Zingle, a texting technology the resort used to communicate and check-in with customers during their stay.
He was so impressed by the system, he ended up incorporating it at The Athletic Clubs.
“So now we use Zingle at our clubs,” said Lawrence. “We verify their cell phone number, tell them about the system and that they can text us on it at any point. We have 700 to 800 of our new members on the platform, and that was something I learned at the event. So, constantly studying in the industry and outside the industry is highly important.”
Lawrence’s drive for innovation stems from a personal mission to add value, insight, coaching, learning, development and basic quality to each person he encounters on a daily basis.
And just like The Athletic Clubs has key pillars upon which it defines success, so does Lawrence. Over the years, he’s identified seven areas of focus that drive him to keep moving forward personally and professionally, including fitness, faith, family, firm (or career), finances, friends and fun.
“In all seven areas of my life, my expectation is to not be passive, to accept responsibility and lead courageously through whatever situation is presented,” explained Lawrence.
And ultimately, these seven pillars are what support Lawrence in his pursuit of a common good.
“I have been fortunate to be able to live my life well, and help those around me strive to do the same,” said Lawrence. “My continued goals are to provide for my family and give back to others.”