High standards have been the core of Gainesville Health & Fitness for more than 40 years. Founder Joe Cirulli and his team share their methods for maintaining greatness.
Excellence in business never comes by accident. It takes dedication and commitment, through good times and bad.
However, very few companies have the fortitude it takes to be considered an excellent company — let alone the stamina to maintain excellence throughout 44 years of operations.
Gainesville Health & Fitness (GHF) in Gainesville, Florida, is one of the few. Led by founder Joe Cirulli, the brand has maintained standards that go above and beyond since its inception in 1978.
How has it maintained these standards across three locations? By sticking to who they are, hiring good culture fits and being committed to five-star customer service.
Who is Gainesville Health & Fitness?
Years ago, Cirulli was reading an article from author Jim Collins in the Harvard Business Review on creating a company vision. He realized he understood what GHF’s vision was. But did his employees?
This kick-started an exercise that took six months to complete, where Cirulli and his leadership team defined everything from the company’s vision and core purpose to its core values and mission statement.
“By the time we were done, we had created a document that explained, ‘This is who we are,’” recalled Cirulli.
This included defining a vision of, “To become known as one of the best companies for the world,” and identifying core values such as integrity, hard work and an extraordinary commitment to helping people.
“Once we had these determined, we said, ‘OK, now we’re going to develop all of our hiring practices to find people who are who we are,’” explained Cirulli. “Because I learned a long time ago I can’t teach you core values.”
Finding the Right Culture Fit
This process starts with the application. Did the candidate fill out everything on the form? Or did they leave things out? If they left things out, GHF does not invite them in for an interview.
If a candidate is asked to come in to start the interview process, the GHF team then asks, “What’s the initial impression of that person? Did they show up on time? Were they friendly?”
The next steps include group interviews, one-on-one interviews and even an intense workout to determine someone’s grit.
“We put them through a high-intensity workout, and the goal is to make it as miserable as possible,” said Cirulli. “Because you can’t tell what somebody is made of when things are going well. I had to create a way to make your life miserable, so we can see how you are when you’re miserable.”
Once someone is determined to be a good culture fit, GHF then does everything in its power to set them up for success and incorporate them into the established culture and company standards.
This starts with meeting Cirulli, during which new hires learn about the company’s history and how they got to where they are today.
According to Debbie Lee, the chief marketing officer at GHF who has been with the company for 38 years, learning the company’s origins is a vital aspect of the onboarding process.
“Everybody needs to know the story of GHF and how we started, because we didn’t begin with everything we’ve accomplished,” said Lee. “This is 44 years of creation and development. Joe takes time with every employee, regardless of the department they’re in, and shares about the trials, the tribulations, the good times, the bad times — all of it — so they have a really good picture of who the company is. Because we want them to buy into us. It creates a sense of loyalty and pride. And it also allows them a foundation for decision making skills that are going to be coming their way later on.”
The next step is the GHF book training, which goes into detail on the company’s customer service standards, expectations, principles and practices. This is where they learn communication skills to ensure they are representing the company per expectations.
Next up is brand training where they learn more about GHF’s brand expectations, mission, vision and core purpose.
Actual department training — where they learn about the specific aspects of the job they’ll be doing — comes last. Here, they are taught how to perform their duties and shadow other staff.
“They have to learn the technical aspects, but we start off with the company foundations first, because we want to give them a baseline for how they’re going to be making decisions later on,” explained Lee.
The new employee is then supported by a set of systems and processes that have been created, tweaked and improved upon for the last 44 years and counting.
“One of the things I thought was really cool when I came here a long time ago was how system-oriented the company was, and how effective and successful that is — where you put somebody in a system that’s already been tried and true,” explained Lee. “And you don’t leave the system alone, right? We always try to figure out how to make it better. It really gives the employee a sense of comfort in that they know what they’re supposed to be doing. Comfort and clarity are where you gain the confidence to operate independently.”
A Commitment to Five-Star Customer Service
The one thing that’s clear through GHF’s hiring and onboarding process is great customer service is not the exception — it’s the rule.
“The foundation of extraordinary customer service is people,” said Lee. “We put a lot of time, energy and money into hiring people who fit our culture. We train, manage and coach them every day to live the culture and recognize them when they do.”
A great example of this commitment in practice are three programs GHF created to recognize and reward employees who go above and beyond in their daily roles, and who provide great customer service. This includes The Eagle program, Rock All-Star program and Inspire Awards.
The Eagle program is inspired by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson’s book “The One Minute Manager,” which theorizes all businesses have ducks, those employees who “quack” about problems, but never solve them; and eagles, those employees who are empowered to solve problems, innovate and create solutions.
Cirulli realized he had a ton of eagles working for him, but he didn’t have the capability to identify them all. “I can’t be everywhere at once,” he said. “So we put up boxes all around the club where members can fill out a form and let us know when they see an employee doing something exceptional. We started getting thousands of comments.”
Once a month, Cirulli and his leadership team comb through the comments and identify instances where employees truly exceeded the call of duty. They then take those employees out to dinner to celebrate them.
“We have a great dinner together and camaraderie, and it gives me a chance to talk to a number of employees I may not normally have the opportunity to converse with,” explained Cirulli.
Similar to The Eagle program, the Rock All-Star program and Inspire Awards also recognize employees who go above and beyond their job duties. Rock All-Stars are those who exemplify a department’s mission statement, while the Inspire Awards are given to those who are truly inspirational to GHF members and staff.
A recent Inspire Award was given to Billie Bob Sykes, a 97-year-old club ambassador who greets members at the front door, and whom the staff and members absolutely adore.
“The Inspire Award is our highest award,” said Cirulli. “It’s someone who inspires people above and beyond just working in the club. We don’t always have one. If there’s not somebody we can say inspires us, we don’t do it.”
Beyond recognizing employees who deliver or go above five-star customer service, GHF is also consistent with getting feedback from members in an effort to stay on top of issues and improve the customer experience. The brand does so through MXMetrics’(MXM) customer feedback technology and net promoter scores.
“We use MXM for our customer feedback loop,” explained Lee. “We learn a tremendous amount about what members are thinking and how to fix an issue. We respond personally to every survey to let the member know we received the comment and what we are doing about it. It helps us create raving fans.”
Another key to GHF’s great customer service is that Cirulli himself also has a knack for understanding what his customers want and need — oftentimes before they even do.
This is according to Rudy Fabiano, a design principal and founder of the architecture firm Fabiano Designs, who has worked with the GHF team for years on design projects.
“Joe really has an interesting feeling for his constituents,” said Fabiano. “He really reads his members well, and he takes care of them. I think that’s the difference, because he sees his members as his future — whereas a lot of club owners see them as a sale. I think that’s an important distinction he makes.”
A great example is GHF’s recent investment in a recovery space dubbed “Chill by GHF,” which offers a serene retreat for members to relax, unwind and participate in HydroMassage services.
Cirulli didn’t invest in this space because it’s an industry trend but because he feels it serves a true need for his members. This realization came about after a family friend’s husband passed away from a heart attack. Cirulli believes stress was a factor.
“People get sick from stress, and people die from stress,” said Cirulli. “My father died from a stroke. I realized I have to figure out a way to help people deal with stress, which is why ‘Chill by GHF’ was born.”
It’s stories like these that showcase GHF is not just committed to excellence for profit or success — though, these are a byproduct.
Instead, Cirulli and his team operate with such high standards because they truly care about their core purpose, which is ultimately, “to create an experience that helps people get the most out of life and inspires them to become their best.”
This applies to both the members and GHF’s team.
“The biggest thing in our organization is the people,” said Cirulli. “You can have the Taj Mahal of a club. But if the people are jerks, that isn’t going to matter. So, to me, everything is about having the right people in the organization and treating people fairly.”
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