For Robert Creech, the owner of DeSoto Athletic Club (DAC) in Mississippi and Tennessee, running a successful business boils down to one best practice: Doing the right thing, no matter what.
“I try to teach our managers there is a right and wrong way to do business even when ‘policy’ says we are right,” said Creech. “Sometimes what is right supersedes one’s policies.”
Creech gleaned this business philosophy growing up in an entrepreneurial family. During the 80s and 90s, his father was one of the largest independent grocery store owners in Memphis, Tennessee. Creech looked up to him as an inspiration.
“I really admired my father, what he built, and the pride he took in his business and in the people who worked with him to help build it,” recalled Creech.
However, Creech quickly determined the grocery business wasn’t for him. He was fired 11 times between the ages of 15 and 18.
“I had a chronic issue, which was showing up late and leaving early,” said Creech. “With that being said, I still was goal oriented and driven at a very young age. At 17, I set a goal to own my own business by the time I was 25. I had no idea what that business would be, nor did I know how I was going to get it done. But nevertheless, that was the goal.”
After graduating from college with a bachelor’s in management from Christian Brothers University, Creech entered the financial industry. But like the grocery business, he soon realized this also wasn’t his calling.
“I hated going to work every day,” said Creech. “I went back to my father and had a conversation with him about finding a career path that would be fulfilling.”
They talked in length about passion and commitment, and Creech came to the realization he’d always cared deeply about exercise and sports. He decided to pair this passion with his desire to open a business by founding a gym.
He put together a feasibility study and business plan, and approached his father about investing.
“I had to present my plans to my father and convince him this was a worthy investment,” recalled Creech. “After much back and forth, my father agreed to invest in the business with a catch. He wanted all the money he agreed to loan me paid back with interest. He had legal documents drawn up that outlined the terms of the loan he was giving me. I thought that was a little much, but there were lessons being learned here, too: No matter who you borrow money from — banks, friends, family — you pay your debts.”
With his father on board, the first DAC location was born. Creech achieved his goal of owning his own business a month after he turned 25.
“Behind every successful person there is somebody and my dad was the first person to believe in me,” said Creech. “Twenty-four years later, I am still so grateful to him for giving me a chance to live out my dream.”
Today, DAC has two locations averaging 45,000 square feet in Mississippi and Tennessee. The brand is known for its high levels of customer service and caring approach — adamant on saying hello and goodbye to every customer and addressing members by name.
Although these may seem like simple best practices, they are non-negotiables for Creech in a day and age where a lack of personalization in business is more common.
That customer service is a necessary differentiator in an increasingly competitive industry. “We can’t compete with people on money,” said Creech. “What we can compete on and win at is service because we will have people leave us and come back for those reasons. Gyms all have the same stuff; we buy from the same vendors. There’s no secrets in our industry because we’re still so small. Everybody knows what everybody’s doing. So, what’s that X factor? I believe the X factor is treating people the right way.”
In practice, that concept boils down to “doing the right thing” wherever possible.
As an example, Creech recalled a recent situation where a member was asking for a refund on swimming lessons she never used.
“I was speaking with two of our managers regarding the refund and they didn’t feel we should,” said Creech. “I simply asked them, ‘What is the right thing to do or how would you want to be treated?’ The first response was, ‘Our policy is…’ I said, ‘Stop, let’s think about this from a common-sense perspective. Are we out any money? No. Did she use any lessons? No. Then the right thing to do is give her a refund.’”
It’s very likely that same customer in his example will buy swimming lessons next season, where if DAC had refused to refund the money she may have quit the gym entirely. Creech’s philosophy is by not burning bridges the business will ultimately benefit.
This is also why DAC makes it easy for people to cancel their memberships through in-person, mail and online options.
“We make it so easy for people to join our gyms and it has to be easy for them to cancel, too,” explained Creech. “I tell my customer service manager all the time, ‘If you think it’s right to cancel this person’s membership, cancel it. Who cares?’ Statistically speaking, 19% of our membership sales are former members. It will come back to you if you do the right thing more times than not.”
However, in order to do the right thing as a business practice, employees must be truly empowered to do so. Creech explained he doesn’t micromanage decisions and gives staff the freedom to make mistakes.
“No one wants to hear from an employee, ‘I have to speak with management to resolve your issue,’” said Creech. “I try to give full autonomy to our managers and staff to make decisions. The only way we are going to learn is from some of the mistakes he or she might make. Making a mistake is OK, but not making a decision? That’s the wrong thing to do.”
For Creech, the opportunity to make mistakes and grow, and learn the basics of customer service, are important lessons — especially for his younger staff.
According to a study by OnePoll, nearly two out of three young Americans admit they are lacking in social skills, and two in five millennials believe a lack of social skills has held them back in the workplace.
“I feel like it’s our responsibility to pass down these skills to young kids because they’re not getting it elsewhere,” said Creech. “We try to teach people how to treat people.”
For some younger adults, the impact of these lessons lasts far beyond their time at DAC.
Haley Comola, a former employee who started at the gym as a teen, recently texted Creech about the impact her time at DAC had on her growth. She has since become a doctor at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I heard this guy Kevin Brown talk about the ‘Hero Effect’ today … but what he said struck me, mostly because you instilled so many important customer service qualities in me [through] my very first front desk, face-of-the-business job at 16 years old,” wrote Comola. “I want to say thank you for giving me a chance and teaching me how to treat people.”
For Creech, imparting these lessons not only benefits his staff but results in a win for the organization as well.
“People say we’re in an era where customer service doesn’t matter anymore,” said Creech. “I don’t believe that. I truly believe it does, and that starts with me. It goes down to my managers and down to those who are working on the lines for us every day.”
Beyond imparting life skills to staff, Creech also isn’t shy about sharing with other fitness operators his lessons learned in business that he’s gleaned over the last 24 years.
Top of mind in light of recent economic uncertainty are the lessons Creech learned from the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
At that time, DAC was in the process of an extensive renovation at one of its locations and was funding the project out of its operating cash.
“Three months into that project, the bottom fell out of the financial markets,” recalled Creech. “All our clubs — four at the time — started to hemorrhage cash and on top of that, we had a balloon note come due on one of our buildings. As anyone knows who was trying to borrow money at that time, access to credit was virtually non-existent. We were in a bad spot to say the least with what seemed like very few options for a resolution at the time.”
Fortunately, Creech was able to secure a loan with favorable terms to keep the business afloat. But the close call taught him to pay attention to trends in the economy and in his business.
“The 2008-2009 crisis was really the first downturn in business I was involved in as an owner, and I wasn’t prepared,” said Creech. “We knew the recession was coming, but anything I researched on a recession said, ‘Oh, it’s just going to be eight or nine months.’ That was obviously wrong. I don’t want to ever put myself in that situation again where I’m not prepared. So, we’re actually starting to prepare now for another recession by watching for trends and paying close attention to our numbers.”
However, to truly be on top of trends, Creech explained it’s important for operators to ensure they’re working on the business, not just in it.
“Most of us are in the trenches every day,” said Creech. “But I learned by being a doer I missed so many things happening to our business because I was in it and not working on it. Nowadays I’m in my clubs every day for a couple hours. I meet with my managers in the mornings just for a daily huddle, they let me know what’s going on and then I let them do their thing. This allows me to stay on top of trends and make any adjustments I need to make.”
In addition, Creech advised operators to find a peer support group you can lean on to bounce ideas off of.
“Find a mentorship group you can confide in and share ideas with,” said Creech. “It’s been invaluable to me. The thing I will say about our industry too — everybody is willing to share. That’s what’s really cool about our business. People are so giving if you just ask.”
Last but not least, Creech’s final piece of advice for other operators goes back to the foundation of doing the right thing. Ultimately, that good karma will lead to enduring success.
“I recently got a message from a member who sent me a picture of the field where our first location was built and the message said, ‘Little did I know how your club and kindness would play such an important part of my life,’” said Creech. “Just one text like this — and I get many — makes all the bad days worth it. They are a subtle reminder that you have done some good, and that provides a sense of pride to me that money can never buy.”
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