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Greg Lappin: ‘The GM’s GM’

By Patricia Amend

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time talking with Greg Lappin, an accomplished club professional who’s currently the general manager of the Rochester Athletic Club, a 260,000-square-foot multipurpose facility with more than 12,000 members, in Rochester, Minnesota. Greg, a nationally recognized tennis expert, has also held important posts at the Flagship Athletic Club, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and the Northwest Racquet and Swim Club chain, based in Minneapolis. Greg, regarded by many as “the GM’s GM,” always has interesting, insightful, and valuable things to say, and this time was no different. Here are some of his thoughts on a variety of important topics:

Making the Most of Every Experience: My entry into the fitness industry occurred in 1985, when I was hired to develop the Flagship Athletic Club. During my eight years there, I held every department head position that existed. Looking back, it was a very challenging, but valuable experience. It helped me to grow from being a naïve tennis pro into someone who was pretty knowledgeable. Flagship was one of the first four-season, high-quality, social and athletic clubs in the industry with an outdoor pool and paddle tennis courts.

Building a Club from Scratch: In 1992, some investors approached me about designing a new facility and assembling a new team. We hired the architect, and, 13 months later, we opened the 200,000-square-foot Rochester Athletic Club, one of the first clubs with an open design, a family locker room, and an outdoor water park.

We built the club to meet our members’ needs and those of their children. When doing so, I used my own family as a point of reference. For example, when my daughters were young and wanted to swim, I’d take them to the women’s locker room and wait while they changed into their suits. After they’d been in the pool, they’d want to use the bathroom, so I’d lead them to the ladies’ restroom and wait outside again. It was very impractical.

So, at Rochester, we put in family locker rooms with a toilet, sink, bench, and hair dryers. They’re popular with mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, senior couples, and people with disabilities.

We also asked the question, ‘What do most clubs have for 7-12-year-olds?’ Very little, in most cases. So we included a junior gym, baseball batting cages, a water park with a 200’ slide, sand volleyball, and climbing structures. This added a wonderful, fun component to the club, which was important because no one has ever said, ‘Gee this is so much fun; I’ll never do it again!’

Innovate…Or Evaporate: We’d built the right club in the right city at the right time, and it proved very successful. However, what had been innovative in 1993 was boring by 2003. We knew it was time for an update because, as I’ve always said, “Innovate…or evaporate.”

The result was a major expansion and remodeling, which included The Neighborhood, a 35,000-square-foot family-entertainment center. We added this unique feature because so many kids don’t have safe neighborhoods to play in these days.

Just the FACTs: In terms of management style, I believe in treating everyone in a respectful and dignified manner. Honesty and integrity are key, and the club’s core values reflect this. I also believe that training is essential, so I created our FACT program, which stands for Focus, Accountability, Commitment, and Tracking. Focus on the big picture. Be accountable for what you’re expected to do. Demonstrate your commitment by following up on what you’ve agreed to. The last item, tracking, has to do with procedures that the company is expected to follow, such as how we communicate, resolve conflicts, handle reviews, distribute paychecks, etc. All of that is covered in a well-organized manual that includes instructions for any task in the club, as well as in a memo of the week. We also have SOS, or Simply Outstanding Service, a customer-training program.

After 18 years in the business, we have good systems in place that I continue to tweak.

Weathering Minnesota Winters and an Economic Downturn: We’ve done well because this is a classic company town. The Mayo Clinic employs 25,000 of the 100,000 residents of Rochester. However, two years ago, they built their own 100,000-square-foot corporate wellness center, which costs employees just $15 per month to use. Our dues, by comparison, are $71 for a single person, and up to $146 for a family. We lost about 600 memberships over 18 months, dropping to about 4,000.

However, one competitive edge we have is that we’re a true destination club with a strong family focus. Our response to the new competition has been to continue adding new features. For example, we now offer physical therapy, which has generated tremendous word-of-mouth; and a new boot camp class, for which we charge just $6 per session, has proven especially popular.

I’ve also become much more proactive about promotions and getting our name out in the community. Today, for example, 36 Boy Scouts and their families are using the club for free. We also invite companies to hold their corporate parties or lunches here. I encouraged one member to invite eight of her friends to a free mixer; five of them joined and wound up playing on a summer USTA league. Simply getting people inside is the most effective way to sell any club and to remain competitive in any economy. 

- Patricia Amend is executive editor of CBI magazine and can be reached at

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