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The Best of Brent

For more than three decades, Brent Darden, the chairperson of IHRSA’s board of directors, has been a participant in, and student of, the fitness industry. Here’s what he’s learned! 

photo by Alayna MacPherson

case could be made that Brent Darden is the health and fitness club industry personified.

Since 1984, when he graduated from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, with a master’s degree in exercise science, he’s worked in virtually every imaginable fitness environment—small studios, athletic and multipurpose clubs, spas, corporate wellness, and university facilities.

From his first job as the assistant director of the recreation center at the First Baptist Church of Waco, Darden’s career arc has included management positions at the Fitstop Corporation; Texas Instruments, Inc.; and Nortel Networks (formerly Northern Telecom, Ltd.), as well as the legendary Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas. He’s also served as the executive director of Shape Up Texas!, a nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to improving the health and well-being of all Texans.

Most recently, Darden, 53, has been keeping busy as the co-owner and general manager of the TELOS Fitness Center, an award-winning, 63,000-square-foot multipurpose facility in Dallas. Over the years, he’s earned his share of accolades. He was a member of the Certification Governing Board for the Cooper Institute for Research. He was named IHRSA’s first General Manager of the Year in 1998, was elected to the association’s board of directors in 2010, and now serves as its chairperson. In 2007, TELOS was the corporate recipient of the Greater Dallas Business Ethics Award, and, in 2008, it received the Business of the Year award from the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

An astute observer and inveterate student, Darden has codified much of what he’s learned and, today, enjoys sharing it with others. Part preacher, part teacher, and part “reacher,” he never stops striving for excellence and trying to inspire others to do the same. CBI asked him to impart some of the most important lessons he’s earned with our readers. 

1. The industry's purpose

“A common thread, across all of the settings that I’ve worked in, is this industry’s mission to help individuals identify their personal wellness goals and support their efforts. Although the business models differed, all were rewarding in that they served as a valuable resource for individuals who wanted to take care of themselves.

“As I often tell young people entering this industry, we’re in the business of inspiring people to help themselves. Of course, in the club sector, we must entice them to use our services by purchasing memberships. In the corporate-wellness arena, even though the services may be free to eligible employees, the goal is still to encourage high levels of participation.

“In both cases, however, you’re trying to do whatever you can to get individuals to be active in your facilities and programs. And the more engaged and connected they are, the more likely they are to progress toward their goals—and to keep coming back. It’s a beautiful business cycle to be able to promote.

“That said, consistently delivering a great customer experience is just plain hard. Our industry continues to struggle with this because doing so requires such a comprehensive approach. To deliver a distinctive experience, you need a strong organizational philosophy, corporate commitment, support systems, high service standards, service-minded team members, customer-service training, staff accountability, the ability to measure satisfaction, and recovery strategies. If any of these components is missing, the likelihood that you’ll be able to reliably meet or exceed members’ expectations diminishes.” 

2. Operational success

“It starts with—location, location, location. I’ve seen poorly managed clubs thrive in under-served markets, and exemplarily managed clubs struggle in over-served or inadequate markets.

“Second, despite the proliferation and growth of nondues revenue sources—and TELOS has excelled in this area with almost 68% of its revenue originating here—the success of our business still begins, and ends, with membership. Also, fundamentally, we’re in a fixed-cost business; therefore, a small rise or fall in sales can produce much larger increases or decreases in earnings. 

"Third, it may sound like a cliché, but the most important thing you need to ascertain is whether a potential employee is a good ‘match’ for your club. Like-minded individuals who are fit, positive, friendly, service-oriented, and highly motivated attract others with similar leanings and create the real work culture of the club. I’ve always considered character first ... skills, second.

“Retaining these employees and earning their loyalty requires that you build ‘a work family.’ For example, all of my new employees receive a handwritten note from me welcoming them to the team on their first day of work. Sometime during their first week, I sit with each one to talk about where we grew up, the schools we attended, our families, our hobbies—anything but work. And once a quarter, I host a reception at my home in Plano for new employees and their guests—a casual dinner, a few icebreakers, and some team-building activities. These small things complement our structured recognition program.” 

3. Criticality of culture

“It’s important to never underestimate the importance of a positive and productive corporate culture. While culture can seem a nebulous thing, it’s a critical factor in ongoing success, or, if it’s ‘broken,’ in failure.

“On two specific occasions, I was required to radically modify an existing culture. In both instances, the process began by crafting the ‘cornerstone concepts’—defining the vision, purpose, mission, and values of the organization—and repeatedly communicating these ideals to my team members. The next step was to establish standards and to elevate performance expectations.

“This is the critical juncture for preexisting staff members. When my business partner and I took over a failed club, which has subsequently become TELOS, we sincerely wanted to retain the vast majority of the staff. But we discovered it was incredibly difficult to change the attitudes and behaviors that had been inculcated by the previous ownership. Initially, these individuals would nod in agreement when told about the new direction we’d planned for the company. But it quickly became apparent that this new paradigm wasn’t a ‘match’ for them. Ten years later, only six of the original staff members remain.

“In the future, I’d ‘clean house’ much more quickly. You can preach all you want about what the culture should be like, but it materializes, manifests itself, every day through the day-to-day actions of employees at every level. It’s a simple equation: With the wrong people, you’ll wind up with the wrong behavior and the wrong culture! With the right people, you have a chance to have the right behavior and the right culture!” 

4. Navigating transitions

“I’ve been involved in many transitions over the years. The most difficult things about moving into a new position, I’ve found, are having to ‘start over’ and earn the trust of the people you’ll be working with, and learning how to get things done most effectively in the new situation. Establishing standards, setting expectations, accountability, processes, and collaborative internal relationships—they’re always more challenging than the technical aspects of a new role.

“I remember, a few years ago, after we’d opened TELOS, the members of my advisory board asked me to describe the most frustrating part of that first year. I told them that it was the lack of trust by so many of the preexisting club members. They’d been so poorly treated by the former owners that they scoffed at anything I said—until they saw things begin to change. It actually hurt my feelings, at first. It offended me that they didn’t believe me when I shared our plans for the future of the club and the organization.

“The bottom line is: Nobody cares how good or successful you were at your last job. You have to earn respect where you are now.

“When it seems appropriate, I share with team members some advice my dad gave me when I was feeling pretty good about myself in high school. He said: ‘Son, if you’re really good at what you do, you don’t have to tell people. Others will do the talking for you.’”  

5. 'Living the business'

“Our business is a very personal one. And one of the most effective ways to ensure continued member participation is to develop a solid relationship with members. Learning their names is a good place to start—doing so should be mandatory. At our weekly leadership-team meetings, we pull members’ photos from our online files, and take a test to help us memorize a new list each week.

“Speaking of personal—although it may not be best to let your work define you, it’s certainly common in our business. Recently, for example, my wife, Melanie, and I were welcoming a new family to our church community following the service, and, upon meeting us for the first time, they said, ‘Oh, you must be the fitness people we’ve heard about.’

“When I contemplate life and work, I often think of the following quote, which has been attributed to the late author James A. Michener: ‘The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.’

“I strive to live by this philosophy, and I’m so thankful that I’m able to make a living doing something that provides meaning and purpose—rewards much more valuable than an income.” 

6. Achieving balance

“Throughout my career, regardless of the positions I’ve held, I’ve always had the same placard on my desk. It reads: ‘No amount of success at work can compensate for failure at home.’ For the past 31 years, I’ve been blessed with a wonderful wife, who shares this conviction. Together, we’ve tried to balance our work and family responsibilities as best as we can. Our priorities are: faith, first; family, including our children, Chase, 25, and Cody, 21, second; wellness, third; and work, fourth. The secret is to steadfastly prioritize your time and, whenever possible, to set boundaries that align with the desired outcome.

“At work, it’s essential that you hire solid and trustworthy individuals to support you; learn to delegate; be realistic about the time it takes to complete tasks; plan time to work out; and commit to a reasonable work schedule. We all tend to ‘find time’ to do the things that we enjoy the most, but often get lost, wasting time on things we really don’t care about very much. Over time, the balance between the essential and the interesting ebbs and flows depending on jobs, kids, and other life circumstances. Keeping one’s sight fixed on what’s most important helps to maintain balance long-term.

“I don’t play video games, watch much TV, or let social media become an all-consuming activity. That gives me more time for the hobbies that I do enjoy—things like extreme adventure racing, and building unique architectural furniture/art. Effective time-management is an absolute necessity if you’re going to get the most out of business and life.”  

Reader Comments (3)

You've done a wonderful job of articulating the importance of "Fundamental 1st, and details next". The standard you set is high, the message you send is inspiring, and best of all within the reach of anyone willing to invest the time. It's clear you walk the walk, and these words follow your actions. Nicely said!
November 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScott Gillespie
This is the common motto of every organization. But it is impossible for all organization to achieve this goal due to several reasons. An owner should be analysis on the weak points of his/her organization and make proper plan to use these weakness as strength. For this a well managed management required. With this a strong leader also need to manage its human resource.

Changes in administration have to adopt when it require. Executive coaching training plays a vital role to enhance the working condition which is ultimately related to the organizational output.
March 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRogers Reed
Hi there! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could get a captcha plugin for my comment form? I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having difficulty finding one? Thanks a lot!
March 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterManaged Services Dallas

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