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Big City Planner

For Kim Manocherian, attending IHRSA's 32nd Annual International Convention and Trade Show in Las Vegas last March was part homecoming, part revelation.

Having assumed the duties of president and CEO of the New York Health & Racquet Clubs (NYHRC) in New York City just three months earlier, she was returning to the fitness industry after a 20-year hiatus, during which she’d raised three children.

The daughter of founder Fraydun Manocherian, who’d opened the first of the company’s nine facilities in 1973, she’d grown up working in a variety of club positions—from front-desk greeter to general manager. And, as she roamed the high-energy trade show at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, she found herself reflecting on his legacy.

“In the early days, we were both a pioneer and the Studio 54 of health clubs,” she reminisces. “New York University came to us to help them create an exercise and fitness curriculum, and celebrities were everywhere. It all seemed very exclusive and exciting.”

Much of that ambience and energy remains, but, over time, things had clearly changed. Manocherian came to that conclusion in the two years she spent studying NYHRC before taking over the helm.

Today, members can make use of any of the chain’s facilities, all of which feature top-of-the-line equipment, swimming pools, and an impressive offering of 600 group exercise classes per week. Some locations also offer basketball, racquetball, squash, Wallyball, and bouldering. On certain days of the week, members even have access to NYHRC’s 75-foot yacht—an exclusive amenity that few clubs, anywhere, can match.

And, yes, celebrities can still be found. Television host Jimmy Fallon and super chef Mario Batali are among members who work out on the clubs' raquetball courts.

Yet, as she studied the business and prepared to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary—longevity that’s virtually unheard of in the industry—she became convinced that, if NYHRC was to continue to thrive, she’d have to adopt a new philosophy and management style.

Manocherian found herself gravitating toward an approach that, in many ways, ran counter to the current management-theory trend of using dashboards of real-time data to make corporate decisions. In New York City’s increasingly lean, hard-nosed, wired, efficient, bottom-line oriented, mobile, and impersonal business environment, Manocherian decided that what NYHRC needed most was a more human face.

NYHRC gets its mojo

Over the years, the clubs had gradually taken on some of the less positive attributes of the urban culture in which they operated, becoming colder and more anonymous, with people coming and going more quickly, and interact- ing less, like the crowds surging on the streets outside.

NYHRC’s business also had become more volatile, relying on high-volume sign-ups and Groupon-style promotions. Attrition rates, both for members and staff, were on the rise. And, in New York’s burgeoning market—one crowded with club chains, boutique gyms, and cutting-edge fitness movements with devoted followers—NYHRC no longer enjoyed the luxury of being one of the few games in town.

At IHRSA 2013, a keynote speech by Chip Conley, the founder of the Joie de Vivre hotel chain, and author of Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslowconfirmed Manocherian’s growing conviction that, to revitalize NYHRC, she’d have to refocus on and reemphasize the human element. Conley’s message that companies can become self-actualized only if they perceive a higher meaning in what they do prompted Manocherian to undertake a candid and uncompromising assessment of NYHRC’s core values.

“Conley was inspiring and incredibly helpful,” she says. “Listening to him drove home the point that our employees really need to value fitness, and appreciate what it means in members’ lives.

“I don’t think you can compete on price,” she suggests. “It has to be about who you are, and we’d lost our identity. We needed to reinvest—not just upgrade our physical facilities, but also revise our mindset, as well.”

NYHRC, a venerable, but dusty, New York brand, had to reconnect—with its employees, its customers, and the communities it served.

NYHRC reconnects people

The changes that Manocherian has instituted, and continues to introduce, encompass both the subtle and the substantial, the intangible and the solid, the people and the amenities—the things that members sense, and the things that they see.

All of the clubs’ pools, for instance, are being converted to salt water, and new equipment and group exercise classes are being introduced regularly to keep abreast of the latest workout trends that frequently crop up in Manhattan. Among the current offerings are Kangoo, Tabata, Diezel Sculpt, Gyrokinesis, heated Vinyasa yoga, and even a Broadway Dancin’ class.

Still, in talking with Manocherian, it’s clear that the real emphasis is on people: employees who recognize the value in what they do, and, in turn, understand that they’re valued as well; staff that’s consistently responsive to clients; members who are uniformly satisfied; and a club population that embraces other cohorts.

“Each of our employees has to understand the critical role they play,” she says. “That goes for everyone from the front-desk receptionist to the locker room attendant.”

Manocherian refers to herself as NYHRC’s “nurturer in chief,” but, like any good leader, she knows you can’t force an attitude adjustment, so she invests in her staff in a variety of ways. Now, for example, every employee can make use of a personal trainer for one month at the company’s expense; and if they want to continue, they can do so for a specified fee.

“I’ve worked for many companies, and I’ve never met a woman who cares so deeply about her employees and the member experience,” says Debbie Newell-Antler, a 32-year industry veteran who’s served as the general manager of the NYHRC facility on Whitehall Street in Manhattan for the past three years.

“I saw the club industry go through some turmoil in the ’80s and ’90s,” Newell-Antler recalls. “I’ve learned that, if the staff isn’t happy, the members can’t help but notice. We have to create a rewarding experience for our clientele. While we’re a business, we can’t forget that members have individual needs, and, if we take good care of them, they’ll make use of the clubs more frequently.”

The tenure of some of the employees in the company’s Midtown headquarters attests to the success of the family-oriented philosophy practiced by Fraydun Manocherian, and now resurrected by Kim. There’s Lee, with 27 years of service; Ellen, with 32; Sal and Jesus, with 33 each; and Heidi, with 40.

NYHRC’s 40th anniversary celebration, which took place in September, reflected the new attitude that Manocherian has fostered. Staff members dressed in attire from the ’70s—leisure suits, disco pants, bell-bottoms—tooled around in equally vintage cars, stopping by and visiting the clubs. The tagline for the event was “When only cars had muscles,” and a quick look at photos of the celebrities and newsmakers of the period reveals that physical training and bodybuilding hadn’t yet gone mainstream.

NYHRC engages the public

In addition to enhancing the member and staff experience, Manocherian believes that NYHRC can be a vital public resource, and giving back to the community has once again become an essential part of the company’s mission.

When NYHRC’s Whitehall facility in lower Manhattan was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, the club’s place in the local community became evident. “It was like the whole world had ended,” remembers Newell-Antler. “Yet, even then, the club provided people with a sense of normalcy. Other things in their lives might have been in turmoil, but they could come here, see friends, and be greeted by a smiling staff who knew their name. It made a difference. It really did.”

The company also has partnered with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) association, and participates in employment events organized by America Works, the Mayor’s Office of Veteran’s Affairs, and the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Program (NADAP).

A lifelong New Yorker, Manocherian is committed to creating and maintaining a familial atmosphere within the city’s glass and concrete canyons, and she’s willing to defy the conventional wisdom to do it. “Before I came back, numbers drove the business,” she observes. “Now people lead it. We all feel really good about what we do, and there’s no downside to that.” 

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