2023 ECM Winners Featured on National Club Conference Panel
After being honored the previous night during the Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards Presentation and Dinner (see the Summer Issue of the McMahon Report), recipients of the 2023 ECM Awards that are co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and the National Club Association participated in a panel discussion, moderated by Frank Vain, President of McMahon Group, and Chris Coulter, McMahon’s VP of Club Consulting, as part of the educational agenda for the National Club Conference held in Chicago from May 8-10.
The wide-ranging discussion included the ECM winners’ comments and thoughts on subject areas that included lessons learned from their own personal mentors and how they strive to now be effective mentors themselves; the increased importance of building and sustaining workplace cultures that help to establish a better work-life balance, and bridging the gap between tradition and staying current in a private-club environment.
Here are selected highlights of the panelists’ responses to questions posed by Frank Vain, Chris Coulter and those attending the session:
Q: Who were some of your own personal mentors, and what were some of the valuable lessons you learned from them that you now strive to pass on in your own mentorship roles?
Matt Lambert, CCM, CAM, ECM, The Country Club at Mirasol (James H. Brewer Award):
I started out in restaurants and after moving to Florida I had fantastic opportunities to learn fine dining from great restaurateurs like Dennis Max and Bert Rapoport. After owning my own restaurant for a year, I moved into clubs and that eventually led to an opportunity with Craig Perna as he developed Mirasol.
I started there as Clubhouse Manager in July 2003 and my mother passed away in the first week of September as we were getting ready to open the club in November. By the time I got back from Massachusetts at the end of September after making all the funeral arrangements, I had been gone three-and-a-half weeks. I expected that I might be let go and I definitely expected that I wouldn’t be paid for the time I’d been away. But Craig Perna said “Don’t worry, you’ll be paid, and I’ll just ‘get it out of you’ over the next couple of years.”
That really changed my life—I’d always thought I’d been a pretty good manager and leader, but that taught me new lessons about taking care of staff and creating the type of culture that would help me be successful in the club business.
Carmen Mauceri, CCM, ECM, The Club at Mediterra (Mead Grady Award): From when I got my first job washing dishes at a local pizza restaurant, through the experiences I had with the very best hotels and restaurants, what I learned from others and have always tried to apply both for myself and with my team is to reduce things to their simplest form. When you can do that, you can capture the devil in the details and you’re truly winning.
My mentors also showed me that it’s not always about trying to create something that has never been created, but more about striving to perfect something that many people have tried to do. My grandfather, who was a carpenter, showed me that when he helped me build a deck after I bought my first home. After about an hour working with him, he told me that he was going to buy stock in nails, because he’d seen that I couldn’t hit one straight to save my soul. So that showed me how the principle of getting one thing right, even it seemed like such a small detail for a much bigger project, could carry me a long way.
Carol Bliss, CCM, ECM, Chilton Club (Mel Rex Award): On my first day on the job at my first club, my General Manager told me there was one rule: I had one year to learn everyone’s name and member number. As I progressed through my career, I had another GM find a way to keep me from leaving after I was upset I didn’t get a Clubhouse Manager job. Then after I got my first GM job, Steve Cummins, David Chag, Kristen LaCount and many others within the industry were always available to take my calls and assure me that no question was stupid and that they would be there to help me be successful in any way they could.
I’ve tried to remember all of those lessons and pass them on now. And just as my mentors always made time for me, I always make time for others, no matter what I have on my plate. When someone on my staff stops by my office or sees me in the hall and says, “Do you have a minute?” my reply is “I have all day for you.” I don’t care if I’m late for a meeting, they’re my priority if they need me for something.
Trevor Noonan, CCM, CCE, ECM, Toronto Club (John Furlong Award): I fell into clubs after starting in hospitality when I was 12 years old, making donuts with my mother in a small town, and then working in restaurants, resorts and hotels before starting with clubs 28 years ago. I didn’t really have any mentors as I got into the club business, it was just kind of learning as you go. But I watched my managers and while unfortunately in my first two clubs they were both let go in short order, I made note of what they weren’t doing that they should have been doing, and learned that way.
When I got to one club, the GM there wasn’t a great mentor, but he allowed me to do what I needed to do and held me accountable, and that was the best thing he could have done. I also got very involved with the Canadian association of club managers and many of the people there morphed into my mentor team and drove home the importance of surrounding yourself with great people.
Margaux Beuscher, ECM, Sulgrave Club (Rising Star Award): From my mentors, I learned the importance of always feeling the emotion of why we were all excited to get into hospitality in the first place, and then remembering that every day. That still fuels me and I spend a lot of time now talking with hospitality students and trying to get them “into our world” in the same way, showing them how it can be a great career path when you keep that passion for making people happy every day.
Q: While the pandemic prompted a surge in membership and created new opportunities for clubs, it also increased the challenges involved with hiring and retaining staff, because of the renewed emphasis on achieving a more acceptable work-life balance for employees. What are some of the successful approaches that you’ve implemented at your clubs to be able to continue to properly serve larger memberships while also being attentive to the changing realities of employee relations?
Matt Lambert: There’s no question that COVID also brought a push to provide a better quality of work-life balance, and I think in the long term that will help our business. We saw it several years ago when the Shake Shakes of the world changed the whole expectations of the hospitality industry. Now we have a great opportunity to follow that, but only if we have the courage to speak back to our Boards and say we do need to hire extra people to provide the right balance overall. There are very few young kids coming out of school now who want to put in the hours that probably most of us worked, so we have to change.
Carmen Mauceri: Just as when we as leaders have learned to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations when we develop budgets or programs for our operations and take on the challenges of meeting those expectations, I think we have to be equally uncomfortable talking to our Boards about what we need and the needs of our team. We often develop a budget that’s almost unachievable and then put ourselves in a disposable environment if it doesn’t work. But the team is not disposable, so our responsibility is to be as uncomfortable with their “non-disposability” as we are with our budgets.
When you do that, it is impossible for the team not to recognize it and that’s the first step you’ll take towards building a cost-neutral culture, through the action of going to bat for those individuals. Before COVID, Boards may have thought it doesn’t matter, we can just find someone else. But it does matter now, because you can’t always do that. The last few years have helped a lot of club managers learn to have a greater presence in the boardroom, and that presence and energy should now be devoted to your team.
I also think that some clubs, like ours in Florida, might have a leg up on this because of what we’ve had to learn about crisis management with hurricanes and other challenges. I boil crisis management down to making risky, calculated decisions for the team and then hoping they work out.
When Category 5 hurricanes like Irma and Ian hit Florida and ravaged our Beach Club and many other things, I, and many of my fellow managers, had to make some very difficult decisions that I don’t believe we could have made without the full support and trust of our Boards. I closed Mediterra down six days in advance of Irma’s landfall and had some other club managers say, “I can’t believe you’re doing that; we’re going to try to serve our members to the last day.” And while I took it on the chin for that decision in the days leading up to when Irma made landfall, 99% of those individuals who gave me a hard time came back full circle. Because after the event happened, and people were without food and water for 14 days, they saw the value of doing everything in our power to protect everyone well in advance of the crisis. When you make a few of those decisions and the chips fall your way, the trust is a lot easier to gain.
Carol Bliss: I’ve addressed the challenge by making up jobs at my club. When I find someone I really like and I don’t have a job for them, I say give me a month or whatever, and I will make a job that fits.
I met two young women who I thought would be great candidates for our F&B Manager position but weren’t really ready; they were still kind of young without a lot of experience. So I called our Clubhouse Manager and said, “What do you think if we don’t hire an F&B manager?” She looked at me like I was nuts, because she had been taking on that role and all that was involved with it. But I said, “What if we hired two F&B supervisors instead? We’ll divide the roles, and give them each 8- to 10-hour days, five days a week, and not pay them as much collectively as we were going to pay before, but help them with CMAA membership and money to buy their suits for the job and other things.” They both said yes, and it’s worked out great.
The same thing happened with someone I hired as our Member Event Marketing Manager. When she interviewed for the job, she was young and great, but not quite ready for my club and for meeting my members’ expectations. But I said, “I know you’re unhappy at your club and you want to leave; I get it. If you give me one year I will give you a job, I just have to figure out what it is.” Every three months I would check in with her to tell her I was still working on it. After I finally called her with the right job and she agreed to start, I told my Board I was hiring her and at the time three members were absolutely against it. But now they say, “Don’t ever let her leave, do whatever you have to do to keep her here.” She was actually just promoted to be our Communications Manager.
That’s how our Board had learned to trust me and share how we now care about our staff and try to find the right work-life balance—even if we have to make up a job to have everyone be happier in the end.
Trevor Noonan: We should all keep working together to try to build up the next level of talent. I do a lot of speaking at local colleges and universities and while I can’t always bring people on at my own club, I have a lot of connections through being involved with our managers’ association. So if I don’t have a job, I may very well know someone who does. And if we can propagate other clubs with great people, we’re only making the industry stronger.
Also, if I help someone get a job at another club, it’s quite likely there’s going to be a day when I might need them to come work for me, and if I pick up the phone and call them and say I have a promotion for you, they will remember that. So I think that’s our responsibility, to make those connections with other managers and use them in those ways.
Margaux Beuscher: I’m trying to be a role model right now by leaving things on my own to-do list to go home or schedule personal time. That shows others that if you communicate in advance that you have something else that’s important to do, we can find a way to make it work. If I’m always working 12-hour days myself and it looks like that’s what needed to do the job, others aren’t going to want to follow in those footsteps. So I try to show that you can be a good Mom and be there for kids’ soccer games or whatever, but then also be there for the job as well.
I also try to show how that can make you more productive when you are in the building, and that you can have it all and this can be a career you can stay in long-term. I actually called an employee the other day and told him to take the day off, because it was a quiet day and I could cover the operation. I caught him off guard and he questioned it quite a few times, but I just said stay home and he ended up having lunch with his family and really appreciated being able to do that.
As a Type A person myself, I haven’t always been comfortable with doing things like that to help provide a better balance for myself and everyone else. But it’s clear that everyone’s more receptive to doing what’s needed when you make the effort to give them what they need.
Q: What are the keys to keeping private clubs relevant for the next generation of members and properly balancing the need to maintain clubs’ traditions with staying current through continuous innovation?
Carol Bliss: My club is very formal and traditional, but we’ve been doing tiny little things to help them understand that they have to move forward. An easy example is that last year at our annual meeting, they voted to stop calling me Mrs. Bliss, and members can now officially call me Carol. This is a step forward because the new members who are my age and younger want to call me by my first name; it shows we are on the same level.
We’re also doing things to help members become comfortable with technology. We’ve kept our news flyer looking relatively the same, but now we’ve added the ability to click through it to make reservations. And if our members do not know how to use technology, Tara, my communications person, is a rock star. We do “Tech Tuesdays with Tara” where she’ll help you with anything—your Apple watch or iPhone, or pairing things together, or even helping to fix your keyboard when it doesn’t work with your computer. She’ll host a private Zoom session to help you, or you can come to her office.
So whatever we can do to basically hand-hold our members forward into the future, they’re coming to understand that in a slow way, we’ve come a long way in five years.
Trevor Noonan: We’ve had a focus on more inclusivity. We are a function of what the business community of Toronto looks like, but we have made statements, and put them in writing in our minutes, that if a woman member comes off a committee, at least one woman will go on, and that on Executive Committee, at least one of the three members will be women. We’ve made those statements public and have also adopted a bit of a different membership model to try to say that just because the business world for 100 years was not very inclusive, we still need to be more inclusive to make sure we’re generating the next group of members at the club. And we hold ourselves accountable to that.