December 7, 2015
Begin interview. Today is December 7, 2015 and the time is 4pm eastern. This is Ed Toole, from the YMCA Retirement Fund interviewing John Flynn. Mr. Flynn thank you for being able to share your story with me today.
It’s certainly a pleasure to be talking to you about the YMCA.
Great. My first question for you is tell us about your first YMCA experience.
Well, like a lot of YMCA professionals I went to the Y when I was a kid. And I had four sisters and a brother and we all went to the Y, and ironically they were all better members of the Y than I was. They were competitive swimmers and well behaved children and I always wanted to play basketball, I always wanted to play with older kids, I got into fights in the Youth lobby, I got suspended from the Y. But it was always a good experience because I got back in and the thing I remember most about the Y is the people who were the program directors.
The camp counselors that I enjoyed because I kind of looked up to them. I looked up to their physical appearance, their qualities, the things that they shared with kids and somehow I thought that wouldn’t be a bad thing for me to do someday when I got older. I just really enjoyed going to the Y playing basketball, also on the swim team for a while until basketball kind of took over, but the Youth lobby’s used to be a big thing.
As we got older they had teen dances and stuff at the Y that were always interesting and fun, but it was always a great place for us to go. My sisters were highly competitive swimmers there on into their high school years and a few of them swam in college too. So, we are long time involved with the YMCA in Holyoke Massachusetts.
Great. Well tell me about your first job with the Y and then take me through your career up until what's going to happen this month.
Well, me starting to work at the Y was quite an interesting story. My aunt called me up and asked me if I’d coach my cousin’s basketball team at the Holyoke Y, my hometown, and it was virtually for high school kids who got cut from the varsity. It was at 8am Saturday morning, I was 23 years old, and I had no interest in going to the Y at 8am Saturday morning. I wanted to stay out late and enjoy myself and sleep a little on Saturday morning. Long story short I couldn’t say no to her. I started coaching at the Y, I really enjoyed it. Now these guys were only like six years younger than I was so it was pretty interesting.
I liked that, I went back a second year and half way through the second year a guy came up to me and asked if I wanted to be the Executive Director of the YMCA. My response to him was, “I don’t even know what that is.” He then said, “Then would you be willing to talk to us, some of the members of the board of directors?” I said, “Yes I would.” I was 24 years old and I started talking to them and a few months later I was the Executive Director of the Holyoke YMCA at the ripe old age of 25 years.
It was an amazing experience. I made more mistakes than anybody ever ought to have the right to do and it probably wasn’t the smartest thing in the world for them to hire a 25 year old kid to run the YMCA. But we worked hard.
I always say that we were failing forward, because when we made mistakes we learned by them. We had quite a group put together and they were five, I was the fifth CEO in five years at the Y. It was in a lot of turmoil, weak financially, facilities were run down and I was there for eight years and I just loved every minute of it. We worked hard, we did a lot of good stuff for kids and families and communities and facilities and it triggered my career that’s been now almost 38 years.
Take me through after you left there and the other positions you had and tell me a little bit about those.
I was at Holyoke for eight years and we experienced quite a bit of growth. People ask me what's the biggest change in the YMCA in my time and I say, “Air-conditioning.” I don’t want to sound like it wasn’t invented, but Y’s were not air conditioned when I started working there. The summers were very quiet and day camp was about all that happened at the Y and it was a modest day camp at an offsite property, but good programming. There were not school aged child care, there was not fitness center.
I remember opening the school aged child care and the fitness center in the YMCA in Holyoke in the early 1980s, which is about when both of them started to burgeon, both from-through working heads of households and single parent heads of household who worked, and then school aged child care emerged. Latchkey kids and we got going in a big way with the Holyoke public schools, and then we forged a partnership to open a nautilus fitness center at the Y with private investment. We didn’t have enough money to open a fitness center and a couple of guys who belonged to the Y put up some money.
They incorporated bought the nautilus equipment and put it in the Y and again, that was in the early 80s, and it’s amazing that those two integral parts of YMCA today didn’t even exist when I started working there in 1978. We experienced a fair amount of growth which was great. I also got convinced that I was a career YMCA person and I went on to Schenectady in New York to run a YMCA there that was a four, five branch YMCA $1.4 million budget which sounds small today but back then it was a big step up from maybe $600,000 at the Holyoke YMCA.
I think it was $180,000 at the Holyoke YMCA when I started and I remember that we got one third of that from the United Way. YMCAs today seem to get less than one percent from the United Way. At least our YMCA with a budget of 90 plus million dollars gets less than one percent.
So I went to Schenectady which was a troubled Y. It had some assets that I thought were very interesting. A very old, 1913, five story, 90,000 square foot YMCA building with 185 resident rooms in it and it was kind of a rundown building. We also had a beautiful camp on Lake George, camp Chingachgook, which was about fallen in the lake. The YMCA was virtually bankrupt except that we weren’t smart enough to figure it out in file. So we thought hard work and dedication could turn that around, and we actually looked at selling the camp as the solution to the troubled finances.
I think it was worth about $10,000,000. We probably only owed about two and a half million dollars and it could have paid it off and put a lot of money in the bank. What we determined through a process of evaluation was that the camp was the best thing we had and if we strengthened the camp it could lead the rest of the association forward. And it did. We regionalized the camp, we took partners from Albany, Troy, Saratoga, Glens Falls, a couple of the other communities around there, and then we actually proceeded to merge the Albany, Schenectady and Troy YMCAs to form the Capital District Y.
Which ironically allowed me to stay in that area for 21 years, raise my family and grew the Y from the $1.4 million budget to $30,000,000 budget and had a great experience there, made so many friends. My kids grew up there obviously, that’s their home town, even though they stayed Red Sox fans and Celtics fans and Patriot fans from Massachusetts. So, I thought I might stay in the Albany, Schenectady, and Troy area and retire from there because I think we built six or seven brand new YMCAs and it was a good place to live, but I somehow got an inkling that I wanted to move to a major metropolitan area and see if my skill set fit.
Next thing I knew I was in Philadelphia in 2007 and I've been here now for almost nine years through a phenomenal experience once again. I loved the major metropolitan market; I liked the diversity of the Y. We have some YMCAs that are 97% African American. The diversity is just amazing. We’ve been working hard to get this Y functioning fully and efficiently. Our budget’s in excess of $90,000,000. We have a quarter of a million members and it’s been an absolutely phenomenal capstone experience to my almost 38 year YMCA career.
That’s, great. So in that time 30, almost 40 years, tell me about a mentor or mentors that you had in the Y and how that person or people influenced you in your thinking, in your professional, personal, whatever it may be.
Well mentors played a big role in my life, period. Since I was a kid I identified that mentors were valuable even if they didn’t know they were your mentor. They didn't need to be a formal situation, but you could still work to emulate them and be like them and learn from them. But in the Y, the greatest thing I had, was relationships with people. Professionals in the Y, volunteers in the Y, members in the Y, and many of them taught me and helped me learn many, many great things. I'm sure that I have a dozen mentors in my years that I value hugely and I probably have another 20 or 30 whom I value somewhat, but valuable, in the kind of roles that they played for me.
But life changing, was a gentleman by the name of Victor Riley, who was the chairman and CEO of Key Corp which was headquartered in Albany, New York and he was a champion for regionalization. He had a big pulpit because he was the man in the greater Albany capital district area. I sent him a note one day and I said if you would give me an hour of your time whenever you would do it I would come and talk to you and I would like to glean some of your thinking of regionalization because our YMCAs really need it. I’d say back then we had three Albany, Schenectady and Troy YMCAs of varying degrees of ill health. We were all of ill health.
Mr. Riley made an appointment with me one day; I went in to see him. I actually was at Hampton’s beach in New Hampshire on vacation with my family and I drove back to Albany to have a meeting with him. He said, “John, you look like you have sun burn” and I do have fair Irish skin and I was in the sun at the beach and I said, “Yeah, I do.” He said, “Where’d you get it?” and I said, “Hamptons Beach, New Hampshire.” So, “When did you get it?” I said, “This morning.” And he said, “Well, what are you doing here if you were at Hampton Beach?” I said, “Well, I said I would meet you whenever you had the meeting scheduled. I appreciated that, I'm here, we are meeting, and I’m going back to Hampton Beach with my family tonight.” Well, whatever triggered there, Mr. Riley became what people thought was an uncle to me.
He ended up being a huge champion of our regionalization, of our merging of the Ys, of forming the Capital District YMCA. He chaired our first capital campaign just as an example of the differentials, his bank gave $15,000 to the Albany capital campaign most prior to that, and he gave us $300,000 for the larger capital district wide campaign. Which Mr. Riley was a chairman of. Not only that but he brought other great people into the organization and he’d go to a meeting of the Albany medical center board of directors and everybody on board would give him $50,000 for our Y.
Back then I could probably get guys to give $100, maybe I’d get lucky and a couple might give a $1,000, but Mr. Riley made the huge difference. So we had a five-million-dollar campaign. Back then you could build a Y for three and a half, four million dollars and we did it. We fixed up the camp, we just did things that were amazing and Mr. Riley was the big, big change agent for that. Made us professional, made us of a higher quality, taught us about image and professionalism and I just can’t say enough great about this guy.
When I was in my mid 50’s though I moved to Philadelphia and I met a man by the name of Larry Smith who was the Chief Financial Officer of Comcast Corporation. He’s the guy that hired me to come here to Philadelphia. I’ve never met a man like him in my life. He is the most honest, straight forward man in the world. He supported the Y, he supported me, and then he gave us three million bucks to build a new YMCA. Although the YMCA in Philadelphia was 160 years old at that point it had never had a seven figure gift.
So Larry’s three million dollars, but also when you give three million dollars you can get big gifts from other people and he raised the Y to an echelon that it hadn’t been at before, taught me so much professionally. Ironically Larry and I attended a regional YMCA Chief Executive, Chief Volunteer officer meeting together earlier in my tenure. There were 20 Ys in the room. So 20 CEOs, 20 CVOs and Larry leaned over to me and said, “John this is ridiculous. Every one of these Ys asked me for money at Comcast. The management efficiencies aren’t there and there should be one Y and you should be the CEO.”
I said, “Larry don’t say that out loud because we are trying to go from detested to disliked and I don’t think you saying that out loud would be good. But five years later, the majority of those Y’s were together in the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA and the impact and the result has been mind boggling and positive and Larry was another guy that just changed my life, but never mind, my life changed the organization, changed that organizations ability to serve a community and everybody is better off, except for poor Larry who passed away last year.
His son Chris is chairman of their family foundation; he’s on our board at the Y now wants to carry on his dad’s legacy. Larry’s widow Christine is a wonderful lady. The Ambler YMCA building is named the Christine and Lawrence Smith Ambler area YMCA. The Y will never not be better than it was when Larry changed things and set standards that were so much higher than we had ever really honestly ever imagined.
That’s great. Really impactful volunteer relationships and what they do for our Ys. So other than air conditioning, what do you believe was the most significant thing that happened in the YMCA Movement during your career or significant things? What did you see happen over those 35 plus years?
Well we in the YMCA, I think are sometimes our own biggest critics. And innovation, they said Ys aren’t innovative. Maybe we didn’t invent basketball lately, but when you think about fitness centers and wellness, the Y owns that business in market and it took off since sometime around 1980. If you look at school aged child care or latchkey programs or child care programs the YMCA didn’t invent it, but it made it. Those two evolutions in my lifetime are just amazing and all for the better.
Because it generates more people involved, more revenue is involved, which then you can hire more staff, who can do more good work, and that whole thing is just changed the professionalism of the Y, the image of the Y, and really the inclusivity of the Y. So I was the first non-wasp to run the Holyoke YMCA as an Irish Catholic kid, young man I guess when I started working there. I mean, I remember people who were four, five years older than me telling me that they would go to the Y to play basket ball, their name would be in the paper, and the priests would beat their hands with a pointer on Monday morning because they weren’t supposed to go there. I'm pretty sure that the Pope said that Catholics weren’t supposed to go to the Y because of all this proselytizing. Well the Y has evolved to be an inclusive organization for everybody.
I remember early in my time at Philadelphia, quite honestly, we weren’t sensitive enough to Muslims and we didn’t know what their needs were. In west Philadelphia for instance there is a huge Muslim presence, population, wonderful people who wanted to swim at our pools at the Y. Yeah; you’ve got to put a bathing suit on, yeah. They don’t wear bathing suits, especially women and even men wear special clothing to go swimming, but not bathing suits. So, we kind of had some misunderstandings and went for some extensive training with some professionals at Villanova University to help us understand the Muslim culture better.
Then of course the clothing for Muslims to go in water swimming got better and we understood each other better and the Muslim population at the West Philadelphia Y now is very significant and a key part of that Y and very much appreciated. So we all learn from those kinds of things, but I mean those are some of the things that have advanced in my time including air conditioning.
So when you think of you career and you may have had this opportunity just recently, I know they had your retirement dinner, what are you most proud of when you reflect on your career with the Y?
Well people have asked me about what has been the most meaningful thing to me in my Y time. I honestly started working for the Y to be of service to people. At the small YMCA at Holyoke Massachusetts, I used to have contact with kids which I enjoyed, and I hopefully I mentored, and I helped them learn sports skills, and behavioral type things, and leadership skills. But today, our Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA is serving a quarter of a million people. I really feel good about that. I feel good that a quarter of a million people are going to our Ys and to me that’s somewhat of a mark of excellence, a mark that we are giving the people what they want and need, and they are paying us for that, 90 million bucks worth, and we put it all together to, you might say selflessly, serve communities.
As a result I think we’ve strengthened communities, we’ve strengthened the character of people, and that’s really been a big thing. I've also been involved in building 10 new YMCAs which is amazing. And I look back to building one in my community in upstate New York in Clifton Park, New York.
When we built that Y my kids were middle school and I went there one night after work and my son was in the gym, and my daughter was in the wellness center, and my wife was in the wellness center, and I was going in to either the gym or the wellness center. One of my friends said to me, “This place is amazing. What were these kids doing before the Y?” And in our community most of them were doing great stuff.
Staying home, going over to friend’s house, but many of them were going to the mall, and some of them were getting in trouble. The Y when it’s healthy and when it's making a difference in the community really is impactful to all people, but especially to young kids and teenagers, and being able to be involved in that ten times is just been remarkable.
Another thing is 15 people who worked with me are now CEOs of YMCAs. I feel like some of that I've been able to influence and help to prepare people for that and I applaud all of them. Many of them have gone way past me as far as impact and capacity. Again I've just been thrilled with the interpersonal experiences with staff, colleagues, volunteers, members and I feel like I'm just really blessed because of all of those kinds of interactions.
That’s great. So right now again December 2015, what does the YMCA mean to you, some say the YMCA, what does that mean to you in the big picture?
The YMCA really means to me that it builds character. Not only in people, in families, but communities. When people go to the Y they have a better life. In Pennsylvania we give kids free memberships in the seventh grade. And people say why the seventh grade, well a lot of people smarter than me figured this out. That scientifically that’s a big year for them because of their age and because of the social nature of the community, they are choosing paths that sometimes aren’t the best ones sometimes they are.
We figured if we could capture kids, more kids to come to the Y in the seventh grade, hopefully more of them will take the right path. And often they’ll continue to be members and most often through financial assistance because they don’t have the money to pay the Y even though I think that the kid’s membership is only $100 bucks. Anyway they don’t have it, but they stay in the Y. They get involved in things. Leaders club, Youth and Government, Y achievers.
You ask me one thing that I feel great about and I can’t even answer that. I came to Philadelphia we and a Y achievers program there were 35 kids in it. The program ran on a shoe string. Today we have 1,500 kids in it. It’s a vibrant program at all 17 of our branches the kids are great, the staff are phenomenal. This all came from Larry Smith, the guy that I mentioned. Larry and I applied to be eligible for new market tax credits in Pennsylvania so that we could fund certain programs. Our Y achievers program is one that got approved. We got notice, I think it was in June, and they give the money out in July and it looked like we were going to be eligible in 2008 not 2007 right after I arrived.
I didn’t think we could find anybody to give us money. So Larry called me up that night and said “How much money do you want me to give?” I said “Larry, There’s a $200,000 limit per company $200,000 would be great.” So Larry says, “John I pay taxes in Pennsylvania for eight corporations. So I can give one point six million dollars.” I started choking because very rarely our volunteers are ahead of me. I spend more time thinking about it than they do.
Larry clearly was, but through conversation he and I came up with $400,000 dollars and our budget were 35,000 for achievers. Now he was going to give $400,000 many other companies got on board and helped to fund us through achievers. We now have about a $600,000 budget for 1,500 kids and it’s a dynamic program, that makes a difference in the lives of more kids. So when I think of that and I think geez I miss not talking to kids at the Holyoke Y, I've convinced myself that my impact and influence can be greater if I can get 1,500 kids, that somebody else is programming for by garnering that funding with Larry and Comcast.
So in eight years Comcast has given us over three million dollars. They feel tremendous ownership to our Y achievers program; it’s in their corporate policies that they support minority programming. Most people know that Y achievers is really a program of leadership development through education and career pursuits for children of color, teenagers of color and that’s been fantastic for us. Simultaneously, every one of our Ys are certified as no place for hate through the anti-defamation league.
We are the only YMCA in the country that has done that. We got it through partnership with volunteers who really connected us with ADL. And that every one of our Ys goes through the process every year of certification and it makes for a better environment, where we are all on the same boat. And in Philadelphia, prior to my tenure, there was a lot of racial strife, a lot of prejudice and separative type of arrangements and we’ve really done a lot to come together and ADL has played a big role in it. So even though my answer is long I guess there’s more things that I feel great about than I was giving credit for. I feel great about the whole experience, but those few things I mentioned are major and certainly the relationships I have with people kind of outweighs everything.
That’s great. I'm going to phrase this question a little differently than I normally do. So being that you started out in a smaller Y a single unit and now running one of the largest Ys in the country. So if tomorrow if we could get all of the CEOs from across the country and their volunteer leadership in the same room what would you tell them they need to be aware of, what messaging would you give them on your way as you go to retire?
Well I would say that bigger, is better, and that mergers work. I've never seen one not work, but we can’t have 1,000 YMCAs in the country and think that we are going to attain the level of quality and consistency that we want as a movement. Everybody says we want high quality, we want consistency, but with, I think now is about 860 YMCAs in the country, you can’t get the kind of scale that you need to run good YMCAs in every community with our current set up. Mergers work.
We recently merged with the Boyertown YMCA, very troubled YMCA. Hate to mention what we are losing in money there this year, but that community is going to have a Y forever. It might change some, but it’s going to be part of a bigger entity that can undergird it and provide programs and services within the context of our overall menu of services in a way that it’s better for everybody. To me the block in merging YMCAs is employed CEOs who think they are trying to protect their job or their fiefdom or their kingdom and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Because we have three CEOs in our organization right now who aren’t CEOs anymore because there’s only one of them, but they’re playing more significant roles in this organization than they were in their own. The YMCA is much better served as part of a bigger entity that can do proper marketing and promotion, proper programming and higher levels of quality, and specialization of staff, who do fundraising at a high level. Manage facilities and do things that YMCAs need today, that small YMCAs just can’t get.
Anything else you’d share with them? That they should be aware of looking on to the future, the future that you won’t be necessarily be a part of as a staff anymore but you kind of see going forward?
Well I think the YMCA is a great thing and we are our own biggest critics which might be good, but we shouldn’t short change each other. We do a lot of great stuff. We are on close to the cutting edge of things in society today and without a doubt we are on the right path to continuing to do great things. I think that the future of the Y is brighter than ever, and ironically the Y more than 160 years, I think it’s doing more now than it ever did, and it’s going to do even more in the future.
So is there anything I didn’t ask you today that you would like to share? Any other thoughts or something like that you are thinking about?
Seems to me like we covered it and I appreciate the opportunity to kind of think about it and talk about it in this fashion. I just look back at my good fortune of connecting to the Y and having the experiences that I've had and it’s just beyond the expectations that I ever thought of.
Okay John I appreciate your time today. I appreciate your YMCA career and Happy Retirement!
Thanks. Thank you.