April 6, 2017
This is Adam Shilling from YMCA of the USA, interviewing Reid Thebault. Reid, thank you for agreeing to share your story with me today.
Thanks, it’s good to be here.
So my first question for you is, what was your first YMCA experience?
You know, I had some time to think about that. It really goes back to growing up. I was born and raised in Sydney, Nova Scotia, on Cape Breton Island, and the Y had the only semi-public accessible pool on the island. I also grew up in a fairly conservative, Catholic home, not just home but community. In those days, in the ‘50s, the Y was associated with Protestant churches and that type of thing, and in fact the Catholic Church fairly regularly discouraged Catholic boys and girls from going to the Y. But, I had a couple of really close Protestant friends and they would go to the Y on Saturday mornings, and they always talked about how much fun it was, and I thought, well, I’m going to at least try it out. One Saturday, I went with my friends and we started out in the morning in the gym, played a bunch of group games and things, and then, I think they were called “boy secretaries” at that time, the boy secretary indicated, “Okay, everyone to the locker room, we’re going to have open swim.”
So, I grabbed my swim suit and we all went down to the locker room, and people were—the boys, all boys of course—taking their clothes off and going into the shower before going to the pool. But they had no suits on. I thought, “Oh my God, now I know why the priest didn’t allow me, or didn’t want kids to come to the Y.” They go in semi-public, at any rate, naked. And so, I quickly put my clothes on and ran out and never went back to a Y again, until much later.
It was after I graduated from college and went down to Houston to go to grad school, and was looking for a part-time job. There was a three-by-five employment announcement on the student union bulletin board, and it said something like, “Summer Camp Director and Youth Sports.” I had played ice hockey in college, and loved sports, and I had done a fair amount of camping in the Scouts, and I thought, “Well, I’m qualified.”
And I went out, and I met with a man by the name of Gary Nichols. Gary was the executive. But it was a Y very unlike any Y I had ever even walked by. It was a small, really shack on one end of a series of play fields, and of course now I’d use the term a “non-facility Y,” but in those days I saw a shack. I walked in, and we had a great conversation, and he hired me. He asked me one question, “Can you drive a bus?” I drove cars and I had driven a tractor, so I thought, well, surely I can drive a bus. I said yes, and got the job. And that was one of the best summers of my life.
I absolutely enjoyed the program, enjoyed the kids, but I think most of all I came under the mentorship of a tremendous YMCA professional. Coming out of college, I knew things I didn’t want to do, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. And I think Gary, in a real mentoring way, not in a highly directive way but more challenging me to think, caused me to reflect and think about what I wanted my life to mean. That’s kind of what hooked me. From there, I went to Oklahoma City, St. Louis, and then back to Houston, and that was my first executive job, when I went back to Houston as a branch executive of the branch where I first started in Houston.
So when you first started in Houston what year was that?
And what were some of the things going on in 1969 within the Y at that time?
Well, it was really much like the country. There was a lot of social change going on, there was a log of demographic change, there was I would say in some respects disruptive change, much of it important and good and needed, but some maybe less so. I think there was certainly a lot of tension between the generations. I didn’t sense that from Gary, even though he’s 10 or 12 years my senior, or was, still is as a matter of fact, 10-12 years my senior. But I would say he was an exception.
I think, again looking back, I think many of the Y leaders at the time were really grappling with the social change going on, whether that was from a racial standpoint, suburban/urban standpoint, there really weren’t very many women, certainly in professional jobs, they were mostly in support roles where there were women. I think that impacted, in many ways, both the organizational environment and the social environment at the time.
And so, from Houston you bounced around a little bit, you went to a couple different Ys. Was it the same position, or what were some of the roles you played?
Yes, I actually met, he was the Chief Operating Officer of the Oklahoma City Y, at a conference, in Galveston, Texas. A guy named Phil Knight. I don’t remember now how we connected, but we did. I might have been in a workshop and maybe asked him some thoughtful questions or something. He asked me if I had any interest in taking on more responsibility and coming to Oklahoma City. And the world to me at that time was wide open. I had no real responsibilities other than making a rent payment and a car payment that was about it. And it was really the first time that someone intentionally recruited me I mean. I had applied for jobs and stuff, and I guess I kind of liked how that felt, that somebody thought enough of me to at least come up and interview.
Plus they were going to fly me up and put me up in a hotel, and that was all a very new experience for me. I interviewed for a job at the Northside branch, in Oklahoma City, a guy named Kurt Thompson who was the Branch Executive. Kurt was a little older than maybe a lot of branch executives, he’d been in the service, and I liked him immediately. So I made the decision to go there. They were mostly, at that time, a building-based program, and my job was to create more community-based programming. Again, pretty much carte blanche as to what that looked like.
Kurt was also a tremendous mentor. In Houston, particularly in a non-facility operation, I don’t want to imply that it was really loose but you kind of went about doing your work in a very low key environment. It wasn’t really all that many expectations. We were in a highly mobile community with a lot of reasonably upwardly-mobile middle-income families moving in and we were successful maybe in spite of ourselves as much as the good things we were doing. In Oklahoma City, it was a much more stable environment, and much more structured. Kurt in particular expected each of the staff he used to, you know that Old Burma Shave commercial you’d see on the road signs, you know: “Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, Be Sharp,” kind of stuff. He would, every now and then, really bring that out in conversation.
The person I felt most sorry for was the Physical Director, because Kurt expected us to wear a shirt and tie in the office. If we were out on a field or something, that’s something different. The Physical Director taught a lot of fitness classes and even a few aquatic classes, and so he must have been the cleanest man in Oklahoma City, because he had to have taken at least six, seven showers a day, to come in and out of recreation clothes. I didn’t quite have that challenge.
But it was more of a professional discipline, I think, that Kurt brought to me at any rate. Things like planning and schedule management and really, by his own modeling, he really taught me how to become more professional in my approach. I was there for a couple of years and then met another fellow, in fact whose brother was an executive in Oklahoma City, at a party, got to talking, and he was talking about what they were doing in St. Louis, which was a huge community-based program, and would I have an interest.
At first, I guess I turned him down, or at least indicated I wasn’t interested. But then, the more I thought about it, I thought it might be intriguing. I love sports and particularly ice hockey, and they had an ice hockey team. So, I finally agreed to go up and look at the job. And again, liked everything about it. It was just on a much bigger scale. I think in Oklahoma City we finally had maybe, as an example, 30 Indian Guide tribes. In St. Louis, there were 300, at that branch. It was huge. And of course, that’s where Indian Guides and Princesses started, so I suppose it made sense. It was a huge program there.
So, more responsibility, dealing with larger programs, was somewhat intriguing and that’s what attracted me. I struggled a bit with the executive. He was perhaps more at loose ends than I was, and by this time, particularly coming out of the Oklahoma City experience, I had much more structure and discipline in how I went about things. I remember about six months into it, we were getting ready to begin to budget, put the budget together for the next year and he said, “Reid, you’re doing a fantastic job. You just run programs, don’t worry about the money.”
And I thought, “Hmm. Now I know having an understanding of finances, it’s really going to be important to my future, I’m not sure this is where I need to be long-term. Probably that thought began to open up my thinking around other possibilities. As coincidence would occur, I got a call from Gary Nichols. He had just been promoted to take over a much larger branch, Post Oak branch in Houston, and become a Group Vice President, and asked me if I had any interest in coming back to Houston and being the Executive at the Wesleyan Y.
I jumped. I mean, to me, at that time in my life, that was the perfect job. Plus, I had met the new CEO in Houston who I really, really liked, a fellow by the name of Bev Laws who actually just passed away about a year ago. So I was gung-ho. In fact, I don’t know that I even asked about salary range or anything. Gary said, “Well, there is going to be an interview process, so you’ll need to compete in that.” And I said fine. So I went down and I thought I had a really good interview. And Gary called me first, and said they had decided to choose the other candidate, who was a little older, a little more mature, and had more experience and those kinds of things. Well, I was just really, really disappointed. I mean, I had where we were going to live; I had all of these things in my mind, having nothing to do with the job, by the way.
Which helped me gain an understanding—don’t get ahead of yourself in these kinds of things. But what was really impressive was, Bev called me, the CEO, and he said, “Reid, I know you’re disappointed in not getting the Wesleyan job, but I want you to know that there are going to be a lot of changes over the next year or two, and there will be other opportunities. And I really would like you to join my staff.”
Well, I went from being at the bottom of the barrel to floating out of the barrel. That really made me feel great. What I didn’t realize at the time, how soon that would occur. It was about two weeks later I get a call from Gary indicating the other fellow, while he made the commitment to come, his family wouldn’t move, and he withdrew from accepting the job. And Bev called me that day and said, “We’d like you to come to Houston and take the Wesleyan job.” Kind of a funny story at the time, although actually I visited with him about three months before he died and I brought the story to his attention, and he denied it completely. I think he was embarrassed. So I said great, and when do you want me, and I kind of felt like I had to give at least 30 days notice.
So, we worked all that out. And then he said, “We’re going to start you at, I think, $14,500.” And the job had been listed at, I think, $16,000, or close to it, so it threw me a bit, because I just assumed that what they had said in the materials, starting. So there was just kind of silence, and they said, “Well Reid, you’ve got to realize that the $16,000 was for our first choice.” And I just thought, “What’s going on here?”
I think I was, in a good way I was in a little shock, which was fortunate, because I shut up. I kept quiet. And he said, “Listen, come to Houston, at $14,500, you’ll never regret it.” And I had the good sense to say, “Okay.” I have to say, that was probably the best decision, career decision, I ever made, and I never regretted it. I started in April, I think, of that year, would have been ’75, and I got a full review at the end of that year and really got a very nice increase. From that point on, I was in Houston roughly ten years, and I think, as Bev said on my leaving Houston to go to Dayton, Ohio, as my first CEO job, “Reid had ten different jobs in ten years and we still don’t know what the hell he does right.” Let’s just say he had a sense of humor.
Houston was a tremendous experience, it really was. There were 10,000 people a month moving in to Harris County, there was so much going on, there was so much growth going on. We ended up being the first priority in a capital campaign, so I came to understand what it took to put together such a project. And then later, I went on the Metro staff and had some operation responsibility from new branch development, overseeing the refugee resettlement program, program training, and staff development.
Multiple responsibilities, each one I absolutely loved. We had some issues, we had two, using the nomenclature of the time, two “Black branches,” and because of some other supervisory changes, Bev came in one day and he said, “Reid, you know we need someone to supervise Northeast and South Central”—those were the two branches involved. “You’re Canadian, you should know those people.” And I was flabbergasted. I just said, “Yes, I’d be excited.” That was one of the very best career experiences I ever had, because while I had grown up in a pretty diverse community on Cape Breton Island, it was still small.
Working with Southeast Asian refugees, working with African American leadership in Houston, was a tremendous set of experiences that prepared me to lead an urban Y later on. You have to realize, Bev grew up in the South, he came of age at a different time, he was much more inclusive than he probably even imagined, just because he had such a great heart. Which is sort of ironic, because many, many people felt he was kind of a cold fish, and didn’t have a lot of interpersonal skill, which was 150 percent incorrect. Once you got to know him, he would always say to me, “Well, you’re my token Democrat. I need to hear the other side.” Okay.
I guess that’s the for-all coming out there?
Yeah, for-all, right. And he became a mentor from the first time I ever met him, right up until he died. I probably talked to him two or three times a year. Before his illness really put him down, we’d get together and play golf maybe once or twice, and it was like sitting at the foot of the teacher kind of thing.
You’ve touched on a few folks early in your career, hearing about you, who seem to be really instrumental in helping bring you along. Can you talk to the importance of having a mentor early in your career?
Well, I think it’s absolutely critical and essential. And I’ve struggled with this myself. I mean, what I mean by that is, taking on mentorship as a serious intentional career goal. I’m not sure how you do it with a high degree of intentionality. I mean, as I look back, particularly with Gary and Bev and others, it almost became a collision of multiple opportunities, where I was in the right place at the right time, the right set of circumstances, and personally was open, because I think I’ve always had an attitude of continual learning.
The fact that somebody like a Gary or a Bev or a Kurt felt positive enough toward me to spend time trying to influence me in a good way, I had a certain hunger for. I’m not sure you can schedule it. In fact, I’m going to be talking to some young staff later on today, and I’m sure that question will come up, “Where do I find a mentor?” They come in all shapes and sizes and ages, and I think it’s a receptivity, to be open, to share, and to listen.
Bev said to me one time, “Thebault, you listen to everything but I’m not sure you hear me.” And it usually was over some political issue.
And so you mentioned the transition to your first CEO role at Dayton. How did that come about?
Actually, I had come to the conclusion—and you have to realize that at this point I’m 37 maybe, 37, 38, had had a pretty fast-track career, much of which I credit with being in Houston at the right time, because it was growing so fast and expanding so fast. I was a willing body, and willing to take on different things and different responsibilities. But, I also thought pretty highly of myself, and felt I was ready to be a CEO. I mean, how hard can it be? Periodically, late on a Friday afternoon, I’d wander into Bev’s office and he’d be doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. I can do that. And before getting into the point you’re raising, one of the things Bev did with me, and I never appreciated it during the time, because he took me everywhere.
So, if there was a meeting, the top leadership around a capital campaign, or a potential controversial issue, he would literally take me with him to sit in on those meetings, and usually on the way he’d say, “Okay Reid, I want you to be here, I want you to learn, but just shut up. Don’t say anything unless I ask you.” Which, I listened. I honestly thought that he was just lonely driving to wherever the meetings were and needed company, but what he was really doing was helping give me an insight into how to deal with really high-end leadership, both from a staff as well as a volunteer standpoint.
So, I went to Dayton. My whole career had been focused on building things, and not just brick and mortar buildings but new programs, expanding existing programs, all of that kind of stuff. But I’d never really taken anything apart, and then put it back together. Dayton had been a very, very successful Y, in fact a much larger successful Y than probably it should have been given the size of the community and all of those things.
In fact, not a lot of people realize this, but it was actually one of the founding members of the Urban Group, back in the ‘60s when that started. (By the way, the first meeting was in Detroit, just a side note.) But when I got there, it had a fair amount of debt, I think it was around a six or seven million dollar association. It had a lot of facilities, I think eight or nine for the size community, Montgomery County which is essentially Dayton, just under a million people. I always called it the Great 15 Minute City, because you could be anywhere in the metro area in 15 minutes. So there was never a branch more than 15 minutes apart, and a couple of them were closer. So, we had a lot of debt. It hadn’t had a balanced budget in at least ten, fifteen years, let alone any type of surplus, and so it was really living from hand – foot, hand-to-mouth.
The CEO had been there for some 25, 26 years, and I think for the first 18-20 he probably did a fantastic job. But, he was tired. So, I thought, by the sheer power of my personality and my experience, I would come in and we’d get this thing turned around, and then I’d go off to bigger and better things. My first week on the job, the CFO came in and said, “Reid, payroll is Friday”—I think this might have been Tuesday or Wednesday—“and it looks like we’re going to be about 40,000 short. And I said, “No problem, just make a transfer from reserve.”
And he went out, came back about two minutes later, and said, “What reserve would that be?” And then I knew I wasn’t in Houston anymore. But somehow, we pulled it together, and I knew right away we had to make staff changes. I guess I’ve always believed, and my experience as a CEO has brought that home time and time again, if you’ve got the right people, the right staff, and the right volunteers, working with you to lead the organization, you can accomplish just about anything. I remember having, I brought the executive committee together, and essentially said, “Listen, we’ve got a debt issue that we’re going to have to deal with. We don’t have any credibility in the community”—I had done some community interviews—“to where we can mount a capital campaign, certainly for any debt relief. And we’ve got to make some staff changes.” And I remember one volunteer saying, “Reid, you can’t make staff changes.” And I thought, oh they’re sacred cows. I didn’t ask about that.
I looked out, and I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Well, who are you going to get to come here to work for as much as we’re paying?” And I said, “Well, we’ll come up with a plan.
And we did. We essentially eliminated all the branch executives, promoted one that really was an asset, and he was the executive over half the branches and then I brought in a combination Chief Operating Officer who also supervised the other branches. And then as we made financial progress over the next few years, we kept adding staff. It wasn’t a management scheme that I was excited about, didn’t want to do it, but it was the only way I could see to begin to get the right leadership in place.
Also then went to the volunteers and said, “We have too much infrastructure, we can’t support it.” We identified I think four or five branches that, in all probability, each for different reasons, weren’t going to be part of our future. We set about divesting. We went to the banks, and said, “We’re not going to pay, and we need an interest and principal freeze. And we need two years.” And we laid out our plan of divesting from these branches, selling them, and using the capital to pay down the loans. And they bought it.
Again, I was really fortunate that I had the incoming Board Chair, who also had a credit for Society Bank out of Cleveland, and he was the incoming Board Chair. I remember we went to a meeting of, I think there were three banks, as part of the lending consortium, and he called me in the morning of the meeting and he said, “Reid, you have any keys over there?” And, well, we had 220-some resident rooms, and I said, “I’m sure we’ve got keys.” And he said, “Well, get the biggest ring of keys you can find and bring it with you today.” I had been working on my plan, last thing was doing anything with keys. So I went over there, and his name was Pete Knapp. I’m not sure if he’s still alive, I think he passed away.
Before we started, and outside the meeting I’d given Pete the keys, and he plopped them down in the center of the conference table. And he said, “Folks, you’re going to have—” And realize, he has credit for a pretty large Midwest bank. He said, “Folks, you’re going to have a decision to make today. Our CEO is going to lay out a plan that we will execute, and we will pay off all the loans. But here’s what we need from you. And, the alternative is, you pick up these keys to all the Ys, and you guys figure out how to deal with it.” And he said, “Reid, share your plan.”
And so I did. And they said, “We think it’s a great plan.” It worked. “We will give you the 24-month freeze, and the only thing we ask is that you give a report every six months on your progress.” Which, we did. And slowly but surely, we sold those branches, and paid off the debt.
So, when you say you sold the branches, does that mean that you just sold the actual property that you owned, or were you still active within those communities of programming and services?
You know, coming out of particularly my Weslayan experience, that was part of the plan. In a couple of instances, that worked pretty well, and in fact, long after I left the Y in Dayton actually I think built two facilities in two of those former communities. But there were also a couple of communities that, when we closed up we basically didn’t continue programming. They were pretty weak, which is why they were on the divest list. There was one exception to that, I think it was called the South Suburban Y, and it was also the newest facility. And I’m sure there are a few staff and probably a few volunteers wandering around the community without my name on their Christmas list, because it was definitely the most valuable piece of property to us. But it was also the most valuable piece of property to a buyer.
And so we got four and a half million on that deal, which was the largest sum that we got on any of the projects. And with one transaction, we were able to pay off almost 75 percent of the debt. That’s why we did it. Now, fortunately 20 years later or whatever, the Dayton Y built a beautiful new Y just south of there that I think is very successful. So that may mitigate some of the negative feeling.
Yeah, you know I’m thinking of folks who might be listening to this interview, and in mind I have a CEO who could be going through a decision. “Do I close this building or do I not? What do I do? What’s best for the community?” What advice would you provide to that CEO when they’re considering that?
I think each community and each YMCA is different. And so I would certainly have a good understanding of the role the Y has played in that community and the level of support it has received from that community. When I came to Detroit, and I’ll come back around, we were faced with many of those same issues. We were infrastructure-rich, but they were all buildings built between 1910 and 1920, and all big. The smallest was just under 200,000 square feet, with about 150-160 resident rooms, single room occupancy.
And we had four of those, along with some other branches that had been built and that the community had moved on, frankly. And so one of the things we did, particularly in Detroit, and I would have this as one of the pieces of advice—who else in the community could use that asset in a much more effective way, from a community service standpoint? In Dayton, we didn’t necessarily ask ourselves that question. I mean, we were pretty focused on debt reduction, and so whatever contributed to that goal we were pretty singularly focused on it. Although, looking back, with no exception, those assets were sold mostly to municipalities who wanted to build public recreation.
I guess if I were writing revisionist history, I would say, yes, we thought about how best to serve the community, sold them to the city of Trottwood, and they built Trottwood recreation center, so it was a more effective way. But that didn’t come into play until later on in Detroit. We were not under any huge financial stress. It’s just that those buildings were not part of our future, and the programmatic use that justified the buildings wasn’t part of our future. We were essentially under contract with the Department of Corrections, renting rooms as a halfway house. I mean, convicted felons who occupied those buildings. Now, the contracts were great, because it created a cash flow and kept the buildings afloat. But we were trying to figure out how to best serve families and kids in the city of Detroit, and oh by the way, we have 200 convicted felons, but, you know, it’s a controlled audience, and, we’re okay. So there was much more intentionality to how we went about the divesting process.
We said, number one, we would not have another shutdown building or closed-up building in the community. We would find another organization that provided a different set of services where that facility could be an asset as opposed to a liability, which it was to us. We would use existing community facilities to continue to deliver programming that was sort of our mantra for that process. In every case except one, we succeeded, in different ways. The first one we worked with was Detroit Rescue Mission, to convert that building to a residential addiction treatment center, a tremendous program. The second one, a local nonprofit called Operation Get Down, primarily employment training. It gave them a residential component to work with different people, different needs. That project we sold to them for a dollar, it was essentially to walk away and have the community serve and be served in a different way.
The Highland Park one, with the Rescue Mission, we actually paid them $350,000 to take the building, because we had to bring it up to a certain code level. I remember in an executive committee, somebody said, “Thebault, you have to stop doing these kinds of real estate deals. I mean, you’re going to get us to go broke.” But, the next one, which was the old downtown one, we actually sold to the stadium authority for five and a half million, so that was—no, it was seven, seven million.
So that was a much more attractive deal. And, it got positioned. I think it could’ve been the most negative community, from a community standpoint, but under Mayor Archer, there was a commitment to re-developed downtown, or the center city. One of the strategies on the part of the city was to build two new stadiums: Ford Field and what is now called Comerica Park. We were in the middle of all that. It was an opportunity to essentially sell the property to the stadium authority, and it got positioned as the Y contributing to the rebuilding of Detroit.
At the same time, we committed to, unlike some organizations that sold property and left town, we committed to building a new downtown Y. We didn’t know where and when, but we were not leaving downtown. So, we got through that. The one project that backfired on us, we had been working with the Rescue Mission on another building in Southwest Detroit, which primarily has a large Hispanic population and politically very active. I thought we put together the perfect deal.
The Rescue Mission was going to do another residential rehab center, we had a gift contingent upon us developing a new facility about five blocks away from the old one as long as we had a childcare center as the first phase. The Rescue Mission said, you can use the program facilities as long as you want rent free while you’re raising money to build this new Y.
Well, when we made the announcement, in one sense I thought I was going to be named Hispanic Man of the Year, instead I was hung in effigy. All sorts of backlash. Frankly, being a little naïve at the time regarding grassroots politics. I didn’t appreciate the fact that many of the local indigenous community agencies saw the Rescue Mission coming in taking a piece of an already-shrinking pie. I didn’t know this until probably two years later. So there was a lot of undercurrent not to do this deal.
Finally, we walked away from it. Several of the Southwest agencies brought a buyer, they wanted to convert it to residential housing. I knew that couldn’t be done, because I’d done those projects in my past and for lots of different reasons the building didn’t lend itself. Even if you had enough money to do all the conversions, you couldn’t get a rent that would support any kind of loan. It just wasn’t going to work. So that building, even today, is there, and it’s vacant. They’ve never been able to do anything, which is unfortunate.
But I think taking the interest of the community in heart, if it’s a financial deal, frankly, and this may sound a little harsh, you’ve got to focus on that goal.
I mean, in Dayton, it was strictly a financial benefit to eliminate Y debt. I’m not saying we were impervious to all other factors, but when that South Suburban deal came up, hey, we’re not going to make that much money this quickly on any other. And we did it. In Detroit, it was much more intentional. Really looking for alternative organizations that could use those facilities as assets was the key.
We virtually had very little negative press. In fact, probably more positive press, because we were doing things. I think there was one article that said, they had wished that Chrysler and Sears and some other organizations that had shut down operations in the city had done similar types of plans. So, I think that’s probably the biggest. First, know what your goal is. And then come up with the right tactics to achieve that goal.
So how did the transition from the Dayton Y to Detroit come about?
That’s kind of an interesting story in a way. I’d been a candidate, well, let me— This would have been probably around— I’d been in Dayton nine years, we had cleaned up the balance sheet, we had developed a pretty exciting project, “New Downtown Y,” which had a historical conversion of the old residence and some new construction. That’s a whole other story in and of itself. I just felt I wanted to take on a bigger challenge, frankly and I looked at a couple of other Ys—I was one of two final candidates for the San Jose Y, now after its merger with Santa Clara it’s something else.
Anyway, then, what I thought was the perfect job was the CEO of the Fort Worth Y. And I came down to one of the final two candidates there, and they chose, at the time, to promote the COO. That was disappointing because Ben Casey was a friend in Dallas, and he was still there at the time. And, as you know, my wife is a Y professional and we sort of imagined, okay, I would go to Forth Worth, she would go to either Arlington or Dallas, and we’d continue on with our careers. Which, was no easy task, I might add, over the years. We actually commuted for three years between Dayton and Houston. That’s another story.
So, I came back from Forth Worth and I said to Cathi, “You know, I think my focus is now on Dayton, and we’re going to make this the best Y we can make it, and do some really exciting stuff.” And I got a call from Detroit. And they asked me to be a candidate. I didn’t even, I said I’d be happy to come up and talk with them, and I didn’t even tell Cathy initially. We had joked around with one another, she grew up in Southern California, and she’s a huge Dodgers fan.
So she knew I was beginning to think of other things, and she said, “Okay, we need to move south of Dayton, and we need to move to a National League city.” That was ground rule. You can already get a sense of where this is going with Detroit. So, I finally did tell her, and she said, “Well, I hope you like commuting again. I am not working, I’m not going to Detroit. I’m not going to Michigan.” Her father was in the automobile business with Chrysler, and in fact so was her grandfather. So, she had gone to Detroit. And in fact, several years before she had actually interviewed for a job there, and then turned it down. I said, “Well, if you look at my track record, I’m CEO, I’m not exactly batting 300 here. I think you’re okay.”
It was a strange first interview. They said, a guy named Mike Maslin chaired the process, and he was a senior VP with one of the large companies here, and he said, “All we’d like to do, we’d like to talk to you for about an hour, and get a sense of who you are as a person. If we go forward, we’ll provide you with all the community and YMCA information, the association.” And I thought, well, I’ve never been through anything like that before, that might be interesting.
They actually interviewed, I think that first phase, 15 or 16 candidates. They committed a lot of time. So I went up, and stayed in the Detroit Athletic Club. It’s really, really nice now, they’ve put a ton of money into over the last 20 years, but at that time it was definitely an old boys’ kind of environment. I got up in the morning, went downstairs to the meeting room, and there had to have been, again, 15-20 volunteers around a table. And I thought, let’s see how this is going to go.
I had done some research on Detroit, and I’d been here not connected with the Y but coming up to hockey games from Dayton or baseball games or something. I just said what I thought. I kind of went in with the attitude of, okay, I’m going to tell you what I think. Not that I didn’t in other interviews, but I probably, in other interviews, was more cautious, or at least conscious of what I was saying.
When I went there, I basically said, “You have an organization that has tremendous history, tremendous tradition, but it’s tired. It’s got to change.” Apparently, and I didn’t know this until much later, there was a core group of volunteers who had been saying this for a few years. I mean, I was hitting on every point.
I got in the car, I drove up from Dayton, and called Cathy, had one of those bag phones at the time, and called her and I said, “You don’t have to worry about Detroit.” And she said, “Why not?” And I said, “Well, first of all, I told them exactly what needed to happen, and basically said, we’ve got to rebuild the staff, we’ve got to rebuild the board, we’ve got to eliminate some of these old buildings that make no sense, we really have to look at our program mix, we’ve very inward-thinking. And I said, half of the people in that room, if I go there, won’t be there a year from now. I just can’t imagine this is going to go any further.”
So, it was probably about two weeks later, in fact I kind of forgot about it, got a call from Mike Maslin, and he said, “We’d like you to come back and meet with”—and I didn’t realize it at the time, but really the key leadership of the board. And he said, “We’d like you to bring your wife.” And I said, “Well, we have a six month year old, decided to have our own grandchild. So, I’d have to bring him as well.” And he said, “We’ll put you up in a Residence Inn or something, and you’ll be comfortable.”
So, I did, and I spent a delightful two days with Mike and some of the other volunteers, and basically went through the plan. I say a plan, that’s way overstated. But the concepts that would eventually drive a plan as to what we would do. I said, “Can you support that?” And their basic response was, “Not only can we support it, but how quickly can you execute it?” I hadn’t even gotten an offer yet, I mean it was— And so it just snowballed from there. Within probably two weeks, I had the offer, and accepted, and moved to Detroit.
And that’s, I think, a great fit. You were open, you were honest, you shared your plan in that interview, and it worked, it resonated, and you got the job. That’s a great message that you shared. One of the things that I think your known for within the Y world is being really great with relationships, helping to select and groom volunteers to work with the Y. Could you share a little bit about how you go about that and why that’s important for a Y?
Well, I think it’s critically important. I don’t know if I made this statement up or borrowed it and owned it ever since, but you can have a good Y, with good staff, or even with great staff, but you can’t have a great Y without great volunteers. It’s just not possible. And I’ll digress just a moment—I really had my first learnings about how to work with volunteers through the Indian Guide/Indian Princess program.
I’m sure even today historians would describe it as a youth program, a kid program, because of the Father-Daughter/Father-Son, and then later Mother-Son/Mother-Daughter, aspects to it. But it really was an adult program. It was really having fathers evaluate how they were spending their time, but more importantly creating this sense of collective responsibility within the group, that they were going together make those experiences for their kids the very best they could be. Not from a selfish standpoint, but from a collective standpoint. And so having those experiences, and thinking about them, and understanding how those dynamics work, really came into play when I started recruiting a board for a branch and then later for the association.
I tell, and I do some modest consulting now with CEOs, I say that you have to be very, very selfish as you begin to identify and recruit and engage volunteers. And what I mean by that is, what are these folks bringing to the table that can help you and the association achieve what it wants and needs to achieve. I’ll say, can you imagine going out and hiring out let’s say a Vice President of Program Development.
You have no idea what you want that person to do, you’re really not even sure what their skill set is or their competencies are or their motivations, and you basically bring them in, put them on a desk or have them in a meeting and hope to hell something good happens. From my experience, a lot of Y directors, regardless of level in the organization, take that approach with volunteers. They’ll say, “Okay, you’re a board member, so who do you know? We should recruit for the board.”
“Well, I have a brother-in-law who likes kids.”
“And he owns an insurance agency.”
“Oh, all right. Let’s recruit him.” Or, “Let’s recruit her.”
And there isn’t a thoughtful approach as to what skill set. In Dayton, I focused on bankers or people in the financial community, and attorneys, particularly that had some practice in the area of real estate and development, because in order to move that organization, I had to have that expertise. In Detroit, it was somewhat different, but also had some similarity. I knew we were going to eventually build stuff.
We were going to reorganize in a way that enabled us to develop new facilities, new programs, and figure out how we served the city. And so, I recruited a CEO and Chairman of Barton Mallow, one of the largest construction companies. Lawyers in the development. A guy by the name of Burt Farbman, who had the largest residential commercial development. People who brought a skill set. Now, those are the folks who end up in leadership roles. I mean, there was sensitivity to certainly, to some degree, gender and racial make-up.
But I am sure if— Well, I shouldn’t say I’m sure, if I have. I know many of my critics would say our board wasn’t diverse enough. But I had to have people with specific skill sets, with a range of sphere of influence in the community that would allow me to get access to political and business decision makers, and they had a sense of sharing some aspect of the Y mission in terms of seeing the Y as a means to an end that “One way I contribute to making Metropolitan Detroit a better place for kids, for families, to work, to live, is through my work with the YMCA.” And they had a sense of that. Because there would be setbacks, and unless you have that sense of service, you’re going to walk away. Because remember, you’re volunteer, your paycheck’s not depending on it. So you really have to believe that what you’re doing is important.
I would, when a name would come forward, we had a nominating committee, or a leadership development committee I should say, I would go and have lunch or breakfast with that prospective board member. The whole purpose of that was to find out who they are, how they think, what they want to do with their lives. I mean I didn’t say, “What do you want to do with your life?” But in the conversation.
And I walked away from a number of people, some of who are on half the boards in Detroit. I think, being very intentional, knowing why you want this person to join the board, we knew that we had to reposition our image. So, one of the women that was recruited had her own public relations agency, and was extremely well-respected, and could get us placed in any periodical or newscast that we needed. A lot of people owed her. She’s still on the board.
And so, like I say, being very intentional. It blows me away when I hear from CEOs saying, “You know, I’ve got these three board members, they don’t do anything, but they’re a real pain. How did they get on the board?” Well, one of the board members said, “This guy wanted to be on the board so we brought him on the board.” And I roll my eyes. These are people that are critical for you doing your job, and can be a real pain, if they don’t contribute.
What’s something that you think—
One other point on that, if I could.
The other is, when you get those people, you can’t isolate them. You have to engage them. You’ve got to be open enough and secure in your own self to hear criticism. Not just to hear the good things, but some of the critical, criticism that they bring. They have to own the organization in a different perspective, as you do.
And so, for example one of my cardinal rules: If something doesn’t go right, or we get a setback, they’re the first at the table. I mean, they have to be in the loop. We’ll share the success whenever the time comes, but if there are challenges, if you’ve got litigation or you’ve got something that didn’t go right, boy, bring those key volunteers together ASAP, because that says to them, “You’re willing to involve me and engage me, even when things aren’t the best. And so, I’m going to be there for you.”
Yeah. I mean, you mentioned a cardinal rule, right? Engage in them early in the process, no matter what it is, good or bad. Is there anything that is a cardinal rule for dealing with the boards that you’ve not already mentioned explicitly here?
I think just communicate, communicate, communicate. I’ve been working with a few CEOS lately that ended up getting terminated. I can remember in one particular case asking the CEO, “Is your board fully aware of the consequences of this project that you’ve led?”
“Oh yes, absolutely.”
Well, that was not the case, and there were some things that didn’t go according to plan. No misuse of time or resources, just things. You’re doing a multilevel development; in fact I’m always amazed when things go as planned, frankly. But they didn’t bring their key volunteers along, and the volunteers thought things were one way, and they weren’t. So, yeah, communicate constantly and do it in different ways.
For example, in my case in Detroit, I probably had 15-20 volunteers that were critical to me, and consequently they knew as much about the organization as I did in many ways. We communicated with all board members, certainly, and on a regular basis, but maybe not with the same intensity or the same gravity of topic or subject. But, at a level that certainly kept them in the loop.
And pretty much took the same approach with staff. I mean, all my direct reports knew as much as I did about what was going on. When I would leave a meeting, my biggest concern, particularly if we’d reached agreement and consensus, was, what are we missing? I’m not that smart, and if everyone’s agreeing with me, I’m thinking there’s something, a loose end somewhere. In fact, I had a new staff person join the group several years ago and they ended up leaving us because they weren’t confident enough in their own thought process, frankly, to engage in that peer-to-peer debate.
In a constructive way.
In a very constructive way, yeah. And when we would walk out of a staff meeting, and I shifted from volunteers, we were definitely all on the same place. If we had issues, we’d come back to the table. But, staff meetings were usually pretty messy, particularly if there was a controversy on the table.
That’s a good thing, discussed it around the table, walk out the door, we’re all on the same page, pulling in the same direction.
Absolutely. Yep, absolutely.
So what is something that you think all new YMCA employees should know?
Well I think certainly understanding the finances of the organization. You don’t have to be a CPA or an MBA or any of those things, but you do have to have a working knowledge of an income and expense statement. It would be ideal to understand the principles of fund accounting, and certainly budget development and management. It’s also critically important for every Y staff person, but certainly early on, to really begin to, for your own mind, whether you share it or not is less important, why you’re doing what you’re doing. Not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it.
If you’re describing it as a personal mission, but is this really what you want to do? I think, this may sound trite, but I think in this business people need to have a positive attitude toward other people. Believe in the goodness of people. I would have this running debate with HR folks in our organizations—it seemed like every time something occurred, like somebody turned in an expense report with maybe a stay at a Four Season instead of a Marriott or something—and we need to have a new policy. We need a policy for, you can’t spend more than X dollars on a hotel a night or something. And I’d say, “Why would we do that? How many of these issues have we had?”
“Well, this is the only one.”
“Well, here’s a novel approach. Why don’t we sit down with that person and explain to them why this is inappropriate. Or, at least find out why they did that. I mean, it could be a lot of other reasons. And that’s what I mean by having a positive view of staff. Now, have I ever been burned because of that? Yeah, occasionally. But it’s kind of like, people would always talk about membership and having non-members, who really aren’t members, come into the building, and let’s put the systems in place. I’ve never done the research, but my guess has always been that managing the systems is more expensive than whatever loss we’ve had on misuse of membership. Some things, as I’ve gotten older, I became more tolerant. Stupid things.
You can always find a back door.
So in a similar vein, what’s something that you think all YMCA leaders should be aware of?
I think understanding the risk associated with decisions that they make or they lead. I think any leader who makes a decision, executes a decision, believes that that decision is for the benefit of all, or the organization. At least that’s been my experience in the Y. But part of the analysis that goes into that thinking is identifying all the benefits that will arrive from this decision, and in many cases, don’t consider the downside. Don’t consider the unintended consequence. I think that’s really, really critical.
I mean, if you think about it, CEOs have impact on every aspect of the organization, whether they realize it or not. I think kind of related to that is, every decision, or non-decision, which is an interesting parallel, has a consequence or an unintended consequence. So if you do something, it has a consequence. If you don’t do something, it has a consequence. Really, as part of your risk analysis understanding that, and at least with your most trusted volunteers and staff, talking through that from that perspective.
“Okay, Joe, what could go wrong?”
“Well, no, it’s perfect.”
That’s fine, but— And then I think a commitment to continual learning. Not just from an academic standpoint, although I think that’s important. I was told once that I shouldn’t go to grad school and I shouldn’t go to law school because the Y has no appreciation for education. I don’t know if that’s true or not true, but it really didn’t matter to me, because what I wanted to do was develop levels of competency and skills that would help me do a more effective job. And the fact that somebody appreciated that or not, in many ways didn’t matter. It was my own confidence that I was investing in. So I think being open to that.
Sort of as a sidebar, I’m not the sharpest tech pencil in the drawer, but what I am amazed at, but I have a tremendous appreciation for technology and its potential implications on our work. I could see, particularly toward the end of my career, that it was probably good that I was coming toward the end. Not for any negative things, but the CEO who I hired 20 years ago, and he’s now the CEO, tremendous individual, and a tech wizard. He communicates with the staff in ways that I couldn’t even imagine. So I think being open.
And I guess one last thing is, appreciate what you don’t know. So many people are infected with a belief that they need to know everything, and they act that way. I’ve accepted the fact a long time ago that, first of all I don’t know everything. And I don’t really feel a need to know everything. Which isn’t to suggest I don’t do my homework or I don’t prepare.
But I also—and it’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about it until this conversation, that sense of vulnerability I think is extremely healthy in these types of interdependent staff and volunteer relationships. It’s almost like, you see somebody stuck on the side of the road and they’re looking for jumper cables, and you probably would never stop for a stranger, ever. But you kind of see the person in need, they’re vulnerable, and you’re willing to at least stop to find out what they need. I think that element of vulnerability is a very, very effective tool in working with staff, and particularly having staff go the extra mile. Because they know—and the volunteers are the same way—they know you need them.
And so, ultimately what does the YMCA mean to you?
Well, I gave you a little at least beginning perspective when I said I grew up in a Catholic community and home, and in fact until I went to law school I went to Catholic schools through my whole life, Augustinian monastery, and St. Mary’s University in Minnesota, and all the rest. I think that gave me a sense that I really wanted my life to matter. My family was in the jewelry business, and certainly had some success. But I just couldn’t imagine waking up in the morning and wondering how many necklaces I had available or whatever. It just wasn’t— What the Y did, and through very much happenstance, it put me in a place where the values of the organization and its commitment to community service matched my values and my commitment to community service.
So all of a sudden, I realized that not only was I compatible in the Y, and the Y compatible with me and me with the organization—early in my career it always amazed me—it legitimized what I cared about. It gave me the organizational and institutional capacity to actually do pretty big stuff. That was really exciting. In fact, it’s the thing I miss the most about being retired. Not that I regret, quite to the contrary. But where you were part of conversations that really focused on, how do we make a difference in this community.
Whether that—for example, a number of years ago we started charter schools in Detroit because public education, quality public education in the city was deplorable. We’re not anti-public school or any of those things. But, you bring a group of people who identify a problem, they are committed to finding a solution, and they really care about the outcome, and they’re willing to invest themselves and the resources to make it happen. I mean, that’s really cool. I mean, wow. You get to do that? And you make a living at it? That’s pretty fantastic.
Yeah, not bad. Not bad. Well Reid, thank you so much for sharing your story and your overall enthusiasm and passion for this work, the YMCA. I really want to commend you on a great career and also for just sharing with us today everything that you have.
Well thank you, it’s been fun. It’s gone quickly. I understand now how I’d spend four hours. Just, a much greater catalog of experience.