How building a culture balanced between performance and caring equalled success for Canada’s top health club

By Marty Parker

At Waterstone, we help build high performance cultures. What that looks like, and what elements go into that high performance culture, vary from company to company, so understanding what your culture is and what you want it to be is vital – and so is knowing the unique high performance recipe that works for you and your team.

I recently sat down with David “Patch” Patchell-Evens, founder and CEO of GoodLife Fitness, to talk about what makes that company’s culture great.  I’ve known Patch for many years and have always admired the culture he built at his clubs, a culture balanced between two tenants – performance and caring.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
Maybe we can start by having you talk a little bit about your own story, your own vision and mission at GoodLife and how that culture has evolved over the years.

David Patchell-Evans:
I think the key behind the company success, my success, has been this duality of purpose. And one is performance, and the other one is caring. And those two things have led to the development of the culture that we have … What most fitness clubs focused on was selling memberships. And sure you’re going to sell memberships, because that’s your business, right? But what I focused on was getting people in shape, and that still is the primary focus. Let’s change your life for the better. Our mission is to help every Canadian have a fit and healthy good life. So how can we do that? We can find out what they really need, you can find out when they need to buy, create a time frame and give it to them.

So I had all this academic background, I had an athletic background, and then I took every sales and motivation course I could while I was running my business, to pull it all together. And I thought, “What are the common links behind athletic culture, academic success, and sales success?” And then what’s the product that I’m going to give to people? And the product is to change their life, the product is to make them live better. So there’s two parts, you want to make them live longer, but more importantly, you want them have a much higher quality life.

When I switched from the business school, to physical education, that was my purpose, this was my mission. So I’ve been lucky. What I love to do has enabled me to have a fit life, have a financially successful life, make a difference in people’s lives. So I’m doing what I love. And if you do what you love, you tend to be good at it, right?

Marty Parker:
The development of corporate culture at GoodLife has been centered on strategy. So talk a little bit about that, you just told us about changing lives, about a culture of performance and caring. That’s about a purpose, not necessarily a business. Talk about that, and really how that’s evolved and developed over the years for you and your team members at GoodLife.

David Patchell-Evans:
So, when you’re on a team, your job is to help your teammates win, and their job is to go as strong as they can. So I rowed, so I rowed in singles, but I rowed in eights. Now, when you’re stroking an eight, you know how hard everyone’s working behind you. You can feel it, you can feel it in the seat of your pants, literally. You can also see the paddles they’ve put in the water, and you know if they’re doing their best. They know if you’re doing your best. It’s obvious, right? So that’s the culture I wanted in my company.

And then in a rowing race, it’s obvious how you win, right? So what we had to create was clarity for our people, how do we win? And then when you go to hire people, you want to have that clarity of purpose. “This isn’t a job, this is a mission. You’re going to want to keep doing this if it becomes your passion. Come on board with us, find out.” And I’m pretty open with people: if it doesn’t become your passion, go find something else that is.  And every part of the hiring process is designed to find out if people have the same passion, if they believe in fitness and if they’re committed to helping other people. Because you can have some real hard skills, you can have real technical skills, you can have real financial skills, real sales skills, but if you don’t care about the mission, then you’re not going to fit. You have to be able to do both.

Marty Parker:
But GoodLife’s culture isn’t just passionate, it’s described as, and really is open. And so what is that open culture? What does it mean to you? What’s it mean to associates and really the club members as well?

David Patchell-Evans:
So my job is to create openness of culture where everyone feels willing and able to participate. And that comes down to learning. So I am focused on growth, I’m focused on how I grow as an individual, I’m focused on how the company grows, right? How do we evolve? How do we continue to change for the better? And the only way you can do that is by listening to people that work with you, and by listening to your members, which are your customers, right?

I think the thing is an inverse management pyramid. Usually you have the boss on the top or whatever, right? Okay I’m the owner, I’m in the bottom, the members are up here, then the associates then management than me. So, all that information should trickle down, I mean, it should trickle to me to give me insight, as opposed to me being the one that’s supposed to know how to figure everything out. What I want to do is listen, my most important characteristic of success is listening.

So our core values are caring, honesty, integrity, trust, passion, personal fitness and peak attitude. And now, you might say, which is most important? We got caring over here and peak attitude over here. And peak attitude is all those courses I took as I teach people how to be winners. Because if we teach our people how to be winners, then they can teach the members how to be winners. But that creates a culture in the company of winning, right? Then on the other side, you’ve got caring, like when in doubt, simply look after people. And so there’s an expectation that you perform, but you’re cared for. And it goes right back to the whole thing that makes you successful. And that’s what really creates the openness.

Marty Parker:
Now 400 GoodLife owned and operated clubs across Canada, not even talking about what you operate in New Zealand. I mean, that’s incredible. How do you maintain this culture? How do you maintain this in a multi-site business?

David Patchell-Evans:
You have to be it, and then you have to expect it. And then you have to say, “If you’re not going to do it, don’t stay.” There has to be that kind of line in the sand. And it goes back to the hiring process, you’re not going to make everybody happy but if you hire for the people that make sense for your company, then they should be able to go and do that.

When I get asked this question, my favorite example is the Roman Empire and the British Empire. Both existed when there was no communication. When you think about the British Empire, people were sailing from England to Australia. So by the time they got there everything was old news. So how did they create that culture? There was a belief system and the belief system is what creates the culture. And so I just think you’ve just got to adhere to your purpose. What are you trying to achieve? Why are you trying to achieve it? It’s not complicated, it’s just hard.

And I think another thing that makes a difference is, we’re a company that’s female heavy in that we have more female executives, more females working for the company than we do males. And I get asked why is that true? Well, my grandmother was a great example to me, my father died when I was a little kid, so my mother was a great example, and I just kept running into women that were leaders. And so our culture has also been built around that strength and I think that’s something other people don’t get. I just feel that one of the biggest benefits we’ve had is because I grew up in a female lead household, I didn’t know any different, and we’re subject to the culture we grew up in. So it was just natural to look for the strength that I witnessed I grew up and wanted inside my company and to help me, and then that really helps. And we have more female members than we have male members, so then obviously, you should have more females working for you. And when you talk about openness, maybe that increases the openness, but it definitely is one of our greatest strengths. And so it’s things like that, that just over the long run, make a huge difference.

Marty Parker:
A young entrepreneur, a young leader, someone who’s looking to start what they hope to be a high performance organization, it might be a business and not for profit, and they want to take that culture as competitive advantage journey. What is the one or two pieces of advice that you would give them as they kind of start on that path?

David Patchell-Evans:
So you’re an entrepreneur and you want to make a difference for yourself, for your family, for your loved ones, part of it should be to make a difference in the world. So the goal here, as an entrepreneur, is how will you effect the change that affects others? And does that become a love? So if it’s a tech solution, how does that tech solution help all different people?

If your purpose is just about making money, I don’t think you’ll be very successful. Even if you make a lot of money, because you’re just going to have this big hole in your heart and a lack of direction. Because we’ve met people that have a lot of money that aren’t happy. So if you’re an entrepreneur, take the skillset you have and focus on something that you love that makes a difference, not just to your staff, but to the people that you are doing it for. And it doesn’t matter what it is, it matters that you enjoy it.

Most people have heard this scenario, but I’ll give it again: there’s two people building a brick wall right beside a church. And a guy walks by and says to them, “What are you doing?” One guy says, “What’s it look like? I’m building a brick wall.” And the other guy looks up and says, “I’m building a monument to God.” That’s the difference. Or the one I use with autism all the time is, two people walking along the beach and there’s a guy picking up little sand dollars and throwing them back into the ocean, a 10 year old kid throwing these sand dollars back in the ocean because if they’re left out, they die. And the couple walking along the beach says, “Well, why are you throwing those sand dollars back in the ocean, you can’t save them all.” And he picks one up, throws it back in and says, “But I saved that one.”

So an entrepreneur needs to think like that. “I need to make a difference in one person’s life with my product or my service. And if I do a great job, they’ll talk about it enough that someone else will want it. Then when two people want it, four people want it, then when four people want it, then eight people want it. Then I have to create systems so that 16 people want it, then 32 and 64.”  Yes, you have to meet your financial covenants and you have to do all these different things, but that’s got to still be driven by, “What am I going to do that makes society better? What problem am I going to solve that enriches my life and enriches others?” And then I firmly believe if you do that as an entrepreneur, you’ll be successful.