You hear from people who were once members somewhere else: “Everything’s always broken, everything’s always a mess.” Not at Fitness Incentive. Not if I have anything to say—or do—about it.
– Cathy Peacock
Cath’s Many Hats
Interview by Paul Smith
Ask members to name the first person who comes to mind when they think of Fitness Incentive and most will answer “Cor” without hesitation. Ask them to name the second person and the likely answer is…”Cathy.” Cathy Peacock has been a fixture at FI since its very earliest days. It’s fair to say she that among the people who have made the greatest contributions to the success of Fitness Incentive. She has worn many hats over the years and performed many functions: instructor, desk manager, cleaning lady, purchasing agent, customer service rep, and now, perhaps in her greatest yet perhaps most under-appreciated role, maintenance manager. Like umpiring, it’s one of those jobs that if you do it well, no one notices you. With a largely incomplete and pre-conceived notion of what maintenance management entails in terms of responsibilities, I recently spoke to Cathy about her “Fitness Incentive life” and in particular, this most recent incarnation of it.
PS: Talk a little about those early days and meeting Cor for the first time.
CP: Six months after she opened her one-room studio at 6 Grove Place, I went in and met Cor. It didn’t take long at all. In fact, it was probably right then that I was hooked. I’m sure I took every single one of her classes. Eventually, I would go back to school to train as a massage therapist, but continued to spend a great deal of time with Cor at the ‘studio’ (as we called it then), and started working at the Front Desk. Fitness Incentive was in those days was literally the one aerobics room, one bathroom, and a room in the rear that began as a changing room and would become the nursery. As I spent more time with Cor, I quickly realized that she was doing everything herself, and I mean everything: teaching, keeping the books, working the desk, cleaning and maintaining the space, and I started helping her. Vacuuming, polishing the glass…there was no one to replace light bulbs. We did it. And for me, what I found was that I liked this aspect—maintaining the space. These simpler and more general maintenance-related activities rapidly grew to include other tasks. An example would be like when Cor bought a vacuum cleaner that needed assembly. I volunteered for that. It turned out—probably to everyone’s surprise, including my own—that I liked these jobs. I liked this stuff! I still like this stuff. I just didn’t know at the time that, A) I could be good at it, and B), it could (and eventually would) become part of what I’d do as an employee.
PS: Is there a formal job title attached to these maintenance tasks?
CP: Maintenance Manager. It started out being a job that a lot of desk staff contributed to, a job that many people had “here and there.” Many of these were part-timers who were only at FI a couple of days a week. But here’s the thing about maintenance: maintenance is something you’ve got to be “on” every single day. There are “fires to be put out”—not big ones, but still, “fires”—and if you don’t address them in a timely way, you can’t keep up. Things can get out of hand very quickly. Something breaks down and stays broken for an unacceptably long time.
I think that in the beginning, Ken himself was getting reports of the breakdowns from the desk and following up. He had the connections to the reps he’d bought the equipment from. But as Fitness Incentive grew, it just became too much for an owner to oversee these tasks along with every other facet that, as an owner, you must be involved in. The best approach, he thought, was for maintenance to be assigned to someone who was at the gym every day. And I was. When he asked if I was interested, I was, to be honest, a little nervous. This was because, having observed the girls who’d participated before and witnessed how they responded to the work, it seemed overwhelming. But they weren’t here enough to really keep on top of everything every single day.
PS: The sense I’m starting to get is that this job is much more involved than simply placing a service call when a treadmill stops working.
CP: When Fitness Incentive was on Main Street, Cor and I weren’t just maintenance men. We weren’t just aerobics instructors, or cleaning staff, or desk workers. We were everything. It was on Main Street that Fitness Incentive started to grow from an aerobics studio into a gym. We started to accumulate equipment: Schwinn Airdyne bikes, treadmills. In fact, my first ever repair was a Schwinn Airdyne. There was something going on with the computer screen. Members had been really getting into the equipment, and it was down. We didn’t have companies like GymSource or our current contacts like Gary at Precor, who can schedule and dispatch service technicians. So I called Schwinn, and they talked me through the repair. “Unplug, remove the cover, check this, disconnect that and re-set…” I fixed that bike that day. And I absolutely loved it! I loved solving the problem and bringing a malfunctioning bike back online. It’s a challenge for me. It’s to the point that if anything breaks for my family in my home, they call me up. I will fix things with whatever tool is needed, even if it’s a steak knife or a paperclip. My nickname at the Front Desk is MacGyver. If I can’t fix it, it bothers me. And, I mean, of course sometimes I have to give in—I can’t fix everything. But I love to try to fix it all, and I’d sure like to be able to.
Another aspect involves electronics and, in particular, stereo equipment. I’ve found over the years that women aren’t especially comfortable with stereos, but I like them. I enjoy having to figure out how to hook them up. And when we got into microphones—another thing that no one wanted to touch—I was happy to do it. I became the go-to person for stereos and small electronics. These days, there are times when they can just send a cell phone picture to me at home, and I can say “Well, just move this button this way and that one that way…”
And of course, the role evolved as we acquired more equipment.
PS: But you had a little case of nerves early on.
CP: Ken asked me about it, and I agreed but yes, a little case—there’s a lot of stuff out there! Service techs, warranties, serial numbers…but I got a grip on it. Ken then asked if I would consider not just equipment maintenance, but general maintenance encompassing the building itself. Roof leaks, HVAC, the landlord, ceiling tiles, plumbing. Ordering and maintaining inventories of supplies for the cleaning staff.
PS: So the title “Maintenance Manager” is entirely apt but your role seems to be considerably more. “Facility Manager” might strike closer.
CP: After a certain level of growth had been reached, Ken and Cor found that they needed a person who could be a conduit through which questions and the reports of problems could be directed. You simply can’t be getting text and email messages from what could literally be a couple of dozen people all day long. That person became me. I know who to call. I can compare prices and order supplies. Assess breakdowns and determine whether I (or other FI staff) can rectify them and, when necessary, place service calls and track their progress from beginning to end. And there is another aspect to these tasks that wouldn’t function, or would be less efficient if it was dispersed and not channeled through a single manager. It has to do both with accountability—ensuring that repair deadlines are met, that promised parts and services are delivered—and also with negotiation. I’ve reached the point where I can request and get certain materials for free; when I can request that a part be shipped but that the installation fee be waived. You see that the jobs get done, but you are also a kind of watchdog…”minding the store” and making sure commitments are honored, and keeping a look-out for deals and bargains.
It helps that we’ve refined the record-keeping process to a high level of quality. I can know, for example, that if a service call goes out and means a costly charge, but that the same service was performed only a short time ago, I can insist upon, or, at least, request, that the charge is waived. “This exact repair was performed just a month ago. What’s the warranty on your work?”
PS: Can you think of a real-world example of how something like this might play out?
CP: Here’s an example of working out a kind of deal, for lack of a better word. One of the treads on the rear cardio deck developed a problem with its console. A service call was placed, and when the tech arrived and got to work, I went with him to the unit and watched. I will do this when I can—go and watch the techs as they work. I wonder about how complicated the repair (that we’re being charged three- or four-hundred dollars for) is. Thinking the whole while, “Can I do this?” And you know I want to do it! A few months later, the same issue occurred on the same model. I recognized the problem because I’d seen it before, and knew what the “fix” was: the replacement of the console. I also knew what we’d be charged. So, this time, I ordered the part alone, and when it arrived, Albert and I installed it.
PS: I can hear in your voice the sense of satisfaction.
CP: It is satisfying. I never saw myself in this position, and people are so confused by my love of it. Especially since anyone else who’d done it was, like, “Good luck with that!” They all told me how hard this job is. Maintenance was the one job no one else wanted to do. Another potential barrier was my familiarity with the equipment, because it was limited, at least early on. I was never an “equipment” exerciser, I was an aerobics instructor. But once I started doing this work, I made it a point to try to use at least one piece of equipment a day. This allowed me to experience the piece when it was working correctly, and help me diagnose when it wasn’t.
What matters in this role to me can be summed up as “the least amount of downtime,” and I take a lot of pride in seeing to that. I respond to the challenge: “How fast can I get this issue resolved? How quickly can that treadmill not be Out Of Order? I love when reviews or surveys show that members perceive the gym to be “Well-Maintained.” It has come to mean a lot to me, and I never want to lose that edge. Because in this industry you hear it all the time from people who were once members somewhere else: “Everything’s always broken, everything’s always a mess.” Not at Fitness Incentive if I have anything to say—or do—about it.
Cath’s in the “Hats.”
As has been said, Cathy has worn many “hats” over the years at FI. Obviously, maintenance is one, and Front Desk staffer (a job function—like maintenance—that involves so much more than is apparent based on casual consideration) and, from the earliest days, instructor. Says Cath:
“So, over the years that I’ve been teaching classes, which is probably about 30 by now, I’ve taught various levels of Aerobics classes, Step classes, Bodysculpt classes, Cardio Kickboxing, a class called Aerofunk (which was a dance-based class), Essential Stretch (which works on increasing flexibility through deep relaxation), and Cardio Strength. All because one day, Cor picked me out of one of her classes and told me I was going to become an instructor ‘Like it or not!’ I did not want to be an instructor…it hadn’t occurred to me that I could be. But if Cor says you’re going to, there’s a strong chance that you are! This was the Eighties, and what we were doing would now be thought of as standard ‘80’s aerobics but was then cutting edge. And because I learned from Cor, I felt I was being taught by the best. I patterned my style on hers, which was to string routines together and build on them. I was rather more basic than she was because I was just beginning and largely winging it. But you improve over time and as you grow more confident, you tap more into your creativity.”
Thank you, Cathy. At least one of your “hats” should be a crown.
About the Author…
Paul Smith is a graphic designer, editor, and Director of Marketing at Fitness Incentive. He is a frequent contributor to our newsletter, Fit to Print.