DAC CEO: Culture Has To Be Authentic, Constant

When Charles Johnson took over as the Executive Manager and CEO of the Detroit Athletic Club in early 2020, he thought the biggest challenge to the job was going to be replacing Ted Gillary, who had led the DAC for more than two decades.

Then came the worldwide Covid pandemic, and all bets were off.

“Initially, following in the footsteps of someone who had been in charge for more than 25 years would be the biggest challenge I was facing,” Johnson said. “Within a few short weeks I realized I had a much bigger challenge on my hands.”

The DAC was founded in 1887, originally, according to Johnson, revolving around amateur athletics. It’s current building on Madison Ave., opened in 1915 and, since then, the club has evolved into a place where Johnson said Michigan’s business, social and civic leaders go for “all their business, athletic and social” activities.

Johnson joined the DAC in 2014 and replaced Gillary in 2020. Then, obviously, came the pandemic.

Reflecting on that period, Johnson said the first thing he discussed with the DAC’s board was what would be done for the employees. In a call with board members, Johnson recalled making what turned out to be a prophetic proclamation.

“What I said at the time was, ‘What we do for people at this time will be what’s remembered,’” Johnson said. “I didn’t realize at the time how important these words would be. It’s remarkable how true that would turn out to be, in terms of how we took care of employees, what we did and how we communicated with the membership.”

As the DAC’s new leader, Johnson said, that period of time was first about the staff, the people he “cared deeply about,” and how they would manage and survive through a time we nearly everyone initially thought would be “just a couple of weeks.”

The leadership and the board really focused on the people,” he said. “We really sustained them throughout, which I think was one of the reasons we were less impacted by what happened in the hospitality industry and the job market after that.

“Beyond that it was about the sustainability of the organization,” he added. “I felt a great deal of pressure as the new leader to not allow the DAC, which had been around for 130 years, to falter. The viability of the club was never really in danger, but I felt that pressure to make sure we were around and stood for what we stood for.”

Johnson sat down to talk about a variety of business issues during the most recent episode of “CEO Thought Leadership Series on LinkedIn Live” ((3) CEO Thought Leadership with Charles Johnson | LinkedIn), the discussion series hosted by the National Association of Business Resources.

Produced in conjunction with the Best and Brightest Companies to Work For and Corp! Magazine, the series is hosted by NABR CEO Jennifer Kluge and features business leaders from around the country.

Jennifer Kluge: Let’s talk about the DAC’s rich history. You’re in the hospitality industry, there’s rich legacy there, but you also want to implement new things and innovation and make change happen. What was that journey?

Charles Johnson: Nothing happens by accident. It wasn’t as though I came in and ‘We’re going to do these innovative things.’ Really the DAC being such a long-sustained organization, it’s on the backs of a lot of work ahead of us. Today we’re planning for things 5-10 years from now.  If there’s a scale, you find tradition and innovation as these polar opposites of the scale and so there’s a tension between them. I think that tension is important and, if used properly, can actually be useful.

It’s been said you can use tradition as the rudder of a boat, or it can serve as an anchor. I like that analogy because it speaks to the importance of tradition.

We’ve evolved. The same is true for the culture of our organization. There are certain things – our core values – that remain steady through time. In the early days it was a quip that the acronym stood for Detroit’s Active Citizens, and that is still symbolic of the DAC community today.

When you have a team of professionals like that, they understand what innovations are coming, what we need to do. It’s really about having a wonderful team around us.

Kluge: Hospitality … is like being in retail, you have to be there, you have to have a smile on your face, people can be challenging but wonderful in the same breath. You’re in an environment now where you’re competing for employees, some people prefer remote work. How are you staying competitive with all the changes in what work looks like?

Johnson: That’s probably the biggest challenge facing the industry, that workforce challenge. There’s no doubt the hospitality businesses suffered the most during the pandemic, and have lost the most since then. The industry lost the most amount of employees, was the slowest to recover, and still has the largest deficiency between the number of people who want to work in hospitality versus the need and number of open positions. It’s really a complex issue in that there’s no single thing that can be pointed to as the cause or as the solution.

The workforce wants more control over their schedule. They want to be able to choose the hours they work and the location, in some instances, whether it’s work form home or otherwise. That doesn’t always work well for hospitality, where nights, weekends and even some holidays can be some of our busiest times.

Our goal is to create a work environment that is appealing to those people. It may be a smaller pot of people, which means you have to be more appealing than others so they want to be a part of your team.

Kluge: Tell us more about the culture. What is the employee experience at the DAC? What is it like being an employee of the DAC?

Johnson: Being an employee of the DAC means you immediately find that you’re part of the community of the DAC. You’re not necessarily an employee, it extends beyond that. Of course, it includes our wonderful employees, but it also includes our members and their families.

Our daily work is not transactional, it’s very relational, we do a lot to protect the culture of the community. We often say everyone at the DAC should feel safe, respected and needed. Within that culture, the community thrives.

Kluge: If you were sitting in a room with other CEOs and they asked, ‘How do you continue to have excellence?’ What’s your advice?

Johnson: The most important aspect of a positive culture is the authenticity of it. If someone were to walk into your place of business and spend a day or two, and you asked them what they saw in your culture, how would that align with what you want? If you’re serious about culture it’s something you’re always striving for. It’s in constant flux, and you must be authentic about maintaining it.

If the culture is going to permeate throughout the organization, it must be authentic. After that, it’s about consistency. Culture is not negotiable, and it needs to be treated as such.

Kluge: Is there any team activity or perk or experience as an employee there that everybody loves? What’s your claim to fame among your activities as a team?

Johnson: We do a lot, we encourage departmental-to-departmental. (Recently) the catering team and the athletic teams got together for a little bowling party, just to have some camaraderie. They do work together, but they work in very different types of worlds. What could sometimes be stressors or miscommunication … you can get rid of some of that through some simple camaraderie.

We had our annual employee picnic (recently) in downtown Detroit, we had around 400 people show. Their families come, and it’s a great time to break bread, be together and celebrate our successes. These family things … the staff really looks forward to that.

Kluge: Client attitudes have changed, customer experiences are important. What have you done around client experience in a hospitality environment?

Johnson: We all have a servant’s heart, that’s why we do what we do. There’s a phrase we use at the DAC – “Taking Care” – and we’re here to take care of people. Taking care of each other, being all in and jumping in where you’re needed; taking care of members. We get immense satisfaction from taking care of people. There’s nothing better than getting a letter or a phone call with a very emotional connection about something someone did for someone and the impact it has.