By Michael Carmichael
January 22, 2009
Early in December 2008, the Detroit Athletic Club achieved a goal established in the late 1990s - to be recognized for its efforts to bring better service to the club’s 4,000 members. That recognition took the form of the Michigan Quality Council’s Quality Leadership Award. The first ever granted to a Michigan organization in the hospitality sector, the award is the highest honor for organizational performance in the state and is modeled after the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality award program.
“The award itself, much as we appreciate it, was not the actual goal,” explains Ted Gillary, executive manager of the DAC for the past 15 years. “We wanted to be able to improve our membership service in an organized way. The more we reviewed the criteria for both the Baldrige and the Michigan Quality Leadership awards the more we began to realize how much an organization’s components have to be aligned internally to comply with the awards’ criteria. So, going after the award became the goal. You have to be able to have a focus, a sense of urgency in order to bring about organizational change and the award deadlines provided that.”
He continues: “Another sort of internalized goal, is to be sure you’re on the right path. That’s mandatory or, if you run into some obstacle or organized opposition to doing extra work or learning something new, you lose your focus and you’re not able to sustain your momentum to achieving the larger goal.”
Gillary says the club began its performance excellence process with an eye to aligning all organizational aspects with targeted results. “We stuck to the game plan and had a great deal of confidence that we were going in the right direction. That got us through a whole lot of change and made it possible for us, at this particular time, with the economy the way it is, to do as well as we are,” Gillary says. “Getting this award, at a time of economic crisis, is huge.”
“We were working on the award at the time of the Super Bowl XL in Detroit and had enormous challenges since we’re just across the street,” he continues. “If we hadn’t been creating this performance culture, opening lines of communication, acquiring new skill sets, I’m not sure how we would have been able to serve a record number of people - both daily and over a period of time - as we did. Part of that was driving decision-making throughout the organization - downward, sideways, up -¦ you name it - we said we wanted to increase the number of employees who ‘get it’ and that includes me,” he laughs.
“We wanted everyone to know what they were doing, why they were here, how they were contributing. The club has a vision statement - to be recognized as the premier private gathering place in Michigan. But every single department and sub-department has a vision statement also. And I rely on the department leadership to have their own vision so that they can feed into the overall club vision. It’s all about alignment,” Gillary explains.
“I’ve seen leadership at all levels make great decisions, understand who we are, what we are, where we’re going and be able to inspire great performance from the people within their area of responsibility,” he concludes.
The employees of the DAC are not the only ones involved in achieving the level of performance recognized by the Michigan Quality Council. “Board policies have to be communicated throughout all levels of the organization, we share the financial condition of the club, the condition of the economy to everyone at quarterly all-staff meetings,” Gillary says. “The Board’s strategic planning is incorporated as a part of the Quality Council’s two-year review process. The members are actively involved with committees and focus groups - their input is very important to us. In effect, the Leadership Award is all about the members.”
“We have 28 manuals throughout the organization, each with about 100 pages, that are devoted to expected standards of excellence,” Gillary says. “We update those continuously with much of the input coming from the members as well as our employees. For a club that’s been in this Albert Kahn building for almost 95 years, it creates a constantly innovative environment. The ultimate goal,” he reminds us, “is to serve our membership.”
Gillary originally came to the DAC straight from Michigan State University’s nationally-acclaimed school of hospitality. He served as an apprentice cook, then purchasing agent and director of catering before leaving after four years. He returned 15 years ago as executive manager, a position he’s held since then.
Gillary is president of the Entertainment District Association, a group comprised of Atanas Ilitch, Chuck Forbes and David DiChiera, among others. “We have a master plan for the district, which includes all the theatres, the stadiums, the restaurants,” Gillary explains. “We have more than 10 million visitors who come through this area - it’s really the heart and soul of downtown. The district’s goal is to keep those people engaged and not just to see or do one thing and then get in their car and go away. We want them to really experience Detroit. And the leadership we have - Roger Penske, Matt Cullen and others - are people who have dedicated themselves to Detroit. They’re all DAC members, by the way,” Gillary says with obvious pride.
Asked about his reading habits results in a somewhat surprising answer. “I read a lot of books at one time,” he says. “My daughter is at Hillsdale College and I love to browse around in their bookstore - so I’m reading ‘Eliot and His Age’ by Russell Kirk. Joe Harris, the chief financial officer for the City of Detroit, who’s a member, knows that I have a son who’s in the Marines. He has me reading ‘One Bullet Away’ which is about the First Reconaissance Division, my son’s outfit, at the start of the Iraq War. Another member gave me the book ‘The New Gold Standard’ which is the story of the Ritz-Carlton and their quest for excellence.” Even recreational reading points to his goal.
With its location neighboring Comerica Park, Gillary is asked if he ever takes a few minutes out during the summer to watch a ballgame from a vantage point that can’t be duplicated. “You bet!” he replies with enthusiasm.