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Jeff McFadden Takes Private Club Leadership to New Levels [Episode 34]

Jeff McFadden gives new meaning to “club leader.” His ascent to his current position as the CEO of The Union League of Philadelphia is typical in some ways, “starting out in food and beverage peeling potatoes,” as he says, at The Cosmos Club after graduating from the Cornell Hotel School. After three years as the General Manager of the University Club of Denver, he made his way to The Union League in 1998. And it's here that he's stayed. A rolling stone, gathering no moss to be sure. In his time at The Union League, the club has gone from a struggling, nearly bankrupt city club generating about $7 million annually to a juggernaut driving more than $100 million annually. The club has operated more like a business than a nonprofit, acquiring parking decks, golf courses, and restaurants. This former potato peeler is now the CEO of one of the most successful clubs in the country.

McFadden's career path, while seemingly paved with gold, hasn't been trouble-free, and it certainly hasn't been without a healthy diet of risk. However, listen to him and you can hear how he has brought to life a vision and an operational approach that has generated revenue, growth, AND a strong culture of members. What's more significant is how McFadden and the leadership team at the Union League continue to work hard at creating a club that appeals to both the next-generation members and the legacy members, some of whom have roots going back to the start of the club in 1862.


Episode 34 of Crushing Club Marketing:

Building Your Granddaughter's Club

What has become the "north star" for the visionaries of the club started with a strategic plan titled, "Building Your Granddaughter's Club." The question that fueled this plan was this:  “Is The Union League going to be the best 1965 club in 2005? Or in 2025 will it be what your granddaughter and great-granddaughter want in a private club?” This strategic vision has helped the leaders make decisions that are based not on the needs of today, but on the future. For a club that was "all men" until 1986, this vision shed light on the family, specifically women—wives, daughters, and granddaughters.

Jeff McFadden"There's so much connotation in that phrase," Jeff McFadden explained during a recent Crushing Club Marketing Podcast interview, "meaning that we're becoming progressive, more forward-thinking, more inclusive."

This perspective encourages members to see the club not for themselves, but for the generations to come. This is a fundamental belief of McFadden’s as he believes members need to keep focused on the future of the club. An example of this is how he sees vital improvements to the club’s infrastructure. McFadden cites a common complaint, like the need for an assessment to update an irrigation system. Long-time members at many clubs often resist this type of capital expense and say they won't be around long enough to appreciate the investment.

"And you say to that person, well, you're not paying for the new irrigation system, you're paying for the irrigation system you consumed over the last 30 years."
And by adopting this attitude, the members see these investments less about themselves and more about the generations who will follow.

Investing in the Future

Growing a club’s revenue from $7 million to over $100 million doesn’t happen without taking some chances. McFadden made his first big move shortly after taking the reins at The Union League when he led the club in the purchase of an adjacent parking deck.

“The parking deck was a struggle. It was the first assessment we had at the League in 50 years. We did not have a lot of support for it,” McFadden said. However, the assessment passed with about 67% in favor of it. Not a glamorous acquisition, but it paid off and the club doubled its revenue in the next 12 months.

Operating like a growing business, McFadden is bullish on strategic investments and does not shy away from risk and associated debt. He has consistently invested in the club making significant purchases that include three golf courses and two restaurants, one at the New Jersey shore where a number of his members vacation.

“You’re not just here to enjoy the club, but you are a steward of the club. You are a steward of the institution,” said McFadden. In conversations with other club leaders, McFadden hears their concerns and wonders why other clubs lack outside investments.

“We don’t have any savings. We live hand to mouth, right? And then we assess when we want to build something,” says McFadden as he describes conversations with his peers. “I just don’t think that’s the right way to run the railroad.”

Ready for the Future

With an eye to the future, cash in the bank, and investment properties for members to enjoy, the Union League has its sights set on creating the club granddaughters will choose and developing ways to bridge generations who have different needs and expectations. McFadden believes that if you want people to live longer, you’ve got to surround them with younger people. He says the hard part is getting the young folks to value the older generation.

“So we look at multiple activities…that a young person can do and an old person can do.” This may include activities like bowling or pickleball. It could also include lectures and education. Social programs continue to be important to bring in younger members. McFadden tries to avoid exclusively catering to the younger or older market.

“I’m serving a club market and trying to bring the two generations, or three generations, together and then keep things lighthearted and fun.”

Planning for the Future

The recent wave of success at many clubs across the country resulted in a lot of capital improvements. However, the boom likely won’t last forever and McFadden cautions leaders who are spending without a long-term plan.

“I think the time is right to create the right strategy of constant improvement,” advises McFadden. He believes it’s not the right time to make major improvements unless a club desperately needs it.

“But I do think the strategy at all private clubs needs to be, ‘We are going to have constant improvement over the next 10, 15, 20 years,’” he said. “Do the master plan and then dole it out a little bit at a time. Keep people excited. Make sure you have something going on for multiple generations— for the old folks, the middle folks, the young folks.”

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