COVER STORY – You'll find it at the YMCA

Posted on Oct 2, 2012 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

In 2000, there were two YMCAs with two leaders in the Fox Cities. They were similar players competing on the same court – and neither was at the top of its game.

At some point, Bill Breider, then of the Neenah-Menasha YMCA and Fred Hauser, then of the Appleton YMCA, decided that to exercise better business practices, and to be leaner, stronger and offer more, the two organizations needed to start playing on the same team.

While much of their client base – the families in the communities served by each YMCA – cheered the idea, there were questions to answer, minds to convince. Would one Y lose its identity to the other? And a potentially big hurdle: Who would lead the merged organization?

“Fred and I knew and understood that in order for us to be successful, the two of us really needed to agree on an organizational plan,” Breider says.

The merger would become a transitional point in a long history of the Y organization in the Fox Cities – one that stretches back 125 years.

Y • M • C • A • !

Mention the YMCA and it likely will conjure certain images and memories: an iconic song accompanied by exuberant arm gestures, the smell of chlorine or the sound of sneakers squeaking on a gym floor. But leaders of the YMCA of the Fox Cities hope those familiar images are merely the starting point to understanding the wide-reaching impact the organization aims to have on the people it serves.

“When one may see just a gym, we see the means to a healthy, productive life,” says Breider. “When someone may see the YMCA as just a pool, we see a lifelong confidence that one gets from learning to swim at the YMCA. And we know that we’re more than a child care center or a preschool – we’re an opportunity for parents to continue their education or to work to support their family.”

The YMCA organization nationwide is in the middle of another transition – a rebranding effort, which will not only present a new look to the community but give the Y a new way to describe itself and its mission – part of a tradition of good business sense that has kept the organization running and relevant for well more than a century.

Early beginnings

It all started in London in 1844 by founder George Williams, who wanted to help keep young men off the streets. The Young Men’s Christian Association started as simply Bible study-and-prayer sessions. Similarly, in 1887 George and Elizabeth Jones wanted to launch a YMCA chapter in Appleton to offer young men an alternative to hanging out in saloons. Their first effort stalled, but they started a reading room instead, and a year later community leaders voted to establish a YMCA. The Neenah-Menasha YMCA began as the Young Women’s Club in 1911, becoming a YWCA in 1929 and then a YMCA in 1969.

In 2000, the two organizations’ boards voted to consolidate into the YMCA of the Fox Cities and the merger became official on Aug. 1, 2002.

“Having worked on the national scene now for the last five years, I haven’t seen any Ys any stronger collectively than the YMCA of the Fox Cities,” says Hauser. “I’ve seen some Ys that are very good in one area or another, but for the overall effectiveness of a YMCA in a community, I haven’t seen any doing a better job.”

Team Y

The merger of the two Ys was unique in the fact that neither was struggling to succeed and neither needed assistance from the other, Hauser says. Yet each could make the other better.

“Both Ys were good, but they weren’t great,” he says. “In order to be great and to provide great services in all of our communities, we had to join forces.”

Without the consolidation, the two Ys would have found it difficult to expand and build the Heart of the Valley, Fox West and Apple Creek branches. Local businesses had asked more than once whether merging might be the way to go since they kept getting approached by both organizations for volunteers and donations, Hauser says.

“We felt like we could be much more efficient in our operations, and we felt like we could reach more people with more programs and services,” Breider says. “We also knew that each of our individual YMCAs were looking to grow, and when we peeled back everything, we found that we were our own greatest competitors.”

But the first vote on consolidation was only partially successful – the Appleton Y membership was on board, but Neenah-Menasha’s 63 percent fell short of the two-thirds majority required.

“We went back and tried to evaluate what we were missing in the process, and what we concluded was that we didn’t provide enough information to our members,” Breider says. “We took for granted that our members knew what we knew as to all of the benefits that a united organization could bring.”

Discussions of a merger often come with some level of anxiety and lots of questions. Y members, for example, had concerns about the two separate endowment funds and whose money would end up funding what.

Terri Pawer, COO at Dental City, former board chairwoman and current board member, says question-and-answer sessions were held to help address some of the concerns people had at the time.

“There were different commitments that were made, that one organization wasn’t going to take over the other one, that they weren’t going to lose their identity,” Pawer says. The two separate endowments remained in place, yet people still can contribute to the larger organization as a whole, too, she says.

Neenah-Menasha took a second vote, which resulted in a 78 percent approval.

“I really feel that we did a better job explaining and telling the “why,” and I think that had a big impact,” says Sue Pawlowski, community relations director for the YMCA of the Fox Cities. “I think there were a lot of people that were disappointed that it didn’t go the first time, so they even worked harder to make that happen because they knew that was going to be the best thing down the line.”

Leading the way

Breider and Hauser knew a merger would be best for both organizations.

In 2002, Breider, who was in charge of the smaller YMCA, agreed to become vice president of operations and Hauser became CEO and president of the YMCA of the Fox Cities. Later Hauser moved on to the national level where he’s currently the vice president of certification and membership standards/and small- and mid-size YMCAs. Breider became president and CEO of the YMCA of the Fox Cities in 2007.

“Had there been other people involved, it might not have happened,” says Doug Dieterich, president of Galloway Company and current YMCA of the Fox Cities board chairman. “The way Fred and Bill handled that showed strong leadership from both of them.”

“Fred had been a mentor of mine in the YMCA for a number of years,” Breider says. “He had deeper relationships within the Fox Cities just because of the longevity of his career in the area. The Appleton YMCA was the larger YMCA, had more established financial development programs in place. The YMCA was in the largest community in the Fox Cities, and I really felt like I had a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow under Fred’s leadership, and that is exactly what happened. So it really wasn’t a hard decision. Once we made that decision to move forward, many, many other things fell into place.”

Breider, a native of Two Rivers, started working at the Manitowoc/Two Rivers branch in 1984. He was executive director for a branch in Belvidere, Ill., before coming to the Neenah-Menasha YMCA. He and his family were always involved in the YMCA – both of his now-grown children used the child care center at Neenah-Menasha, where Breider could walk down and visit them or have lunch with them. They were involved in Y programs and Breider was a coach for flag and tackle football and basketball.

Hauser, who has been with the Y for 35 years, now works with other YMCAs that are going through similar consolidation efforts.

“One of the key things I’ve learned in working with Ys now: The first thing we have to work out is who’s going to be the leader,” Hauser says. “Until both CEOs know their position and know their future, nothing is going to happen. If they’re indifferent about it, and don’t really know where they’re going to fall out in this thing, they have a hard time being supportive and being totally committed to the process.”

“I think it was really rare to have two leaders of an organization come together with that type of commitment,” says Pawer. “Usually, you think that there’s going to be a collaboration and there’s only going to be one surviving leader, and there was a fear that we might lose either Fred or Bill.”

“This merger is a real testament to Bill and Fred,” Dieterich says. “The merger is a symbol of what the Fox Cities are about — the chambers (Appleton and Neenah-Menasha) merged first and then the United Ways followed. It took a while to get the two YMCA organizations to merge, and when they did, it I think it just blossomed in terms of utilizing resources efficiently to support the mission.”

Merger/consolidation results

Blossomed it has. The year 2002 was big for the Y not only because of the merger but because it saw the opening of the Heart of the Valley YMCA in Kimberly and the Fox West YMCA in Greenville. The organization also added the Apple Creek Y and the Bruce B. Purdy Nature Preserve in 2009.

“Had we been separate, we would’ve never had the financial resources or the community support to open those three facilities,” Breider says.

Membership has grown from 14,000 members at the original two Ys to 38,000 members at the five branches (another 27,000 non-members participate in programs). Program offerings and enrollments have tripled. Before the merger, the two Ys had 700 employees and now the Y employs 1,770, 87 percent of them part-time, Pawlowski says. The organization also has seen significant cost savings in operations because it has been able to centralize business offices, combine purchasing and procurement of resources and develop in-house training, Breider says. There were no layoffs after the merger, though several postions were restructured, with some employees taking on larger responsibilities. “Most importantly, we’ve been able to carry our mission forward in a much more united front and tell our story in a much more consistent, compelling fashion,” he says.

Despite some early concerns, each Y has retained its individuality and has different specialty areas: Appleton has strong child care and swim programs, for example, Neenah-Menasha focuses on arts and humanities programs and Heart of the Valley is known for its gymnastics.

Not your average Y

It’s uncommon for a community of this size to have a Y system of this caliber. The YMCA of the Fox Cities has a $19.3 million operating budget for 2012 – a size comparable to communities such as Colorado Springs and Oklahoma City, Hauser says. The Fox Cities Y is substantially larger than even Green Bay or Madison, he says.

One of the reasons for that is the tremendous community support in the area for the YMCA, Hauser says. The new facilities, additions and expansions all take contributions and volunteers. A strong Y can be used as a part of a company’s recruitment campaign just like churches, schools and other youth-serving agencies, he says.

And now, the YMCA of the Fox Cities has become a model for other communities that are considering going through the merger process.

“I’ve always said the Y at times was one of the best kept secrets in the valley,” board member Pawer says. “Until you understand the breadth and depth of the programming, and the collaboration and what the YMCA is all about, you don’t really have an appreciation for the broader organization.”

Understanding what the Y is all about

In July 2010, the national YMCA organization announced plans to change its logo and present itself in a new way to the country. All of the YMCAs, including the YMCA of the Fox Cities, will change the black-and-red upright “Y” logo to a two-color contemporary “y” in five different color schemes. Along with other Ys nationwide, the YMCA of the Fox Cities already has begun transitioning to the new logo such as on its staff clothing. But it’s not just about giving the organization a new look.

“What we’re trying to do is reintroduce ourselves to the community,” Pawlowski says. “The YMCA is such a complex organization because we really serve people from infants through seniors.”

The YMCA might have once been a gym-and-swim, but now its aim is total wellness, Pawlowski says – spirit, mind and body – and it has programs each day for the youngest members of the community to the oldest to help achieve that goal. The organization wants to do a better job of explaining what it’s all about. So every program and effort of the Y now falls under three core areas: Youth development, healthy living and social responsibility, Pawlowski says.

It will help the 2,600 Y branches in 10,000 communities (with 20 million members) nationwide to deliver a consistent and clear message about who they are and what they do.

“We really feel that locally and nationally that the Y has been a respected non-profit organization,” Breider says. “But we felt it was time for people to better understand what we do and what our organization is all about.”

The next 125 years

In addition to the rebranding effort, the YMCA of the Fox Cities is in the midst of a strategic planning process. The plan emphasizes the Y’s three core areas, of course, and also outlines five focus areas that the organization will emphasize during the next three years, including accessibility, education, philanthropy, health/well-being and actions, meaning actions in keeping with the Y’s Christian tradition. Under the umbrella of accessibility, for example, the YMCA of the Fox Cities has identified neighborhoods with underserved populations and has created initiatives to help them get involved in the Y. The organization hopes to launch an income-based membership fee to help open up the Y to lower-income families, Breider says.

It also plans to be more aggressive with its workplace wellness programs, which currently serve about 40 area companies, he says.

“Every dollar spent incorporating a company wellness program will save $3.80 in future health care costs and $5.80 in reduction of absenteeism,” Breider says. “So along with that burden that we place on our local and national health care systems, I really think that shows that we have to become healthier as individuals, as families and also in the workplace.”

Beyond that, Breider sees the Y continuing to grow and thrive by serving the surrounding communities.

“I think the YMCA will continue to be an organization that meets the most pressing needs in their communities,” he says. “And it will be an organization that holds its mission up as the guiding force, the guiding light for that organization. … I really think the genius of the YMCA is that we are truly a partner – and a leader.”

YMCA’S MISSION

“To put Christian principles into practice by promoting youth, adult and family activities that build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all.”

“One of the things that we are most proud of is our mission, and I think there were some concerns when the Y changed our brand and how we identified ourselves,” says Bill Breider, president and CEO of the YMCA of the Fox Cities. “Many people felt like the ‘C’ was going to be removed from the Y, and our mission has stayed the same. We continue to focus on Christian principles…We pride ourselves at being an organization that welcomes and values everybody, and we accomplish our mission by working hard to be servant leaders to help our community meet our most pressing needs.”

A short sampling of what the Y offers

Child care

Swimming programs

Active older adult programs

Gymnastics

Dance

Yoga

Bible study

Writing classes

Movie making classes

Jedi training (yup)