The leadership dynamics of a CEO and COO can be likened to parents. You bicker behind the scene, but come out with a united front. Our guest for today, Rob Davies, is the President of Sport & Social Group. Sport & Social Group hosts sports leagues and events for adults. After graduating from Queen’s University and Wilfrid Laurier, Rob began a career in management consulting, which he found particularly spirit crushing. When he found the Sport & Social club in its early years, he loved the entrepreneurial feel and industry vibe. Starting from 3 employees and 200 teams, SSC has grown to host 10,000 teams playing across 11 locations. They have a goal of hitting 1 million members and are well on their way to scaling the organization.
Sport & Social Group President, Rob Davies
Rob Davies is President of the Sport & Social Group. The Sport & Social Group hosts sports leagues and events for adults. After graduating from Queen’s University and Wilfrid Laurier, Rob began a career in management consulting which he found particularly spirit crushing. When he founded the Sport & Social club in its early years, he loved the entrepreneurial feel and industry vibe. Starting from three employees and 200 teams, the Sport & Social Group has grown to host 10,000 teams playing across seven markets. They have a goal of hitting one million members and are well on their way to scaling the organization. Rob has been with the organization now for years as their second in command. Rob, welcome to the show.
I’m thrilled to be chatting with you. I think we’ve got a lot of fun stuff to talk about, starting with your sister.
I’ve been hearing of your name and met you a couple times, but I’ve heard of your name so many times because my sister is the CEO of the Sport & Social Group and has been running it now for years. I remember when you joined her and she was excited, then I remember the phone call where she was trying to figure out how could she keep you forever. Forever is a long time because this is the area where we worked for companies for three years, not twenty. Clearly, she found the diamond in the rough that every entrepreneur searches for. I’m excited to have you on.
I’m definitely reflecting back, being here for that long, but it’s been a great ride and we’re still enjoying it.
Tell us what the Sport & Social Group does and give us a bit of perspective on the size of the organization because it’s huge.
It’s sports leagues and events for adults in the city. I describe us as intramurals for people that are no longer in college or university they graduate on. It’s their first career, often moving to a new city. People want to stay active or they want to meet people or just try a new sport and that’s where we come in. I think there are lots of avenues for people that want to play sports as a kid or playing sports in schools, but once they graduate, they lose that network. That’s what we’ve been able to provide. We like to think we’re selling dodgeball leagues, but we’re selling community.
The community is like Starbucks had the third place. You are making this almost the third place for the 20 to 50-year-olds.
You get busy in your career or for some of our members, they’ve started the family and that becomes their new world. They don’t have that same community that they had back in university. It’s a great mechanism for people to stay connected to some of their school friends or to meet new people or just get out and be active, try a new sport and get off the couch to be active in the community.
I remember when I was back in Toronto when Kristi was just starting this business up and you were involved, I was playing in one of her Ultimate Frisbee Leagues and I was working during the day. I was 29 years old and to go and play co-ed intramural Ultimate Frisbee and then go for beer and nachos afterwards with everybody was amazing. It was exactly that college intramural experience. You’ve got over 10,000 leagues now. How many people participating approximately would that give us?
When I started, we had a couple hundred teams. Now, we have expanded. We’re in eight Canadian cities and two American cities. We’ll have 11,000 teams playing everything from soccer, floor hockey, other less popular sports like maybe curling and dodgeball. We do a lot of events and other activities, fitness classes, you name it. We’ve tried it and we’d like to say we’re providing something for everyone. You can choose your sport and then you can choose your skill level too. We have options for complete beginners, people that are really afraid. This is a great place to start right up to varsity level, volleyball and all sorts of types.
I remember in the early days, you had co-ed intramural or co-ed inner tube water polo at one point.
We still have the inner tube water polo. If people have seen the regular water polo without the inner tube, that’s a crazy sport, but this is more leisurely. You get to sit the tube and splash around.
Talk to us about some of the logistics. You’ve been working with Kristi’s classic entrepreneur. She’s high energy, driven, focused, can be a bit bipolar like most entrepreneurs with the massive ups and downs. How do you navigate that as the second in command? How do you help her stay in her unique ability and leverage that as well?
I’ve talked to a lot of COOs about their struggles with their CEOs. Kristi and I fall into the classic. She’s the classic visionary, lots of passion, lots of energy, lots of ideas. She’s a great leader, always looking to expand the business and get into new things. On the flipside, that passion from those ideas, it’s like a never-ending supply of ideas coming in. She doesn’t sweat the details like I would and can get distracted by the shiny things. The other common thing I hear from everyone is that people like Kristi, they want all those ideas implemented right away. Shooting from the hip and like, “Let’s make it happen and let’s go for it.” I offer a complement to that in that I’m the classically methodical. I want more information so I can size it up and put it into the context of the big picture. At the core, I’m a systems and a process guy. I have to describe Kristi as the gas pedal. Without her, we’re not moving forward, but that means sometimes I need to play the role of the brake or at least slowing us down or if you go too fast, you’ll crash. I’ve heard you described the yin and the yang and definitely with the two of us, I think that fits us to a tee. While we have overlapping strengths and weaknesses, we’re a nice complement that way.
You talked about the classic entrepreneur of winging it, shooting from the hip, the big shiny objects, wanting to put her ideas in place right away. How do you specifically work with her to either slow her down or keep track of the ideas so they don’t have to be started right away but we don’t lose the ideas? Can you walk us through any systems or ways that you stay in sync and continue to leverage her strengths but also not have to start everything right away and not piss off the CEO by not wanting to run her ideas right away?
When Kristi comes back from a conference or a talk, she comes back and everyone’s like, “Brace yourselves, she’s coming back. There’s going to be 30 ideas.” Part of my role is to sift through and figure out which ones are the gold and which ones are the bad ideas. I found with Kristi, finding a place for all those ideas, she wants to be heard. She wants her ideas to be acknowledged. We happen to use Trello. When an idea comes up, I make a point of documenting those ideas. If that idea exists on the Trello board and it’s there, for her it’s the fear that the idea which was an awesome idea at the time might not be the right idea for now. It’s not lost forever. If it’s somewhere in our system, we can refer back to it. That seems to enable her to let go in the moment and move on. It helps us to prioritize the ideas and with her knowing that it’s not gone forever, that we can come back to it. I find a lot of those ideas that I would deem the lower-caliber ideas tend to go away anyway in time when we come back to it and she sees it and goes, “Let’s not do that.”
How do you catch up? You tend to ask some of the questions and how do you get on the same page with her overall for where the vision of the company is going and then also on an idea or a project-by-project basis? How do you get on the same page?
Kristi and I meet every week for 90 minutes and it’s a meeting that we will not miss. It happens to be right before our leadership meeting. We find this helpful. Before we’re walking into the leadership meeting in front of the rest of the team, we can talk about the bulk of the ideas that are going to come up at the table and we can be aligned in advance and that’s important. There have been times when we haven’t done that or other ideas have come up and we waste a lot of everyone else’s time when the two of us are in there bickering about the pros and cons. It’s important for our relationship but also for the whole leadership team for Kristi and I to be aligned. We have a same-page meeting which happens before the leadership meeting.
I like that you’re doing it so that you and she are getting on the same page before you go into the leadership team meetings so that you can hash it out. I almost envision it like two parents that are raising a family. The parents, they have their arguments behind the scenes so they come out and then tell the kids as a united force what’s going on. Is that how it works?
When the two of us are united, we walk in, it’s a stronger argument if we’re trying to push something through the leadership team or trying to get further buy-in. Making sure that you’re aligned. We look ahead what is on the agenda for that leadership meeting, try and cover off all the items.
What’s the agenda for your one-on-one meeting with her? How does it flow for the 90 minutes? Is it a structured agenda for that meeting or is it more of a free-flow discussion about a bunch of stuff?
Because we’re using Trello, we go back to our Trello board and we prioritize in advance. My job is to sort through the items and put the most pressing one at the top, but we’ll cover off essentially my to-dos from the previous week, Kristi’s to-dos from previous week and then the new hot items that inevitably come up. Either that item becomes my new to-do or her new to-do or it’s something that we’re aligned on and we put it forward for the leadership team meeting.
How do you get the engagement of the leadership team? What’s the structure of your organization look like on a leadership team level? Who reports to you? Who reports to Kristi?
There are some ebbs and flows with the leadership team with someone going on maternity leave and a new position being created. It’s a new time, there are some new bodies at that table. Everyone else in leadership reports to me and I report to Kristi. That’s the structure of it and I think of my job as aligning the rest of the leadership team with the vision. Because I’ve got that alignment with Kristi, it helps to drive us towards the overall goals of the company.
Are you working with the leadership team doing one-on-one meetings with them as well?
Same style as you would work with Kristi then?
Similar style. Trello seems to have wormed its way into our organization to keep us organized. Our goal now is to get one million people playing in the leagues. For us, it’s almost like for the first twenty years, we’re happy doing our thing, building this local footprint, not just stumbling along, but purposely being local.
Local but millions of dollars of sales and profitable and huge scope. You are clearly the biggest in this sports space in the Toronto marketplace.
Taking that time to build up the process and the systems and we feel like we’ve honed the formula. One day, Kristi nailed this best when she was driving around the city, seeing whether it’s some ultimate frisbee players or flight football players, driving by and seeing a couple hundred people playing on the field and understanding that that’s what makes her feel good, what makes us feel good and that’s why we’re doing it. As a legacy, wouldn’t it be amazing to get a million people playing, “Have a million people in a year doing that?” That’s what set us off down this new course that we’re on, realizing that we wouldn’t be able to get a million people playing in the Toronto market alone. We’ve gone down this path where we’re chasing strategic partnerships and acquisitions. That’s what led us over the border into the US for the first time and other Canadian markets.
What strategically has to change then if you’re going to go from being just in the Toronto market to a million people? Secondly, what do you think has to change at your leadership team level in terms of their skill level or skill areas? Where do you need to work on or get better as a team?
I’d like to come back and report how we’re doing, because it’s interesting. Previously, we had twelve people, a lack of a leadership team, not doing leadership meetings. Now, we’ve got thirty-five and 200 part-time people. The pace of change has been incredible and it’s keeping up with those systems and the processes. With those remote markets, it’s bringing those people in as well and making them feel part of the collective. There’s a lot of new pieces for us. It’s been a scary, but exciting time too.
Where have you grown then as an organization? Internally, you’ve been there for years so your industry experience and your depth of understanding is huge. Where have you had to work to increase your skillset as the president and where do you think Kristi has gone as the CEO to increase her skills? Where are you working to grow the skills of the leadership team specifically?
There was a handful of us from the company, aside from myself, being here almost twenty years and there were few other people that have been here for ten or fifteen years. In many ways, that group of us grew up with the company. A couple of things that we’ve had to do is look outside of our small bubble for external mentors or groups. For example, the CEO Alliance, whether it’s that or the EOTech groups, there’s people that have come before us that have done what we’re trying to do and expanding our knowledge through external mentors.
You’re getting mentors for your management team? Are there any specific areas? Are you working with them on project management or time management? Are you working with them on acquisitions or integration skills, technology?
All of that is stuff that we are actively working to grow our skills at. We have brought in some external leaders. We have a fractional CFO, Vicki. She used to be the CFO for Sleep Country Canada.
How do you leverage a fractional CFO?
It’s been a great steppingstone where we used to have a bookkeeper and then a full-time bookkeeper. Then someone more financially savvy and we were ready. Especially when we want to pursue the acquisitions, knowing we need to go to the next level, we need some professional assistance and bolstering the leadership team and the credibility of what we’re trying to do. As a first step, bringing in Vicki on a fractional basis 2.5 days a week and that’s at the time what was in the budget and immediate pay dividends with bringing in that external professional help.
What specifically would she do then? It’s a big step that I think a lot of people can’t afford a CFO, but they haven’t thought about a fractional one that could help. How is she helping you?
She came on board right around the time that we had chosen to go down this new path of acquisitions. That’s been her biggest strength. With Sleep Country Canada, going through that rapid scale up, her experience with that has been amazing. We’ve done six or seven acquisitions and she’s led the charge from a financial perspective. Kristi’s the one that leads the charge on getting the deal done. I’m the one that’s integrating that club into our operations. Vicki from a financial perspective, integrating the finances and it all makes sense on the accounting side.
That’s huge that you’ve got her there because that’s exactly where one of the differences were for the company if you’ve never done acquisitions. It’s amazing to bring in a senior person who has done it in the fractional way is perfect. I want to find out what was it that’s kept you at the Sport & Social Group for years. What is it or what were the two or three things that has kept you handcuffed or satisfied you in a way that you stay?
I was digging through the archives and I found this journal. I’m not really a journal guy, but I’ve written two entries in this book. The rest of it is empty, but the second entry was the day I decided to come to Sport & Social club. I wrote to myself that I can see myself staying for maybe a year tops. I’ll stay as long as I’m learning something. Looking back, I’ve learned so much. Things have changed and I honestly still feel like we’re just getting started and so much more to learn. Coming back to the acquisitions, having no knowledge of it, that we had to teach ourselves and learn from others. It’s a whole other skillset that’s bringing the pieces together and integrating them together.
Talk about the company culture. The Sport & Social Group have built an incredible company culture and it’s not about just the perks. What is it that you think has turned your company into a cult? It is a little bit more than a business, less than a religion. It’s in that perfect zone of a cult.
We’ve always prided ourselves on having a positive company culture. Even now that the feedback we get from staff is that they say the best thing about our company is the people. For me, the people lends itself to the culture. It’s circular. It starts with our hiring practices and hiring around our core values. A lot of people say that, truthfully, our core values is the biggest thing on the wall in our boardroom. It’s on all our job descriptions. We hire, evaluate and fire base on core values. A lot of our people here are aligned with what we’re trying to do with the type of people we want, and that ladders up to the vision. We’ve got the ping-pong table in the lounge and we’ve got beer on tap and all that stuff is great, but it’s rather fun things we do that are neat with all of it meant to make it feel like a team environment, right down from our profit sharing, and we do these staff trips.
It’s getting more difficult as the numbers get higher. If we hit our goals, we’ve gone to Turks and Caicos and Cancun and other places as a team. Those are always amazing bonding experiences. It’s amazing how many great ideas come out on the beach after a few beers. Another one that we do is we have our jersey ceremony. After a year, you earn your veteran’s jersey. It’s a hockey jersey with the number on the back. It’s the number of the year that you started. We make a big deal about presenting people after they’ve been there for twelve months. They get their jersey and it hangs outside their office or on their chair. Another one is we have an office mayor. Every four months, we elect a mayor in the office. I’ll give a shout out to G Adventures which is a Toronto-based travel company. I was sitting in their office and they were going through their company elections for the mayor of their office. For us, we elect a different mayor and that mayor is in charge of social events, birthdays and other things like that.
You touched on something that I think so many people miss, that we don’t have to figure out what to do. It’s mostly been invented, that R&D should stand for rip-off and duplicate. The mayor ceremony that worked so well for the Sport & Social Group is a rip-off and duplicate from G Adventures. G Adventures probably picked it up from somewhere else. The key is to be looking for those things to bring into your company that are easy to put in place that don’t take a lot of work.
Another one that is not new to us, Kristi has installed a book club. This is before official company time and it’s optional but suggested. People that you wouldn’t normally connect with on specific different levels, you can just talk to them differently as you’re discussing the book. Sometimes, it’s a business book and sometimes it’s a biography. Collaborate or discuss with your teammates or your co-workers on a level that’s not directly necessarily to business. It’s like a social event.
How does your book club work? A lot of companies have them but I’m curious as to what the format is for your book club. Do you do book reports? Do they get points for doing it? How does your whole overall scheme for the book club work?
We vote on the book and we have a couple months. We only do it maybe four or five times a year and everyone come for 8:00, we provide breakfast and we just limit to 45 minutes or an hour. It’s an open forum. Usually, someone, typically Kristi, is directing some of the questions and the commentary. You get the shy people that surprise you. They come out and they have some insightful takeaways from the book and sometimes, it’s directly relevant to the business and we talk about it in context of our business. Sometimes, it’s not related to business at all, but we’re just there as a group, similar to what we’ve had in the past running groups or other things that are of interest. It’s been neat that way and it’s not for everyone. It’s another way to connect outside of business hours.
Talk about integration, how are you integrating the acquisitions that you’re doing or the partnerships that you’re creating with other Sport & Social Groups? What have you learned from some of the integrations that you’re going to tweak or change going forward you think?
it’s a learning process as we’ve gone through and I think back to the first acquisition that we did, it was a real eye-opening experience because we just hadn’t gone through it before and didn’t understand what was about to come. Now that we’ve gone through it a few times, there’s new media pieces that just seem easy for integrating the finance, some of the marketing stuff. We’re going through a process of bringing more stuff into the Toronto Head Office, that the Toronto Head Office will act as the backbone and the administrative support team and let these city managers some freedom to just go, grow and get the people.
Every acquisition has been a bit different and that they are on a different software platform or they have their own systems. While we think we figured out a formula, we’ve learned a lot from the acquisitions themselves and some of them have spent ten years creating this awesome community in their own market and we don’t want to wreck that at all. Keeping the local genius intact but overlaying this efficiency over systems and processes that enable them to avoid making the same mistakes that we’ve already made. It’s that formula combining the local flavors needed and those people in those markets on the ground, they’re critical to the local success, but it’s providing them with the additional support so they can march forward.
You’re looking at two things. One is that interdependence that if a system exists, that is working for the whole Sport & Social Group, they’ll use it. If there’s one that’s existing locally that works for them and you’re letting them use it. You’ll let them work in their own systems. Secondly is honoring that local culture that I think a lot of people miss, that the culture of that one city group is going to be different and you’re not trying to make them yours. If there are bits and pieces that you can add, they’re going to layer to. It works but you’re not forcing it.
If you think from the members’ perspective, we don’t want to make the members feel like they’re going through the same process that we’re going through. It should be as seamless as possible for them if we’re having to move from one software system into another. It can be creating unnecessary hoops for them to jump through and it’s making sure it’s as seamless as possible. In general, people don’t like change, especially from the members’ standpoint. They just want to play their softball game. They don’t even care what’s happening. They just want to make sure they’re getting their game in.
Are you going to be changing the name over to one common brand at all or is that on the table right now?
It’s case-by-case. Some of these acquisitions have built up an amazing brand and following for that brand in the market that we’re not going to be quick to pull the rug out. The bulk for the ones we’ve done have embraced our logo and generally embraced the name, it’s why we’re not going by Sport & Social Group with the different cities under the one umbrella.
Where do you think you’ve grown most?
It’s the management of people. It’s not something specifically learned in your undergrad or in your first few years out on the job. That’s how I’ve morphed as I look back on my own career trajectory. I’m working on the business and now, I’m more managing the people and I think over the years, it’s a delicate thing sometimes to be managing different people, what motivates people and building a cohesive, collaborative team. It is a skill and if there’s one thing, that’s what I’ve been forced to learn over the years.
I was talking to the CEO of Sprint about it and we were talking about people. I said, “When do people stop becoming the issue?” He said, “We’re the 82nd biggest company in the United States and people are always the issue.” You can’t systemize the psyche and the way people think and act and do and needs. If you were to give yourself one word of advice looking back to your earlier career, is there anything that you wish you’d known when you were starting out that you now know for sure to be true?
I’ll give you a two-part answer for this one. It’s looking back in retrospect for myself personally and for us as a company. It’s thinking bigger and thinking longer term. We’re used to, “Day-to-day, let’s survive tomorrow,” instead of understanding what tomorrow and how it fits in the context of the bigger goal. I know in your book, Double Double, you talk about the bigger picture. We went through that exercise and figured out, “What is the road we’re on here? Where are we going?” I always describe it as, “We’re on this cruise ship and we’re just sailing. Everything’s good and sun setting and beautiful,” but we had no idea where we’re going. Are we going to crash? What is this journey? Looking longer term and thinking bigger has enabled us to put the journey in context.
You’re at that next inflection point or evolution or the next vivid vision of what your company looks like in the future. It will be powerful for partners, suppliers, bankers and employees as well, so they can all see what you guys can see. Rob Davies, President of the Sport & Social Group, thank you so much for sharing. I’m looking forward to seeing what you guys do in your next years.
Thanks so much.
Thanks for being on the show. I appreciate it.