State Of The Union

The Sutherland District Trade Union Club

Tim is Chief Executive Officer of Tradies, which could more stuffily be referred to as The Sutherland District Trade Union Club. Tradies is very firmly rooted in the communities of Gymea and Caringbah, two suburbs on the southern fringes of Sydney, but its success has made it worth noting anywhere in Australia. The organisation has established itself as a paradigm for community-related clubs and last year took out a prestigious Australian Business Award for Community Contribution in its industry classification as recognition of the extraordinary job done in transforming the facility from its humble origins to its current status as a centre for families throughout the region.

It began as a place where trade union members could discuss industrial, political and social issues of importance in their day to day lives. Tradies became a registered club in 1960 and quickly grew into a neighbourhood centre where members of the community could gather, relax and enjoy themselves. The premises comprised a small semi with a bar; 50 years ago membership was in the tens. Today, still a not-for-profit organisation, Tradies boasts some 43,000 members and an annual turnover of around $20 million. Tim says some $4.5 million is available as ‘profit’ for re-investment.

“It has gone from the little house on the corner to a significant business supporting around 100 sporting and community organisations within the Sutherland shire,” Tim explains. This is the area to the south of Botany Bay and the Georges River, with a population of around 220,000. The club draws members from as far as Liverpool and Hurstville, Brighton and as far south as Wollongong; some 25 per cent of members travel from outside the shire.

Tradies has departed rather from the conventional RSL approach to community clubs, with its day spa, coffee lounge, a restaurant that caters for 500-plus diners per day at weekends, function rooms, Chinese restaurant, sports bar, gaming and café. It is open from 0600 till very late, it’s extremely family-oriented, and it’s affordable, with membership rates ranging from just $5 for a year to $80 for perpetual entry. The hospitality trade press talks of the ‘Tradies effect’ – offering five star customer service and facilities at good value rates. Tim says many people come from all over Australia to check out the validity of such claims, and “invariably we demonstrate we are right. The RSL, bowling club, working men’s club models are all a twentieth century concept. We are a 21st century concept.”

The change was as swift as it was startling. A dozen years ago, a steering group set out to find and adopt world’s best practice in hospitality, including such varied aspects as corporate social responsibility and sustainability – as well as equal opportunities for women, for which Tradies has won awards. “It’s more than how you serve a beer or put a chicken schnitzel on a plate – it’s how we grow our staff and market to our demographic audience.”

Tim himself has become an in-demand speaker at hospitality conferences in several states and is often to be seen escorting visiting delegations from as far afield as New Zealand. “I don’t think it is boasting to say that our pursuit of excellence and world-best practice, as well as our willingness to share openly everything we have learned and everything we do, makes us a destination for many similar organisations who see what we do as aspirational.”

Among other things, they will learn about Tradies’ staff, 190 of them at present, who contributed an “unheard-of” 2,000 hours between them of voluntary community work during 2012. Indeed on the Australia Day weekend (Jan 2013), Tim and 16 other volunteers headed down to the Miranda Blood Donor Centre to donate blood as part of Tradies’ quarterly blood drives. With each donation estimated to save three lives, the volunteers effectively saved the lives of 51 Australians.

In fact Tim was responsible in effect for getting blood from a stone in turning the old-fashioned club into today’s role model. “When I arrived here [in 2000] there was, on the behalf of the directors, a deep suspicion of making a profit,” he says. At that stage the club was losing in the region of a million dollars a year and the business was unsustainable. ‘Profit is made by exploiting the working class,’ was the thinking; any profit accidentally accrued went straight back into free food and beer. Tim wasted no time in demonstrating to both board and community that, “if the club is not profitable, we can’t survive. First rule of life-saving: save your own life.” He was supported by the President, who after a year commented that he “had the courage of Tim’s convictions – because he didn’t have much choice.” Completing a transformation, Tradies underwent a major refurbishment completed mid-2012 costing some $15 million – “all paid for out of cash flow without any borrowing.”

Unless the business is financially stable and successful, he explains, you can’t afford services such as the community relations officer who travels throughout the region and organises events such as a recent competition between 22 schools to see who could donate the most blood to the Red Cross. Indeed, not-for-profit must not equate to unprofitable, which was an error being made by most clubs at the turn of the millennium.

But there has to be a delicately maintained balance between pricing and value. Tim’s team could charge less for a schooner or a salad, but that would impact the profit available to plough back into improving the club. Drop the prices and you benefit the members – but only in the short term. So Tradies aims not to be the cheapest, but the best value. “If you are looking for a $9 shepherd’s pie, look elsewhere,” says Tim. “We charge $22 for a steak, but it’s a good steak with all the trimmings.”

Managers of individual facilities are empowered to set all prices with the sole exception of beer (where the board has a say!) and set them at rates that are competitive and good value, not a steal. Pricing “is not our point of difference. That is in our staff and training. We commit a minimum of five per cent of profit to staff training.” In fact Tim says he spent close to $300,000 on staff training last year, including sending one staff member to Harvard University in the US (where not so long ago Tradies won an international gong for sustainability) for a week, another to Columbia, and another to a course in London.

Good staff being hard to find, are those at Tradies constantly being seduced away by others in the hospitality industry? “Our staff are in demand,” Tim allows. “But the only thing that is worse than training staff and having them leave is not training staff and having them stay. We do have some turnover in staff but very few of our leadership group would even consider going anywhere else.” Less surprising in view of the perks, perhaps – in February Tim was due to take 14 staff on a week’s trip to New Zealand, the first of two such visits. “Some of the things we do here are done by the likes of Yahoo or Apple but not by many others on the planet. We have tremendously bright and motivated staff – one of my biggest problems sometimes is getting them to go home!”

The refurbishment last year was not an end – Tradies “will always keep growing.” Tim says there are plans for developments for the over-55s to include house services (if a pensioner needs a lawn mown or a window fixed, for example) through club membership, at a cost. “Our brand in this community has such strong currency we could do that.” Membership of Tradies continues to climb, currently at the staggering rate of a thousand new members every month since the refurbishment. Tim is hesitant to state a ceiling for membership, not least because he never believed it could hit the 40,000 mark. “If it gets too crowded, I’ll build a bigger club! I have no intention of limiting the numbers.”

It will hardly be a surprise that plans for expansion are being drawn up, while the list of community activities that complement the browsing and sluicing facilities just grows and grows, engaging all sectors of the people of the region and enhancing the club’s all-round ‘feel-good’ factor. Meantime, you’ll know where to find us!

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

January 18, 2019, 3:28 AM AEDT