Invest in Your People — Get to know your people. Spend time with your people. You need to genuinely care about them as individuals and what their goals and aspirations are. You should take time to truly listen and be sure to give them the tools, resources, and support they need to be successful.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Alfano.
Andrew is the CEO of Retro Fitness, a leader in the high-value, low price fitness space with more than 150 gyms open or under development in 15 states. Alfano joined Retro Fitness this past May with over 25 years of experience in the retail, hospitality and restaurant industries to mature and drive the growth of the brand across the US. Alfano currently sits on the Board of Fellows for the Culinary Institute of America, and previously sat on the Board of Directors for Make-a-Wish South Florida and United Way, NYC Board of Fellows.
Most recently, Alfano served as President and Chief Operating Officer of The Learning Experience, headquartered in Deerfield Beach, Florida, transitioning from the Company this past spring after successfully spearheading a financial event that exited the majority partner nearly two years early at a very impressive multiple.
Alfano joined The Learning Experience, an Academy of Early Education, in 2015 as Chief Operating Officer and was quickly promoted to President and COO. In this role, he leveraged the existing strengths and talent of the brand as well as the existing staff, creating opportunities for their development and succession planning. As a talent savvy executive, he attracted top talent into key executive roles, quickly repositioning the brand for rapid growth. During that time, Alfano doubled new store openings, driving record revenue and EBITDA growth. Today, The Learning Experience can boast of domestic and international, as well as company and franchise units with over 400 locations open or under development, with European expansion now underway along with other adjacent line and product extensions.
High energy, driven leader, Alfano helped architect Starbucks’ rapid and strategic growth, in some of the more high profile, complex urban markets, specifically the flagship market of New York. During his time, these markets saw record growth in same-store sales and profits. In addition, Alfano was a key member of the leadership team that helped lead the US Business out of the company’s downturn in 2008.
Alfano and his wife are natives of Long Island, where the family, his wife and three children still maintain a home. Currently, he and his wife spend the majority of their time at their primary residence in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
“I’ve spent over 25 years in the retail, hospitality and restaurant industries before taking my new post as CEO of Retro Fitness this past year. Previously, I was the President and COO of The Learning Experience, an Academy of Early Education, after enjoying a sixteen-year career with Starbucks Coffee Company, joining as a District Manager in the late 90’s working my way up to Senior Vice President, where I ultimately was responsible for over $3B in revenue.”
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
“I’ve had the unique opportunity to lead teams across a variety of industries alongside other incredible leaders. Being sought out as a mentor and resource makes someone a thought leader. I’m honored to be thought of in that way.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It had to be my leap of faith in joining an upstart coffee company, Starbucks. It was during the brand’s early introduction to the Northeast. The brand was so unknown that I found myself explaining what Starbucks was to my wife and why it was a good idea to leave my good, stable job to work for a “coffee café” no one’s heard of. I described the great people I met and their grand vision to be one of the “Most Admired Brands in the World”, I didn’t even know that was a thing, but I sensed the business could be a big game changer and something that I wanted to be a part of. It’s so interesting to look back on that time, recalling what initially seemed like such a risky choice, and how it turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
“Not sure it was a mistake, and certainly not funny at the time, but it is now. During my first year at Starbucks, I was a District Manager and we were nearing the end of the quarter and meeting plan was going to be tough. Missing plan was not an option. Someone had determined that we had enough cups in the market and we didn’t need to order any additional for the rest of the month. As you would imagine, I thought not ordering cups was an interesting move given we sold coffee. The only problem was while there may have been enough cups in the market, they were in all the wrong stores. So we spent the next few weeks moving inventory around and delivering cups so we wouldn’t have to buy more. As funny as that seems to me now, it was no laughing matter at the time. The lesson here was not meeting plan is not an option.”
Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
“A thought leader is always humble yet hungry. I find they show a lot of empathy toward people to better understand things from their perspectives. They also have the ability to think through things holistically, from all points of view. Thought leaders know that while they enjoy winning, it’s not about winning at all costs.”
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
“Laddering-up and becoming a thought leader helps you see your business as a whole. You can understand it’s not solely about the end result but the way in which you got there. For me, I have always segmented my approach to business into three distinct areas of focus: people, passion and performance. Investing in these areas and ensuring they are a priority helps take us past the initial metric goal, whatever it may be, while developing the brand along the way.”
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
“When you lead to create a movement as a thought leader does, leading is about establishing a vision for your team and company. It’s about rallying people around these goals emotionally, giving them the tools, resources and support to be successful and then watching them reciprocate by discovering their own growth opportunities. Their success is completely aligned with our success, and leadership’s success is aligned with that of the teams’. They personally gain, the consumer benefits and of course, the business wins.”
We’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
- Invest in Your People — Get to know your people. Spend time with your people. You need to genuinely care about them as individuals and what their goals and aspirations are. You should take time to truly listen and be sure to give them the tools, resources, and support they need to be successful.
- Build Motivated Teams — Everything you do with your people should be intentional. A motivated team inspired by great vision from a leader who cares about them will produce an amazing brand where people will want to work.
- Growth Mindset — Never be complacent and don’t accept the status quo. For some time now, as I have brought leaders onto my team, one of the first things I tell them is to not conform. I want to encourage them to see the opportunities we have in front of us. With that encouragement, I hope they can see perhaps something I don’t. Hard work, effort, and persistence are all important, but not as important as having the underlying belief that more is possible.
- Network — This is something you can never stop doing, you can never have enough smart people in your network. Reach out to other leaders, in and out of your industry, learn from them and their experiences, and stay connected. Nurturing your network and staying connected outside your organization is one the best things you can do for yourself.
- Stay Authentic — I believe in being transparent; timely authentic conversations are important to help growth on every level. I try very hard to surround myself with people who are going to tell me what I need to hear and not what I necessarily want to hear. And I promise them the same of me. I tell people that I share because I care; if I didn’t care I wouldn’t be spending the time to share feedback.”
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
“Howard Schultz is a thought leader on many levels. He’s a great visionary and clearly a change-agent as well. I always felt he had this unique ability to see around the corner long before he ever got there. His vision for all things people was masterful and having the opportunity to engage with him was irreplaceable.”
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
“I don’t think the phrase is overused, but I do believe it is for others to recognize you as a thought leader, while the leader themselves remains humble.”
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
“What’s good for one person isn’t necessarily good for another. Overall I believe it’s not about finding a work-life balance, it’s a work-life blend you should strive for.”
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
“Great question — I actually think we are doing that right now! I really believe in the movement we are leading here at Retro Fitness. For too long gym-goers across the country have felt that signing up for a gym membership is like going to a used car dealership. There’s gimmicks, limitations, fads; they’re tired and they just want to Get Real and join a gym so they can get fit. Retro Fitness is unique in that it’s not a big box gym owned by a corporate entity. Every one of our clubs is individually owned and operated by our great franchisees. They are one of your neighbors who is already a part of your community and really cares about their neighbors and your fitness goals and journey.”
Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Here’s the good news, on your worst day it’s not half as bad as you think; but here’s the bad news, on your best day it’s not half as good as you think.”
Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast?
“Not sure if there is anyone person, rather I really enjoy connecting with people in general and regularly take the time to do this. I genuinely enjoy hearing the journey others have been on, what they’ve learned, how they’ve gotten here and where they’re going.”
How can our readers follow you on social media?