Golden Opportunity: Looking to double up by 2024
Name: Chris McCuiston
Title: Co-Founder and CEO
Company: Goldfish Swim School
Years in franchising: 16
Years in current position: 16
Chris McCuiston’s journey has taken him from the baseball diamond to the kiddie pool.
Following a successful baseball career at Michigan State University, McCuiston and his wife, Jenny, founded Goldfish Swim School in 2006. The school provides swim lessons and water safety instruction for infants up to adolescents and today has 133 open locations in more than 30 states and Canada.
As CEO, McCuiston says his background in team sports and his business degree are critical factors in his success as a franchise leader, and that his people-focused approach has been a key part of building successful teams and relationships, from the corporate office to the franchisees.
“We put team culture at the center of everything we do. People are inspired, valued, and encouraged to grow,” says the 42-year-old. “Being in an environment of people committed to making a difference continues to inspire me.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the brand has a proven concept with state-of-the-art facilities, high customer service standards, and a proprietary learn-to-swim curriculum. But for McCuiston, success always comes back to people and a team approach. “We aim to hire top talent, putting the right people in the right seats,” he says. “I cast the vision for the company and then get out of the way.”
Like any passionate CEO, McCuiston is excited about the future, and his goal is to make Goldfish Swim School the largest swim school provider in North America.
So what’s on the horizon for this growing brand? “We hope to have 260 schools operating by the end of 2024, and grow our international presence,” he says.
What is your role as CEO? I have the honor of building a cohesive leadership team, casting a vision for the company, inspiring the franchise support team, building and maintaining a strong company culture, overseeing large brand relationships, and problem-solving major issues affecting the franchise business.
How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand? Having dealt with operating a business during the pandemic, I’ve learned to lead with more compassion and empathy. I’ve also become more grateful for what we have, but with the desire to continue to do even better—whether that’s being more efficient in how we operate and spend, or how we encourage new ideas from the team to improve their work/life balance or accomplish their goals and tasks.
Describe your leadership style. My style is leading with integrity, compassion, and trust. I cast the vision for the company and then get out of the way to let my team of hungry, humble, and smart professionals do what they do best and bring it to life.
What has inspired your leadership style? Playing sports as a child and then throughout college led me to acknowledge that I can’t do everything on my own. You play your position, need to trust the rest of the team to do their part and play their position, and then all come together to go for the win.
What is your biggest leadership challenge? Harmony is a strength of mine, so I generally want to please everyone. In a franchise, unfortunately, you can’t always say yes. There are rules and there is a way we ask our franchisees to do business, so sometimes you need to have a hard conversation to make sure everyone is aligned.
How do you transmit your culture from your office to frontline employees? We build a strong culture and a healthy organization by building a cohesive leadership team, creating clarity with that team, reinforcing that clarity, and then over-communicating that clarity. We need to be an example and make sure that everyone understands the purpose of why we exist.
How can a CEO help their CMO develop and grow? Quite simply, the CEO can hire a rock star CMO, provide them with the necessary tools for success, offer them opportunities to grow and build their skill set, and then support them when they need it. You hire a leadership team to execute your vision. So if you’ve hired the right person for the right seat, you won’t need to do much beyond trying to provide them opportunities to see extraordinary results.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ? I never went to MBA school, so I would have to say OTJ. However, having great mentors and coaches throughout the years is a huge advantage in helping you become a great leader.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions? Tough decisions must be communicated by one person, but those decisions are often made by a cohesive leadership team that discusses all options before the decision is communicated.
Do you want to be liked or respected? With my harmony strength, I would like to be both liked and respected. However, if I have to choose, I would prefer to be respected. Not everyone will like my decisions, but I hope that they will be respected.
Advice to CEO wannabes: Enjoy the ride, and pay attention along the way! Everything you learn to become a CEO will help you lead your teams once you get there.
Describe your management style: I am fortunate enough to have a great president to oversee day-to-day management. I would describe my management style as compassionate with high expectations. I’m compassionate but expect extraordinary results. We have a great team that should be able to accomplish amazing results if we can stay humble and execute for the greater good of the company.
What does your management team look like? We have a highly competent leadership team that’s a mix of franchise veterans and people who have had no previous franchise experience before Goldfish. They have a great passion for our mission and a skill set that helps us lead and grow. We aim to find people who get their roles, want their roles, and have the capacity to get it done.
How does your management team help you lead? Our management team is amazing at offering up their perspectives, sharing their experiences, and then discussing ways to solve problems before communicating that to our company or franchise system.
Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books? Favorite management gurus and authors include Patrick Lencioni and Gino Wickman. Both have shaped the way we lead and manage our organization.
What makes you say, “Yes, now that’s why I do what I do!”? It has to be when a child goes from being deathly afraid of the water to one day not wanting to get out of the water because they love it so much.
What trends are you seeing with consumer spending habits in your business? Fortunately, we are a more recession-resistant business. Because we teach a life skill, parents continue to prioritize helping their children become safer.
How is the economy driving consumer behavior in your system? Through the rise in wages comes the ability for parents to continue to afford swim lessons for their children. With the talk of a recession, parents will consider cutting other “non-essential” expenses, while keeping safety-focused activities—like swim lessons—a part of their weekly routine.
What are you expecting from your market in the next 12 months? We currently have a strong pipeline of schools in development and are on track to open 35 to 40 schools over the next 12 months.
Are your franchisees bullish or bearish about growth and adding units? The majority of our system is bullish on our swim school industry. And the bullish franchisees are growing at a faster pace than ever.
Are commodity/supplies costs any cause for concern in your system? Yes. Our buildouts are already a sizable investment, so anytime you have the cost of construction increase, that’s a concern. Additionally, some of the in-water teaching tools that we use come from outside the U.S., so delays can cause us to have to move fast to find suitable alternatives.
In what ways are political/global issues impacting the market and your brand? Global issues will always affect the sourcing of the best products to run our business. As far as politics, we are always concerned with taking good care of our people and franchisees, and sometimes politics can get in the way of running a successful small business. Labor issues and how employees are defined in a franchise organization can sometimes be muddied.
What time do you like to be at your desk? I arrive at my desk around 8:30 or 9 a.m., after dropping our four sons off at school.
Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch? I exercise after work while the kids are at swim practice, and I have wine with dinner. Wine at lunch is for the weekends or during vacation for me. During the week, it’s all business!
Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office? Yes, but mainly after quarterly planning sessions, team-building activities, or at conferences.
Last two books read: The Advantage and Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.
What technology do you take on the road? Everything Apple: iPhone, MacBook Pro, iPad Pro.
How do you relax/balance life and work? A mix between family time, golf, time at the lake, and date nights with my wife!
Favorite vacation destination: Maui, Hawaii.
Favorite occasions to send employees notes: Birthdays and work anniversaries. Birthdays are always a special day for someone, and I like to recognize years of service. We are grateful for the team that we have, and I want to acknowledge their commitment to the brand.
Favorite company product/service: Our parent/tot mini-lessons. Not only is it amazing to see these young children and parents bond in the water, these classes are the foundation for the learn-to-swim process and the backbone of our business. The more success we have with the youngest age group lessons, the safer children will be, and the more successful we will be toward our mission.
What are your long-term goals for the company? We hope to have 260 schools operating by the end of 2024, as well as more of an international presence. We currently have two locations in Ontario, Canada, and I believe that we can increase that number dramatically.
How has the economy changed your goals for your company? The economy hasn’t changed the goals for our company as far as the total quantity of locations is concerned. It has just helped us become more realistic about how quickly we can open up schools.
Where can capital be found these days? We have a strong network and mix of local and big banks, as well as ApplePie Capital and the SBA supporting our franchisees.
How do you measure success? By the number of existing franchisees adding schools to their portfolios, as well as by new franchisees coming into our brand from other reputable franchise brands much larger than ours. If you have a good model and a good reputation for supporting franchisees, you’ll attract quality franchisees.
What has been your greatest success? Starting a business and a family with my wife. She has been my rock. I call her my “oracle” because she has always had such a clear vision for this brand, and she is incredibly wise. She is also the CEO of our household and does a wonderful job being a leader to our four young boys.
Any regrets? No regrets. Everything works out how it should and we are here by the grace of God. It’s easy to look back and wish I had made different decisions along the way, but I’m very thankful for where I’m at, and I take nothing for granted.
What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months? We plan to open more than 70 schools over the next 12 to 24 months and continue to remain committed to our vision of opening more than 260 schools by 2024. The only changes you’ll see are different annual goals, but we will continue to live by our core values, build a cohesive team, and nurture an amazing culture with our franchisees.
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