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The Discipline of Market Leaders

Our 2-year-old daughter was one of the original Aqua-Tots when “Mr. Ron” the lifeguard showed up in our backyard to team swim lessons for her and a number of other children from our church and the neighborhood.

Fast forward 26 years later, and:

  • Our daughter is grown, married and the Regional Marketing Manager for a national chain of upscale burger restaurants. Her territory includes Texas and several western states.
  • “Mr. Ron” is the president of the largest network of swim schools in the world: Aqua-Tots. He’s a former US Swim School Association board member and travels globally promoting water safety awareness (he also has been one of my closest friends for many years), and
  • My wife and I are multiple-territory Aqua-Tots franchise owners with several shopping-center-based retail swim centers in Austin, San Antonio and the Dallas area. Our Water-Safety-Instructor-certified swim coaches will deliver more than 100,000 swim lessons for young children in Texas this year.

Lynn and I have been franchisees in Texas for more than ten years (that’s us 10 years ago, promoting our school at a local country club in Austin).  Along the way, we’ve learned a great deal about the swim industry, about the challenges of retail “B-to-C” business, about finding and retaining quality managers, about working with landlords, cities and counties, about marketing to 20- and 30-something parents and about hiring, training and keeping young team members.

While many of these lessons have been new to us, none of the things we’ve learned are truly new.  More than 20 years ago, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema wrote one of my favorite business books, The Discipline of Market Leaders.

The book is heavily researched, and, quite honestly, not the quickest read.  But boy-oh-boy is it worth it!  In their research, Treacy and Wiersema identified three disciplines that market-leading firms focused on.  These best-in-class firms executed on two of these disciplines very well while executing on one of them with world-leading excellence.

The first thing these firms did well was they practiced Product Leadership.  Think “Apple” or here in the Austin area, think “Rudy’s BBQ” – companies that people want to buy from because of the quality of their products.  In the past several years, Aqua-Tots has gone through a very diligent curriculum upgrade at all 100+ schools world-wide.  I’m convinced there isn’t a swim school in the world that is consistently doing better swim lessons.

The second area, Operational Excellence, involves systems that work well and are helpful in managing business.  Under our franchisor’s direction, the software and systems our four Texas swim schools use enable us to be a step ahead of our competitors when it comes to scheduling, reviewing enrollment numbers, planning, etc.

The final area top-performing firms got right was Customer Intimacy. The truth of the matter is, this is the one I focus on when I’m meeting with team members in Austin, San Antonio and Mansfield where our schools are located.  We need to do good swim lessons.  We also need to have good systems in place. But we absolutely live-and-die by what our customers think of us.  In a competitive environment, the only on-going sustainable discipline is Customer Intimacy.

Leader – as you think about your organization, how would you score on a 1-to-10 scale for each of these three disciplines?  The research behind this great book informs us that we need to do two of these disciplines well, and one of them exceedingly well. What does your firm do well?  What do you need to do better?  How can you drive your firm toward those things that will set you apart?

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