Co-CEO & Co-Founder
This week I had the opportunity to sit down with Kendrick Ashton, Co-CEO and Co-Founder of the St. James Sports, Wellness, and Active Entertainment Destination. Kendrick is no stranger to being a business leader having been a Goldman Sachs investment banker as just one of the many highlights from his career. He shares his story of what inspired him to build this amazing destination, why they exist and how they operate now emerging from the pandemic. Most important he shares their purpose to serve the community and inspire and develop the next generation of athletes.
What was your inspiration for this amazing facility and concept?
Like many young men in this country I grew up playing every sport that you can imagine all the time. I was incredibly competitive and focused on getting better. One of my major frustrations from my time as a young athlete was that I was always being told I couldn’t have access to great spaces to train, compete and play. I carried that frustration around for a very long time. I loved when I got to college that I had access to spaces available to me 24 hours a day that I could train and compete. As I moved along in my career, I was an investment banker in New York for close to 15 years, I continued to harbor this idea of creating spaces where principally young people would have access to what I call “an unbroken boulevard of green lights” for them to train and pursue their passions. So at the core of the idea of the St. James was 10 or 12 year old Kendrick who was absolutely uniquely devoted to becoming a great athlete and having space to train. So it was originally designed around THAT customer. That 10 year old or 12 year or that 14 year old that wants to play at a high level in high school, wants to play in college, wants to compete in the Olympics and is looking for world class spaces, world class coaches and programs to really help them grow and develop. We thought a lot about what synergies would be highly impactful on that core experience and that is where the rest of the St. James blossomed from. We built around this 12 year old fanatic, that was me. We thought about that fanatics sisters, that fanatics brothers and that fanatics Mom etc. And it really blossomed into this idea of being the center of the universe for every community we are in. So we not only have these incredible training and playing spaces but we have:
World class food and beverage, medi-spa, active entertainment experience, health club etc. The combination of all of those things really makes the St. James a modern country club, a modern highly accessibly sports oriented, lifestyle experience and we are delivering on that experience every day.
So is it fair to say that you have to be serious about sports and wellness in order to come to this destination?
Answer: No I wouldn’t say you have to be serious. I would say that we have something for everybody, people who are casual, we have something for people who are looking to learn but they are not sure about whether or not they are passionate about something, we have something for people that are past their prime so to speak but looking to continue to participate, remain active and have fun. We certainly are very focused on the family, supporting families in spending more time together and enjoy their passions both together and independently. So you don’t have to be an elite athlete or some sort of fitness enthusiast, or triathlete or any of the above. We really do want to be the center of the community and so if you are just looking for fun and looking to be active we are that place for you as well.
I was reading in USA Today where you were talking about this concept around the family. So was the idea to have your son at basketball, your husband is working out and as a mom you are getting your nails done and you can all meet for dinner afterwards?
That’s right, and it’s really played out in what we expected in many respects but what I have really been surprised by is how many parents really enjoy watching their kids in practice. So while I would have said 75% of the time parents will be taking advantage of the other things we have to offer for them, one of the things that I think we did well is just to create spaces for parents just to watch practice comfortably. Because there a lot of venues and spaces that parents go to watch games and practices and it’s just excrutiatingly painful for them to do that. It should not have surprised me, so it’s really been gratifying to see how many parents are sitting there in the stands saying hey, I just want to watch my kids practice. So that’s exactly right we designed the St. James around the concept of families being able to do things together and independent of each other so it’s been great to see that.
Question: Talk a little bit about the convenience of the other offerings. For parents, typically I would have to drive to one place to take my son to practice, drive to another space get my nails done and another facility to work out, so it makes this concept very convenient for families especially if you live in major metropolitan areas where traffic is tough.
That’s right it’s a one stop experience for sports, wellness and active entertainment. I’m sure people can imagine what all the sports are. Generally speaking we serve more than 20 sports and upwards of-30. On the wellness front we have a medi-spa branded Courted. This is a play on words for all of the courts that we have in our complexes and our brand which is The St. James which is derived from the court of St. James and it’s also a play on the word to court which is to seek favor, or to treat with favor or to pursue. We are also super focused on being a 5-star hospitality experience. That is a big part of our wellness offering. You can get a full range of rejuvenation services like massage, cupping, cryotherapy to name a few (full list of services here). When I go through the comprehensive list of cosmetic services most people think that it is geared more towards women but you would be surprised at how many men partake in all of these services. Visit The St. James for a full list of services.
In the lifestyle bucket we have an incredible food and beverage experience that we partnered with celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn on Vim & Victor. These food items are positioned and designed with what we like to call “healthyish” so locally sourced and healthy but we are not sacrificing taste at the altar of healthy.
How has the business changed and how have you had to pivot given all of these services during the pandemic?
Sure, a couple of examples. When we laid out our roadmap for developing the business initially we laid out a meaningful digital business plan. We expected over the near term 3-5 years we would build a meaningful digital business where we could serve our health club and sports customers digitally. When the pandemic engulfed everybody and we had to shut our doors we accelerated those plans. 1) Accelerated the digital plans called The St. James Anywhere and developed streaming fitness services, also did digital sports training and we learned a lot about our customers. We had a tremendous amount of engagement and traction with our customers as well as trust and loyalty. We are now building out a comprehensive universe of assets. We learned a tremendous amount about our customers during sports training and sports instruction digitally. It allowed us to not only to learn a tremendous amount about our customers but allowed us to stay connected to during this time as well. 2) We also launched a virtual school experience at the St. James during the pandemic. So that families that needed somewhere to take their kids especially with parents having to work via Zoom during the day. The kids have a proctor during virtual learning and then followed by active fitness and recess. It has really made us think more about the academic experiences we can offer to our members and customers moving forward. We are looking forward to rolling some of those things out.
So while by and large this pandemic has been a total catastrophe, we have learned a lot about what’s important and what’s valuable. We could not have had a better example of a a reason for people to be active and pursuing their passions. We try to keep a mindset of gratitude, resourcefulness and growth and try to find the gratitude during the midst of every single storm. I think everybody knows if you are not healthy and active at this time you are asking for trouble. This has been a real powerful example for people and I think businesses in this space can benefit from people being active.
How do you hope to inspire others through your work (St. James and/or other business ventures)?
I can tell you what I try to do. What I can say is that in each of the spaces that I am in and particularly at The St. James people love the opportunities that are available to them at the St. James and the energy and positivity and opportunities that are available are really motivating for people. Our anthem for the first 2 years that we have been open which is a direct extension of our brand and mission is “Welcome To Your Best.” At every touch point of what we do at The St. James we are encouraging people to work towards maximizing their potential. We want to be that platform and that main support system and main change agent for people to maximize their potential. I’m hopeful that the environment and the experiences that we are developing and the intentional messaging of what people are capable of is inspiring for folks. What I personally try to do is be an energy giver. I try to hold myself accountable to being excellent and I hope that the spirit with which I engage with people on a day in and day out basis and the love that I have for humanity is a source of joy and a source of inspiration for people. So that’s how I try to live with love at the center of my life and with my own commitment of trying to maximize my potential and I hope people see that and are encouraged by it.
What is your ultimate goal and measure of success with this business venture?
When we set out to build this business we really had global ambitions. We thought the opportunity was massive. We thought that it was not only a massive opportunity nationally, domestically in the U.S. but globally as well. I will feel as though the business is successful when we have built a global reputation for excellence in sports, wellness and active entertainment. We not only have The St. James which is this mega in person sports, wellness and entertainment lifestyle experience but within The St. James we have other lifestyle experiences. I believe that we can build the St. James globally but we can also build Courted globally which is our medi-spa brand, I believe we can build Vim & Victor which is our food and beverage brand and Super, Awesome and Amazing which is our active entertainment brand as well as Stryvers which is our retail boutique experience globally. I believe the St. James can be the anchor for really extraordinary live, work and play developments. And I believe we can have a really significant experiential business outside of the venues that we build and develop. And in person experiences as well such as triathalons, road races, cycling experiences etc. As well as experiences in venue that are non-sports related like music concerts, comedy concerts, cooking classes, financial planning classes, lecture series, college prep classes and then we can have a significant digital business as well. So when we start to realize that expansive vision that’s when I will feel like we are successful. As great as building one is we did not have a vision to build just one. We really did have global ambitions.
If we can go through it really quickly the next location will be the Chicago St. James is that correct?
That’s right, we own just over 40 acres in Lincolnshire which is just north of the city of Chicago. Our site is at the intersection of I-94 and Half Day Rd. It’s visible from I-94. It will be the first full campus experience that we are designing and building as well. We will have plus or minus 500,000 square feet. We have enough acreage to have other synergistic experiences on the campus. We are pretty excited to unveil what some of those things will be. I am hopeful that we will work our way through what has been put in front us with this pandemic and come out on the other end of it much smarter and much sharper. Hopefully in the next couple of years we will be in a position to be open in Chicago and delivering a year round experience in Chicagoland. It will be 72 degrees year round at The St. James in Chicago which has tough weather. We are also looking at other major markets as well like:
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- Charlotte/Nashville (Tier 2 markets that have very active communities)
So if anyone has a market in mind or any ideas feel free to reach out.
What is the biggest piece of advice that you would give to business leaders/entrepreneurs:
It’s a tough question for me to answer because there is so much to share about this kind of experience. I would share 3 things:
- Design into your schedule time to spend with the people you love because these experiences can be all consuming.
- Time to think – There is a lot of doing, doing, doing and you need time to take a step back and have an opportunity to be more strategic. Finding days, half days, week, half of week to take time to think and reflect. It will allow you to be a force multiplier in your business.
- Try to work with the absolute best people that you can – You have got to have the same kind of excellence with your external partners (lawyers, accountants, creatives etc.) as you do with internal partners.
Make sure to really be thoughtful about picking your partners. I have been really lucky on that front to have great partners my co-founder Craig Dixon, Eldridge Industries, Cain International, and Security Benefit. I could not ask for better partners.