Persistence Pays Off for Debra Siena and Proactive Partners

(Editor's Note: In 2012, Proactive Partners changed its name to Midtown Health. We have kept the name of the company in this story as Proactive Partners since that was the name of the company in 2011 when this story was published.)

Persistence pays off. That is true when it comes to an individual fitness plan and when it comes to business, or so Debra Siena, president of Chicago-based Proactive Partners, has found.

As some fitness management companies struggled during the recession and gave up on pursuing new business, Proactive Partners, the fitness facility management division of TCA Holdings, which also owns 10 Midtown Athletic Clubs, found new opportunities due to Siena’s relentless pursuit.

“It’s stunning the growth we’ve had during this recession,” Siena says. Although she admits the recession did cause business to come to a screeching halt for a bit, it did not stop her from reaching out to prospects.

“We were doing prospecting and some networking and looking at the opportunities for Proactive Partners as I was putting together the strategic plans, laying a lot of seeds and reaching out to past prospects and past inquiries and local communities and appropriate trade associations within human resources,” she says.

The result? Proactive Partners has added eight new clubs and/or clients since October 2009. That brings the company’s total number of clients to 19. TCA Holdings’ 2010 revenue was $93 million, and Proactive Partners brought in 17 percent of that revenue.

“If you believe in something and are passionate about it, that’s terrific, and it’s great to be creative and have ideas, but you have to be relentless,” she says. “You have to be able to take rejection and have people say no and no and no, and continue to root and root and root, and explore and network and go at it from different angles until you find a way to make it happen. I think persistence is invaluable in accomplishing success.”

Siena obviously took her charge to grow Proactive Partners seriously when she was named president of the division two years ago after 23 years with TCA Holdings. Her first step was to develop a business plan to strategically determine the company’s growth rather than growing opportunistically as the company often had done in the past. With that plan in place, Siena and her team developed a plan to package and market Proactive Partners, rebranding everything from its website to collateral material.

Siena also began diversifying the company’s offerings beyond fitness center management to include health and well-being initiatives for companies without fitness centers. Those health enhancement solutions include a menu of services, such as health risk assessments (online, on the phone and on site), follow-ups on risk stratification and phone coaching that offers individual counseling for employees on where their health level is. The company also offers a series of wellness programs about eating better, stress management and physical activity—all of which can be delivered via the web, over the phone or in person.


During the recession, clients began asking for the ability to offer wellness services in an a la carte menu rather than buying a whole program, Siena says.

“They were looking for us to be more flexible and cost effective with our programming,” she says. “The fun thing is because we were evolving this programming, we were able to be responsive and accommodate that.”

Siena plans to continue in an aggressive growth mode within hospital and health systems and corporate fitness center management. Those areas of the business are growing because of the rising obesity rate, rising health care costs and changes due to the Affordable Care Act.

“That’s a huge momentum changer,” Siena says about health care reform. “It brought the word prevention into the news every night, and our industry has been waiting for that since its inception.”

Business owners, employees and health systems now realize that however health care reform evolves, they will be affected, she says.

“The best way to get ahead of it is through prevention,” Siena says. “And individuals are realizing it’s going to affect their pocketbook, so if they can make healthier choices, they’ll be in a better position. Employers are going to realize if they have healthier employees, they’ll be in a better position. The health care systems realize that the healthier the patient is coming in for a procedure or rehabbing from a procedure, it’s going to affect everyone’s pocketbook.”

Health care reform and these growing realizations are making it easier for Proactive Partners to grow, she says.

“I think it’s very good for our industry,” Siena says. “It’s important that our industry talks that talk when dealing with clients and employers and health systems because they are aware of it, so we need to let them know how we can help facilitate and be part of that process.”

Hospitals and health systems are her number one focus right now, she says.

“Proactive Partners is a great match for them because of our club operations expertise,” she says.

That expertise includes a retail perspective that most health care systems do not have. Because hospitals target their own employees as potential members at their medical fitness centers, Proactive Partners’ corporate facility management experience helps the company take advantage of the trend toward increased outsourcing of the management of these facilities, she says.

Siena cautions other club companies that might want to get involved in facility management.

“Unfortunately, some companies think they can get into this because there’s an opportunity, but they don’t understand the nuances between owning a club and managing a club,” she says.

Fitness management companies need to have strong back office support, seasoned staff, be diversified in their offerings and be flexible to accommodate clients’ needs while remembering that they can’t be everything to everyone, she says.

Because Siena has worked in both the club side and the facility management side of the business, she has a perspective on how those two businesses are different.

“The big difference in managing a club for a client vs. owning one is you need to understand your client’s mission, their values, their ROI expectations, how they want to be presented in the community and then do that for them,” Siena says.


The facility management company’s brand must take a back seat to the client’s brand, too.

“We were very proud of our Midtown brand, and we owned it and could operate it to our standards,” she says. “We could make them consistent, and we were proud of that. But that’s not necessarily what our clients want. If you work for Kraft Foods or you mange McDonald’s corporate headquarters, which we do both of those, they want the McDonald’s brand forward, they want the Kraft Foods brand forward. They want the expertise and the stability and the integrity of Midtown behind them, but they want their brand to come forward. And that’s why I look at Proactive Partners as actually being a sub brand or a second brand in that we are there to serve our clients and put our client’s brand forward.”

In the end, taking a back seat creates a win-win scenario. And those types of scenarios are one key to success, Siena says.

“If you are going to be in an industry for a long time and you really care about it, then you want your partner to walk away feeling as good or better than you do,” Siena says. “I think that’s helped with my growth and my sustainability. It is about networking and partnering, and it’s about building relationships and having those relationships to come back to again and again and be someone people respect and trust.”

Siena started building those relationships early in life. She began taking dance lessons as a young child, teaching dance and fitness classes starting at the age of 13. As she studied choreography and dance at the University of Illinois and choreographed and performed for the Illinois Dance Theatre, Siena continued teaching fitness classes at various fitness facilities, continuing to do so even after graduating and spending two years as a professional dancer in New York and Chicago. When she realized professional dance would not pay the bills, she decided to dive into a career in the health club industry and ended up at TCA Holdings.

Her first job was as group exercise director at one of the small TCA-managed clubs in downtown Chicago, but her job was much more than that. She worked the front desk, opened the club, cleaned the locker room, folded the towels, supervised the fitness floor as well as put together the aerobics program. About a month after starting, the club’s manager resigned, and Siena volunteered to step in.

“I said I can do it,” Siena says. “So, Alan Schwartz (the co-founder of TCA) said, ‘OK.’ And I was like, ‘Uh-oh.’ Hence started my career in club management.”

At the time, she may have been naïve enough to not realize what she was getting into, she says, but she was ready to take on this new role because with all her emphasis on persistence, Siena also is a believer in being prepared.

“There’s no substitute for preparation,” she says. “It’s not just winging it or making it happen. It’s not luck or fate. I do think I had good timing, but I don’t think my success or the success of TCA is being at the right place at the right time. If it wasn’t for being prepared, doing your homework and being persistent, it wouldn’t have happened.”


When Siena joined TCA in 1986, the fitness industry was experiencing incredible growth, and the 15-year-old Tennis Corporation of America (which is the name TCA Holdings went by at the time), was poised to grow, she says.

Around one year later, when she began overseeing a second small club, Steven Schwartz, the son of co-founder Alan Schwartz, joined the company after several years in hotel development. Siena’s operations experience and Steven Schwartz’s business acumen made the two a good team.

“I was gung-ho and aggressive and pushing him as hard as I could—and I still do,” she says.

The new team soon started acquiring more management contracts and more health clubs, Siena says.

The Schwartzes took Siena onto their management team at a time when fewer women were in the health club management ranks than they are even today. At one point, Siena oversaw about 20 clubs, ranging from 5,000 square feet to 150,000 square feet, with some being small corporate amenity clubs with a dozen employees and others being big, multi-recreational clubs with 250 employees.

As in many industries, it has been difficult for women to attain leadership roles in the fitness industry, she says, but women have come a long way by working harder and being more persistent.

“I think it is challenging for women to grow in management, particularly when their male subordinates might be older or have more experience,” she says. “When I was rising in management, I was younger, had less seniority and was shorter than some of the people who worked for me. That can be very intimidating and challenging.”

Yet women can bring great strengths to management, she says, including being compassionate, intuitive, having a team mentality, being less ego driven and being more willing to admit mistakes. Women also are able to simplify complex situations, develop a plan of action and get it done, she says. Women often are more encouraging of diversity and seek more input from a variety of people, she adds. Young women who want to move into management should use their natural strengths, which will differentiate them and make them more successful.

Siena’s leadership style revolves around trying to help others be better.

“I strive every day to empower those that I have the privilege of working with and do what I can to make them be successful,” she says. “It’s up to a manager or leader to clarify their expectations and then give them the resources and tools to be successful. Leaders abandon themselves to the strengths of others.”

She adds that it is important that everyone understand the company’s mission and goal and that they have fun.

Siena does not have plans to leave the industry any time soon. She has continued to educate herself by taking executive training and leadership courses at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University throughout her career.

“I see myself in this industry for the long haul,” she says, adding that in 10 years, she would like to still be leading Proactive Partners. She is passionate about the industry because it helps people feel better about themselves, whether it is through coming into the clubs or having programs brought to them.

And as the growth of Proactive Partners and TCA Holdings attests, that passion, along with preparation and, yes, persistence, have served Siena and her company well so far.

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