Shaun Elliott, the President & CEO of the Greater Philadelphia YMCA, the Conshohocken-based organization with 195,000 members, 5,000 employees and which manages the Phoenixville YMCA, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Canada, his passion for basketball, his earliest jobs, and how he developed an entrepreneurial spirit.
Elliott also discussed joining his local YMCA’s Board of Directors in Ontario, what separates the YMCA from most nonprofits, what brought him to the Delaware Valley, and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for his organization.
Where were you born, where did you grow up?
I was born, the oldest of two boys, in 1960 and grew up on the east coast of Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I lived there for the first ten years of my life before we moved to what the Nova Scotians call “Upper Canada,” and everyone else calls it Ontario.
What did your mom and dad do for a living?
My father worked for a finance company and a bank. My mother was a stay-at-home mom.
What memories do you have of growing up in Halifax?
My mother’s side of the family is all located in Halifax. My grandmother had over sixty grand and great-grandchildren. I remember they all lived in the harbor-area in Halifax.
We kids spent our days playing in the woods and water before bringing brought home by the dinner bell. We had so much freedom back then, and our parents barely knew where we were most of the time.
We loved to play street hockey as good Canadians do. We had two television stations back then – in black and white. I’ll never forget being invited over to my neighbors and watching Hockey Night in Canada on a coloured television for the first time.
What caused your family to move to the Eastern Toronto area?
My father was a “Mr. Fix It” in his job. He ran a series of branches for a finance company, so his work took him there. I was in six different schools growing up.
Was moving around a challenge?
You become more adaptable. You get to meet new people and present yourself in a few different ways. I would try new approaches to making friends in my different schools and in the process, learned how to show up without being too aggressive but be assertive enough to make friends.
What kind of music were you listening to when you grew up?
I loved 1970s music before disco came along. My favorite Canadian groups were Guess Who and The St. Motown was just incredible.
Did you play any sports?
Sure did! Of course, I played hockey. I also loved basketball. Up until 2017, when I hurt my knee, I played basketball my entire life.
What was it about basketball that you loved?
Basketball for me was as much social as it was activity-based and was one of the ways I got to know people as my family moved around.
I remember an announcement over the PA system in sixth grade saying basketball tryouts were happening. At that point, I had never played basketball.
The coach, a businessman with two college students helping him, inspired my love for the game. I’ve carried his passion for the game with me all my life. You can always find me with a basketball.
What are you best at on a basketball court?
As some of my past fellow teammates would say, there aren’t many shots I won’t take. I’ve always been pretty athletic, so that helped me with my game and intensity.
I played at college but not on the Varsity team at Queens University in Ontario. I played on the City League team, where I spent some time playing against a team from the local prison! That was an experience I’ll never forget.
What was your first job? Did you have any while you were moving?
My first two jobs were self-employed. When I was twelve-years-old, I saw a local farmer was selling handpicked strawberries for a nickel a box. Nearby, there was a roadside field of strawberries that was pick your own. I went around my neighborhood, took orders, and sold my neighbors strawberries I had picked in the roadside field for fifty cents a box. My other job was shoveling snow.
Where did your entrepreneurial spirit come from?
After spending a day in the backbreaking, hot sun, and looking at what I was making, you become inspired to take a better approach.
What was your first real job?
In Ontario, you had to be sixteen to work, but when I was fifteen, I misled an employer to hire me at a men’s clothing store in St. Catharines, Ontario.
What lessons did you learn in that job that stay with you today?
The first lesson that stays with me today is, never judge a customer by their appearance when they walk in the door.
The second lesson I took away from my experience working in the clothing store was accuracy is more important than speed.
The store was also going through some turnover of staff, so I was able to work all sorts of hours. We had large deliveries of inventory to sort through when the clothes were delivered. In the beginning, I’d try to go through it as quickly as I could, but I soon learned that accuracy was much more critical because I would have to re-do all the work on my own time.
Where did you go to college?
I looked at a few schools – University of Toronto, Queens University, University of Western Ontario.
Queens had a great reputation. It was traditional, and the small class sizes were attractive to me. I was impressed with the recruiter who did the information night at my school.
I started out as a chemistry major before discovering that wasn’t my path after Physics, Calculus, and Chemistry classes. Even though Queens’ business school was tough to get into, I spoke with my advisor about what it would take to transfer my major. I raised my grade point average and was accepted in the business school soon after.
Was switching your major to business a good move for you?
Absolutely. Business was more intuitive for me, so I did well and became a teaching assistant helping professors and other students. I found my passion in business.
Specifically, who gave you your big breaks along the way?
I ended up working for an insurance company, a finance company, and a couple of banks before I joined the YMCA. I worked for Citibank and TD Bank in Canada. When I was working for the finance company, I did some work with the United Way.
The Chair of the campaign, who happened to be the president of a finance company, asked me if I wanted to go work for him. When asked what my job would be, he told me I’d figure it out when I got there. The president of the finance company at the time, Murray Wallace. That really opened the doors for me.
What did Murray see in you?
I’m very candid and honest. I like to make things happen, so when I say I’m going to do something, I do it.
Are those characteristics you’ve always had?
I’m curious. I ask a lot of questions. I’m naturally competitive and fairly direct. Murray was new to the company and completely turned it upside down when he came in.
Instead of working on the lavish 8th floor with the other executives, he worked out of a cubicle on the 7th floor. He proceeded to reframe what we did and began a new culture of working with the workers on the front lines, as well as senior management. His philosophy was when he moved to the head office, he became disconnected. He did a lot of innovative things to engage his employees, which inspired me.
He made is possible for me to go back and do an MBA at the University of Western Ontario while I was working. That led me to make other connections in the finance and banking industry. I went and worked for a bank that was acquired by TD Bank, which has quite a presence in the U.S.
From there, I made a switch to Citibank, who acquired the Canadian Trust Mastercard portfolio. In that role, I was working for a guy based out of Toronto and another in New Jersey.
I had just finished my MBA and joined the local YMCA Board of Directors at the YMCA of London, Ontario. The YMCA’s CEO announced his retirement, and we went through the interview process, where our final candidate withdrew at the eleventh hour. After he withdrew, a couple of board members approached me and asked if I was interested in being CEO.
So you find yourself as the President and CEO at the London YMCA, how did you do?
We did very well! I took those skills I learned to engage my employees and made some changes. I learned from them to understand what the key drivers are. I found the best YMCA operators in the country and invited them to our location to talk with me. We quadrupled the size of those served by the Y and brought in a few other Y’s in mergers.
You had found your calling?
When you think about it, the Y is unlike most charities. Ninety-percent of our income is earned through memberships, camperships, childcare services. Ten-percent comes from government grants or fundraising. Most of it, you can be very entrepreneurial with. If I didn’t like what was going on, I would look in the mirror. It’s a real motivator to do well.
What brought you to the Delaware Valley?
One thing the YMCA does very well is networking. The Canadian and US YMCA’s are a federation. There’s 850 Y’s in the USA. There is a YUSA, but it’s not a head office. The independent YMCA’s tell YUSA what to do. YUSA helps with networking, conferencing, information sharing, training opportunities, and more both in Canada in the US. I got to know people running YMCA’s across North America. I was on the steering committee called Y North America Network.
My predecessor at Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA mentioned he was retiring and asked if I was interested in filling the position. I had been at the London YMCA since 2001 and didn’t want to be one of those guys who stay in a job and, over time, gets complacent. My kids were old enough, so I figured the timing was perfect.
Two years before, they invited me down to the area to see the operation. They explained it would be a competitive process, but I put my name in and got the job. I started on January 1st, 2016.
Looking forward, what are the challenges and opportunities in front of you now?
As you would expect, my top priority is employee engagement. We have 5,000 women and men, 700 full-time and 4,300 part-time, who work for us. We are rolling out several initiatives focused on onboarding, training, coaching, performance management, new recognition programs.
We currently serve about 240,000 people, including 195,000 members. I believe we can serve another 100,000 folks in the Greater Philadelphia area. Our facilities are capital intensive. Our new branches in Upper Moreland and Willow Grove cost over thirty million dollars.
We have other market opportunities to serve the community, but that capital intensiveness is hindering. Our capital comes from four sources. We have to operate at a surplus because if we don’t, we can’t fix our existing buildings. The second source is fundraising. The third source is borrowing. Lastly, our big opportunity is to partner with other organizations such as hospital, municipalities, and universities and colleges.
For example, a couple of years ago, Montgomery County Community College opened a beautiful athletic and classroom complex, with wellness centers and other aspects. We have an agreement with the MCCC where the YMCA operates that that facility for them.
The Mayor of Philadelphia sent 200 kids to our overnight camp in the Poconos last summer.
Thirty percent of employees in Philadelphia work for a hospital or university. To work in partnership with those organizations and institutions is a huge opportunity for us.
Finally, last year, we spent eight-and-a-half million dollars paying for people who couldn’t afford to join as a member, send their children to camp or leave their child at one of our childcare centers.
We don’t want to turn anyone away. We are a charity but also have to run like a business. It’s a great model. We touch five counties, in one form or another, which encompasses a great deal of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
What do you do in your free time?
On Friday mornings, I used to play pick-up basketball league at one of our branches. Now you can find me working out mornings at our Roxborough Branch or running on a trail somewhere. I like to golf. I also love getting out in the area and going to all the great restaurants in the Philadelphia area. Going from urban to suburban to rural Pennsylvania, there’s so much to do in so many different areas of this state. I like to get out and explore.
Finally, Shaun,what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
There have been several lessons I’ve learned throughout my life, but there’s one high school teacher’s advice which stands out. He encouraged us to voice our opinion, but express it in a reasoned way. He told us that we have views that ought to be heard, but to have well-reasoned thoughts before we share them. Not many people tell kids at that awkward, adolescent age that their opinion matters and to have confidence when speaking.
Whether it was my parents, teachers, or coaches, I always took away the lesson that the most important thing anyone can give anybody else is a sense of self-worth. If you feel good about yourself, it makes all the difference.