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Never settling for average, the Martin Pear JCC is cementing itself as the go-to destination for the Phoenix community.

“What makes us different?” This question — or buzz phrase, as Jay Jacobs refers to it — is the lens through which the staff of the Martin Pear JCC examines every aspect of the organization.

It starts at the top with Jacobs, the CEO of the Martin Pear JCC since 2017, and trickles all the way down through the rest of the leadership team to the fitness staff and front-line employees. As such, a culture of exceeding expectations has been established within the entire organization.

“Quite simply, if we are going to provide a program or service, we must have the ability to be one of the best at it,” said Jacobs. “That sounds a little arrogant, but it’s not meant to be. What it means is we should not be using resources on programs and services that are, at best, average. When we are average, we are cheating our community.”

Not settling for average is what sets the facility apart from the rest. “What makes the Martin Pear JCC such a special place is we’re much more than a gym, preschool, senior center or swim team,” said Adam Brooks, the chairman of the board for the Martin Pear JCC. “We’re able to provide programming for everyone — from cradle to grave.”

This commitment to exceeding expectations is what makes the Martin Pear JCC an integral part of its community, and that commitment starts with the CEO.

The Journeyman

To say Jay Jacobs has had an adventurous career would be an understatement. Since he was five years old, Jacobs has been part of a JCC family, starting with playing “in the dirt piles during construction” of a JCC facility in Pittsburgh.

He later got a job at JCC Pittsburgh upon graduating college, and from there, his path to the Martin Pear JCC has been quite a journey. Working in a variety of positions at JCCs, from assistant sports and fitness director to CEO, Jacobs’ career stops included Columbus, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Dallas, Texas, twice; Salt Lake City, Utah; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Richmond, Virginia. He finally wound up in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2017.

And each job was an important experience for Jacobs. “What helped me along the way were the people who mentored me and the opportunities I was fortunate enough to get,” he shared. “For example, in Pittsburgh I got the opportunity to start at the bottom and learn from the ground up. And my job in Columbus gave me the opportunity to learn from the best mentor I could have ever asked for.”

Martin Pear JCC

Adam Brooks, chairman of the board, and Jay Jacobs, CEO of the Martin Pear JCC. Photo by Brandon Sullivan.

The lessons Jacobs learned along his journey have carried over into how he leads at the Martin Pear JCC, and his passion for the mission permeates the entire organization.

“The leadership team starts with Jay,” said Brooks. “He’s responsible for setting the vision and tone, as well as hiring the team and keeping them motivated. The way I would describe the team is rock stars. Their level of commitment and dedication to serving our community is beyond compare.”

According to Audrey Edwards, the chief experience officer at the Martin Pear JCC, building a team of rock stars was one of Jacobs’ first priorities. “When Jay came in, he created a great team and really changed the culture of the JCC,” she said. “He hired a lot of great people who care about the community and who want to be the best at what they do.”

Of all the things Jacobs learned throughout his career, the drive to always be the best is the longest lasting principle he has applied to every organization he’s worked for. “The best lesson I learned along the way is if we’re going to be different — which should ultimately make us one of the best — we can’t be afraid to take risks and be afraid to fail,” he said.

Five-Year Turnaround

The Martin Pear JCC has always done a good job serving the community. Good is the enemy of the great, however, and Jacobs believed the organization could be even better at what it was doing.

“When I got to Scottsdale, we were doing things well enough for people to accept them, but we weren’t doing things in a way that exceeded expectations,” recalled Jacobs. “We know average kicks us in the butt — if 20 people participate in something average, 10 people say nothing and the other 10 say nothing good.”

As a result, Jacobs and his leadership team set out on a mission to overhaul every aspect of the Martin Pear JCC, starting with the most fundamental component: culture.

“A little over three years ago, we embarked on a five-year turnaround to create a new atmosphere and enhanced level of customer service,” explained Jacobs. “We aimed at building membership, programs and, most of all, credibility.”

According to Jacobs, the leadership had buy-in from staff and board members from the start, and that support was a major driver of success. “Our team and board of directors jumped in feet first,” he said. “Instead of cutting costs, we reinvested money and the result has been a 40% increase in membership, incredible usage, phenomenal support from our community and a budget in the black for the past two years — outside of the COVID-19 pandemic, of course.”

Martin Pear JCC

A large splash pad accompanies the J’s 11-lane, 25-yard competition and activity pools. Photo by Brandon Sullivan.

Much of the reinvested money went into the facility itself, with a priority on enhancing the member experience through various upgrades.

“We sunk close to a million dollars into the facility, redoing different areas and equipment,” shared Jacobs. “We created a functional fitness studio, and we’re getting ready to put more money into our locker rooms. We’ve replaced 13-year-old weight equipment, and we replace a third of the cardio room pieces every three years on three-year leases. Every year, our members see something new, and we always have the latest and greatest.”

According to Jacobs, an up-to-date facility has also been critical to retention. “If we’re not keeping the facility looking sharp, there’s somebody with a new, bright and shiny facility who will draw members away,” said Jacobs.

As the Martin Pear JCC approaches the fourth year of its turnaround plan, Jacobs and his team are continuing to reinvent how the organization serves the community.

“We are continuing to change,” said Jacobs. “The needs of the community change constantly, so how are we remaining a part of it? What are we doing to make sure we have the knowledge and information to understand new trends and separate trends from fads? Fads get you excited, then make you broke.”

Exceeding Expectations

The key to the Martin Pear JCC’s programming strategy is offering a variety of programs to enhance the community’s overall well-being.

“We give a lot of scholarships, particularly within the preschool and for senior programming,” shared Brooks. “We have a Parkinson’s program we’re very proud of that is creating tremendous value for those dealing with the horrible disease. We are also providing education, teen programs, after-school care and fitness programs.”

The Martin Pear JCC strives to have something for everyone, and at the core of every operational and programming decision is the buzz phrase, “How are we different?”

“What’s important is the meaning of our buzz phrase,” explained Jacobs. “The way we interpret that phrase is, ‘What are we willing to do that others won’t?’ By thinking that way, we continually provide value our members do not expect and ultimately exceed expectations.”

The Martin Pear JCC has continued to serve members in several creative ways, including setting up a martini bar for yoga class participants, bringing in a local vendor to serve coffee and hot chocolate, and its “J-cation” pool parties every Sunday during June and July.

Each of these concepts has served to keep members engaged in the program and are greatly enhanced by the passion of the staff to execute these strategies. That’s where exceeding expectations starts — with employees. As a result, the Martin Pear JCC leadership team places a lot of emphasis on getting the right people on its team.

Martin Pear JCC

The first criteria when hiring staff at the J is a great personality. Photo by Brandon Sullivan.

The Martin Pear JCC uses three hiring criteria to ensure the right people are coming on board. “No. 1 is personality,” said Jacobs. “It doesn’t matter what a person’s skill set is — if they don’t have the right personality, they’re not someone we want on our team. We can’t teach you to say ‘hi.’ Second is a person’s skill set or the ability to learn the right skill set. And third, the job has to be more than a paycheck — there has to be a passion for what our JCC does.”

The Martin Pear JCC also places a big emphasis on staff training. It doesn’t stop with being hired — staff members are expected to continue learning and improving.

“We do a ton of staff training,” said Jacobs. “Every other Tuesday, we have 40 staff members from every area of the agency come to what we call ‘JCC 101.’ We work on how we’re providing services and delivering great customer service.”

These conversations also serve as a forum for staff members to share and discuss ideas, and think outside the box, which Jacobs strongly encourages as a leader.

“We try to make sure staff understand we want people thinking outside the box, and we want to be a place that does things other places aren’t willing to do,” said Jacobs. “We always want staff thinking very differently in terms of how we’re doing things, why we’re doing them this way and what we’re doing that sets us apart.”

In fact, staff members are so strongly encouraged to think outside the box, Jacobs has a specific part of the budget dedicated to new ideas. This is part of the effort to keep staff empowered and passionate about their jobs.

“All the right things can be in place, but if the staff isn’t a good team, doesn’t believe in the leadership or doesn’t agree with and know what the vision is, it doesn’t matter how shiny the equipment is or how great the classes are,” said Edwards. 

A culture of empowerment is the key to the success of the organization’s staff. “Our whole philosophy with staff is one of empowerment,” said Jacobs. “Every time we interview somebody, we talk about being comfortable with being empowered but also understanding the accountability that comes with it.”

And as the staff continue to improve and remain above average, so will the Martin Pear JCC. Together, Jacobs and his leadership team plan to lead the Martin Pear JCC through its five-year turnaround plan and beyond.

“Our vision is to provide an organization that can meet people where they are and help them feel connected to others, whether that’s through fitness, family, education or whatever it may be,” said Brooks. “We believe in the strength of the community.” 

Bobby Dyer

Bobby is the former editor of Community Rec Magazine.

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