CEO shares important tips about finding and maintaining mentors.

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Workforce experts agree that almost nothing makes more of an impact on a young person’s lifelong employment prospects than a summer job, with a paycheck, earned during high school years. Needing money back then, Michael J. Rouse, now 49, created a summer job by starting his own business — one that now employs 1,600 people in the summer, serves 4,000 children and operates in six states.

ESF Inc. had its start in 1982, when Rouse, then a top-notch high-school tennis player, needed $3,200 to pursue a big dream — playing tennis in the nationals. Rouse’s father declined to fund him, telling him to earn his way. So Rouse came up with the idea of teaming up with his brother Bill to run a two-week tennis camp at their school.

“We knew it really needed to be well-orchestrated,” Rouse said. “We also knew that if we screwed up, we were in big trouble, not only from my parents, but also from the school and the (campers’) parents. It was almost like the fear of failure. We were never going to let that happen.”

As it turned out, 42 budding tennis players attended Rouse’s first camp, enough for him to earn the $3,200 he needed. These days, ESF, now in the throes of camp registration, runs about 75 youth camps as well as Phillies Phantasy Camp in Clearwater, Fla., for baseball-loving grownups.

Q: You’ve been in the camp business for 35 years. What has changed?

A: Specialty programming is really taking off. Kids are learning coding. Robotics, which we do. We’ve created an exclusive partnership with the Jack Welch Management Institute so children will be able to learn about entrepreneurialism, how to create their own businesses. You can get your Junior Business Academy certification. You can launch a hospitality company, a music company, various businesses, (and learn) to take it from a concept to a reality.

Q: ESF has also formed a partnership with performance psychologist James E. Loehr, author of “The Power of Full Engagement.” Why?

A: We’re going to thread character development through every program in our camp — traits like respect, gratitude, humility, grit, kindness. Those are important pieces of community. You don’t get character from your DNA. You actually develop it just like your muscles. That’s our job, to bring out the best in kids.

Q: You earn most of your revenues in eight to nine summer weeks. Other than other camps, who’s your competition?

A: In the area of sports, you’ve got these clubs that are basically coaches who have professionalized themselves. They take the sport they have, either through a club or an academy, and they’re saying, ‘I can make this a business year round.’ So, unfortunately, some kids are committing to a sport at a young age, say at 10, and they’re playing that sport year round, which may take away business from me and other camps.

Q: Plus, those clubs are run by the campers’ coaches who have the power to play them, or not, during the regular season.

A: Yes. What I’m mostly concerned about is how that’s impacting the child, because of the injuries at a younger age, because of the burnout I’m seeing.

Q: What do you notice about kids and parents?

A: Parents want kids to grow up to be happy and good, and they’ll do whatever they can to do that. But, at the end of the day, when you look at this assembly line that kids are on, you need to dial it back a bit, to say, ‘Wait a minute, you’ve got to give children an opportunity to be successful. When they fail, they’ll fail fast. Let them keep going, keep moving along. It’s not the end of the world.’

Q: You’ve had many mentors — Jim Loehr, retired Marine Corps Gen. Martin Steele, Pat Croce, former Allied Signal chief executive Larry Bossidy, and Jack Welch. What’s your technique for benefiting from mentoring?

A: I’m a sponge. I use their advice and turn it into something actionable. Then I report back, ‘Hey, let me tell you how much that influenced me.’ Or, ‘You know what? This wasn’t working. What would you do in this particular case?’ Then they are engaged with me. Then a dialogue begins.

Tennis was my sport that I played throughout my college years. And, I went to nationals when I was 14 and I was down at the Orange Bowl in Miami playing. I was one of these kids, 14 years old, under the tent with another 100 kids my same age listening to Dr. Jim Loehr speak about mental toughness, and focus. So, he said a few things in this speech that I actually used when I went to play, and I never forgot them.”

Q: Like what?

A: Focus on the tennis ball. Try to read the words on the tennis ball, if it’s Wilson or Spaulding, and try to envision the ball when it’s coming to you like it’s almost a basketball, because you’re envisioning it. And, obviously, by focusing on the ball when it’s coming to you, you’re not thinking about other things. You’re trying to read and see the stripes on the ball and the way it’s structured, and it really helps you make impact with the ball so that you actually hit a lot better and it helps you stay focused in the moment, versus thinking about a million different things. And that simple tip helped me upset one of the seeds, one of the ranked guys internationally, and I never forgot it.

Q: You used it that day?

A: Absolutely. … Whenever I hear something from someone, whether it’s a young person at my camps or a parent or a subject matter expert that we have, I just take it all in. So, Jim was somebody I never forgot. Years later, he ended up coaching professional (tennis) athletes — the number one players in the world and I kind of followed him.

Then, I hadn’t really read anything about him. I didn’t hear anything about him. Then, suddenly, I heard that he had a place called The Human Performance Institute. Somebody told me he was working not only with athletes, but also executives. When somebody told me this, I thought, ‘Wait, I thought he passed away. I haven’t heard about this guy.’ So, I ended up going down for a day and a half program, which I attended, which was just about human performance.

Q: You took some of your fellow business leaders with you. Was it life-changing in any way for them or you?

A: A number of people got very serious with their nutrition. A lot of them got very serious in the balance in their life. A lot of them got serious with focus: Trying to define what you love to do, versus what you have to do, finding that passion. So, afterwards I went up to him and said, ‘Would you ever want to do this with me for kids?’ At that moment, he said, ‘For kids, absolutely. So, we exchanged contact information.’

Q: Tell me how you came to attach so much importance to mentors.

A: It started with my father who, I think, was just such a great mentor to me. He always had something to share, but never said, ‘You must do this, you must do that.’ He allowed me to do it on my own by creating some empowerment, allowing me to enjoy my sports without having to be there watching every practice, and going to every game. He always had this famous line: ‘We’ll be there in spirit.’ He was busy. He was a workaholic. So, I didn’t care about it whether my parents were coming or not. I got rides and I really learned how to appreciate that sport that I was playing. I, actually, wanted to do it myself, versus having them do that. And so, that mentorship started with my father. Then over the course of time, through whether it be a coach that I had, or a teacher, I just started to, again, be that sponge to absorb people in my life with things that they had to offer. So, an early mentor of mine was Pat Croce (the former Sixers physical therapist and sports personality.)

Q: Knowing Pat Croce, I can see how you two would get along.

A: I had a wrist injury at age 15 and he was a young sports physical therapist at the time. I was introduced to him through my grandfather who was a surgeon and his mother who was a great nurse. They knew each other. I had three doctors back then that said I need to get surgery. So, my grandpa said, ‘Before you do that, there’s this young guy who is a trainer. You should talk to him.’ So, I went to him and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Can you tolerate pain?’ I said, ‘I think so.’ He said, ‘Then you don’t need to get cut and I’m going to help you break through this pain.’

So, he became a mentor of mine, because he then would bring me to workouts early in the morning and I’d show up. He’d pick me up and here I’d walk in and there was Julius Erving, Mike Schmidt, Bobby Clarke on a treadmill, on a rower, on a bike. And, we would all train together. Here I am this 15-year-old who was looking up to the heroes of sports in Philadelphia. Here Pat Croce was treating me as just another guy who’s here to workout. So, that began these relationships where I really learned so much from people like him.

Q: How do you become a good, appreciative mentee? It seems to me if I were going to sum up our entire interview, it would be about all the various people who have influenced you. How do you get someone to be a mentor and then really use it?

A: I want to work backwards. If you’re going to receive, you need to give. So, you’ve got to be a mentor for others, because you just can’t hold it in. You’ve got to share it and you’ve got to pass it on. That’s the difference.

So, when I saw Pat Croce or Jack Welch or Michael Eisner or Larry Bossidy who says, ‘I’ll tell you what. Let me offer you some advice,’ I would use that advice and I would turn that into something that actionable. Then I would report back to them, ‘Hey, let me just tell you how much that influenced me,’ or ‘You know what? This wasn’t working. What would you do in this particular case?’ They engaged with me to say, ‘Try this. Don’t do that.’ Then there was a dialogue that began.

Q: So, the first step is appreciation. Then what?

A: When I get a piece of advice, first of all, whenever I’m with someone, I usually have this journal right here. Not a journal. I call it a notebook.

I can show you this. I can keep going and I can tell you the day and what I learned that day. The notebook is every meeting that I have. I, literally, just take notes. So, I’m a sponge. I’ll write down everything that we’re talking about. I’ll just basically write down things that I need to follow up on, things that I need to check on. And then, it turns into my weekly projects, callbacks that I need to do. So, detail is everything. So, to answer your question, I’ll kind of do a mind dump from their conversation with me and I’ll just write it all down. Then I’ll turn that into actionable items of what have I learned from this.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: So, Mr. Bossidy has been a mentor of mine for 10 years or so. I meet with him two, three times a year where he kind of looks at what I learned, how did I do this past year. What are my predictable surprises? How did I do in business? How am I doing in life when it comes to balance? He had six kids and I look back at his life and I say to myself, ‘Wow, what a balanced person.’

Q: I’m intrigued by your format.

A: So, I just really take all the notes down as he’s talking. Then what I’ll do is I’ll formulate it down, but it’s really note taking. So he told me: You need to have buy in. When you introduce change to your organization and changes that are needed to be made, you can’t just say, ‘We’re doing this.’ You need to have buy-in. You need to bring people around to understand it.’ My whole thing is I want to have a sustainable business for many years to come, another 35 years.

So, a perfect example, if we weren’t adaptive and accepting change, we would have only been doing a day camp, a sports camp and a senior camp. But, no, we saw the importance of what technology’s doing. So, that’s why we adapted and started offering that.

I’m looking at how to look at my business where I can kind of continue to look at tuition and how I can try to keep it as low as I can. So, I’m looking into cost management, best practices. So, he was giving me some tips on cost management. We talked about how productivity and efficiency are so important when it comes to protecting margins. I have my partners, our schools that we’re at are our partners. So, my objective is to generate as much revenue as we can for them, but at the highest quality. So, this is where I use my relationship with Larry Bossidy to learn how he would do that with some of his partners that he had with other companies. So, we just talk about those types of things.

Q: You talked about cost management and managing change.

A: We talked about making sure that you always have a good foundation within your staff so that they understand that change is good. I want to really double down on the character development side (as part of the camp curriculum), so, making sure that everybody understands the character development piece is going to be an important initiative in the future for us as a platform. And, with my affiliation with Dr. Jim Loehr, this isn’t just a couple of words that you’re floating around. You actually have somebody that backs it up with all the R and D. So, really making sure that everybody buys into that was important at the beginning. And, my entire staff has, which is great. So, those are tips.

Q: How did you express your appreciation? Did you write him a note?

A: I always follow with a personal note, a thank you. That goes back to the whole gratitude thing. I’m incredibly grateful for the people I have in my life from having great parents to incredible friends and to mentors in my life and also my staff. So, there’s never a moment where you’re not in the state of gratitude. I try to always be in that. At times, it might be tough.

Q: So, back to this question of maintaining your mentor.

A: You can’t just have one, in my opinion.

It’s good to have a number. Remember, these aren’t people that you have to pay for. These are people that you ask, ‘Would you be open to me asking you a number of questions about how you got to where you were.’ Then it usually evolves from there.

Q: They’ve become engaged because you’ve taken their advice.

A: They’ve become engaged because, first of all, they’ve made it. They’re winners in their own right. They probably got to that same place because somebody did it for them in the same way of mentoring and coaching. So, they’re paying it forward in some cases. I think there’s the engagement, because I’ve said, ‘I’ve learned something from you. I’d like for you to know what I’ve learned from you, and would you be willing to kind of share with me some other things that you do so well.’ So, that’s kind of how it begins.

Q: The fact that you specifically can describe what you’ve learned, does that encourage them?

A: Absolutely. I think it makes them realize that, first of all, they impacted your life, and what they shared with me was impactful, and that’s the key.

(Interview questions and answers have been edited.)

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Michael J. Rouse
Home: Newtown Square, Pa.
Family: Wife, Karina; sons, Finn, 3, Shane, 2, Brody, 8 months.
Diplomas: Villanova, liberal arts; Harvard Business School, executive education course work.
For fun: Tennis, trains for triathlons “maybe once or twice a year.”

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ESF Inc.
Where: Headquarters in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Operates 63 camps in 17 locations in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland and Florida.
Stands for: Education, Sports, Fun. Programs for ages 3-16; sessions in science, technology, visual and performing arts, culinary, entrepreneurship, academic. Also, Eagles football cheer and dance, Philadelphia Union soccer schools, Phillies Baseball Academy.
Numbers: 1,600 summer employees, 43 year round; 4,000 campers; 33,000 camper weeks; 1:3 staff-camper ratio; $375-$550 weekly tuition.
Partners: Philadelphia sports teams (Phillies, Eagles, the Union), Cirque du Soleil, Jack Welch, Vetri Community Partnership, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Franklin Institute, Disney.