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Robert Sereci has a unique background and a unique approach to leadership as the general manager at Medinah Country Club, just outside of Chicago. Medinah has hosted three U.S. Opens, two PGA championships, and the 2012 Ryder Cup matches, yet some of the outside-the-box things he's done to build the brand have caught the attention of people inside and outside of the club industry. Who else would add a chicken coop and a food truck to one of the nation's great private clubs? Robert is a results-driven service provider who believes the success of Medinah has to go deeper than its golf pedigree.

In This Episode:

:51 - Robert's Unique Background

ED: You've got such an interesting background in an industry where so many people have come up through food and beverage. But when you think of country club general managers, so many of them have this connection to golf that is, in some ways, it's like all about golf, but your background is not like that. Can you share with us your background and how you found your way into the club industry?

ROBERT: Sure. I moved from Europe in 1985 to go to college. I went to hospitality school at Cal Poly Pomona, which was an incredible school for hospitality. And my intention all along was to go back to Switzerland, where I grew up, to do an apprenticeship program. But unfortunately, being Yugoslavian, the war broke out in Yugoslavia and I chose not to go to the army. So I was, for lack of a better word, stuck in the U.S. and I coincidentally happened to run into Gregg Patterson, who was teaching a class in club management. I took his class and fell in love with the concept, which was foreign to me at the time. I got involved in clubs relatively quickly. But unlike most of my friends, I never waited on tables, I didn't work in the kitchen, my family was not in the hospitality business. I was planning on using my apprenticeship program to learn all the trade skills required, but being in the U.S., I didn't have those.

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I'm not a golfer. I play maybe 10 rounds in 15 years. So, I was in a position where I'm learning in clubs, and I had to innocently enough rely on the expertise of the people that were around me in order for me to be successful. And what started as almost like an act of desperation to tell my team, "Guys, I need your help. I really need you to help me make this successful. You are good at what you do, you do what you do. I have my skill set." And what turned out to be a strategy for self-preservation ended up being probably one of my best tools for leading a team. To this day, I disproportionately rely on my team and their expertise to make things happen. So, I just have a different philosophy.

Not being a golfer, believe it or not, has been an incredible blessing for me. Especially the more golf-centric a club is, the more beneficial I believe it is. Because, I see, for example, Medinah, through an entirely different lens than those before me or members who see Medinah through the rosy golf glasses.

3:26 - A Different View of Medinah

ED: Yeah, let's talk about that because this has actually helped you become a stronger general manager.

ROBERT: It has, it has. I think the challenge is that with a brand like Medinah, which is so golf-centric, many people, many members, and boards and employees are enamored with the whole history and heritage of Medinah, which is rich and robust, no doubt about it. But what happens is when you have an emotional connection and you're tied to the past of the club, with the tournaments and history and the famous Tiger shots and then some of Sergio's shots, what happens is you can't objectively look and analyze the club and the issues at hand. Because I knew of Medinah, but I wasn't aware of the Ryder Cup or the PGA because that's not something I study, I was able to see Medinah through a very neutral lens. So, the emotionality was not there for me. The Ryder Cup and the beautiful experiences, to me, was all about, "OK, so what did that yield exactly?" And at the end of the day that was not enough to carry Medinah through and develop more robust membership.

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ED: When you say, "What did that yield?" are you really saying, "What was the ROI in holding these major events?"

ROBERT: Make a metric, right? That's why I keep saying there's a difference between accomplishments and success, and clubs often confuse the two. So when you talk about success, the Ryder Cup is an incredible accomplishment. The PGA tournaments, everything we've done, are enormous accomplishments. But it doesn't always translate into success.

Many clubs have held tournaments, championships, but then have failed to carry on or stay open. So, tournaments are accomplishments. Successes, for me, are entirely different metrics. Does that make sense?

5:23 - Success With Big Events

ED: Yeah, absolutely. It's a different way. I think there are a number of private clubs that host either major events or even tour events, that do look at that as being success, that they have reached a pinnacle or a level of success because they host the events. And yet, if they're not financially sound, then all it was was really an accomplishment.

ROBERT: Well, I think you can still hold a tournament, not be successful financially, but if it is part of either your mission, your strategic plan, for us, hosting tournaments is something our members would like us to do. So, if that's the case, it's a fine balance between the financial rewards and also carrying on the brand of Medinah with hosting tournaments. It's our history. Our DNA is really strong when it comes to golf. We have to continue to work on that. So, the Medinah brand is a very powerful brand and much of it is because of our past tournament history. There's no denying that. What we're saying is that that in itself is no longer enough. We cannot disproportionately rely on past tournaments. Those tournaments came and they left. What they do help is, the power of the brand is so strong. That's why our logo is recognized worldwide, right? People want to play Medinah worldwide. I get emails and letters. I got one yesterday from a gentleman from the armed forces. It was his dream to play at Medinah with his mom. Well, being on your bucket list is one thing. Writing an $85,000 check is an entirely different thing.

ED: Absolutely.

ROBERT: And that's what we have to remember.

7:16 - Building a Community (with Chickens)

ED: One of the things I've heard you talk about that's also very inspiring, and I get this from the fact that, you know, as someone who didn't come up as a golfer in the golf world, golf is a fabulous way to build community. And I've heard you mention how important it is, so many of the things you're doing, which we'll get into in a second here, are really about building great community at Medinah. Can you just talk a little bit more about your perspective on that and how you see not just golf, but a lot of the activities that you have, as being platforms to just build relationships and community?

ROBERT: Well, I think it goes back to why people want to join clubs. Why would somebody want to join Medinah? And I think so many of us are so quick to point out all the features, the state of the art this, the championship golf, which is great. But when you start listing benefits for members to join a club, it almost seems like it's a logical decision to write an $85,000 check because you have a state of the art something. The truth of the matter is there's nothing logical about joining a country club. If it was logical, no one would join a club.

The reason why they join a club is that they want to belong to a community of individuals with similar beliefs and interests. It's an emotional decision, not a logical one. So, clubs make that mistake and that's why I think they've struggled in the past. For us, our championship golf courses, our new paddle courts, our new golf learning centers are basically all reasons to facilitate relationships. It is all opportunities for you to experience the Medinah community. That's it. It's a reason to experience it. It's just stuff.

ED: To that end, you're an innovator in the private club sector, and I say that and I think you know that as well. But the other things that you've done to build community in some ways, and let's start with Meacham's Garden, an organic garden that you developed at Medinah. I mean, talk about a community builder. It's something that's totally unique. Where did that come from and how has that investment paid off with the membership?

ROBERT: Well, one of the first things that I did at Medinah and every club that I join, is I really focus on understanding the history. And going back to Simon Sinek, whose book "Start With Why" is probably one of the most brilliant books I've ever read. For me, it was always back to, whether it's the American Club in Hong Kong or here at Medinah, is why was this place built and founded, to begin with? So, I got the history book, and lo and behold, Medinah was built as a family club away from the city by the Shriners where we had tennis, we had badminton, we had luge, we had ski jumping, we had golf, we had all of the amenities you can even imagine. And with time, we've divested ourselves from all these other amenities and focused primarily on golf. So, it was a no-brainer.

We know that in the current marketplace, families choose to join communities and not necessarily clubs because, in today's world, the ladies have between 80% and 99% say-so in where a family joins. So, for me, it was bringing back the club to its original purpose, which is, we are a home away from home for families to experience a stream of benefits while they're here.

So, the challenge was, "Okay, what do I do? What do I point to, to reinforce those values that we hold dear?" So, if somebody says, "I hear golf is important for you," I can point to our championship golf courses and those are evidence that golf is important. If they ask me about swimming, I can point to the pool. But how do you convey to the marketplace that food and nutrition are really important to us as a club when all they know is about the Ryder Cup? So, we had to create something as a marker, as a symbol, as evidence to support our value that we care deeply about food.

So, what we did is immediately we built a chicken coop. It turned out better than I ever expected because luckily we had some team members that do this at home. We have 40 hens which we hand-picked and they hatched on-site. Thirty or 40 beds of vegetables and herbs. We branded it. We are very big on branding and storytelling. So, we spent a lot of time on branding it as Meacham's Garden, which is a family that owned the property here. We've built a beautiful logo. And we did that because now we have evidence.

We tour our prospective members and we have beautiful large prints, canvas prints, of our gardens and our hens, that coincidentally are just outside the door of the membership development director, as is the food truck. Basically, as he walks them through, because the chicken coop is not closed, he tells them the story and he tells them what we value, and he points to the pictures as evidence of what we believe. And we know that's what they believe, and we do that and it works. I can tell you our chickens have gotten us more bang for the buck than we could ever imagine. Three years and we're still getting publicity on it. And speaking of investment, by the way, all of $5,000. That's all it was.

13:27 - The Private Club with a Food Truck

ED: Oh my gosh. What a great story to tell. And to your point about "starting with why," it connects so much with the history and "the why" of the club, which is really, really cool. Let's talk about the food truck, Robert. What inspired that? I'd love to hear your version of what inspired the food truck. It's another one of those attributes of the club that is so unique. It's out of the box. I hesitate to use that term just because it's so overused, but it's so innovative in the thinking. What was behind that?

ROBERT: So, again, I keep talking about markers and evidence of community. My original strategy was to buy an ice cream truck. Either a small one with a "ding ding" or a little larger one with the noise. Because nothing says community like a little ice cream truck, right?

ED: Right.

ROBERT: Even if it's a hand-push one, right? To me, again, it was a marker, a symbol. And then I found out that we were going to build these facilities. We were going to build paddle tennis courts, a learning center. And our members, I knew, would want to have food. But building kitchens is expensive and we have 644 acres. We lug barbecues everywhere on one of our three courses and I thought, "You know what? Part of our strategy is how do we become a little more relevant and hip with a younger crowd. Maybe we can kill two birds with one stone." So, I thought, alright, let's get a food truck. Luckily for me, one of my employees, I used to work with him in Dallas, is with the Texas Rangers and they were selling theirs. He called me up and he said, "Are you still looking for a food truck?" I said, "Absolutely." He drove it here, we bought it.

We spent a lot of time on branding it. The color, the font, the location of the logo. I mean, it's not as easy as it sounds. We wrapped it. We brought it to the membership. So, the entire winter we built pads where we park our food truck right by our racquet center where it's three-four days a week in the winter, and three-four days by the golf learning center. It's adjacent to the entrance where members can now just walk from the learning center, get their food, and go back inside where we have a bar in both locations. So, it's practical but we also, from a marketing perspective, got a lot of attention. At Medinah, if you do anything golf-related, people expect that. You're not wowing anybody. But anything that we do that is not golf-related, we seem to get a lot of attention and this was no different.

ED: How did the membership receive that, the food truck? Especially because it's very urban, it's very hip, it's young. I could just imagine some older members or some of your members who've been at the club longer, I should say, might say, "Really? We're going to have a truck with food in it?" How did the membership receive this?

ROBERT: Some of them still don't understand and don't get it and are upset by it. Overwhelmingly, they have now come to love the idea. There are certain things that, in private clubs, where you have to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Right?

ED: Right.

ROBERT: So, the chicken coop. Honestly, if we were to ask the board after being here three months if they would be okay with me building a chicken coop, I can tell you they would have said, "Hell no." So what we did is, we did it. We built it small. We didn't tell anybody. I was very fortunate to have team members here who were passionate about the idea, who had the skill set. Because I can dream this stuff up, but unless somebody is there to build it and make it happen, it means nothing. So, we built it and then I wrote a white paper, as you know, and I provided context and framework to expose the board within the context of what we're trying to accomplish and they liked it. Now, it's incredible. Some members actually are very proud of that and they tour their grandkids. So, they like that.

The food truck was the same thing. To this day, I have a handful of members that are really upset by it. And their standard line is, "Robert, you're not a golfer. You don't get it. You don't understand." And in their eyes, I think they sincerely think that I am damaging the brand. And we take our brand very seriously. It's an enormous responsibility to be the caretaker of the Medinah brand. We don't take it lightly. But they disagree and that's okay.

But our younger members, the outside world, think it's great. There are six trucks more because of what we did. Four of my friends are building chicken coops. And as I told the board, you know, we have an incredible responsibility not just to our members but to the industry. They look to us and we're like permission givers. My friends tell me that it makes it easier for me to sell something if Medinah does it because the standard line like I got here is, "We're different. We're golf-centric. It won't work here." But they can say, "But look, Medinah does it and it's successful." It kind of makes it a little easier for them to chart the path if Medinah does it. I'm very fortunate. I got the idea from somebody else. Clubs are not at the forefront of innovation, right?

ED: Right.

ROBERT: So, you keep saying "innovative." The truth of the matter is, what you mean is it may be innovative in our space. Let's not kid ourselves. Clubs are laggards in everything. So all we're doing is repurposing ideas from the public sector, making it our own, and looking good in the process.

19:41 - Taking Chances

ED: Yeah, absolutely. At the same time, though, to be able to do this and, like you said, it's better to ask for forgiveness sometimes than permission. At the same time, so many people are afraid to take chances. What inspires you to take the chances that you've taken?

ROBERT: I don't blame my fellow club managers for not taking chances. Club boards have beaten us into submission and have taken all of the risk out of our souls. And it's not the club manager's fault.

I think what happens is clubs are very risk-averse, so we stifle innovation. And that's why very few club managers are willing to stick their neck out and do something that's out of the box because most are afraid. We're talking about people's livelihood. And with the turnover of presidents every year, you got one president who may like what you do, the one following may hate the idea and your contract is no longer renewed. So, I get it. I get it.

It depends on how badly your club is hurting. Usually, if a club is hurting, they tend to listen more. So, if you're at a club that is hurting a little bit, they're more likely to listen. The other thing that I do is I tend to write a lot. And what I've found out is that if I verbally try to explain something to the board or to the membership, it is very difficult to convey and provide context and framework of what I'm trying to accomplish. If I write it down and provide something in writing that shows the path of where we're going, why we're going there, the pros and the cons, they tend to listen and they tend to have a better understanding. But, a word of caution: before you get there, you have to have done something, or a few things, that has gotten their attention and built confidence. And that's critical.

I didn't come out guns blazing right off the bat. What the team and I did is we did a few things that were a little different that yielded incredible results, positive member feedback, that got them used to things being different with positive results. Then we tried out the big stuff.

ED: So you're building trust.

ROBERT: You have to, Ed, you have to.

22:11 - Changing World for Club Managers

ED: How has the role of the general manager changed over the years? It's a time where a lot of people are fearful. Like you said, making the wrong move and jeez, maybe I get fired. And yet, the role has to change and it has changed. What have you seen?

ROBERT: It has changed, and we're making great strides. I'm proud of the progression we've made as an association and the role the general manager plays. But my president just yesterday said it best. He and I were sitting on a panel for CMAA on club governance, and one of the questions was, "What role does Robert play in the development of the strategic plan and strategy?" And he said, "A lot. He's part of the driving force." But he also said, "But it also depends on who's sitting in the chair." And he's right.

You cannot hire a COO and expect the club president or the board to hand over the keys just because CMAA says we follow the COO model, and you're the COO. You cannot assume that. You have to demonstrate that you have the intelligence, you have the wisdom, you have the wherewithal to lead the club. There has to be evidence. Absent of that evidence, no one's going to give you the keys. And this is what I try to explain to my friends. Just because you have the title means nothing. Nobody's going to give it to you by default. You have to prove it over and over again. And as for us, as GMs, it's not that easy.

Members come to my chef with recipes and he wows them with how to make sauces. Mark, who is the wine guru here, he just mesmerizes them with varietals of grapes and talking to them about wines. Marty helps them with their swing, and he's their expert and they love Marty. Our new superintendent, Steve, talks to them about grass and they just melt. But as GMs, how do we demonstrate our knowledge? Members don't come to me and say, "Robert, I want to talk to you about club management. Teach me." Nobody does that, so, as GMs, we forget that unlike our team who demonstrates their proficiency, sometimes daily, like in golf or wine, we don't do that.

So for me, my white papers, my general manager reports which are long and in writing, are my way of constantly educating the board that I know what I'm talking about. I want to share my knowledge with you to basically instill in you the confidence that I know what I'm doing. So, as general managers, we can't just sit there because what we do is not transparent. They don't get to taste and feel it. It's different. So we have to figure out how do we demonstrate value? And through that value, they hand over more and more once they have confidence in our abilities, and I've been very blessed to do that.

ED: Well, you've made the most of your opportunities, too, which has been so fun to see. But let me ask you a little bit more about that and improving your value in that way. What's interesting is that you're the general manager and COO, but when I look at what you've written and read your white papers and see what you brought to life at Medinah, you're actually operating so much more like a CEO. You've got a vision and you have this connection to the "why" of Medinah, which is so much of a CEO/visionary-type of role. Yet it's not a characteristic that I typically associate with the general manager at a private club to really have that great long vision of what they see the club doing or where they see it going or how they're going to get there. Operationally, it's one thing to do things day-to-day, but do GMs need to be more visionary to some degree in this day and age with things changing and the world changing as much as it is?

ROBERT: Yes, but I think there are a lot of GMs that are visionaries, and I think there are so many bright GMS that act in the capacity of CEOs or COOs. The problem is that they don't have the mechanism or the tools to demonstrate it. They don't have a way to express that, for the board to see that. Or maybe the board is so controlling that they might have a gem on their hands, a strategic thinker, a thought leader, but because of the culture of the governance model that poor GM is unable to speak up and get past the clutter so he can add value to their club.

People on club boards have kind of redefined the metric of what makes a club manager successful. Clearly, relationships are important. I don't care what club in the country you are at, if they like you, you're halfway there. But now, as business leaders, the metrics are changing, and for us to take a more prominent role, it goes back to evidence. You have to show them. They have to point to something and say, "Wow, this guy is good." But if you do that verbally in a board meeting, you say a few things, that's gone.

The people that hired me three years ago, some of them are not even around. So the people that were really impressed with my background, they're gone. These are new folks and they're thinking, "Who's this guy?" So, I think there are some really smart folks out there, it's just that they have to find a way to demonstrate it. And it's all about value. If you're not bringing value to the club, sooner or later that's going to get noticed, either way.

28:40 - Managing Change

ED: Yet with the way boards change and turn over, you've got to drive results. Measurable results are really what it is because you've got to be able to point to something. Because, as boards change, different people's opinions of your work can change, as well. Is there anything else besides just trying to find ways to display your value as a general manager? I just think having to work with a changing board and making different groups of people happy with your work has got to be just an incredible challenge.

ROBERT: It is. I mean I do what most of my friends do. Every new board member sits through an orientation with myself and the president. I get a new president every two years. I do an orientation with him. Every new board member gets every single one of my white papers, my GM reports, to immediately establish some sort of a framework of why we did what we did. Because sometimes, either as GMs or incoming board members, when we take over a club, and what doesn't seem to make sense at that time, once you're provided with some background and context, things make a lot more sense. So, I give them all the documentation to read and it basically gives them the context of why we did what we did last year. They may not agree with it, but at least they have the information. So, that helps. Having a strategic plan is critical. Having a strategic plan makes sure that incoming board members or presidents stick to the path that we have carved out, and there is no one that's going to go rogue and have their own pet project.

Absent of a strategic plan, there's a higher probability someone will get off the reservation and do their own thing. And that's what's been very helpful in Medinah. Work really hard on the strategic plan. That ensures that everybody coming in subscribes to the vision at hand when they go through the nominating process. When they get interviewed, you better have an alignment with where the club is heading, because if you don't, that's probably not going to work out very well. So, the strategic plan helps. Education on the front end.

Guarding your president. I'm very protective of my president because my job is to make sure that he looks good. So I'm very protective of him. I keep him abreast. I talk to him very often. I have different strategies for how to communicate with him. But ultimately, if you want to lead a massive change effort, it has to be led by the people that will benefit from it and not the people that are leading it. And this is a mistake I think a lot of my friends make.

You cannot have your ego in the way. I'm interested in initiating change for the benefit of the community. It has to be led through the board because if they're not on board, it's never going to happen. But too many of us want to be led by those people who are actually leading the change and it seldom works, because the folks behind you know they're not following you. So, it's just a different approach.

32:07 - Don't Call Him 'Mister'

ED: Can we talk a little bit about your leadership approach, as well? Going through one of your white papers, you talk about your approach to management being more of a flat or I think you call it a horizontal organization. Can you just talk about your approach, and why you lead in that way, and how it's been effective, especially in the private club industry?

ROBERT: It makes sense for me. My purpose in club management is basically to improve the lives of the people that I work with, and the people that I work for. So, it's all about improving the lives of my management team. My management team, every year will get asked are you better off professionally and personally because of me? I have to add value to what they do, to their lives. For me, it's all about personal connection, empowering them, carving a path, taking obstacles out of the way, so they can be successful.

I also go out on a limb to say I also have a responsibility to make you a better person. If there is anything I can do to help in that endeavor, I will do that. So, if that's something that's dear to my heart, it's inconsistent with somebody calling me "mister." I mean, it's just not possible. I care deeply about my team. I mean, it's a really intimate relationship, and if that's what I value, I cannot fathom anybody call me by my last name. I am one of them. We are a family serving a family. We're all in it together, and calling by the last name is just not consistent with my belief system. Now, that's for me. A lot of my friends think differently, and that's okay. That's just the culture that we have here.

ED: But it really is staying true to who you are, as a person and then as a leader.

ROBERT: Well, that's what I value and at every club, including here, I have a 10-slide PowerPoint that at every club I share within the first few weeks. It's called "Who am I and what I believe in." I share my belief system. I share my value system. I tell them exactly what it takes to be successful. I tell them what it takes not to be successful. But, every club manager values different things.

For me, relationships are at the top. I say that I'm passionate about photography but my purpose is people. That's why I get up every morning. To know that you can make a meaningful difference with the people that you work with is a really powerful thing. That's what keeps me going.

35:08 - Club Management and Street Photography?

ED: As you were talking about your passion for photography, I was thinking about your white paper on street photography club management. I love what you wrote about that, and about the images and photographing objects. And it really is about the people. You made some great comparisons between being a street photographer and club management. So, the set up is you were in New Orleans at the CMAA world conference, and rather than going on one of the outings, you actually took your camera and went to the street with a bodyguard. But in the wake of Katrina, you started doing street photography.

ROBERT: I did. I hired a bodyguard. As a street photographer, we tend to take pictures of people in their natural elements and usually I gravitate towards oppressed areas, slum areas, and disaster areas. I hired a bodyguard who took me to the Ninth Ward. We jumped a fence to the apartment buildings that were flooded, and I spent four hours going apartment to apartment, looking at these residences where people had to leave in a hurry. You could see their clothing, their homework, the food on the table.

They left in a hurry and they couldn't come back. And to document and to be where people's lives were disrupted and to document that in images was very powerful. Traveling the world, documenting things like that is really, really important to me, and it keeps me grounded because the world we live in at private clubs is far from reality.

ED: Some of the stories that you shared from the places that you've visited and taken pictures, they're two totally different worlds between private clubs and where you visited. But I did want to touch on some of the comparisons that you drew between shooting street photographs and club management. They're unpredictable. It's about people. Preparing for the unexpected. Empathy for others was one that really stuck out to me, as well. Some of the images that you captured show that, as well. Can you talk a little bit more about how you've been able to carry those things into your work? But Robert, listening to the passion in which you live your life, you carry this into your life, as well. It's just how you live.

ROBERT: Empathy is important. Every time we have our staff meeting, which is typically once a quarter, I always tell them, "Let's be kind to one another because remember, each one of us is fighting a battle at home we know nothing about." Which is true. We're so quick to judge and criticize the poor performers, or people that are late, or they're not working hard. When in reality, if we just took the time to get to know the people we work with, you'll find that overwhelmingly there are people that are having some battles at home we know nothing about.

That's why I encourage my team, get to know your folks really well, intimately well. And then what happens is you'll see that they've got some serious battles at home. And it's a miracle they even show up and get out of bed in the morning. So, empathy is really important for me because, at the end of the day, if we can get people to trust us, believe in us, and have faith in us, then no matter what we ask them to do, I think they'll do it because the trust is there. And you have to be sincere. So, I think the success we have is purely because of our staff, my team, I think inherently trust me unconditionally, and I've worked really hard for that. And like I said, I will do everything I can to help them, and in return, I know they will do whatever it takes to help me.

ED: Sounds like strong leadership. So, my last question, as a Simon Sinek guy, and I'm a "Start With Why" guy, as well, what is your why? What's your personal why?

ROBERT: It's very simple. It's to make a difference. Enrich the lives of the people that I work with and for. That's my why. I have to make a difference in the people's lives. Both the people I work with and the people I work for. And community building. I can't touch 900 members at one time, but what I can do is build a community that will foster relationships where they can enjoy it without them knowing exactly how it transpired. So, that's why I can influence them and touch their lives while building a great, vibrant community that facilitates relationships.

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