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Making leisure work Featured

5:47am EDT September 28, 2005
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It can also be a tremendous asset.

Just ask Tina Krinsky, wife of Julian Krinsky, founder and CEO of the Julian Krinsky Group, a diverse assortment of businesses that offer summer camp programs, real estate management, resort consulting and HR staffing services.

“Julian didn’t come from a camping background, he didn’t come from America, he didn’t know any of that, but he did know kids, he did know they have time off in the summer, and he just brought that new, fresh approach to it, and I think it served him well,” says Tina Krinsky, who does the company’s advertising and marketing.

Krinsky, a tennis pro who immigrated to the United States from South Africa in 1977 with $1,200, began working here as a tennis instructor. Trained as an accountant and lawyer, he built a business around summer camp programs for teens. The camps host nearly 5,000 kids each year and employ about 400 during peak season.

Determined to remain hands-on in the business, Krinsky doesn’t hesitate to jump into the middle of the action, which includes learning skills in business, cooking and the arts, as well as golf and tennis. Even with a complex business to oversee, you’re as likely to find him with the campers as behind a desk.

“One of the things I do is manage by walking around,” Krinsky says.

Krinsky talked with Smart Business about hiring the best people season after season, summer camp as an investment and why he turns down attractive offers to sell his business.

How does what you offer differ from the traditional summer camp?

I always say our programs are, in a way, an investment by parents, as compared to just sending (kids) off to summer camp to play and have a bit of fun. I think when you send your youngsters to one of our programs, yes, you’re spending your money, but you’re also investing in their future education.

Whom do you view as your customers, parents or children?

Both. The campers, obviously, are the people who will be directly involved. Yes, the parents encourage, there’s no question; encourage, I hope, not push. We love campers who are coming with the blessing of their parents but with a commitment themselves.

So we don’t want them coming to cooking school if their parents think it’s a great idea if they learn how to cook. We want them to come to cooking school if they feel that this will be a life skill. And we want them to come to business school if they have some sort of interest in business.

We definitely are well aware that when we create our brochures or our literature that we are serving two customers, and they both have distinct minds, so we try to cater to both of them. We try to listen to the kids, we try to do a lot of surveys, a lot of focus groups with the kids and really, from their mouths, many programs have been born.

They’ve asked us and we’ve really responded to them, and they’re often very right. Tina loves to read Faith Popcorn, she loves to see, as I do, where the trends are going, and the trends are not going toward traditional camping. The customers have become pretty sophisticated and the world’s become sophisticated, and we’re trying to match them with their future. We’ve also tried to be ahead of the curve. We’re getting kids that are older, 12 and above, and most of our programs are for high school age kids, so that it is our focus.

How did your other operations, such as the staffing business, develop?

We hire about 400 to 500 kids every summer. We figured that seeing that we are becoming reasonably good at hiring people, we should offer this service to others. A lot of camps will come to us, they need two or three golf pros or they just need a couple of tennis pros.

We just got very good at it. We were lucky enough to have a great HR person. We were able to sift through the resumes and recommend really good people to others who were looking just to hire a couple of people.

Have you considered duplicating your business model in other cities?

We’ve thought long and hard. We’ve had two people, two very successful organizations, offer to buy us, offered us a great deal of money for what we do, for our name, our reputation, our system, as such, and we’ve thought about it and somehow we just can’t get past the fact that it is the children. Each one belongs especially to someone, and to do this in Los Angeles with the same amount of care — our success is based around caring for the youngsters — when all is said and done, teaching and having fun are important, but their safety is the most important thing.

Who really knows? It was incredibly flattering for us to be wined and dined in New York City and told that these huge concerns had studied our model and that we should consider opening them up all over the U.S. They were convinced that this was great.

One has to think about it, and yet, maybe it’s that we like what we’re doing and the thought of having them all over isn’t as appealing. We added 15 (percent) to 20 percent to our gross this year, which is unbelievable, and last year and the year before, and of course they saw that and saw that our model is nearly recessionproof, providing you deliver the goods.

We have tremendous abilities to grow in the Philadelphia area. There are over 50 universities in the Delaware Valley area, so we felt until we really tapped out our resources here, why did we need to move, because people could get on a plane in Los Angeles and come here. There’s a lot of appeal with all of the colleges.

There’s no doubt about it, when you run a program at the University of Pennsylvania (where the camps take place), people find you. There are some fine colleges we’re still tapping into with our programs. And we can control our culture a little better here.

How have you been so successful at hiring a large number of people every year?

In hiring, we try to hire the attitude, the passion, that’s been good for us. The middle management comes back, and the bottom rung does, but not all the time because you’re dealing with a counselor of, say 21 or 22 who may go off and do other things.

So the training is very important. We study people that we think do a fabulous job, companies like The Four Seasons. Their level of service astounds us, the way they’re staffed. We just make great effort to make everyone feel welcome.

First impressions, from the moment they set their foot on the property, we make the reception a real happening. We want to be as welcoming as we possibly can, first impressions as well as last impressions.

We make a big effort on the last day when they leave the company to be there to say goodbye to them. So it’s copying, learning from people we admire in the business.

How to reach: The Julian Krinsky Group, www.thejuliankrinskygroup.com, Julian Krinsky Camps & Programs, http://www.jkcp.com