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Buddy Campbell retires after leading YMCA to a remarkable resurgence

Olin “Buddy” Campbell Jr. got introduced to the YMCA six decades ago, in a way still common today.

He learned to swim there as a child.

His introduction to work life at the Y was another matter.

“When I turned 16, my parents gave me a month to get a job,” he said.

He missed the deadline, so his mom found him work as busboy, a gig he hated so much that he turned to the Y three months later – and embarked on a 50-year career that landed him on the upper rungs of upstate YMCA leadership.

Campbell, 66, retired last week after a half-dozen years as president and CEO of YMCA Buffalo Niagara, a tenure in which the nonprofit organization mirrored the resurgence of the region where he has lived since his three sons – now in their 30s and 40s – were in high school.

“What’s hard to leave are the relationships with people you’ve worked with for long periods of time,” he said.

Regional YMCA membership grew from 37,000 to nearly 57,000 under Campbell’s command.

Annual operating revenues more than doubled, from $14 million to $27 million.

Employment climbed to more than 1,000 full and part-time workers, who along with hundreds of volunteers help run six branches, more than 50 after-school programs, 20 summer day camps, and a pair of overnight camps: Camp Kenan in Barker and Camp Weona in Wyoming County.

They also bring off several annual events, including the Turkey Trot.

“It’s not just me, it’s the team,” Campbell said. “The growth is really about giving back to the community with services, and job opportunities like the ones I got.”

Campbell sat down earlier this month to reflect on how he and the YMCA have changed over 50 years – and how they have stayed the same. He asked to do so at the Lockport Family YMCA, which opened last fall, almost a year after he helped bring that once-independent Y into the Buffalo Niagara fold.

Terri Hugill participates on a recent Friday in the Silver Sneakers yoga class at the Lockport Family YMCA, which opened last October. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The philosophy

Campbell, a Batavia native, parlayed camp counselor and camp director jobs during the 1970s in that city’s YMCA into executive directorship jobs in two branches in Rochester the 1980s.

That led to opportunity in the '90s at the YMCA of Greater Buffalo, where he worked as vice president and chief operating officer with then-President and CEO John Murray to boost flagging membership.

It was back for most of the next decade to Rochester, where he focused on a $7 million renovation of the urban Maplewood branch he once led, and building new branches in Pittsford and Gates.

He returned west in February 2013 to lead the YMCA Buffalo Niagara.

As he bounced back and forth between two neighboring regions, so did his wife, Jeannie, a pediatric nurse practitioner, and their children. They moved eight times. Campbell commuted between the Buffalo Southtowns and Rochester for nine years, an hour-and-20-minute commute – each way.

“I was well-read,” he said. “Lots of books on tape. SiriusXM was critical, too.”

Walk a YMCA branch with the CEO and you’d note him scanning the landscape, indoors and out. If he saw a piece of trash, he'd pick it up and throw it out.

“I’m a fanatic about cleanliness,” he said. “Branches have to be clean. That’s the most basic thing people are looking for. Equipment has to be kept up and current. Then there’s customer service, the engagement of people. Staff needs to smile and make them feel welcome.”

A woman who worked the front desk in the Maplewood YMCA – an urban Rochester branch Campbell led from 1982-1984 – helped establish one standard he treasures.

“She would give people this smile that would glow and you could see members just feel better about themselves as they walked in,” he said. “And then I realized that she kept track of everybody’s birthday.”

Campbell long ago came to conclude that the two most important skills he needed to take into executive posts were a desire to listen and to develop leaders who could fill other key positions, and eventually replace him as he moved toward other challenges.

Geoffrey Falkner is an example. Falkner grew up in Orchard Park and left after high school for a college degree and high-powered advertising job in New York City. He came back to the region eight years ago, landed a graphics job with the Y and now serves as its communications director.

“It’s great to be back home, but it’s also satisfying in terms of the product you’re working for: selling a family membership or getting someone into child care,” he said. “It’s so much more relevant and meaningful and satisfying than selling somebody a $50,000 Swiss-made watch, which is what I was doing before.”

Sydney Conrad, right, takes part in swim therapy with her personal trainer, Margaret Chaplain, in the Lockport Family YMCA pool. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Transitions

Campbell credits Murray, his former boss, and others he’s worked with in recent years for putting him in a great place when he returned to work in the Buffalo region. He arrived two weeks after the 97,000-square-foot Independent Health Family Branch YMCA opened in Amherst.

The Southtowns Y – a slightly smaller cousin in West Seneca – opened a decade earlier.

Those branches have continued to add programs, and members. Meanwhile, the Delaware, Ken-Ton, and William-Emslie family branches – which date back to as early as 1927 – were on solid ground but reflecting their ages.

The independently run Niagara Falls branch had already joined forces with the Erie County operation as a last-ditch effort to stay open. The other Niagara County operation, in Lockport, continued to struggle as it operated on its own.

The mission of the YMCA – to promote respect, responsibility, honesty and caring through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all – hasn’t changed, but needs have in a nation that has more working parents than a half-century ago.

Campbell understood the changing dynamics because of his work in the region and through ties with other YMCA leaders from across the country.

“When I started full-time at the YMCA in 1973, it was just getting into families and into programming,” he said. “Today, we’re all about families. We’re so big in child care, and school-age child care. One of the things I’m most proud that we’ve accomplished over the last few years here is we’re providing summer achievement gap programs and STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) programming, not just summer camps.”

A small number of senior citizens used the Batavia Y back in the 1970s, nothing like YMCAs today, which offer multiple group fitness classes for the older set, as well as diabetes prevention programs and pickleball.

“A big part of our mission today is social networking, especially with seniors,” Campbell said. “They’ll be here all morning into early afternoon. They’ll be in classes and then they’ll be at the tables, groups of four or five, just talking, so one of the things we do now is provide free coffee.”

Parents used to drop children off for swim lessons and call for family swim times. Now they expect to hang out in the pool with their kids.

“Because we really cater to families, the facilities have had to change to accommodate,” Campbell said. “When we build a building now, we build it looking at family use, kids' use, senior use. Those are the three largest components of our membership.”

Olin "Buddy" Campbell Jr. and others with the YMCA Buffalo Niagara, worked with longtime leaders and members of the Lockport Family YMCA to plan, raise money and build the new $16 million Y in the Town of Lockport. Membership has grown tenfold since it replaced the former Y in the City of Lockport last fall. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Lockport

The new Lockport Family YMCA symbolizes the trends. Many once-struggling independent branches have joined regional YMCAs, run mostly through local CEOs and volunteer boards, though required to meet national standards.

YMCA Buffalo Niagara worked for years with the independent Lockport Y to replace a downtown branch with a new 52,000-square-foot facility three miles south on Snyder Drive in the Town of Lockport. The boards of both merged after $10 million toward the $16 million in construction costs was raised, including $3 million and $500,000, respectively, from the Lockport-based Grigg Lewis Foundation and the William R. Kenan Charitable Trust, and $2 million from Buffalo Niagara Y trustees.

As is the case across the Y world, the message here centers on functional fitness, family fun and healthy choices.

Late on a recent Friday morning, dozens of people participated in a SilverSneakers yoga class, played pickleball and swam in one of two pools on the first floor. Others lifted weights and exercised on ellipticals and treadmills in the second floor Wellness Center, which overlooks a woodlot outside. Some walked a second-floor track that circles one of two multipurpose rooms and offers a peek into the first-floor gym. A few members also pedaled stationary bikes that overlook the pools: a lap pool, and zero-depth entry pool beside it that is 4 feet deep and includes a splash pad. The water temperature in both pools is set at a touch above 80 degrees; the room temperature in the upper-80s.

Historic photos of Lockport grace the walls on the stairway between the two floors – and a skylight gives the entire building an open, inviting feel.

The newest Y in the region also includes an indoor climbing wall and two-story adventure room; Child Watch for kids; and locker rooms for men, women and families.

“A year ago,” Campbell asked as he walked through the branch, “where were the people that are here today? They weren’t in the old Y because we had less than 1,000 members.”

Membership in the new branch stands at about 12,000.

Jill Schieber and her daughter Gabriell take an aerobics class from Sandy Keeney at the Southtowns Family YMCA, which opened in 2003. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo)

A wider net

The YMCA serves children as young as 6 weeks old, cared for while their loved ones work out or take fitness classes. It serves seniors looking to find ways to keep them going toward 100.

All branches – including the 92-year-old Delaware Family branch – received equipment upgrades in recent years.

“It may be an older building but it’s got people who will give you a smile,” Campbell said. “The place will be clean, and the equipment will be modern.”

Technology upgrades either have been added in all branches or soon will be. That includes cardio equipment where users with Netflix and Hulu accounts can watch TV shows and movies, and spinning bikes that create activity logs and allow users to virtually race against other riders.

Campbell also leaves after a strategic plan that recommends study of a new facility in or around North Buffalo.

Such construction no longer is realistic in all communities. Demographics in the Falls – where a historic Niagara Falls branch closed in 2014 – don’t lend themselves to a new branch there, Campbell said. That doesn’t mean the regional Y can’t address needs there. The organization works from a small office in the city, and runs programs in nearby schools and community centers. A similar arrangement plays out in Lancaster.

The 40,000-square-foot William-Emslie branch on the near East Side of Buffalo has a large pool and gym, and reasonably sized wellness center, Campbell said. “There’s great outdoor space and we run a very successful day camp there. It’s really grown in terms of membership and program,” he said. “At some point, we’ll have to look at how to expand that. Part of the formula in our suburban branches helps underwrite the cost of doing business in other places.”

The Southtowns YMCA recently reached out in another way by sending some of its instructors to GreenField Manor in Lancaster to lead classes twice a week for older residents who no longer can drive to the branch.

“The bottom line is providing the services that the community needs,” Campbell said. “Can we do those in churches? Can we can we provide them in schools? We cannot allow ourselves to be limited by the facilities that we can afford to build.”

Retirement

Campbell leaves his job as the YMCA and hospital in his hometown collaborate to replace the current Batavia branch on East Main Street.

John Ehrbar replaces him in Buffalo Niagara. Ehrbar started his new job this week. He left a job as chief operating officer of the YMCA of the Inland Northwest in Spokane, Wash., where he was responsible for eight operating units or branches, and 25 program sites.

Campbell and Falkner used to exercise often during lunch breaks at the Independent Health Y in the Northtowns, near the regional office in Amherst. Campbell expects to continue a similar routing at the Southtowns branch, about a 15-minute drive from his Orchard Park home. He and his wife, who retired last November, plan to spend more time on their boat this summer, and take a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine in September. France is on the docket for next year. The couple will celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary next week – and plan to stay in Western New York.

“We have five grandchildren living out there [in the Southtowns], so we’re not going anywhere,” Campbell said. “I also want to keep working toward a social mission, join a board or two.”

...

Leadership philosophy

What are the three most important lessons Olin “Buddy” Campbell Jr., who recently retired as president and CEO of the YMCA Buffalo Niagara, learned during 50 years in Y positions across the region?

  • “That old adage that you need to listen, because God gave you two ears and one mouth. In leadership, that's a critical lesson, not thinking you've got all the answers, but realizing that you're surrounded by a team of people, both volunteers and staff, that have good ideas and can help you.” That's one.”
  • “One of the early things I learned is you can only do as much good as you can afford to do, so don't lose sight of the business aspect of the organization. The Y is a not-for-profit, but it's a business. You've got to operate as a business. You've got to have good solid budgets and you've got to earn as much or more than you spend.”
  • “And I can hear my father saying, ‘Don't ever forget your roots.’ Through management, you move to different cities and you do different things but that boy who grew up in Batavia is still there. I don't mean to sound corny but I but I think staying level is important. We can't let titles change our personality or who we are. We just have some different responsibilitie
  • email: sscanlon@buffnews.comTwitter: @BNrefresh@ScottBScanlon

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