The fish rots from the head down

Posted by on November 30, 2006 in Articles

The fish rots from the head down

If you are feeling overwhelmed in your business, be assured that you are not alone

By Vivienne O’Keeffe, A.A.D., P.E.A., C.I.B.T.A.C.  

Published in Spa Management magazine’s November 2006 issue  

An elderly business acquaintance of mine, an extremely successful individual, with his finger in many pies, has built up a minor empire in resort, hotel and property development ventures across North America.  Heading several prominent firms, he is always in his office by 7am, despite being past the official retirement age; he remains actively involved in management issues on a daily basis.  Above his desk in his downtown Vancouver office hangs a large, and in my opinion stunningly ugly, bronze fish.  Curious as to its prominence in an otherwise resplendently decorated space I had to ask “Why?”

“That”, he said unblinkingly, “is to constantly remind me, and my management team, that the fish rots from the head down.”  He went on to say that he would never have achieved what he has without knowing that from time to time, he would need to stand back and objectively assess his businesses’ performances and implement corrective actions.

At the root of his managerial style is this simple belief – pride in your business accomplishments is one thing, but the kind of pride that prevents you, as a business person, seeing and accepting your businesses’ needs, is another story.

Growing up in the emerging spa and wellness industry in Europe I have observed this industry develop and expand in “real time”.  Driven by the necessities of hygiene, safety and profitability, it continually evolves – to the benefit of both spa clients and spa operators.  Being involved with the growth, change and adaptations in this industry has been fascinating and educational.  Utilizing my three decades of experience in the spa and wellness industry I am able to create, develop and grow profitable spa businesses and this has effectively brought me to a position of expertise in the spa marketplace.

Many spa owners and operators wish they had time, energy and management tools to really get to grips with their business.  For whatever reason, they may feel a lack of control over the fundamentals of their business.  One of the services that we at Vivienne O’Keeffe & Associates Inc. offer our clients is a Diagnostic Business Assessment.  Engaged to analyze the business operation, then suggest business improvements and implement them in the most cost and time effective manner, we can turn a business around in a few short weeks, and in some instances – a matter of days.

In one of the spas where I was invited to facilitate a business turnaround, staff issues arose on a daily basis, annual client retention rates were extremely low and the management were running around like crazy putting out fires that would only simmer and erupt yet again the next day.  The right tools, procedures and management techniques were either non-existent, out of date or, worse still, existed but were ignored and geared merely to “manage” staff from a position of fear rather than from empowerment.

In another spa there were no technical protocols in place.  This effectively meant that a client could visit the spa today and have a treatment delivered by Jessica; the following week the same treatment, this time delivered by Angela, would feel like a completely different experience.  Why?  Because no protocols were in place to ensure that regardless of whom the service provider was, the client experience would be consistent for every visit in content, delivery and quality.  The benefits to the client are obvious and the benefits to the spa operators are numerous, not least of which is a control over risk management.

In the course of my assessments I regularly see:

  • Leaders who do not want to lead
  • Spa practitioners lacking the skill set, or afraid, to communicate effectively with their staff and say what it is that they want or need.
  • Spa directors paralyzed by their own fears and lack of experience.
  • No systems or processes in place to consistently uphold the vision, mission and objectives of the businesses.
  • No clear financial goals – if no financial map exists, how can the destination possibly be achieved?

High staff morale is, ultimately, the key to the success of your spa business.  High staff morale leads to a more satisfactory spa experience for your clients as well as staff satisfaction and pride in a job well done.  Satisfied clients equate to loyal, repeat clients – the quickest and easiest way for you to achieve profits.

High annual staff turnover rate (25% and more), prior to our involvement, are not unusual and is an indication that something is seriously wrong with the fundamental practices within that spa business.  I have even encountered a spa business operator who, in an attempt to replace their continually depleted staff ranks, has established their own training facility in order to acquire new staff “straight from the tree”.  This not only expends enormous resources and energy in the process of trying to make staff conform to their unique perspective on how a staff member should appropriately perform and behave, it also sends a message to the industry that this perhaps is not such a wonderful place to work.  Appropriate people management skills and a comprehensive staffing policy are required to help nurture and grow indispensable staff morale.

Submitting your spa or wellness business to objective professional scrutiny is a courageous undertaking for any spa owner.  No business operator wants to admit that they have problems or issues that they cannot identify or manage themselves.  For any business person committed to the complete success and smooth operation of their business it is a logical step in this highly competitive niche business environment – one that will pay dividends in maximizing profitability, efficiency and repeat customer retention.

Diagnostic Business Assessments are very challenging and invigorating for all involved; the outcome is a profound sense of relief and clarity – something that will only happen if the leader of the business understands that the fish rots from the head down.


Vivienne O’Keeffe, A.A.D., P.E.A., C.I.B.T.A.C., President of Spa Profits Consulting Inc., has earned an international reputation as an expert in designing successful spa concepts. She specializes in working with owners to create profitable spas. As an international consultant she is highly skilled in developing unique product and treatment lines, as well as training programs. Vivienne has studied and trained extensively in the beauty and well-being arena and is a member of ISPA, Leading Spas of Canada (for which she won an Outstanding Industry Service Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012) and the Institute of Management Consultants USA (IMC USA). She is also a published author, having written a wide range of articles on developing and running a successful spa. Spa Profits Consulting Inc. is the only SpaExcellence certified consultancy in North America, and is committed to setting the standard for quality, successful spas on a global level. For more information call 604.921.6245 or email


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