Ten years ago, Jerry Westlund had 10 club operations. Westlund’s Pony Nation has grown to 30-plus operations in the intervening decade.
ED Magazine’s Legal Correspondent, Larry Kaplan, spoke with Westlund, an ED Hall of Famer, about life in Pony Club lane and why his people are everything to him.
ED: With 30-plus operations, you need a lot of solid management and staff. How do you find enough people?
WESTLUND: Finding managers is the biggest challenge for chain operators. Fortunately, many of my people who have been brought up through the system with me spread the word amongst their industry friends — they are my best advertisement. The best way to learn about a potential employer is to talk with people working for them.
ED: Talk to me about relocating people to work for you.
WESTLUND: It’s an incredible responsibility to ask someone to trust an employer and relocate to another part of the country and believe the employer’s got their back. I try to be extremely careful not to relocate individuals and their families unless I’m confident they’re a good fit for what we do.
ED: It’s sad to hear of employers hiring and firing people on a whim, upending their families. They don’t seem to see those people as more than replaceable parts.
WESTLUND: Exactly. The definition of my success is directly correlated to the success of my employees and their families.
ED: I keep hearing that the Pony Clubs are genuinely a family, more so than anywhere else they’ve worked. And it just seems like creating that family atmosphere doesn’t require any out-of-pocket budget from you?
WESTLUND: You must be engaged with your employees. I’m shocked to find out how many employers aren’t engaged. The truth is, we don’t have employees. Most of our people are literally our business partners, entertainers, and DJs. If we don’t prosper, they don’t prosper. So I agree, it’s not about spending money; it’s about caring.
“Most of our people are literally our business partners, entertainers, and DJs. If we don’t prosper, they don’t prosper. It’s not about spending money; it’s about caring.” — Jerry Westlund
ED: That seems like such a simple concept. Why are you seemingly unique in that mindset among chain operators?
WESTLUND: I believe it’s because I came to our industry after owning restaurants and working as a lobbyist. I think that’s provided a broader perspective. Adult clubs are all that some operators out there have ever known. So they know neither how crappy other jobs can be nor how crappy it is to work for somebody who didn’t care or to know the difference. I was fortunate to have worked with some people who cared and were engaged. We’re all products of our experiences. I sincerely hope that everybody that works for me, whether they stay with me forever, or go on to work elsewhere, is better off for having worked for me.
ED: A club obviously can turn around on a dime, from doing great one week to three or four weeks later being in the toilet. Your clubs see a high percentage of regulars. Is consistency more important with regulars than if you catered to a tourist clientele?
WESTLUND: It takes a hell of a lot longer to fix a club than it does to screw one up. It takes months to fix one; it takes two weeks to ruin it. We’re in showbiz. If we put on a bad show and do something that offends or upsets our guests, or if we don’t put out a quality product or play the wrong music, they won’t be back. We’re not operating in major tourist markets, where you don’t see the same customers twice. Our blue-collar regulars are our bread and butter, and we count on them coming back in.
If they come in and see a product they dislike, be it music or talent, or if the manager doesn’t know their name, or the waitress doesn’t recognize them, you can screw this thing up in two weeks. A bad DJ can ruin a club in a week! That’s one of the reasons that DJs are like quarterbacks. I’m not sure what Vegas oddsmakers would put on Tampa Bay without Tom Brady.
ED: What does it take to keep all of those balls in the air with so many operations?
WESTLUND: My most valuable tool is that each of my clubs has a weekly meeting where all the managers, house-moms, and the head DJ discuss what’s going on. In cities with multiple clubs, we also do weekly meetings with all the GMs, and in places like Huntsville (Alabama), my head DJ and our house-moms, as well. We do this because another thing that makes club operations difficult is the lack of communication among staff — when people in the club aren’t talking to each other. Unfortunately, it’s become more challenging for me to visit every club every month as I’ve grown. I’m blessed to have Steph Wilbanks, my operations director, who’s been with me for 14 years. Steph attends most meetings and does a lot more. The Pony Nation wouldn’t be what it is without Steph. She’s truly a blessing. Steph is so smart, savvy, and tech-savvy. She knows what I’m thinking before I get there. She does a fantastic job. I can’t imagine doing what I’d do without her, and I certainly wouldn’t enjoy what I do as much without her. No question.
ED: Talk about Pony culture. Besides being a family company, how do Pony Clubs differ from other chains’ clubs?
WESTLUND: It’s become fashionable to describe yourself as a party bar; more than just a strip club. Frankly, the Pony was doing that before it was cool. And 25-30% of my clientele have long been female. So that isn’t something that we just started. I try to stay in secondary markets. It’s what I call my meds and eds, medical centers and colleges — communities unaffected by the economy.
The EDI contest is the preeminent industry feature contest, culminating in the opportunity to compete at EXPO. I welcome that. And I certainly wholeheartedly applaud the women that work so hard. nobody becomes a feature to make more money. They’re committed to the show, the way we should more often be. For that reason, I’ll continue to support the EDI and the feature industry and continue to marvel at the shows that these fantastic women put on. — Jerry Westlund
ED: You’re a longtime sponsor of ED Magazine’s EDIs contest series. Why is this commitment important to you?
WESTLUND: I think that using features and showgirls is one of the most underutilized resources we have today. I don’t know if any more people come to my bars to see a feature. I do know that it creates an element of excitement in the clubs. And when my entertainers see a quality feature perform, it excites them and reminds them that we’re in showbiz. I want my 19-, 20-, and 22-year-old entertainers to aspire to more than lap dances. I want them to want to put on a show, to entertain. I need them to see and feel that. No question having features creates that environment. The EDI is the preeminent industry feature contest, culminating in the opportunity to compete at EXPO. I welcome that. And I certainly wholeheartedly applaud the women that work so hard. Nobody becomes a feature to make more money. I firmly believe the majority of the features would probably make more money as regular dancers. They’re committed to the show, the way we should more often be. For that reason, I’ll continue to support the EDI and the feature industry and continue to marvel at the shows that these fantastic women put on.
ED: You were a founding board member of PANDA (Professional Adult Nightclub DJ Association). And you’re now probably its biggest industry supporter. Why is this a priority for you?
WESTLUND: I was thrilled to receive an award from PANDA a few years ago as a supporter of the organization and DJs in general. I think they’re the most underrated part of our business. We’re hosting Pandamonium, their annual event this year, in the days prior to the EDIs East competition in Huntsville.
ED: What was it like to be inducted into the ED Hall of Fame last year?
WESTLUND: I was surprised and moved by it. It meant a lot. All I could think of was, is ED Magazine closing? Is this the last EXPO? How the hell did I become that guy? But I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge how emotional I got when I saw people standing up and clapping.
Make no mistake about it; ED Magazine is what holds our industry together. Besides DJs, the most underrated component of our industry is ED Magazine. If there were no ED, we all wouldn’t know each other. We’d be a bunch of guys out there operating clubs without talking to each other. But, of course, maybe we’d know each other because we’re in the same industry. But imagine, as an industry, what we’d know and be if there were no ED.
Larry Kaplan has for 21 years been the Legal Correspondent for ED Publications. In addition, Mr. Kaplan is a business broker in the sale and purchase of adult nightclubs and adult retail stores and the Executive Director of the ACE of Michigan adult nightclub state trade association. Contact Larry Kaplan at 313-815-3311 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.