Workforce experts agree that almost nothing makes more of an impact on a young person’s lifelong employment prospects than a summer job, with a paycheck, earned during high school years. Needing money back then, Michael J. Rouse, now 49, created a summer job by starting his own business – one that now employs 1,600 people in the summer, serves 4,000 children, and operates in six states.
ESF Inc. had its start in 1982, when Rouse, then a top-notch high-school tennis player, needed $3,200 to pursue a big dream – playing tennis in the nationals. Rouse's father declined to fund him, telling him to earn his way. So Rouse came up with the idea of teaming up with his brother Bill to run a two-week tennis camp at their school, the Haverford School.
“We knew it really needed to be well-orchestrated,” Rouse said. “We also knew that if we screwed up, we were in big trouble, not only from my parents, but also from the school and the [campers’] parents. It was almost like the fear of failure. We were never going to let that happen.”
As it turned out, 42 budding tennis players attended Rouse’s first camp, enough for him to earn the $3,200 he needed. These days, ESF, now in the throes of camp registration, runs about 75 youth camps as well as Phillies Phantasy Camp in Clearwater, Fla., for grownups.
You’ve been in the camp business for 35 years. What has changed?
Specialty programming is really taking off. Kids are learning coding. Robotics, which we do. We’ve created an exclusive partnership with the Jack Welch Management Institute so children will be able to learn about entrepreneurialism, how to create their own businesses. You can get your Junior Business Academy certification. You can launch a hospitality company, a music company, various businesses, [and learn] to take it from a concept to a reality.
ESF has also formed a partnership with performance psychologist James E. Loehr, author of “The Power of Full Engagement.” Why?
We’re going to thread character development through every program in our camp – traits like respect, gratitude, humility, grit, kindness. Those are important pieces of community. You don’t get character from your DNA. You actually develop it just like your muscles. That's our job, to bring out the best in kids.
You earn most of your revenues in eight to nine summer weeks. Other than other camps, who's your competition?
In the area of sports, you’ve got these clubs that are basically coaches who have professionalized themselves. They take the sport they have, either through a club or an academy, and they’re saying, 'I can make this a business year round.' So, unfortunately, some kids are committing to a sport at a young age, say at 10, and they’re playing that sport year round, which may take away business from me and other camps.
Plus, those clubs are run by the campers’ coaches who have the power to play them, or not, during the regular season.
Yes. What I’m mostly concerned about is how that’s impacting the child, because of the injuries at a younger age, because of the burnout I’m seeing.
What do you notice about kids and parents?
Parents want kids to grow up to be happy and good, and they'll do whatever they can to do that. But, at the end of the day, when you look at this assembly line that kids are on, you need to dial it back a bit, to say, 'Wait a minute, you've got to give children an opportunity to be successful. When they fail, they'll fail fast. Let them keep going, keep moving along. It's not the end of the world.'
You’ve had many mentors – Jim Loehr, retired Marine Corps Gen. Martin Steele, Pat Croce, former Allied Signal chief executive Larry Bossidy, and Jack Welch. What’s your technique for benefiting from mentoring?
I’m a sponge. I use their advice and turn it into something actionable. Then I report back, 'Hey, let me tell you how much that influenced me.’ Or, 'You know what? This wasn’t working. What would you do in this particular case?’ Then they are engaged with me. Then a dialogue begins.
Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.
Michael J. Rouse
Home: Newtown Square.
Family: Wife, Karina; sons, Finn, 3, Shane, 2, Brody, 8 months.
Diplomas: Haverford School, Villanova, liberal arts; Harvard Business School, executive education course work.
For fun: Tennis, trains for triathlons “maybe once or twice a year.”
Where: Headquarters in Bryn Mawr. Operates 63 camps in 17 locations in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland and Florida.
Stands for: Education, Sports, Fun. Programs for ages 3-16; sessions in science, technology, visual and performing arts, culinary, entrepreneurship, academic. Also, Eagles football cheer and dance, Union soccer schools, Phillies Baseball Academy.
Numbers: 1,600 summer employees, 43 year round; 4,000 campers; 33,000 camper weeks; 1:3 staff/camper ratio; $375-$550 weekly tuition.
Partners: Phillies, Eagles, the Union, Cirque du Soleil, Jack Welch, Vetri Community Partnership, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Franklin Institute, Disney.