Spotlight: Kathy Penree of CNY Storm
Kathy Penree still vividly remembers the life-changing conversation she and her longtime friend Elaine Pascale had back in 1996. Both former cheerleaders, she and Pascale were chatting about the business of all-star cheerleading, as well as their love of coaching. World Cup All Stars owner Pascale saw the writing on the wall—and suggested that Penree take advantage of the emerging sport by hanging out her own shingle. At first Penree was hesitant, but “Elaine pushed me out of my comfort zone. I started CNY Storm and it took off.”
That might be an understatement. Today, CNY Storm includes three gyms, 375 athletes and a staff of 35. And Penree’s modesty doesn’t end there—she was named 2014 Program Owner of the Year by the USASF, led efforts to fundraise for fellow program owners affected by Hurricane Sandy and is regularly tapped by her peers for advice on running a successful franchise operation.
But it all began with a flagship shop in Utica, New York. There was one team, 16 kids flip-flopping around a 10,000 sq.-ft. gym just one night a week with Penree acting as coach. Yet Penree wanted her program to be different. She wanted to build one that was, in her words, “more than just a place for parents to drop off their kids.” So she made sure her athletes performed community service and that the coaches incorporated lessons about character building and leadership.
Gradually over the years, CNY Storm became more of a lifestyle for the girls and boys. Penree wanted to offer the same opportunity to more kids—so when two nearby programs wanted to increase their resources and collaborate, it all clicked. “It made more sense to combine our athletes, our coaches and all that we, as a [unified] team, can bring to the table,” says Penree.
As a result, CNY Storm now operates three New York locations: Watertown, Albany and Syracuse, with Penree “overseeing quality control and consistency in the brand over all three locations.” Her daughter, Jenn, 31, manages the Syracuse location, while the Watertown and Albany owners manage their own daily business operations, oversee dealings with parents and coach their athletes. “I want all the programs to be successful,” says Penree, who ensures that all of the owners talk every day and attend frequent staff training and education.
In her management role, Penree no longer has daily personal contact with the kids and parents—a big change for Penree, who admits, with a laugh, to being, “a bit of a controlling person.” “I miss spending time with the girls and boys,” says Penree. But to make up for abdicating much of the precious face time with parents and athletes, Penree often hires Storm alumni who can bring professionalism and dedication to their role as part muse and part mother hen. The familiarity is especially helpful when it comes to rookie parents, adds Penree: “You are at your client’s disposal, and my staff is so great at handling the rather large learning curve when it comes to this all encompassing sport.”
The sport has been good to Penree. Storm teams have won Cheersport Nationals, Battle at the Capitol Nationals and several US Finals Championships. Dance teams also play a large role at CNY Storm, with four competitive hip-hop teams—and because dance isn’t Penree’s strong suit, she hires only the best. But that doesn’t stop her from getting on the dance floor occasionally to boogie, especially, she says, “when the kids need a chuckle.”
Beyond just giving them a laugh every now and then, Penree is hyper-aware of the influence she has on her gym’s youth as a female business owner and community leader. She tasks her athletes with service projects like promoting the iPromise Athlete Code of Conduct and volunteering to teach the two Storm special needs teams (whose members range in age from 6 to 19 and run the spectrum from cerebral palsy to autism). Penree also admits to checking up on her girls, making sure they are using good sense when it comes to things like social media and personal safety. “There are so many whole life skills to be learned,” says Penree.
When she does need to boost her own resolve, Penree often reaches for a file called “good things” where, over the years, she’s tucked scads of thank you notes and accolades from former athletes and parents.
“It helps me to keep pushing,” says Penree. “These kids are counting on me.”