Return Engagement

By | April 20th, 2017

Brett Morris, General Manager/COO, The Polo Club of Boca Raton

The second time that Brett Morris considered taking on the challenges at The Polo Club of Boca Raton proved to be the charm—and the start of his path to Excellence in Club Management recognition.

One of the marks of a good club manager is trying to always follow the practice of “never say never.” But there was a point in Brett Morris’ career when he almost decided that adage didn’t apply to his own professional path.

In 2007, after spending four years as General Manager/Chief Operating Officer of Fresh Meadow Country Club in Lake Success, Long Island, N.Y., Morris agreed to have a recruiting firm submit him as a candidate for an opening for the GM/COO position at The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.). After going to the property for the interview, Morris called the recruiter as he prepared to fly back to New York. “I told him I wouldn’t take the job for a million dollars,” he recalls. “And I think that when I got back home, I kissed the sign at Fresh Meadow.”

Achievements at The Polo Club of Boca Raton Under Brett Morris’ Leadership

The Polo Club’s Summer Camp program has evolved into four weeks of organized events that include golf, tennis, cooking with the Chef, games, daily crafts, fitness and pool activities, and more. The club now has a year-round calendar of events for children of all ages.

• Planned, coordinated and supervised $25 million clubhouse and expansion project that was completed under budget and one year earlier than scheduled.
• The banks of some 60 lakes on the property were restored through a $3.5 million project that improved user safety, enriched property values and enhanced golf-course play.
• Food-and-beverage revenues were increased by more than $1.6 million over three years through a redesign and rebranding of all concepts that included creating a greater variety of price points in each restaurant, from casual to formal, and putting an enhanced focus on the quality of food and service in all venues.
• Ongoing capital investment totaling $37.5 million over five years led to an average of 100 home sales in each of the years from 2014 through 2016, and a 4% increase in the average selling price from 2015 to 2016.

Morris’ initial look at The Polo Club had pretty much convinced him it would never be a good fit for him, because of the dysfunction he had sensed among its Board, membership and staff. But five years later, he took a call from Doug Green, the new President of The Polo Club’s Board of Governors, who was once again looking to fill the club’s GM/COO position. What was expected to be a ten-minute feeling-out call turned into a two-and-a-half-hour discussion, as Morris and Green discovered they shared the same vision and passion for what a club member’s experience should be all about.

That led to Morris striking “never” from his thinking about The Polo Club, and started the process where he eventually did agree to relocate to south Florida. Five years later—and ten from when he first thought there would be no way he could ever be associated with the property—The Polo Club has been reestablished as one of the country’s top clubs (“Flying High Again in Florida,” C&RB, October 2015). And Morris’ role in leading its dramatic transformation earned him recognition as the 2016 winner of The James H. Brewer Award, through the Excellence in Club Management Awards co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business.

Plenty of Help
Planning and executing the many ideas and achievements that helped to bring about The Polo Club’s turnaround required a formula that called for large doses of patience and persistence, Morris says.

“It’s been a long journey,” he says. “The club had a troubled reputation and was faced with many challenges. We needed to refresh the facilities, we had issues with branding the club, and there was inconsistency in the food-and-beverage operation.”

And before any of those challenges could begin to be met, Morris adds, internal issues that included an inefficient governance model, a lack of cohesion among department leaders, and distrust among and between the membership and staff all needed to be addressed.

Ideas Implemented Successfully at The Polo Club of Boca Raton Under Brett Morris’ Leadership

The Polo Club’s annual Street Fair has become the property’s biggest and most anticipated event, with attendance now topping 3,000. The event includes rides for all ages, unlimited food and drink, games, shows, music and fireworks. Underprivileged children from outside the community are invited each year.

• Member satisfaction and employee performance for dining tracked through Humm tablet electronic tableside feedback program generated over 23,000 feedback surveys received, with service ranking at 95% satisfaction and the overall experience at 96% positive.
• Purchased and renovated on-site residential property to create “Experience Polo” opportunity for guests interested in becoming part of the community.
• Dining to Your Door delivery program takes hot, fresh meals ordered from a la carte menu daily to members’ homes within 30 minutes of the order being placed, via a customized delivery van equipped with both cooling and heating capabilities. Service averages 36 deliveries per night. Also created Golf GPS Menu for ordering food directly from golf carts for delivery within 15 minutes.
• “Thirsty Thursday” happy-hour program with live music that offered 50% off drinks during the summer averaged 500 covers, increasing offseason dining while boosting beverage sales.
• “Wine Down Wednesdays” offering half-price on all bottles of wine in all outlets, while also promoting food pairings with wine, increased bottle sales by 30%.

Much of the credit for the change that has come about at the property, he notes, should go equally to the management team “that shared my passion, vision and desire to deliver a memorable experience each and every time,” and to a Board of Governors that, under Green’s direction, “gave me their insights, guidance and resources, both financial and human, to allow me and our team to execute the vision for Polo’s potential.”
Morris is also grateful for assistance he received from fellow GMs after moving to South Florida, and in particular from Jay DiPietro, the President and Chief Operating Officer of Boca West Country Club.

“I thought I was just going from one club to another club and it would be no big deal,” he recalls. “I quickly learned that working in a gated community, and particularly one in such a competitive landscape as Palm Beach County, was much different than what I had done in New York.

“Jay [DiPietro] had never met me, but shortly after I arrived he called and invited me to a lunch where he also invited other general managers from clubs and communities in the area,” Morris recalls. “He told the group, ‘We need to help Brett do the best possible job for his club.’ Even though we were all competitors, that was huge in helping me learn the landscape, and I’ll always be grateful for what my colleagues’ assistance and mentorship has meant to me.”

Looking to the next five years and beyond, Morris doesn’t see “never” as ever being part of reaching The Polo Club’s full potential. “We’re doing well financially, we have a new membership plan that’s taken hold, and home sales for the first quarter of this year were the best in years,” he says. Combined with a new governance model that extends the stability of Board of Governors participation and direction, and a renewed emphasis on long-range strategic planning, “I’m really happy with the way things are going,” he adds.

Echoing his message on the keys to success in club management and personal careers that he delivered to attendees of C&RB’s 2017 Chef to Chef Conference, Morris sums up his journey to Excellence in Club Management honors as something close to a permanent trip to never-never land. “I’m not a guy who came from money and I wasn’t a great scholar,” he says. “But what I’ve always had in life is passion, persistence and dedication.

“That’s served me well in clubs, which is one of the only businesses where members choose to do business with you in advance, and all you have to do in return is deliver a great experience,” he adds. “We get to wake up every day and go to a country club, and that’s a pretty good life.”

NewECMlogoHonoring Excellence

The Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards were established by the McMahon Group, Inc., the St. Louis-based consulting firm, in 1997 and have been co-sponsored by Club & Resort Business since 2006.

The annual awards are selected through nominations submitted on behalf of qualified candidates by other parties. Award recipients are selected solely on the basis of their achievements at the club they currently manage; “lifetime achievements” are not considered.

Awards in four categories are given each year:
• The James H. Brewer Award, for a manager of a Country/Golf Club with 600 or more full-privilege members
• The Mead Grady Award, for a manager of a Country/Golf Club with fewer than 600 full-privilege members
• The Mel Rex Award, for a manager of a City, Athletic or Specialty (Non-Golf) Club
• The “Rising Star” Award for an assistant club manager

A Selection Committee comprised of a peer group of leading club managers conducts the judging for the ECM Awards; the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business are not involved in the selection of the winners.

The Selection Committee for the 2016 Awards was chaired by Jeffrey Kreafle, Chief Executive Officer/General Manager of Congressional Country Club, Bethesda, Md. A full listing of judges, in addition to information on past winners and on how to nominate candidates for future years’ awards, can be found at the special website for the ECM Awards, www.clubmanageraward.com.

The deadline for submitting nominations for the 2017 ECM Awards is November 3, 2017.

In addition to in-depth articles in Club & Resort Business that detail the achievements of each ECM winner, individual presentation ceremonies are held at their clubs. All winners are also honored at the Excellence in Club Management Awards Dinner, held each year in conjunction with the Club Managers Association of America World Conference. The 2016 Awards Dinner was held this February at Interlachen Country Club in Winter Park, Fla., and sponsored by ClubCorp, Denehy Club Thinking Partners, ForeTees LLC, Preferred Club, Toro and Yamaha Golf Car.

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