Inspiring Words

By | September 24th, 2015
Christine Pooler, General Manager, Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.

Christine Pooler, CCM, General Manager, Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.

Carefully selected yearly themes have set the tone for the consistent success that earned Excellence in Club Management recognition for Christine Pooler, Merion GC’s General Manager.

A “word vine” has been crawling up the wall for the past nine years in the General Manager’s office at Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa. It’s just inside the door that leads to where Christine Pooler, CCM, has worked since being named GM of the suburban Philadelphia club in 2006. It’s more visible from her desk than anywhere else in the room, but visitors are sure to see it on their way out, if they haven’t already noticed it while in the office—or more likely, had it pointed out to them during a conversation there.

The “vine” has grown by having laminated words and phrases added to it, year after year, to represent the annual management themes that Pooler establishes while carrying out the duties she’s been entrusted with at one of America’s most historic private clubs. The theme for 2015—Make sure everything is new, but nothing changes—currently sits at eye level at the bottom of the “vine.” Above it are the previous years’ words to live by: Graciousness; Humility; Character; Reliability; Transparency; Back to Basics; Do More With Less.

Achievements At Merion GC Under Christine Pooler’s Direction:OpenCrowd • Major tournaments successfully returned to club after three-decade absence, first with 2009 Walker Cup and then the 113th U.S. Open Championship in 2013 (see photo, below left), which was hailed as one of the most successful Opens in years, despite concerns that the club’s small footprint (130 acres) would impede efficient operation and an enjoyable experience.
• State-of-the-art, multi-level, environmentally friendly course-maintenance facility, built in 2010, has become industry benchmark for “green” facilities and operations.
• Golf Learning Center was created and driving range improved to include short-game area.

Two phrases—Members First and Employees First—have been at the very top of the list since it began to take shape following Pooler’s arrival at Merion. But while they’re posted on the wall separately, they aren’t positioned equally—Employees First has purposely been given the top rung, as a reminder to Pooler herself. The fact that she has established, and followed, that priority while working with Merion’s Board and leadership to help bring about a series of impressive achievements during her tenure speaks volumes about the approach that has defined her success—and has now earned Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards recognition.

(Pooler is the 2014 recipient of The James H. Brewer Award, presented to the manager of a country/golf club with more than 600 full-privilege members, through the annual ECM Awards co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business.)

The Right Order
As she describes how the words on her office wall have grown over time, Pooler confesses that she didn’t always give Employees First top billing. Like many club managers, she became fully ingrained with the notion, first in hospitality school (National American University and the University of Delaware) and then through her industry experience prior to Merion (Dining Room and Banquet Manager at Vineyards Country Club in Naples, Fla., and Clubhouse Manager at The Country Club of Rochester (N.Y.), and Wilmington (Del.) Country Club), that everything should be driven by members’ needs and concerns.

“I did have Members First at the top [of the wall] in the beginning,” Pooler says. “But then, in thinking of a new mantra for one of my first years here, it hit me: How could I expect the people on our team to put our members first, if I didn’t put employees first in my own mind?

The seamless addition of the Hugh Wilson Pavilion (far right in photo above) to Merion’s iconic farmhouse-style clubhouse inspired the management mantra for 2015: “Make sure everything is new, but nothing changes.”

The seamless addition of the Hugh Wilson Pavilion (far right in photo above) to Merion’s iconic farmhouse-style clubhouse inspired the management mantra for 2015: “Make sure everything is new, but nothing changes.”

“I have a huge responsibility to make sure our staff serves the membership properly and consistently,” Pooler explains. “So the biggest part of my job, to make sure that always happens, is to remove all the rocks from [employees’] paths.

“It took me 20 years to realize that for me, employees really have to be first—but the day I did, it made me a better leader,” Pooler adds. “And I have no problem explaining to members who see or hear that why they have to be ‘second.’”

It’s certainly a very close second, of course—as has been clearly evidenced by Pooler’s successful direction, working with Merion’s Board, of major facilities enhancements at such a tradition-rich property, while also elevating service levels for a wide-ranging membership (Merion’s total membership exceeds 1,000 and includes 370 non-resident members). “The development of the ‘Team Merion’ effort established new, higher standards that have been improved upon every year since [Pooler’s arrival],” said the club’s President, Harry E. Hill, III, in nominating her for ECM Awards recognition.

Going forward, Pooler plans to continue to help take the lead in planning additions and improvements that will strive, as this year’s management theme emphasizes, to keep Merion relevant while also holding true to its time-honored traditions. “You have to always have a vision for how you need to work with your Board to help the club get where it needs to go—but you also have to have common sense,” she says. “With the new pavilion, we don’t want to suddenly use it for 40 weddings—but we do want to make it a place that members will now view with such pride that it’s the first place they’ll think of for their own events.

Ideas Implemented Successfully at Merion GC Under Christine Pooler’s Directioncampli 160
• Tent structure, used since 1971 U.S. Open as club’s primary meeting and banquet space, replaced in 2014 by $5 million Hugh Wilson Pavilion (above), a year-round facility designed as a consistent extension to the clubhouse’s farmhouse style (pavilion’s exterior is shown at far right of photo, above left).
• Employee communications enhanced through newly formed Employee Engagement Committee and “Merion Messenger,” a bi-weekly employee e-mail.
• Special program created to address unique needs of senior members, resulting in reinstatement of 30 members in first year.

“We’ve already seen a lot of evidence that’s now happening, where it wasn’t always before,” Pooler adds. “The best comment we continue to hear about the pavilion, in fact, is when people say it seems like it’s been here forever, both in the way it looks and in the way it already functions and blends in with the rest of the club.”

The same comfort level and “always been here” feeling also applies to having Pooler at Merion’s management helm. While some eyebrows may have been initially raised over whether someone who hadn’t been a general manager previously, and who was also a woman, would be the right choice for such a storied club, all of that has long since been dismissed as non-issues. Soon after Pooler arrived in Ardmore, in fact, the standard line from Merion became, “We hired the ‘best man’ for the job—it just happened to be a woman.”

Now, the only distinction that needs to be made is that Pooler has achieved an elite status in her profession. As Hill said in his ECM Awards nomination, “[Christine] is the embodiment of excellence in club management, providing inspirational leadership to her staff, and outstanding services and experiences for the membership and their guests, while running the club in a fiscally responsible fashion.”

Honoring ExcellenceThe 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 2014 Awards was chaired by Kevin Vitale, CCM, General Manager/COO of Baltusrol Golf Club, Springfield, N.J. 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,

The deadline for submitting nominations for the 2015 ECM Awards is November 20, 2015.

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 2015 Awards Dinner will be held next February in San Diego, Calif., and will once again be sponsored by ClubCorp, Denehy Club Thinking Partners, Preferred Club, Toro and Yamaha Golf Car.

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