Authentic Leadership at Ballantyne Country Club

By | November 22nd, 2016

At Ballantyne CC, COO/GM Jill Philmon and Executive Chef Anthony Soriano have built a strong culinary team and taken a $3 million F&B operation from good to great.bcc-chef-shoot-10-final

As the Chief Operating Officer and General Manager OF Ballantyne Country Club in Charlotte, N.C., Jill Philmon, CCM, CCE, often gets asked: What’s your management style?

“Transparency,” she says. “I’m very open and honest with my staff. They know what I know.”

This transparency keeps all of Ballantyne’s staff members on the same page and working toward the same goals—which Philmon, who has been at the club for a little more than six years, insists on writing down.

“You can’t carry your goals in your head,” she says. “You need to write them down, to figure out how to make them happen. They become tangible when you put them on paper, and you can hold each other accountable when your colleagues know what you want to achieve.”

Philmon’s management style has been especially effective in her interactions with Ballantyne’s Executive Chef, Anthony Soriano, who came to the club eight months before she did. Together, the two have built a stronger culinary team, increased annual food-and-beverage revenue from $2 million to $3 million, doubled the club’s banquet business, and opened a brand new cabana.

C2C: What attracted you to Ballantyne?
JP:  It’s a family-oriented club with a young, active membership and a staff that is eager to learn and improve. I always said that if I came back to Charlotte, it would be to become the GM at Ballantyne. In fact, I had that goal written down, and one of my friends who works for an executive recruiting firm knew it. When the position opened up, he called me immediately.

C2C: What was the club’s food-and-beverage program like when you first arrived?
JP: It was in a good place, thanks to Chef [Soriano], who was hired a few months before I came on board.

C2C: Was there anything that needed to change?
JP: While [Chef Soriano] was doing impressive things to improve the food and the operation, he was working himself to death. He needed a stronger team beside him. So we brought in two chefs de cuisine—Brandon Green and Tony Russo—and we were able to free him up to be more strategic.

C2C: As part of that, you grew your banquet business significantly, right?
JP: We doubled it thanks in large part to our Special Events Director, Emily Burgholzer. We went from doing about $500,000 annually to over $1 million.

C2C: When you have a banquet at the club, you displace member dining. How do you make it right with the membership?
JP: We offer members a list of half-price wines. Now they hope for banquets!

C2C: Tell us about your new Cabana Grill.
JP: We opened it in March of 2015. It’s a casual bar and grill that’s open for three seasons. It’s next to the pool complex and has a hard-covered, open-air terrace, fireplace and fire pit, and a bar with 16 flat-screen televisions. In the summertime, it’s kicking, and it’s brought in a lot of business for us.

C2C: The Grill was part of a larger renovation plan at the club. Tell us about other changes you have been able to make.
JP: We had a bar that was very “old-school country club,” with library bookshelves. We were able to retool it to make it more modern, with better backlighting and beer on tap.

We also reworked part of the kitchen, to have better flow. Before, you had to come past the garde manger to get to the dish room. We opened a doorway so the servers can now drop dishes directly in there. We also added some space for banquet prep.

C2C: The wine list wasn’t so great when you got to Ballantyne, but now it’s quite respectable. Who championed the upgrade?
JP: Our clubhouse manager, Jon Grooms, made it a point to learn wine and pump up that part of our operation. Our membership is full of oenophiles, so this has been really popular with them. Now we have wine dinners every quarter, and our outside wine sales are doing great.

C2C: How much do you do in outside wine sales?
JP: $250,000 [a year].

C2C: Tell us about your management style.
JP: I’m not a micromanager. I tell all of my staff members the same thing: If you’re not doing your job, we don’t need you here. It sets up for an interesting dynamic, because many of my managers will come to me—even though they have carte blanche—looking for guidance or assistance. It shows that we have a mutual respect for one another.

C2C: What do you value most in Chef Soriano?
JP: His temperament. He’s not quick to get irritated or angry. He’s very calm. In the rare moments when he does get angry, he puts his head in his hands and gets unusually quiet.

I’ve been around screamers and throwers. I’ve been around chefs who are disrespectful to the front-of-house staff. Chef Soriano is the exact opposite. He’s enthusiastic about working with the front of the house, he’s an excellent teacher, and he excels at creating a team atmosphere.

C2C: What is your relationship like?
JP: Well, he calls me “Ma,” so I’d say it’s akin to a mother/son relationship. Some days he listens to me; some days he doesn’t! All kidding aside, Chef knows that I’m here to support him and help him if ever he needs me.

C2C: What qualities do you and Chef Soriano look for in F&B employees?
JP: We want people who take ownership of their work, are willing to learn, and want to develop a diverse set of skills. They also need to have dispositions that fit well with the rest of the team.

C2C: How do you evaluate and make changes to your F&B operation?
JP: We make strategic decisions and give each idea a fair chance. We don’t jump to conclusions [based on] the few people who are screaming the loudest.

C2C: What do you mean?
JP:  A good friend of mine, Kevin McDonald, once did this exercise where he took a big sheet of white paper and drew a black dot in the center of it. He held it up and asked me what I was looking at. I said the black dot. He said the black dot represented the vocal minority. He told me to instead focus on the white space, because that represents the people who are happy.

C2C: When something is not working, how do you respond?
JP: I like for my managers to be the ones to discover and speak up when something isn’t working. Then they take ownership of changing it and making it better.

C2C: Can you give me an example?
JP: Because of the nature of its location, the menu at the Cabana initially featured mostly casual comfort foods like quesadillas, wraps, tacos, and salads, with more upscale specials at night. We then decided to make the clubhouse dining menu have more of a chophouse feel. We didn’t want to repeat any of the items that were offered at the Cabana in the clubhouse. We discovered that members loved the new menu, but missed some of those items in the clubhouse. Chef recognized the needs of the members, and after trying the new menu for a season, he made the change. We still have our chophouse section in the clubhouse, but the wraps and quesadillas are back on the menu.

C2C: What drives F&B success?
JP: Consistency, quality and service.

C2C: What’s next for F&B at Ballantyne?
JP: We’re looking at buying a food truck.

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