At Dearborn (Mich.) Country Club, General Manager/COO Bruce Lilley and Executive Chef Michael Russell, CMC, are working hard to reinvent the dining program.
Bruce Lilley doesn’t shy away from a challenge. So when Dearborn (Mich.) Country Club asked him to take over as General Manager and Chief Operating Officer nearly six months ago, with the club in need of what Lilley calls “a shot in the arm,” he said yes.
As GM/COO, Lilley has been charged with making hard decisions that will improve Dearborn CC as it moves toward its centennial in seven years. These include infrastructure upgrades, defining a vision and devising a long-range plan, as well as bringing professionalism to the entire operation.
After just a few months on the job, Lilley (previously Clubhouse Manager with the Country Club of Detroit) began looking for a new executive chef. Around the same time, he received a handwritten letter from Michael Russell, CMC, expressing interest in the open position. Together, the two plan to turn what’s now a $1.4 million program into a thriving, $3 million operation.
C2C: What brought you to Dearborn CC?
BL: I was at the Country Club of Detroit (CCD), where I had been for five years, when Dearborn CC reached out to me about its situation. CCD has an incredibly supportive membership, but I was ready for a new challenge. Dearborn needed a shot in the arm; it wanted a GM who could bring guidance and operational leadership to the club. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So I accepted the position, and here I am.
C2C: What do you mean by a “shot in the arm?”
BL: This is an old club with tons of history and pedigree. It was built by Henry Ford. The architecture of our clubhouse is stunning; it’s an Albert Kahn design with beautiful underpinnings. We also have a fantastic Donald Ross golf course. But at 93 years old, the club needs some infrastructure updates. The membership needs to decide how they want to invest and evolve. Staffing is also an ongoing issue.
C2C: Tell us about the health of the club.
BL: We have 410 members, but that number is growing. Right now, we do about $1.4 million in annual F&B. But that number is anemic, and we’ll eclipse it quickly.
BL: First, we’re talking with our members about what they want in their F&B operation. We’re also looking at trends and finding ways to introduce new ideas. We’re increasing quality and, of course, we have our new Executive Chef, Michael Russell, CMC, at the helm.
C2C: How did you attract Chef Russell?
BL: He was brought to me providentially. I mean that sincerely.
We were in need of a chef and I wasn’t getting any traction with the process. Plus, we were in the middle of our season, so it was hard to find the time for interviews, cook-offs and mystery baskets. I was racking my brain, and I said a lot of prayers.
Then one day, I received a handwritten letter in the mail from [Russell]. I opened it, read it, and couldn’t believe my eyes. I called him the next day, and we began a conversation about bringing him to Dearborn.
C2C: What did you say to him?
BL: I asked him why he wrote to me. He said he felt compelled to and that he was interested in hearing more about what we want to do here at Dearborn. I then began mapping out a compelling message for him.
I told him he would be the maestro of our dining operation, and that he could use his extensive bank of knowledge and experience to not only grow our program, but to establish this club as a culinary launching pad for those who work with us. We want young culinarians to come to Dearborn to learn and grow. While they’re with us, they’ll contribute, and when they’re ready to leave us they’ll be more prepared than their peers, thanks to [Russell].
C2C: The process of hiring Chef Russell lasted for a few months, though. Why?
BL: Hiring a chef isn’t like buying a chainsaw. Chef Russell, who was previously Executive Chef of Detroit’s Skyline Club, is a very thoughtful person and we needed to establish our relationship, to make sure it was the best decision for both of us. I wasn’t looking for just an executive chef; I was looking for a partner, and someone who is equally invested in our success.
C2C: At CCD, you worked with another master chef, Brian Beland. Did you consult him during your Discussions with Chef Russell?
BL: Brian and I are very close, and his wisdom and calm guiding counsel has been invaluable. He is terrific in every sense. He’s excited, energized, calm, and detail-oriented. I count him as a friend, so of course I called him to get his input. I actually think that’s why I had such a hard time finding a chef; I compared every candidate to Brian, and few can measure up.
C2C: Now that Chef Russell is officially on staff, how is it going?
BL: There’s a palpable difference in the team. It’s like a beautiful breath of fresh air. He’s already established a lot of organizational systems and standards, and he’s transformed our service guarantees. He understands the urgency and timing of a burger going out in 10 minutes. He is also bringing imagination and creativity to the menus.
The best part is that he walks through the clubhouse with a smile on his face. If you ask him how he’s doing, he’ll tell you he’s “having a blast.” His attitude is infectious.
C2C: Do the members appreciate that they have such a highly qualified chef?
BL: There’s a small percentage attuned to it. We’ve done some marketing to let them know that he is one of only 72 CMCs, and that he’s going to take our dining program to a whole new level. He has certainly made his presence known by walking through the dining room, engaging with members, and asking them what they like and don’t like.
C2C: What are some of your F&B goals now?
BL: In the short term, we want to get to get to $2 million by the end of 2017. We’ll do that by providing a higher quality product and a fair value. In five years, we want to see this as a $3 million program.
C2C: How will you support Chef Russell as he works toward those goals?
BL: I will give him the tools he needs to do the job. My role isn’t to get in his business; if I have to, I’ve hired the wrong person. Chef Russell knows that he has my unbridled support. And the team knows that, too. That support allows them to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
C2C: What do you value most in a chef?
BL: Temperament. It’s everything to me. A chef’s temperament will determine how an operation responds and performs. If you have a chef who is not balanced, you will have a contentious environment filled with angst.
C2C: If you could tell chefs one thing about club management, what would it be?
BL: You have to be a bit insane to get into this industry. It’s like a circus, but there’s something attractive about it, too. It’s all about service and stewardship.
When you take on a membership, you have a huge responsibility to them. They have high expectations, and you must constantly deliver a superior product while keeping them engaged and satisfied.
As their chef, you have to put out delicious, creative food—but you also have a team of cooks who look up to you, want to learn from you, and depend on you to bring out their very best. Sometimes it’s painful—but if you always wanted to please people, you should probably not be a chef, and maybe just sell ice cream for a living instead.