A Shiny New Model at the CC of Detroit

By | February 22nd, 2018

Country Club of Detroit, Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich.

An innovative “Summer Village” concept and sleek new amenities within its classic, Tudor Revival-style clubhouse have revved up activities and member excitement at the venerable Motor City property.

The recession at the end of the last decade posed unprecedented challenges to many well-established, traditional clubs that had prospered for years based primarily on their history, reputation and the strength of the huge initiation fees they could command. But those factors proved to hold little sway, and in fact served as detriments, when the economic crisis forced many club members, and especially the newest generation of them, to reassess whether they could continue to belong to clubs at all, and if so, what would constitute proper value from a membership in return for what they would want, or could afford, to pay.

Perhaps no club felt the challenges brought about by this seismic shift more than the Country Club of Detroit (CCD) in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich. After its founding in 1897, CCD enjoyed years of unquestioned prestige drawn from its championship golf course and rich history (it was the site of the 1954 U.S. Amateur, when Arnold Palmer won his first USGA title), along with its classic 80,000-sq. ft., Tudor Revival-style clubhouse (see photo above) and its unquestioned position as the place where titans of Detroit’s auto industry-dominated business community could be found.

Country Club of Detroit
Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich.

Founded: 1897
Members: 928
Clubhouse Size: 80,000 sq. ft.
Golf Course Design: Harry Colt (original); updates by Colt/Alison, Robert Trent Jones, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Tom Doak
Annual Golf Rounds: 20,000
General Manager: Craig Cutler
Director of Golf: George Forster, Jr.
Golf Course Superintendent: Ross Miller
Executive Chef/Food & Beverage Manager: Brian Beland, CMC
Membership Director: Charla Fluent
Director of Fitness: Chad Blair
Director of Bowling Operations: Joe Conflitti

But as the city began to suffer from the U.S. auto industry’s decline, CCD began to stagnate even before the recession set in, with membership only showing modest gains three times in a 20-year period. And when the overall economy began to crater, the club found itself at a true tipping point.

Over the past five years, however, CCD has not only emerged from the economic storm, it has successfully repositioned itself as a vibrant new symbol of how Detroit, and the club industry, are being reinvented. Since 2013, CCD has added over 200 members, grown its annual food-and-beverage business from $2.2 million to $3.9 million, and embarked on the club’s most aggressive expansion, and improvement of amenities, on the property since its grand clubhouse was built in 1927.

“We’ve changed a seasonal, ‘old-line club’ into a vibrant, year-round facility that feels more like a private resort,” says General Manager Craig Cutler. “We dreamed of being a $10 million club, and we are well on our way to $12 million.”

Rising to the Occasion
In 2008, Cutler earned “Rising Star” recognition, through the Excellence in Club Management Awards co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and C&RB, while serving as Assistant General Manager of the Detroit Athletic Club (DAC). The DAC had positioned itself to prosper at the forefront of a renaissance that was beginning to take shape in downtown Detroit, but Cutler wanted to find his own opportunity to take a leadership role and have a similar impact on another property. And while CCD was struggling to find its footing in a fast-changing and especially competitive and challenging suburban Detroit country club market, when the chance came for Cutler to take its General Manager position in 2013, he saw signs that things would be in place to help him bring about real change at the club.

“I saw that the [CCD] Board was dedicated to responding to preferences expressed in member surveys by changing the [club’s] business model, adding value to all categories of membership, and working in concert with the professional staff,” he says. And as Cutler plunged into his new role, he drew liberally from lessons he had learned under the tutelage of DAC Executive Manager Ted Gillary and through the operation of that club, which makes perennial appearances on “top workplace” and “best companies to work for” lists, and has also been recognized with quality leadership awards, acknowledging its exemplary processes for performance excellence, organizational improvement and workforce motivation.

CCD’s “Summer Village” opened in 2015 as a “microcampus” located centrally on the club’s 240-acre property that is dedicated to swimming, tennis, day camps and other outdoor activities and amenities, centered around a stand-alone, casual restaurant.

“To be able to move in the direction the Board wanted to take the club, we had to make it possible for everyone to own the process,” Cutler says. “We borrowed heavily from the DAC, Ritz-Carlton and any other ‘secret sauce’ we knew of, to put proven concepts like service guarantees and accountability into place. We had to turn the detractors into disciples, and change from just being servants to an unyielding focus on providing true service. What it really came down to is that everyone had to get proud again.”

Other key cultural changes were brought about by buying the club out of a union arrangement that applied to half its staff, and bringing in several new department heads who could drill the new approaches down into their areas of operation. “I put a lot of emphasis from the start on getting everyone [in the course maintenance department] to sing from the same hymnal,” says Golf Course Superintendent Ross Miller, who arrived at CCD a year after Cutler. “That was the only way we were going to be able to implement a needed overhaul of our agronomic plan and make the improvements we wanted to achieve.”

It Takes a Village
At the same time existing club operations were being taken to new levels internally, plans were also taking shape to literally build new, living symbols of CCD’s changing profile and direction. The first fruits of these efforts were unveiled in 2015, with the opening of the new “Summer Village.”

Built (in part by in-house staff) on a central plot of the club’s 240-acre property, and with no one structure being larger than 2,100 sq. ft., the Village was designed as a “micro-campus” that not only included upgraded and expanded facilities for the club’s tennis and aquatic programs, but also offered an abundance of welcoming, open-air areas for outdoor dining and events, as well as a new standalone, casual dining restaurant.

The Village was also planned to be especially well-suited for day camps and as an attractive destination/hangout for all ages, with areas set aside for activities such as four-square, shuffleboard, half-court basketball and tetherball. At the end of 2017, a new golf simulator building was opened in the Village, as another attraction that could serve to make sure even CCD’s most golf-centric members would find their way to the area and discover all that it has to offer.

General Manager Craig Cutler

“[The Village] has made it much easier for members of all ages and interests to find reasons to spend a full day at the club,” says Cutler.

Executive Chef/Food & Beverage Manager Brian Beland, CMC, who has worked at CCD since 1999, and is one of the longest-tenured department heads since becoming Executive Chef in 2006 (he took on the added role of F&B Manager in 2011), says the impact generated by the Village, to serve as an attraction for all segments of the membership, was almost immediate. “It definitely brought a different, more relaxed and family-oriented, almost resort-type feel to the club,” says Beland, who was featured in a “Chef to Chef” interview (“Taking the Broad View”) in C&RB’s February 2016 issue, and who provided details on the approaches that have been implemented in CCD’s F&B department in a presentation, “Managing and Training to a Standard That Transmits to Other Departments,” at the 2017 Chef to Chef Conference in Atlanta.

“I see kids in the Village regularly now who have just come there to get something to eat while they do their homework at an outside table,” Beland says. “Others who are older come after their school-team practices, without their parents, and have dinner there with friends.”

The opening of the new dining and event venues in the Village has not only spurred CCD’s continued rapid growth in F&B revenues, Beland says, it has also helped to relieve congestion in the main clubhouse’s kitchens and dining rooms, while also kick-starting the creative energies of both the front- and back-of-the-house staff.

“We’re recapturing weddings and golf outings, and while we don’t want to ever look like a banquet hall, getting closer to a 50-50 banquet split is helping us get very close to our goal of breaking even on F&B,” Beland says. “We’re really able to attack things now like having more special club theme parties, providing grab-and-go home meal replacements, and what we can do with our honeybee program [there are now four active hives on the property, with plans to have as many as 15].

Golf Course Superintendent Ross Miller

“I thought getting to $3.5 million would take at least five to seven years, but two-and-a-half years later, we were there,” Beland adds. “I don’t see why we can’t keep going as we have been, to get to $4 million or even $4.5—that would be our sweet spot [for breaking even], and we’re not that far off.”

Staying On a Roll
While the addition of the Village was a natural fit to help make more attractive and productive use of CCD’s spacious and peacefully secluded property, the club certainly didn’t want to forsake its unique gem of a classic clubhouse in the process. The Village’s opening was closely followed by the second phase of what amounted to a total of nearly $11 million in renovations at CCD. And this part of the project was as notable for how it was pulled off as for what the effort produced.

Through what Cutler describes as “truly engineering art,” an old bowling alley in the main clubhouse that was built over an even older indoor swimming pool were both demolished to free up a small wing of the building. That part of the clubhouse was then underpinned with a new, lower foundation, to turn 5,000 sq. ft. into a new, two-story area that is twice as large.
The new lower level is now home to a popular, state-of-the-art Bowling Center that teems with event activity, in addition to regular individual and team play, while the upper level houses a gleaming new Health & Fitness Center, as well as a new entry hall dedicated to telling the CCD story through a tasteful and compelling new presentation of archival material.

The Bowling Center is managed by Director of Bowling Operations Joe Conflitti, who joined CCD’s engineering staff in 2014 to try to help keep the old bowling alley operable, drawing on his extensive experience operating commercial lanes before coming to the club. It has been “a dream come true,” Conflitti says, to be part of the planning, building and opening of the new facility, which marked its one-year anniversary last November.

Expanded pool and tennis facilities created for the Summer Village concept, along with many other features that have enhanced its attraction as a day camp site or as just a destination/hangout, have helped to bring, and keep, more kids and teens on the property—and to create strong new membership appeal for younger families.

Already in its first year, Conflitti reports, the Bowling Center proved to be a direct hit in targeting member participation during the extended Michigan winter, with over 300 member families using the facility and a total of 6,800 total visits for open bowling. Demand for league play also swelled to prompt an expansion by two leagues, for a total of six, and the Center hosted 70 parties, including a complete sellout for available times during Thanksgiving week.

“There’s been bowling [at CCD] since 1938—this year will be our 80th season,” Conflitti says. “But it’s really come alive now, as an amenity that has the directly opposite appeal, season-wise, to the Summer Village.”

The equally up-to-date Health & Fitness Center has seen a similar trend line, according to Director of Fitness Chad Blair, who joined the CCD staff in March 2017. As it approached the end of its first year, Blair reports, the Center had its best month in terms of both usage and revenue. Programs that have proved to be especially engaging for members have included a “Metabolic Detox” 21-meal replacement plan that provides protein shakes, as well as smoothies and granola bars, prepared in coordination with the culinary staff, and a customized fitness app for personal training and instruction.

The impact of both the Village and the new clubhouse amenities became clearly evident right away to Charla Fluent, who took the position of Membership Director at CCD in 2015, bringing 15 years of experience with leading hotel operators, including Hyatt, Marriott and Four Seasons.

While membership at CCD is by invitation only, Fluent says the immediate buzz created by all of the new facilities has been a primary reason the club has been able to continue a five-year streak of consecutive increases in net growth in membership, after starting a turnaround with a modest gain of four in 2013.

“In 2017, we’ll net out with a growth of 31, which is another yearly high,” Fluent reports. “A lot of that is coming from people who are expressing interest in new membership categories that were created to go with the addition of fitness and the new Bowling Center, and because of the amenities we now have with the Village.

CCD’s gleaming new bowling and fitness facilities were created through “engineering art” that demolished an old wing of the CCD clubhouse, lowered the foundation, and created a new, two-level area to accommodate both of the amenities with twice the space.

“As you’d expect, all of the new things we’ve created have been really appealing to the 30- and 40-somethings,” Fluent says. “They tell us that they now see the club in a completely different way, and many consider leaving other clubs to come to CCD.

“The word is certainly out, even though we can’t solicit memberships,” Fluent adds. “People get brought here as a guest to the pool, or to the Bowling Center for a party, and that’s really all it takes.”

No Stopping Now
The positive vibe brought about by all of the changes that have taken place in the past five years at CCD, both culturally and physically, are now evident on a daily basis, the club’s staff reports.

“There’s been a massive change in outlook, both among members and staff,” says Miller. “It’s much more enjoyable for everyone, when they can see all of the services and products that are now here.”

And CCD’s managers are quick to express their appreciation that those changes have been implemented. “We’re fortunate that our Board and planning committee were interested in finding ways to be relevant for the next 20 to 25 years,” says Conflitti.

Adds Beland: “Five or seven years ago, it could have been decided that we just needed to become a golf club, or maybe even close our doors. But instead, there was a vision to find ways to grow on the property in a way that would help us become more of a community for all ages. I think it’s already been shown that’s a healthier business model, and it’s certainly a healthier environment for the staff.”

At the same time, Beland, and other managers recognize that while CCD’s longtime slogan, “In Good Company,” has been given newfound relevance, that doesn’t signal it’s time to relax, even with all the energy that’s been recently expended.

Executive Chef/Food & Beverage Manager Brian Beland has led the club’s growth of well over $1 million in F&B revenues at a pace that took less than half the time that was expected.

“The challenge now, after the buildout, is to find ways to keep the Summer Village fresh and how to stay ahead with what we do with fitness, bowling and other areas,” Beland says. “We can’t afford to rest.”

Cutler agrees. “The members took a leap of faith in voting for a lot of amenities they currently didn’t have or weren’t using,” he says. “It’s great that they’re now excited to see a vibrant, active club. It’s nothing but good news when members see their children and grandchildren in the Summer Village, or bowling on holiday weekends.

“But with a property like this and the kind of building we have that still very much serves as our main clubhouse, you always need to double back, to keep taking a look at your infrastructure,” Cutler adds. “We also do have some debt to pay off.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, clubs are like cathedrals—they’re never done,” Cutler says. “We have to keep finding ways to do a little more at a time, so we’ll always be able to have a continuous impact on members’ enjoyment and use of the club.”

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