As you might expect, while Joe Krenn, CCM, CCE, was touring the clubhouse and property of Farmington Country Club (FCC) in Charlottesville, Va. in 2012, to decide if he wanted to make his next career move there and become its Chief Operating Officer/General Manager, numbers were running through his head.
Krenn wasn’t computing projected costs or revenues, however, or even what he’d want to seek in the way of compensation. In fact, what he was counting added up very slowly, and barely got into double digits.
But when he was asked by his FCC hosts to “be honest with us” and tell them what he liked or didn’t like about what he had seen, Krenn had a final number at the ready for his response.
“You have eleven bar stools in the entire building,” he told the club officials who were looking to find their new management leader. “And you have 1,000 resident members, and even more non-resident members who are in a vacation state of mind when they come here. Where’s the social gathering spot? Where do you want people to hang out and take advantage of the great views you have here?”
Adding Up to Excellence
Six years later, Krenn and his management and operations team have amassed an impressive set of new numbers that capture a much different story for the club. And those statistics are part of the equation that has led to Krenn’s recognition as the 2017 recipient of the James H. Brewer Award, through the Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business.
The numbers, however, only tell part of the story behind Krenn’s accomplishments after arriving at Farmington, to continue a career that began with a hospitality orientation through his initial studies at Johnson & Wales University, and then progressed through management positions at a number of respected private clubs, including the Atlanta Athletic Club, Carnegie Abbey Club in Portsmouth, R.I., and then back to Atlanta with Ansley Golf Club and Cherokee Town & Country Club.
As described in the letter nominating Krenn for ECM recognition that was submitted by the six Board Presidents he has worked for since arriving at Farmington, the club in 2012 had been “stagnant for a number of years, unable to gain agreement on capital priorities, spending and a way forward to remain relevant in a changing marketplace.”
Krenn, who had been involved with master-planning processes at several of his previous properties, saw that the key first step to breaking Farmington loose from its inertia would be the formation of a Master Plan Working Group that could set guiding principles for the club and help to advocate needed change.
“The club in 2012 was hitting bottom from the fallout of the recession—it had lost a lot of members, was operating at a deficit, deferring maintenance, and using initiation fees to fund operations,” Krenn recalls. “Some recent attempts at getting capital campaigns started had failed, and there was some lingering negativity as a result. We had to find a way to bring the club together again to focus on a plan, identify areas of opportunity, and develop a clear vision.”
Through Krenn’s prior experience with master-plan efforts, he had learned that the key to launching them successfully was to have them take shape as “genuine grass-roots movements, vs. canned presentations.” So he plunged in to take his message to the Farmington populace—and just as importantly, to hear what the members had to say—through an extensive series—81 in all—of “listening sessions” built around agendas of “taking a walk together to see the future and identify the obvious choices.”
(Today, Krenn’s continuation of his grass-roots outreach takes a new form, as he makes a batch of signature cocktails each year and drives out to greet members on the golf course.)
Beyond the Sticks and Bricks
Once the principles and plans were in place that would lead to eventual development and member approval of a long-range facilities plan for FCC, and the first phase of nearly $13 million in improvement projects got underway, Krenn realized that equal attention needed to be paid to an equally important pillar of long-term success: an energized management and operations team that could make the most of the changes that were now in motion.
“It’s not buildings and sticks and bricks that really make the difference, it’s the spirit and culture that make a club special,” Krenn says. “And that comes about when there are true connections between members and staff.”
Krenn soon discovered that two important elements were in place to help foster that environment: a well-tenured staff that had strong ties and well-developed loyalties to the property, and a true family environment driven in large part by the special spirit created by the non-resident segment of the Farmington membership.
“I was pleased to find that the average tenure for the staff in place here was over 15 years,” Krenn reports. “And many had been here much longer—recently, in fact, we just honored two employees for more than 50 years of service, with one having now been here 55 years.
“And finding ways to have the non-resident members help to drive a new culture was also important,” he adds. “When they come here from all over the country—Atlanta, New York, Houston—they’re happy and more inclined to think that the changes that are being made are great, and to remind other members of that.
“Having the non-resident members also helps to keep dues down,” notes Krenn (annual dues increases at FCC were kept under 2% per year during his first five years, even with all of the construction projects and the drive to achieve break-even budget performance. “[The non-resident segment] produces 30% of our revenues, but represents just 10% of our costs. So even though only resident members vote on capital projects, we want to make sure everyone benefits from what we do.”
In addition to numbers, Joe Krenn is also big on collecting, himself receiving the ECM recognition, is the comment that he often repeats now when either of those subjects come up: “We’re just getting started.”
In part, that message relates to the next phase of the master plan that is well-formulated and that Krenn hopes to be able to get started soon and have unfold in coming years. It could include exciting new amenities such as bocce and new on-site cottages for additional lodging capacity, as well as expansion of racquet-sports and fitness facilities and needed infrastructure upgrades, including a major kitchen overhaul and an expanded employee breakroom. “When you invest behind the scenes, it can really have an invigorating effect on the spirit of the club—as much, if not more so, as what you do that’s more visible on the property,” Krenn notes.
But “We’re just getting started” also serves as a reminder that, especially at a place as large and diverse as Farmington, the job of providing member service and relevant facilities and programming is never done.
That’s why Krenn and his staff, led by CFO Julie Brown— who he brought on board shortly after arriving in 2012 to be a “strategic partner” in the club’s management structure, in addition to helping to shore up the club’s financial picture—are now putting such an emphasis on data-mining and finding the most sophisticated analytical tools available, to take a deep dive into the club’s current activity and help all department heads have clear and understandable pictures of where their operations currently are, and where they can still go.
“With usage at an all-time high and membership hitting sort of an artificial cap that we’ve imposed, we really can get only so much bigger,” Krenn explains. “That’s why we’re putting such an emphasis on studying each area as closely as we can, to understand how pushing our capacity is affecting member service and satisfaction.”
As these studies are undertaken and new action plans are formulated, Krenn will also continue to employ another one of his favorite phrases—“If you’re going to be either a hero or a zero, you might as well be the best at one”—to keep encouraging everyone on the Farmington team to be bold and go all-in when thinking of new ways to pursue the club’s collective goals. The consistent message here is to not be afraid of failure, which can often be the road to success—but if you do fail, make sure a full effort was involved.
Another management principle that Krenn follows is primarily directed at himself, but also serves to guide other managers about another key to effective performance, especially for a large and complex operation like Farmington’s: “Hire great people…who hire great people…and let them do their jobs!”
As Krenn detailed for C&RB’s Chef to Chef magazine’s August 2016 issue (“How Farmington CC is Establishing Its F&B Identity”), he defines his COO/GM role, as well as that of Brown as CFO and Allyn Gutauskas as the club’s Human Resource Manager, as “support staff for all of [our] department heads. They tell us what they need, they give us their vision, and together we find ways to make it happen.”
And oh, yes, amid all this, Joe Krenn will also continue to keep an eye on the club’s bar stool total—now at 27, and counting.