When it comes to preparing a capital budget, golf course superintendents rely on planning, prioritizing, and powers of persuasion.
In the fall, most golf course superintendents are finalizing their capital budgets for the coming year. The process, though, has likely been in motion for months. From planning for future expenditures and prioritizing needs to proposing a budget—and sharpening their powers of persuasion—superintendents need a strategy that can help them create the best conditions for their courses as cost-effectively as possible.
Planning and Prioritizing
Matt Henkel, Golf Course Superintendent of PrairieView Golf Club in Byron, Ill., starts researching his wants and needs for the following year in mid-summer. “In July, we start to put together a list of upcoming projects we want to tackle in the next budget cycle,” he says.
|SUMMING IT UP
• Superintendents should provide management and Board/committee members with thorough justification for their capital needs through documentation that can include spreadsheets, memos, lease summaries, photographs, and records of equipment history.
• Arranging field trips to other properties can be an effective way to make a case for the value of specific equipment or improvements.
• If approval for capital equipment or projects can’t be gained one year, revisiting those needs in a new budget cycle can still be worthwhile, especially if there’s been a change in leadership that may have created a more favorable environment.
• Maintenance facilities are often overlooked when outlining capital needs, but they should be an ongoing part of the process as a key component of providing optimal course conditions.
PrairieView, which is part of the Byron Forest Preserve District, is a government-owned municipal golf course, so Henkel must share funding with other departments, such as education and natural resources.
“Everything goes in cycles,” he explains. “We’ll get a couple of big projects done, and the next year another department does.”
In planning for capital purchases, Henkel hashes out his needs versus his wants. When he puts together his list, he says, “I tend to start with absolutely critical needs.”
It’s important to know the timeline and life expectancy of equipment that’s currently on hand, as well as what’s needed, Henkel says. He typically emphasizes the ways that a new piece of equipment or a new product can save money for the golf course.
“Equipment is easier to sell to the Board of Directors,” he says. “They can look at the books and see its history. That’s harder to do with an improvement project like putting decorative stone around culverts.”
When Henkel first joined the PrairieView staff, the property bought its equipment. But since he became superintendent, he has started leasing most of it.
“To be able to get more equipment at any given time, it was easier for me to sell a lease [to the Board],” he explains. “We can get the equipment upfront, and buy ourselves out of the lease for $1 after four years. It’s helpful in tight budget years.”
When making his pitch for capital equipment, Henkel provides financing details of various lease options from each proposal as well.
Last year, PrairieView entered into a $250,000 lease spread out across three years for new equipment, including two greens mowers, a large rough mower, an aerator and a sweeper. In the spring, the property sold its rough mower and used the proceeds to purchase a used sprayer.
Sound proposal strategies should be applied to the acquisition of specialized equipment as well. In the next budget cycle, for instance, Henkel hopes to get GPS sprayers that can help decrease chemical applications and annual costs by about 15 percent. “Each nozzle can shut off when you leave the playing surface,” he explains.
He also tries to emphasize the cost savings that can be gained over the life of the equipment, as well as its environmental impact. “Everyone is more conscientious of how we interact with the environment,” he notes.
Making the Case
Henkel has monthly meetings with the PrairieView Board, and his budget gets approved at a meeting in November.
To back up his requests, Henkel provides the Board with documentation and spreadsheets that outline the reasons the golf course needs to perform a capital project or purchase certain equipment. The information can highlight the history of the piece of equipment that needs to be replaced, including its age, usage and cost of upkeep, versus the purchase of new equipment. He also indicates how much fuel the property will save with equipment such as hybrid greens mowers.
“Each capital item can take on a story of its own,” he notes.
Projected productivity gains are also well-documented. That aspect helped Henkel gain approval for PrairieView to make the switch from pull-behind gang mowers to mowers that can cover almost nine acres in an hour. Now, the grounds crew can mow the entire golf course twice a week, where previously it took all week to mow the course one time.
Ben Wilmarth, who has been in the golf industry for 20 years and currently works as Assistant Superintendent of The Club at SpurWing in Meridian, Idaho, believes that every property has the same critical need. “The main topic, as far as capital planning is concerned, [should be] your maintenance facility,” he states.
However, Wilmarth has found that many superintendents often overlook this important aspect of course-and-grounds management while focusing much of their capital-budgeting attention on equipment, tools and personnel.
“Superintendents are [often] too involved in the time it takes to manage the [golf course on a day-to-day basis],” he believes. “They don’t have time to educate their clubs [about long-term facility needs], and clubs assume that everything is fine.”
The quality of a maintenance facility indicates how good and how consistent golf course conditions will be, Wilmarth says.
“Golf is the focus at most properties, and they should take pride in the maintenance department, because that’s where most of the money goes,” he notes. “The maintenance department should be as efficient as it can be. It should be clean, organized, and up to date.”
In other words, a 3,000-sq. ft., square building with a tin roof won’t get the job done.
“There are a lot of facilities that are pushing a bus with a three-cylinder motor, and most of them don’t even know it,” Wilmarth says.
So when a property expands or undertakes a major renovation or improvement project, he adds, it needs to look at updating its maintenance facility as well, to keep expectations about turf conditions realistic.
“Any property that has a barn for a maintenance facility is going to be an up-and-down club,” states Wilmarth. “And the days of parking all of the equipment outside are over.”
To persuade properties to invest in their maintenance facilities, Wilmarth suggests taking management personnel or Board members to other properties that have done so. In addition, he suggests that management personnel look at capital planning from a different perspective.
“I have to put myself in the position of someone who is interested in buying a club membership somewhere,” he says. “[And one of the first things] I would look at is the maintenance facility.”
Sometimes, Henkel seeks direction from the club’s management or its Board or greens-committee members about the advisability of pursuing a proposal before submitting a request for approval. He also emphasizes the way that equipment or improvement projects will affect the club’s day-to-day priorities during the golf season.
“I’m big on showing numbers and justifications,” he says. “I give them more than enough information. I’ll show pictures and talk about golf courses that have certain pieces of equipment and the results. I’ll take Board members to different properties.”
Henkel has found that persistence can pay off as well.
“I just keep at it,” he says. “If they tell you ‘no’ the first time, you don’t give up. If you think it’s something that is going to benefit the course, you keep at it.”
Not necessarily every year, though. Timing can be key, especially when getting a feel for when to go to battle, and when to back off.
“Don’t be afraid to revisit something that was on your radar a few years ago,” Henkel advises. “You might find a new way to approach it, or your property might have had a change in leadership [that has created a more favorable environment for approval].”
Telling the Whole Story
Ben Wilmarth, Assistant Superintendent of The Club at SpurWing in Meridian, Idaho, stresses the importance of clear communication—particularly about an operation’s needs and weaknesses, as well as its strengths—in making the case for needed capital purchases.
“We’re a very prideful bunch,” Wilmarth says of his profession. “We have a hard time saying, ‘I need help.’ We’re jacks of all trades. We don’t want to say we can’t do something, or look vulnerable.”
In his 15 years at PrairieView (six as superintendent), Henkel has developed a strong rapport with Todd Tucker, the Byron Forest Preserve District’s Executive Director, as well as other department heads. He likes to work behind the scenes, and doesn’t hesitate to support capital improvements and projects for other departments, in addition to his own.
Two years ago, for instance, Henkel led the charge to switch from gas to electric golf cars. “They’re quieter, and they’re less dependent on fossil fuels,” he explains. “I saw the opportunity to make an improvement. Other department heads have done that, too.”
He also pursued an opportunity with Exelon, a Chicago-based energy company, to sponsor PrairieView’s new electric golf car fleet and give the company advertising rights on the fleet’s GPS while the cars are located in the parking lots and staging areas. For $3,000 annually under a four-year agreement, the Preserve District affixed the company’s name and logo to the front of the vehicles.
Henkel’s willingness to support capital projects or equipment for other departments has paid off for him as well; another department head helped him lobby to upgrade the course irrigation system. PrairieView replaced its irrigation system pump station four years ago, and as a selling point for the project, grounds crew members built the pump house themselves (see photo at left) to save money.
Wilmarth also stresses the critical nature of including irrigation systems as an important ongoing capital need. “It’s all proportional to the club’s budget and expectations,” he says. “If superintendents are not focused on auditing and cleaning up their irrigation systems, it will affect everything they do.”
Superintendents who approach the capital planning process in a sound fashion that demonstrates a well-rounded understanding of how course maintenance fits into the overall picture can also position themselves well for personal career advancement, Wilmarth notes. “The majority of a club’s daily and annual budget goes through the maintenance division,” he says. “It makes sense that you would want general managers who are extremely savvy in this department.”
When developing capital plans for his department at PrairieView, Henkel’s goal is to always position the golf course to succeed in the long run. To survive, he believes, properties and their Boards and managers need to think outside the box and not be satisfied with the status quo.
Wilmarth agrees. “The golf industry is old, and people can be stubborn,” he says. “New concepts don’t always register. But people could get so much more from their clubs if they’re willing to change something.”