After spending the first third of his career in restaurants and the next third at a city club, Craig Cutler has applied valuable lessons he learned in both environments to bring new levels of innovation and success to the Country Club of Detroit—and earn Excellence in Club Management honors for himself.
The professional career of Craig Cutler, CCM, has been marked by a clear “rule of three.” After graduating from Michigan State University, he first headed west to work in Los Angeles’ retail restaurant environment, first as a Hospitality Coordinator for the historic Greek Theatre outdoor entertainment venue, and then as General Manager of the Engine Co. No. 28 restaurant in downtown L.A.
After a total of 13 years on the West Coast, Cutler then returned to Michigan to work at the Detroit Athletic Club (DAC), where he ascended over 10 years through the roles of Restaurant Manager of the DAC Grill Room, Director of Banquet Services, and Assistant General Manager.
Then, in 2013, Cutler moved from city clubs into the country club realm, becoming General Manager of the Country Club of Detroit (CCD) in suburban Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich. His achievements in that role over the past eight years (see “Ideas + Achievements,” below) have lifted CCD to unprecedented levels of success—and earned Excellence in Club Management (ECM) honors for Cutler, as the 2020 winner of The Mead Grady Award (see “Honored By Their Peers,” below).
(Cutler’s recognition for the Grady Award also made him the first two-time winner in Excellence in Club Management Award history; in 2008, he earned “Rising Star” recognition for the contributions he had already made halfway into his tenure at the Detroit Athletic Club.)
LESSONS TO CARRY FORWARD
Reflecting on the various stages of his career, Craig Cutler says CCD has provided the most personal experiences. “We’re a neighborhood club in a great neighborhood, so it’s common to see a member two or three times a day in different settings,” he notes. But he also values the skills and experience gained from his previous career environments, and the lessons he learned and applied from each after moving to the country club world.
“With retail restaurants, it’s about pushing the envelope,” he says. “I had a great GM/Executive Chef, Ed Kasky, who taught me about organization and running a profitable business in a tough Los Angeles market. You develop great habits when you are concerned with covering payroll, making rent, operating with tight margins and having to find ways to try to fill your place every night. I also learned the value of having my own little red toolbox handy with gaskets and other parts, so I could always fix the dish machine myself if needed.”
In his next stage, Cutler says he “loved the formality of the city club and the energy and volume of business; it kept you on your toes. And I couldn’t have asked for a better role model than [now retired DAC Executive Manager] Ted Gillary [also an ECM honoree], who made it possible for me to grow through various positions and up to Assistant General Manager.”
In all three settings, Cutler has found, “How you approach your work should be the same—if your values and standards align with your employer, great things can happen. It’s about having a commitment to detail and doing the little things that can mean the difference for delivering the best possible experience, wherever you are.”
Ready to Respond
Cutler also drew on that attention and commitment to detail to do his part in helping the properties that he was working for navigate the major business challenges that have helped to define various eras during his career.
“The Great Recession was a great teacher,” he says of the period from 2007-09 that hit the auto industry and Detroit especially hard (and when Cutler earned his Rising Star recognition, for his role in working with Gillary and others to not only ensure the DAC’s survival, but start its ascent to becoming one of the country’s most prominent and successful city clubs).
“Retail skills came in handy when we were reimagining how to make the club work,” Cutler says of that time. “I really learned that clubs were a relationship business at that point, and that how you train and plan during a down cycle will directly affect how you come out of it.”
Ten years later, Cutler and the Country Club of Detroit faced the pandemic, which he said brought “many more unknowns” and a different type of challenge, because “the rules around interacting with one another changed so quickly.”
But here, too, a detail orientation—including using connections from within CCD’s membership and staff to make contact with General Motors personnel in Wuhan, China, to help secure valuable safety-practice insights and supplies—helped CCD respond quickly to create a trusted environment so it did not miss a single day serving the membership, despite Detroit being one of the hardest-hit cities.
“At a time when many people felt they were being misled on a daily basis, I think CCD had its values right, and we managed to them,” Cutler says. “We were completely transparent in telling members what we doing, and why, and worked hard to deliver service wherever we could. And we were very, very busy—members played golf more than any time this century, casual dining set records for gross revenue in July, August and September, and regular a la carte service came close to its pre-COVID budget, despite 50 percent occupancy requirements.”
Craig Cutler’s contributions at the Country Club of Detroit have gone far beyond simply drawing on his previous career experiences or directing effective crisis response. While he had never yet worked at a property with golf, let alone one with CCD’s golf pedigree (it has hosted several prestigious championships on its Harry S. Colt-designed course, including the 1954 U.S. Amateur won by Arnold Palmer), he has made his mark on all aspects of the club from the moment he arrived as its new General Manager in 2013.
This has included reimagining CCD’s property and facilities, including its iconic, 99-year-old Tudor Revival-style clubhouse (which Cutler jokes is the “newest” building he’s ever worked in) to offer true year-round appeal for members. As described in C+RB’s February 2018 cover feature (“A Shiny New Model at the CC of Detroit”), this transformation included creation of a new “Summer Village” to make better and full use of the lower campus on CCD’s 240-acre property, while also involving a unique reengineering of the clubhouse to modernize and enhance the amenities it houses, including bowling and fitness.
At the same time, Cutler also directed a management transformation that, in addition to himself, gave several other key department heads, including Director of Golf George Forster, Jr., Golf Course Superintendent Ross Miller, and Clubhouse Manager Brian Sandzik, their first top-position roles and injected a full dose of fresh ideas and initiatives into a tradition-steeped club. While Cutler is a firm believer in having robust programs for developing and growing talent from within—”in training, you recommit to your values, and reassess them,” he notes—always looking outside is an equally key step, he feels, for ensuring that the best candidates can be found. And the pandemic has opened new opportunities, he believes, for more talent to be drawn to the club industry, because of how it has emerged as a much more stable and promising career alternative to other hospitality segments.
As CCD approaches its 125th anniversary in 2022, some things that won’t change, Cutler says, are the keys to club management success.
“Excellence will continue to be defined in the club business through attention to detail, collaboration and respect between the professional staff and club governance, and a desire to deliver a service before the membership realizes it wants it,” he says. “CCD has a great team that I feel lucky to be a part of, and we also enjoy a great deal of support from the membership. With this, and love and support from home, all things are possible.”
Ideas + Achievements
Implemented under Craig Cutler’s leadership at the Country Club of Detroit:
• Complete reimagining of lower campus demolished existing building and created four new buildings as part of “Summer Village” designed in Olde English style, through $4.5 million project.
• Existing bowling center and indoor pool were removed and entire wing of main clubhouse was underpinned and further excavated to create a new lower level for new six-lane Bowling Center and 3,750-sq. ft. Fitness Center with Mezzanine Studio and programming room, through $6.4 million project.
• Food-and-beverage gross revenues more than doubled from $2 million in 2013 to $4.35 million in 2019, with member dining satisfaction improving by 20% and unused minimums shrinking to less than $25,000. Banquet business doubled in five years’ time.
• Creation of club’s first Director of Golf position helped to elevate program and led to waitlist for golf membership in 2019, for first time in 35 years.
• “Connoisseur Series” events, targeted to enlighten, entertain and appeal to specific demographics of membership, have become mainstay of annual calendar of events.
• Social memberships have tripled in five years and have been repositioned to help attract families, lowering average age in category from close to 70 years old to just above 40.
• Polo Field on CCD property was used during pandemic for monthly drive-in movie nights, with average attendance of over 100 per screening.
• Training for seasonal staff improved through measures that include two mock services after they arrive on site, to serve dinners to 200 staff members in the Poolside Grille. Cards are placed on each table for a question or special order that has come up in the past, to help prepare the servers while also providing preseason fun, as part of an exercise that has become a popular tradition for the entire team.
• Low-cost “drop-in” events such as the “Jingle Mingle” help to draw members during holidays, and prompt many to stay for dinner.
Honored by Their Peers
The Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards were established by the McMahon Group, Inc., the St. Louis-based consulting firm, in 1997 and have been co-sponsored by Club + Resort Business since 2006. The National Club Association became an additional sponsor in 2018.
The annual awards are selected through nominations submitted on behalf of qualified candidates by other parties. Award recipients are selected solely on the basis of their achievements at the club they currently manage.
Awards in four categories are given each year:
• The James H. Brewer Award, for a manager of a Country/Golf Club with 600 or more full-privilege members
• The Mead Grady Award, for a manager of a Country/Golf Club with fewer than 600 full-privilege members
• The Mel Rex Award, for a manager of a City, Athletic or Specialty (Non-Golf) Club
• The “Rising Star” Award for an assistant club manager
Lifetime Achievement Awards for a retiring club manager are also included as part of some years’ ECM honors.
A Selection Committee comprised of a peer group of leading club managers conducts the judging for the ECM Awards. A full listing of the judges, in addition to information on past winners and on how to nominate candidates for future years’ awards, can be found at www.clubmanageraward.com.
Because the annual ECM Awards Dinner could not be held this year, the 2020 recipients of the Excellence In Club Management were announced through a special webcast on March 2nd. The webcast, sponsored exclusively by ForeTees, was conducted in an “Academy Award” format that included remarks from the award winners after they were announced. The full webcast can be viewed at https://clubmanageraward.com/project/2020-excellence-in-club-management-awards-broadcast/