Congressional Country Club
AT A GLANCE
When construction of Congressional Country Club's elegant Mediterranean-style clubhouse began in 1923 in Bethesda, Md. (outside Washington, D.C.), a copper box containing newspapers, a Bible, an original membership directory and other artifacts from the time was placed in the building's cornerstone.
|General Manager/COO?Michael Leemhuis leads an “all business” approach to club operations.|
No one remembered, though, to leave a note outside the box, so future generations would know it was there. This could have been an especially disastrous oversight, because this was not your standard-issue time capsule. The directory alone listed five United States Presidents (Hoover, Wilson, Taft, Harding and Coolidge) among the club's founding life members, along with other prominent names from the pages of American history, such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Chrysler and Firestone.
When that section of the clubhouse was torn up in a 1999 renovation, workers recovered the copper box from the rubble. Then a sharp-eyed club staffer took a closer look at a photograph from the cornerstone-laying ceremonies in 1923, and saw it was the same box that could be seen next to Herbert Hoover as he made his remarks that day.
The time capsule and its contents will never be out of sight or mind again. They—and the story behind them—are now part of displays in the clubhouse halls that depict Congressional's rich history (which includes many legendary moments in golf, including Ken Venturi's 36 holes on an oppressively hot final day to win the 1964 U. S. Open). The club's current General Manager/Chief Operating Officer, Michael Leemhuis, has made capturing and emphasizing this legacy an ongoing priority since he came to Congressional, also in 1999. Staff members, in fact, now carry business card-sized reminders of operating "cornerstones" (see box, pg. 18), to ensure commitment to the traditions and expectations of such a storied property.
Walking the Walk
If a time capsule of pioneering club management practices were prepared, Leemhuis and his staff would likely be included, as a notable example of the "Chief Operating Officer concept" in action.
|Maxine Harvey makes about 25 calls a year with the good news: Your long (6- to 8-year) wait for membership has ended.|
In the late 1990s, Congressional had to replace Kim Saal, who had retired after a 23-year tenure as General Manager (only the third in the club's long history). The club turned for help to Jim Singerling, the CEO of the Club Managers Association of America (CMAA) whose wife is a Congressional member. Singerling saw a perfect opportunity to get Congressional to adopt the COO concept that he helped to develop and advocate through the CMAA.
Like most things involving management structures and approaches, the COOconcept can be made to sound much more complicated than it really is. At its most fundamental, it calls for releasing a club from the constant push-and-pull of ever-changing Boards and committees, and giving the operational staff more authority to make day-to-day business decisions.
Many clubs that try to institute the concept aren't completely successful, though, because too much confusion remains about who's making the calls. But at Congressional in 1999, Singerling saw two reasons why the timing, and place, were especially right for making it work.
First, because it had become so big, managing the club through the constant churn of a committee-driven structure was proving to be difficult. Second, Congressional's success in hosting the 1997 U.S. Open—when it ran a profitable tournament and secured a sizeable guarantee on merchandising alone—made everyone more aware of, and eager to realize, the club's full potential.
So it wasn't hard for Singerling to sell the concept—and that led to the appointment of Leemhuis, a golf professional who moved into hospitality management, first at the Sun City Resort in his native South Africa, and then as General Manager at the TPC at Avenel in Potomac, Md.
Leading the Leaders
Spend five minutes talking with Mike Leemhuis about any subject, and the qualities that serve him well in a COO capacity—passion for excellence, dynamic energy, and a thirst for new ideas—quickly become apparent. But the topic that really gets him going—and yields the most insight into how Congressional has grown from a $15 million club to $20 million in the seven years since he arrived—is the value of leadership at all levels within an organization.
"The [COO] concept calls for a very flat structure, with a lot of direct reports," Leemhuis says. "Ideally, you'd want to have between eight and 12 [departments]; but we're so big, we have 16.
"Obviously that's too many departments for one person to be involved with effectively," he continues. "So the key is to create an atmosphere where all of the [department heads] can help lead the various parts of the club to new levels. That means going beyond just the day-to-day management of operations, which is how most of us in hospitality have been trained. We want to develop true leaders in each area who can properly manage the assets—both physical and human—they are responsible for, and then make sound decisions for the organization that are in step with its culture and vision.
|Congressional has embarked on a $25M renovation that will close and rebuild all of its pools in new positions on the property while adding a new “19th hole” pub.|
One thing people misunderstand about [the COO concept] is they think it makes Boards and committees meaningless," Leemhuis adds. "Nothing could be further from the truth. We still have a very active Board and committee structure here, with some of the world's brightest and most successful people volunteering their time to help direct the club. We'd be crazy not to use their ideas and expertise as much as possible.
"But even the best Board or committee member will probably only be involved for a six-year cycle," he notes. "To sustain long-term direction, you have to develop and empower leaders in the various departments. That's the only way to keep all of the diff
erent business units of a club running efficiently and continuing to grow."
With Congressional now starting its second six-year period under the COOconcept, here's a closer look at how each department has flourished within the structure since 1999:
Golf Operations—Director of Golf John Lyberger first worked at Congressional as a college intern during the mid-'80s, and then for six years as an assistant pro after graduating. He left for four years in the early '90s to serve as head pro at a Maryland club, before returning to take his current position in 1996.
The arrival of Michael Leemhuis and the COO concept three years later dovetailed perfectly with how Lyberger always felt it would be best to run the club's golf operations.
"I believe in the philosophy of departmentalizing, and it's only been that much easier [under the new structure]," Lyberger says. "That's the best way to manage a large operation like this, by delegating responsibility and authority to staff, and then holding them accountable. It's much more effective than micromanagement from the top."
In this decade, Congressional, like most established clubs, has seen rounds level off. "We were once at well over 60,000, but like other clubs we saw that drop after 9/11; now we're at around 50,000 a year," Lyberger reports about the current level of activity at the club's two 18-hole championship courses.
|Member events and banquets continue to be a growing source of revenue for the club.|
"I don't expect that to change too much in the years going forward," he adds. "And we actually now find that's a good level for us to maintain. It can get a little crowded and difficult to provide the best service when it's much more than that."
With rounds being held at a steady level, though, that doesn't mean there's been a slowing of opportunities to boost golf-related revenues. Lyberger directs a staff that has aggressively pursued ways to expand participation in clinics, youth programs, and tournaments (this season, the club hosted 165 events in 180 days). And he expects to continue the remarkable growth of Congressional's pro shop, which consistently earns top-performance awards in national rankings despite its relatively small (2,000 sq. ft.) size.
"[Ten years ago] we were at about $600,000 in annual revenues in the shop. This year, we project to do $1.7 million," Lyberger reports. "That's a lot of black socks. And while it will be harder to grow as quickly from this point, I see no reason why we can't get to $2 million."
One key to the shop's growth has been the establishment of specialized retail merchandising positions within Lyberger's department—one to concentrate on apparel, and the other on hard goods.
"Hard goods sales this year have been phenomenal, largely because of efforts we've made to have more demos and increase our club-fitting services," Lyberger notes. He has also fostered strong team performance through a bonus pool that shares profits when budget targets are exceeded.
|Even as F&B has grown to nearly $7 million, Executive Chef Forest Bell and staff have maintained strict standards.|
Food & Beverage—There are few fine-dining markets as competitive and demanding as Washington, D.C. But a long-standing mandate of Congressional's Board is that the club's main dining room must be equal in quality and service to the best five-star restaurants in the area—with lower menu prices.
Congressional's F&B department has continued to deliver on that and many other ambitious objectives, even as it has shown steady year-to-year growth to become a nearly $7 million operation. A huge part of the growth, reports Executive Chef Forest Bell II and F&B Director Jose Torres, has come from the banquet side, where activity in the past five years has nearly doubled to its current $3 million. The club has also enjoyed big gains in casual dining from its renovated Senate Pub grille, which now has an operating budget of $1.3 million, compared to just $300,000 before it was upgraded.
A key to maintaining service and quality in step with this pace of growth, says Chef Bell, has been the department's ability to retain its staff members. Chef Bell himself has been with the club since 1978. "And there's the same kind of longevity throughout the kitchen staff, right down to the dishwashers," he reports. "That gives you continuity, so you don't have to reset your [operating] standards every day."
Congressional's F&B department also puts a premium on maintaining long-term relationships with vendors who demonstrate an ability to deliver its unyielding high-quality standards. "All of our suppliers know we're going to send it back if it's not right," says Clubhouse Manager A. J. Marshall, who directs purchasing and receiving. "We don't sell anything that someone here hasn't tasted ourselves."
With such a firm base established for the quality of ingredients, preparation and service, the consistent delivery of signature favorites, such as "Filet Mignon Congressional" (see recipe, pg. 20), is assured. And that, says Bell, gives him and his staff more time to pursue new menu ideas and concepts. "We try to stay very current through magazines and trade shows," he notes. For example, a recent upgrade to the coffee service in the main dining room, using French-press pots for on-table brewing, was "very well-received," Bell says.
|Even in a market as competitive as Washington, D.C., the club pursues a self-imposed mandate to be the equal of any five-star fine-dining establishment in the area—but with lower prices.|
The F&B staff is also finding more ways for members to enjoy its fare beyond regular dining room service, through more special events such as crab and lobster feasts, and monthly wine dinners that have been hugely popular.
"They're always sold out," says Assistant F&B Director Michael Troyner. "Our goal, when we started them, was to get 40 people, and they've been averaging 70."
Congressional is also finding more interest than expected in takeout offerings. "We did $20,000 in carryout last Thanksgiving, even though we didn't advertise it," says Bell.
Course & Grounds—Mike Giuffre came to Congressional as its Director of Greens and Grounds Maintenance in 1999, shortly after Mike Leemhuis came as its new GM/COO. Giuffre had heard rumblings from superintendents at other clubs that were using the "COO concept" that it led to too much meddling from general managers who don't know the first thing about a specialized field like agronomy. But in practice, he's found it to be just the opposite.
"When I got here, there wasn't the best rapport among some of the departments. In fact, there was a lot of butting of heads," Giuffre says. "Michael [Leemhuis] made it clear that even though we were all going to be more responsible for our own areas under [the new approach], we couldn't only be concerned with what we do. He stressed that we all had to understand how we can affect everything else in the club—including how someone'
;s hamburger tastes after they get off the golf course, or what merchandise they buy."
To this end, Giuffre has directed an intensive effort to upgrade and expand training and communications in his department. "We really don't leave anything out now about any aspect of club operations," he reports. "At the same time, the other departments are doing more to make their people understand what we do.
"This has value that goes well beyond training," Giuffre adds. "No one operates now with second-hand information, because Mike keeps everyone involved and thinking about the bigger picture. When we take ownership of situations and make decisions, he's made it clear that we're also taking ownership of how that will affect other parts of the club. That's really helped everyone get on the same page and avoid a lot of the typical problems—for example, scheduling work on the course without checking to see if it would fall on a day when the golf shop is planning a big sale and expecting a lot of traffic."
Making Room for More
Through the rest of the departments that make up the 16 direct reports to Congressional's Chief Operating Officer, similar decisions are being made on a daily basis to maximize those areas' potential as well, while staying firmly focused on the club's overall mission.
Cornerstones of Congressional Management
(printed on business cards carried by all staff members)
Fitness Director Richard Hollins, for example, has big plans for the expanded space his center will gain through the $25 million renovation that has begun in preparation for hosting the 2011 U.S. Open (Congressional wanted to have a longer finishing hole for the tournament, so the par-3 18th that runs up to the back of clubhouse is being rebuilt into a par 5. To gain the extra room, the club's existing pools will be closed and rebuilt at the side of the clubhouse, and the fitness center and patio will be extended to where the hole now ends). Director of Aquatics Kerry Ellett is similarly excited about the possibilities that the same project will create for his department.
Even with this massive project underway, all of the club's department heads will be able to concentrate on their individual areas without being encumbered by renovation-related details. The club's full-time Project Coordinator, Vernon Stricklin, will serve as the point person for the renovation, just as he has for a series of projects since the special position was established 15 years ago.
With all of the bases covered in this fashion, there's no reason to believe Congressional can't continue to grow successfully and efficiently into an even larger operation, while still maintaining its strong traditions and standards. The club might even find ways to make room more quickly for the names on an applicant list that now typically involves a 6- to 8-year wait for an opening in one of its 22 member categories. (Director of Member Services Maxine Harvey currently makes about 25 calls a year with the good news that a spot has opened up.)
"At the end of the day," says Michael Leemhuis of Congressional's approach to the business of running a club, "it doesn't matter what anyone's title is. What matters is developing leaders to carry out the various responsibilities.
"We've been pretty good here at embracing the principles of the [COO] concept from day one," Leemhuis adds. "And with time and experience, we continue to get better at executing it." C&RB