Progressive management approaches and programs implemented by the CC of Detroit, CC of Buffalo and Sewickley Heights GC have positioned the clubs to not only make it through the recession, but emerge stronger than ever.
Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Buffalo and Pittsburgh once thrived on bigness.
As hubs of manufacturing, they were America’s boomtowns at the turn of the century, with thriving economies and growing populations. In times of plenty, they were the perfect place for traditional country clubs with grand clubhouses and beautiful, meticulously cared-for golf courses.
Fast-forward 90 years, and these cities—and their clubs—tell a much different story.
While it’s true that the most recent recession posed unprecedented challenges for clubs of all types, sizes and locations, no clubs faced more severe tests and threats to their existence than the older, mid-sized private clubs that can be found in the Rust Belt region that runs below and around the Great Lakes. These clubs have changed dramatically since their founding. With aging properties and facilities, they’ve had to cope with the same transformations in membership that now affect the entire industry. They’ve also had to face the added challenges created by their region’s vanishing manufacturing base and eroding economy.
Still, those that have survived have done so through careful planning, meticulous spending and a lot of dedication on the part of their management teams and members. Three clubs in particular—the Country Club of Detroit, the Country Club of Buffalo, and Sewickley Heights (Pa.) Golf Club—have taken progressive approaches to crisis management, golf course maintenance, financial planning and membership retention and development as they’ve implemented exciting new programs and ideas. The efforts have not only helped these clubs survive the recession, but emerge from it in strong position to provide the family-oriented experiences that will ensure their success for many future generations—and prepare them for whatever new economic challenges might come next.
Restoring Performance in the Motor City
It’s nearly impossible to have missed the recession’s impact on Detroit, a city now experiencing some of the most severe political and economic turbulence in its history. As its buildings go vacant and its population dwindles, one of city’s oldest institutions—the Country Club of Detroit (CCD)—has seen this before (i.e. The Great Depression) and is once again successfully finding ways to navigate its membership through the recession while simultaneously overcoming some of the biggest challenges ever faced in its 114-year history.
When Mark Petzing, General Manager, and Jim Gusella, Clubhouse Manager, came to CCD in 2006 and 2007, respectively, they had no idea what the upcoming years would have in store. But with impressive pedigrees (Petzing previously worked at the Country Club of Virginia and Augusta National Golf Club, while Gusella spent time at Congressional CC and Rock Hill CC), they were prepared to tackle whatever lay ahead.
“When I was interviewing for the position, the Board had very strong expectations for the general manager,” says Petzing. “The search committee tasked me with turning CCD into a stronger, more disciplined organization.”
Slowly but surely, Petzing, along with Gusella and the rest of the team, began to earn the trust of the club’s membership as they focused on restructuring the governance model, aligning initiation fees to be more in step with the changing market, and bringing in new, family-oriented members.
Then, in 2008, as the club industry began to take on casualties, CCD embarked on a $2.2 million renovation to its dining facilities (view before-and-after photos with the online version of this article at clubandresortbusiness.com). These changes made the formal dining room slightly less so, while upgrading both the casual dining room and the cocktail lounge.
The membership was elated with the results of the project, and F&B revenues and club usage began to climb. Everything seemed headed in the right direction, until a ticking time bomb that lay beneath the golf course reared its ugly head.
When it Rains, It Pours
“I took over in 2007, and it was right around that time I noticed that the greens were dying,” says Bob McCurdy, Golf Course Superintendent. “They wouldn’t dry out, no matter what we tried to do.”
McCurdy conducted extensive tests, called in experts, and tested some more. Eventually, it was discovered that the drainage profile of the greens had been completely altered over the years.
“The golf course is one of our most valuable assets,” says Petzing. “We had a major agronomy issue that had to be solved no matter what the economy was doing.”
In November 2009, the membership approved a $1.8 million renovation project to fix the drainage problem on the greens and also address and correct other items that were in better keeping with the master plan of the golf course, including tee reconstructions, bunker enhancements and some adjustments to the fairways.
To help CCD with this project, golf course architect Tom Doak signed on. Work began on July 4, 2010, and McCurdy managed the process start-to-finish, making sure the team followed USGA guidelines to the letter.
“We stripped the greens, got rid of sod, cored out the greens, redid the drainage, and changed all the contours to make sure they surfaced-drained,” says McCurdy. “Then, on the second day of seeding, I got a call on my radio that one of the maintenance barns had caught fire. By the time I got there, it was completely engulfed in flames.”
McCurdy didn’t have time to attend to the seeding, so he told his Assistant Superintendents, Dan Koops and Andrew Harrel, that they needed to take the lead on the project while he dealt with the fire. “They executed it flawlessly,” says McCurdy, who kept members updated on the construction project and the fire through a blog. “That night, when I finally left the property, I posted on the blog that our jobs didn’t get more difficult, they got more exciting, because we had an entirely new set of challenges to overcome.”
In the blaze, the cause of which was never pinpointed, CCD lost about $600,000 of turf management equipment. But a network of industry colleagues and manufacturers rushed to supply the club with any needed pieces, McCurdy reports. “Within two days, we had everything we might need,” he says. Lucky enough, the building that housed all of the equipment needed for the renovation was spared from the fire, so construction was never interrupted, and CCD’s renovated course is scheduled to reopen as planned this July.
“We is We”
CCD has 840 total members (340 golf, 45 senior golf, 85 lifetime, and 370 social, intermediate, and non-resident). The numbers declined as the previous decade drew to a close, but have started to rise again, thanks not only to the work being done on the golf course, but also a newly inspired food-and-beverage program led by Executive Chef Brian Beland, CMC, a full events calendar, and more family-focused activities.
“We’re in the middle of a generational shift,” says Gusella. “As a result, we’re becoming a much more family-focused club. We lost 100 core golf members over a three-year period, but the members that have remained and those that have joined are invested in the future of CCD. They’re bringing their families here, too.”
Internally, a trimmer budget and leaner operation has also helped to improve the outlook—and to keep everyone on point, a 10-minute team huddle is held every day at 1:45 PM, during which everyone shares updates on their departments while offering ideas and suggestions for others. “It helps us to keep each other accountable,” says Gusella. “We have a ‘We is We’ philosophy. Everyone is part of the same organization, so if you see something that needs to get done, you do it.”
Where the Past Dictates the Future
On the other side of Lake Erie sits the Country Club of Buffalo (CCB). Steeped in tradition, CCB also holds an important part in the history of the city. It boasts a golf course that Donald Ross designed in 1926, as well as a distinctive 47,000-sq. ft. American Colonial clubhouse, designed by renowned Western New York architect Duane Lyman, that opened in 1927.
In addition to golf, CCB offers swimming, tennis, platform tennis, skeet and trap shooting, as well as a brush walk (a competitive course for shotgun shooting, similar to field hunting). The club is also home to two sports that depend totally on Buffalo’s famous winter weather—ice skating and cross-country skiing.
With nearly 500 members on the roster, a dozen who joined just last month, CCB demands perfection in all phases of its operation. At the same time, membership demands fiscal restraint. Balancing these two critical elements is General Manager Tim Minahan, CCM, CCE, who has been with the club since 2002.
As the economic crisis began to take hold, the club set in place a systematic plan to eliminate debt that was initiated in 2006 and completed in May 2010. “This allowed us to free up initiation-fee income for use on capital and facilities projects,” Minahan says. As a result, CCB invested nearly $1.8 million in facilities infrastructure, maintenance, and capital equipment from 2008 through 2010.
“There are a lot of challenges when you’re dealing with a building that’s nearly 100 years old,” says Minahan. “But we refuse to cut corners on infrastructure investment. The economic problems will end, but if we start to compromise the quality of our assets, the cost over the long term will be far greater.”
CCB’s clubhouse is built on top of the Onondaga Escarpment with terraces along the backside that take full advantage of the views. Along these terraces are stonewalls that date back to the original structure.
“One of the walls was beginning to erode,” explains Minahan. “It would have been much less expensive to pour a concrete wall and put a stone façade over it, but that’s not how we do things at CCB.”
The wall was rebuilt with stone and mortar and now once again flows seamlessly with the other walls. This level of attention to quality can be found in every part of CCB’s clubhouse and operation.
“If the slate roof needs to be repaired, slate is used. If the copper gutters need to be replaced, copper is used,” says Minahan. “If a member is talking on a cell phone, we guide them to a phone booth. If there is a piece of trash on the floor, we pick it up.”
Holding the Line
An all-too-common approach to attracting new membership in the current economy has been to slash initiation fees and relax entrance standards. Here, too, CCB has resisted quick-fix temptations and held fast to its core principals.
“We’ve remained focused on maintaining the quality of membership candidates invited, with the full understanding that this may cause negative growth in tough economic times,” says Minahan, who notes that dues increases have been set at 1% higher than expense growth annually, to help offset expected attrition.
To keep current members active, CCB has rolled out a number of what Minahan calls niche programs. “They’re geared toward a specific demographic in the club,” he says. “For example, for family fun days on Sundays, we invite everyone to come play, even the toddlers. We also make sure to tell our core golfers that they might want to schedule a different tee time, as the course will be full of families who might not play as quickly as they do.”
Such one-step-ahead thinking has helped CCB remain a success. “You need to make your memberships valuable, and every single penny has to be accounted for,” says Minahan, who is diligent about financials and cost controls. “Despite sales reductions and a smaller membership, we have remained profitable and ahead of budget for each of the last four seasons.”
That kind of careful planning will also help guide CCB into a future that has three major projects on the horizon. The first is an update to the golf course that will include bunker renovations, greens expansions and tee alignments. There are also plans to renovate the men’s locker room and install a new irrigation system.
“We’re working on the master plan for the golf course right now,” says Minahan. “While we have these projects in mind, change comes slowly here. Some of these things won’t happen for at least ten years, but we need to start talking about them and planning for them now.”
A Players Club
For Pittsburgh, this recession is nothing compared to the mid-1980s, which brought the collapse of the domestic steel industry. But the current downturn has still had a clear effect on how people are spending their discretionary income—and during a time when country clubs are seeking to offer all things to all members of the family, being a “pure golf” club can be especially challenging.
Facing this challenge head-on is Sewickley Heights Golf Club (SHGC), located about 20 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh. Featuring a par-72, 6,927-yard course that a recent poll in the Pittsburgh Business Times rated as the third-most prestigious golf course in Western Pennsylvania, golf greats such as Palmer, Player, Floyd and Trevino have graced the SHGC grounds since its inception in 1961, and the club has hosted many amateur and professional golf tournaments on national, regional and local levels.
There are practice facilities, a full-service golf shop and locker rooms, as well as two dining rooms (one more casual than the other), and a men’s grill.
Simply put, the club’s raison d’être is golf, and members enjoy a culture that is inviting and unpretentious. “Our members are golf enthusiasts who share a great love and respect for the game, as well as for the natural beauty and challenge of our course,” says General Manager John Sobecki, who came to the club in 2009. “But because we’re younger than a lot of the old-line clubs in the area and are ‘pure golf,’ we do have a unique set of challenges.
“As membership numbers began to dwindle a few years ago, the club recognized the need to take action,” Sobecki continues. “We started by evaluating our membership program, to see how we could improve it.”
SHGC reevaluated its membership categories and decided to offer a unique, limited-time initiation-fee discount. “We have a cap on how many members we will take at each price reduction,” Sobecki explains. And it seems to be working: Since the 2010 membership campaign began, the club has enrolled over 95 new members, including 65 full active golf members.
SHGC is also debt-free. “When we paid off the mortgage, we had a big party,” says Sobecki. “Traditionally, we had been charging $100 of debt service to our members, so when we became debt-free, we lowered members’ dues by that amount.”
With 95 new members on the roster, Sobecki and his team have been busy. “New members tend to use their club more than older members,” he notes. “Our dining revenues, event participation and rounds have increased.”
Fazio Golf recently completed a full review of the SHGC’s golf facilities and presented the club with a master plan for renovating and improving the current course. The plan was approved by over 92% of the membership in a vote in September 2009. Construction is set to begin this fall, with the goal to complete most of the more significant renovations over the next three to four years. To help pay for it, members have stepped up to participate in the club’s capital campaign.
“We’ve had over 70 members generously donate to the capital campaign and we’ve sold four lifetime memberships so far to help fund the renovation. To date, we’ve raised over half a million dollars,” Sobecki reports.
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