The mission is all about tradition—creating new ones while preserving the best of the past—for the team in Mission Hills.
The monthly newsletter of The Kansas City Country Club (KCCC) is called “Traditionally Speaking.” That’s certainly a fitting name for an information source about a property that:
- lays claim, with its original founding in 1896, to being the third-oldest country club west of the Mississippi River;
- prompted the creation of one of the country’s earliest and most successful residential/shopping areas (while KCCC is now in Mission Hills, Kan., its original location just across the state line in Kansas City, Mo.’s Sunset Hill neighborhood led to the development of that city’s famed Country Club Plaza);
Location: Mission Hills, Kan.
No. of Members: 550
Average Member Age: 60
Annual Golf Rounds: 16,000
General Manager/COO: Mark Bado, CCM, CCE
Head Golf Professional: Andy Fisher
Golf Course Superintendent: Loren Breedlove
Executive Chef: Andrew Kneessy, CEC
Clubhouse Manager: Becky Livers
Director of Tennis: Helen Wilson
Director of Fitness: Karen Sullivan
Catering Director: Phil Schuver
Controller: Trina Flynn
Facilities Maintenance Engineer: Curtis Ramsey
- now features, in the current location that it’s occupied since 1925, a championship golf course originally designed by A.W. Tillinghast and later redesigned by Robert Trent Jones. And in more recent times, it has also benefitted from the influence of a club member who holds the course record (60) and takes an active interest in its preservation and improvement. You might have heard of him…name of Tom Watson.
As you might expect, with all of this and much more as part of KCCC’s history, there’s also a lot of “tradition-speak” behind the scenes at the club, among its management staff. The discussions are equally divided between stressing the importance of respecting and honoring KCCC’s legacy, but also emphasizing that the team should never become content with just riding on the club’s laurels.
You could even make a case that this focus on avoiding complacency and constantly searching for new ways to build and improve on what the club has already achieved is now firmly entrenched as another well-developed tradition at KCCC. It has its roots in the “idea machine” approach fostered by former General Manager Greg Webb and has been sustained and enhanced under current General Manager/COO Mark Bado, who arrived in 2008.
To see just how ingrained this obsession for striking the right balance between paying proper homage to history and setting out to find new frontiers has become in the KCCC operating culture, listen to Andy Fisher, who became the club’s new Head Golf Professional just three months ago. His primary message to his staff since arriving, Fisher says, has been to “preach on a daily basis that, even with 100-plus years of rich history to draw from, we can’t get caught up in routines, and have to be firmly focused on finding new ways to stay relevant.”
Backing It Up
Tradition-speak, KCCC-style, is much more than just talk or newsletters, though. Evidence can readily be found on every part of the property, and in every aspect of the club’s operation, to show how each member of the management team now seeks to carefully blend what’s sustained the club for over 100 years with what’s needed to keep it up to date for present, and future, members.
You can even find this evidence now on traditionally slow days like Mondays—which Bado says “have changed dramatically” at the club because of the new life injected into its operations by the rapid development of its fitness/wellness program and the sudden and strong impact of the new $5.2 million pool complex that opened in 2008.
In addition to the popularity of the new pool area (which will really come to life as KCCC takes its turn hosting diving and swimming championships for the area’s clubs this year and next), the food-and-beverage part of the complex has also quickly shown that it’s “not your typical pool cafe,” reports Bado. Volume for that operation has in fact already grown large enough (projecting to $180,000 for this year’s three-month season) that Executive Chef Andrew Kneessy now plans to use the pool cafe as a good training (and proving) ground for apprentice staff members who can “run it like their own operation, doing all of their own scheduling and ordering and deliveries.”
Words To Live By
MANY GENERAL MANAGERS make it a practice to provide inspirational messages to their department heads and staff. Too often, though, this has less than the desired impact, coming off as “top down” preachiness that inspires nothing but eye-rolling.
The KCCC team takes a more inclusive approach, by having all managers submit “lessons learned” that are included in a Management and Leadership Team Manual that is updated each year.
Here’s a sampling of the thoughts that team members shared with each other in this year’s manual:
“Cherish the feedback from your critics.” (Loren Breedlove, Greens and Grounds Superintendent)
“No job is beneath you.” (Curtis Ramsey, Facilities Maintenance Engineer)
“Experience is what you get if you don’t get what you want.” (Phil Schuver, Director of Catering)
“Choose your attitude.” (Helen Wilson, Director of Tennis)
The manual also includes a list of very specific yearly goals and objectives that each manager literally commits to on paper. Some for this year included:
“Replace my sous chef of many years [who took a position in California] with little disruption to members—this will be a challenging task during a busy time of year.” (Andrew Kneessy, Executive Chef)
“Create and develop a policy/procedures manual and training program for the entire golf operation, to be used as the primary training tool for every member of the team. This will be accomplished by October 1.” (Andy Fisher, Head Golf Professional)
“Keep the website current and relevant.” (Trina Flynn, Controller)
The cafe has already been a good proving ground for innovative menu concepts like the popular create-your-own-salad system that purposely (at members’ request) does not use a POS ordering process. Rather, members use pencils to check off their choices from a small tear-off form. But this certainly doesn’t mean those choices are limited; the form lists three types of greens, 18 possible fixings and 10 dressings, as well as the opportunity to add grilled chicken, steak or salmon, roast turkey, crispy fish or chicken tenders to the salad.
After making their selections, members add their name and number, hand in the form, go back out to the pool or into the cafe and wait for their name to be called over the PA system. Basic cost (including five fixings) is $8; additional fixings are 50 cents each and the added proteins are either $3 or $4.
The regular pool cafe menu also includes a wide variety of over 10 salads, as well as ample choices for sandwiches, grill items, and dinner items (available after 5:00 PM) including BBQ baby back spareribs, grilled salmon, New York strip steak, Bombay curry chicken, flatbread pizza bianca, tacos (chicken, steak or fish) and stir fry bowls (chicken, steak or veggie). Not your typical pool cafe, indeed.
Snow Day Camps and Skydiving
Breaks from tradition at The Kansas City Country Club can now also be found at all times of year. A popular new “offseason” offering has been Snow Day Tennis Camps. When schools are closed for bad weather and parents suddenly need a place for their kids to spend the day, Director of Tennis Helen Wilson, who has been at KCCC since 1985, is ready to mobilize staff for activities that make good use of the semi-permanent bubbles (they are removed, folded and stored for the summer) that cover some of KCCC’s courts in the winter.
Exciting new twists have also been developed at KCCC for even the most traditional of club events, such as the Fourth of July. About five years ago, as Director of Catering Phil Schuver (a 19-year staff veteran) tells it, he and others on the clubhouse staff were once again trying to brainstorm with the members on that year’s planning committee, to see if any new idea could be dreamed up to deal with the dreaded 45 minutes of “dead space” that always occurred (and that was tough for restless kids to sit through) after everyone had finished eating and was waiting for enough darkness to allow the fireworks to begin.
One member suggested that maybe it could be arranged to have a plane fly over and drop some skydivers onto the property during that time. Upon looking into it, Schuver found that it was an “amazingly cheap” attraction to arrange—and so now each Fourth at KCCC includes what he calls “the perfect time kill,” and what members are coming to know as yet another special tradition at their club.
Flood of Emotion
Life can also bring unwanted traditions, and in the case of KCCC, one that’s occurred with far too much regularity in recent years has been flash-flooding from the creek that runs along much of the property’s 130 acres and borders many of its golf course holes. “I know that golf courses are often built in flood plains,” says Loren Breedlove, who joined KCCC in 1979 as an Assistant Superintendent after getting his degree in Agriculture from Kansas State, and five years later became the club’s Golf Course Superintendent. “But I think we’ve had at least twenty ‘100-year floods’ in the past 10 years.”
The problem stems from surrounding communities’ increased inability to control stormwater runoff, and has become severe enough to actually sweep cars that fail to heed warning signals onto KCCC’s golf course (after which they must be helicoptered off). One particularly ill-timed flood even had the audacity to hit (and wash entire bunkers from one hole to another) during last year’s Watson Challenge (an event designed to identify the best golfer in the Kansas City area).
But rather than complain about things they can’t control, Breedlove and his staff choose instead to keep finding ways to cope while staying focused on continued improvement of their prized layout—which Breedlove, with Watson’s counsel, has taken care to preserve as closely to the spirit of Tillinghast’s original design as possible. Somewhat ironically, given how much water it has been taking on, the next major planned capital improvement for the course will be a new irrigation system, scheduled for 2013 to replace the existing one, which dates to 1978.
All for One
As KCCC moves forward into whatever new chapters may unfold in its future, the members of its management team will enter those periods through the integrated approach that Bado has introduced (see “Head of the Class”). “It’s all about all of us thinking that we work at the club, and not on the grounds or in the kitchen or dining room,” Bado says. “We constantly emphasize how all decisions affect every part of the operation, and that as a result everyone needs to be involved in making those decisions, and then in supporting each other as they take effect.”
The integrated management approach, Bado says, fits today’s clubs because they can no longer just be “Dad’s getaway,” but rather need to create added value through a family orientation. “The members want the total package, and to be able to provide that, you must have a unified management staff,” he notes. “By removing the old stereotypes of what each manager’s ‘function’ is within a club, and instead working to create synergies through deeper levels of responsibility, accessibility, accountability and knowledge, you stand a much better chance of maximizing the potential contributions of each department and each manager, and then enhancing member satisfaction.”
This approach should also serve KCCC well as the team stays entrusted with preserving the club’s existing traditions while developing new ones. That’s by no means an easy job; T. S. Eliot, in fact, once defined tradition as something that “cannot be inherited—and if you want it, you must obtain it by great labor.” But maybe Eliot—who, after all, was born in St. Louis—had the KCCC team’s successful approach in mind when he added: “Tradition by itself is not enough. It must be perpetually criticized and brought up to date.”
FITNESS HAS MUCH LESS OF A TRadition in private clubs than other operating areas. But it’s going to catch up in a hurry, if Karen Sullivan, Director of Fitness at The Kansas City CC, has any say in the matter. And Sullivan does have plenty to say on the subject, having become an active advocate for club fitness and wellness programs through the national Club Spa and Fitness Association, as well as regional groups she has helped to develop. Sullivan will be a presenter on the value of club fitness programs, both for members and for the health of the club’s business, at next year’s Club Managers Association of America World Conference in New Orleans.
At KCCC, Sullivan very much practices what she preaches, developing a fast-growing array of programs that already ranges well beyond basic exercise offerings to now also touch “wellness” areas such as brain fitness, better sleep, self-defense, personal safety, nutrition for college students, and many more. Sullivan also works closely with KCCC’s golf, tennis and F&B departments to coordinate appropriate cross-discipline programming.
“If private clubs are making it a goal to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for all member needs, getting on the wellness track is definitely a smart move,” Sullivan says. “While not every member is interested in exercise, most every one will be interested in at least one or more of the wellness programs that can be offered to help them improve the quality of their lifestyle.”
Many of the programs can have special appeal, both for their content and social value, for senior members, Sullivan adds, and possibly make the difference for those who might otherwise be contemplating resigning a club.