A smaller market hasn’t held the Fort Wayne, Ind. club back from thinking big when it comes to member reach, amenities and services.
Fort Wayne, Ind. is by no means a small town—it’s the second-largest city in the state and 75th most populous in the U.S., with just under 300,000 in the city proper and over twice that in the surrounding combined statistical area. It’s been designated as an “All-American City” in several years (most recently in 2021), has revived its downtown, and has successfully diversified a local economy that was once heavily dependent on manufacturing and the auto industry.
While the Fort Wayne area also has several well-established golf and country club options, however, it’s not necessarily front-of-mind when thinking of notable club markets, even for those who work within the industry.
For example, when Anthony Capua was considering options for taking his first Executive Chef position at the start of 2020, his strong resume, after gaining experience at prominent Florida properties (Fiddlesticks Country Club and Hammock Beach Resort), led to a number of choice opportunities in culinary centers such as Seattle and Washington, D.C.
In addition, Capua was extended the oppportunity to become the Executive Chef of Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne. And despite the lower profile and recognition factor that the city, market and club had—both for Capua, and among those he sought out for counsel about the best place to make his next move—there was something from the start of his exposure to the Sycamore Hills property and position that still made him think it could be the right place for him to pursue his career goal of “competing with the best.”
That impression came in large part from wwhat Capua learned during his interview process about the history of Sycamore Hills, the makeup of its current ownership and management team, and the plans for its future direction.
The club’s origins do have the stuff of a “small town” story; it was founded in 1989 by a local businessman, Jim Kelley, who was best known for his car dealerships. He turned his interest in golf into the development of three local courses, with the plum of the portfolio being Sycamore Hills and its Nicklaus Signature Design course, which Kelley and his son Tom created with the idea of bringing a championship-level golfing experience to Fort Wayne.
The Kelley family continued to own and operate Sycamore Hills into the new millennium, but after Jim Kelley’s death in 2005, a sale was explored. That raised concerns among the membership that the property could be sought by golf management firms or other buyers that might look at the vast and lush property (the golf course alone has 230 acres of maintained turf) as a prime target for development. (The club is adjacent to a separate, unrelated Sycamore Hills development, but only a small percentage of members live in that community.)
That concern led to the formation of a member group that bought Sycamore Hills from the Kelley familiy. After several years under member ownership, however, needs arose for the club to look at major renovations of the golf course, clubhouse and other facilities, and not everyone in the membership group had the same appetite for making those investments (Sycamore Hills has maintained a history of not imposing any capital or operating assessments on its membership since its earliest years).
Four members of the original ownership group then bought out the others so the club could move forward with needed projects. The principal owners are now two brothers, Rick and Marty Rifkin, who led the growth of Fort Wayne-founded OmniSource into one of North America’s largest processors and distributors of scrap metal (it was acquired by Steel Dynamics in 2007, and now operates as a wholly owned subsidiary).
The Rifkins spend part of the year in Florida, where they are members of several prominent, high-end clubs. But they are at Sycamore HIlls for most of the summer season as involved, hands-on owners—but not heavy-handed ones, Rick Rifkin makes clear.
“My brother and I are here almost every day, but we’re a ‘committee of two,’ and that’s pretty much all that we think is needed in the way of involvement from the ownership and membership in daily operations,” says Rick Rifkin. “We certainly solicit input regularly from other members and occasionally may have some focus groups, but we don’t have a formal committee structure and we leave the operating decisions to the professional staff. We’ll be there to remove obstacles when needed, but our main purpose is to provide direction and then let [management] carry it out.”
The Sycamore Hills management team is currently led by General Manager/COO Chris Hampton, who arrived in Fort Wayne at the start of 2019. He brought with him not only the insight gained through career experience in larger markets such as Pittsburgh (Oakmont CC) and Cleveland (The Country Club and Lakewood CC), but also the unique perspective that comes from representing the fourth generation of his family to work in club management. And even with all he’s seen, done, and heard about at the dinner table through the years, Hampton has found the prevailing winds in Fort Wayne to be especially refreshing.
“Working for a small ownership group, we can move quickly on projects, because there isn’t a lot of red tape to get through,” he says. “There is trust and belief in our leadership team, and they give us the tools to succeed.”
FINDING A BALANCE
Those projects have included the construction and operation of two on-site cottages that have helped Sycamore Hills establish and build up a national membership category while also providing a unique amenity (and generating some lodging revenue) as members use them for themselves or for guests. Sycamore Hills has also raised its profile by hosting Web.com Tour events (the Hotel Fitness Championship) and various college conference, state amateur, and USGA and PGA qualifiers and tournaments.
Through aggressive merchandising in its pro shop, the club is also big on promoting special logo’d items to its membership (“We want a lot of shirts out there, so people will come up and say “Sycamore Hills? I’d love to play there,” says Rick Rifkin.) And that will be further enhanced as the club starts participation this fall in an online program that will greatly expand the possibilities for customized items of in-demand brands.
Prominence for Sycamore HIlls has also come from its annual $800/plate fundraiser for the Blessings in a Backpack charity, which has brought a steady stream of celebrity chefs to Fort Wayne, starting with Charlie Trotter in 2008 and since including Cat Cora, Michael Symon, Rick Bayless, Marcus Samuelson and many others (an impressive display of signed chef coats hangs in the clubhouse hallway). And this year the club introduced an innovative “Battle of the Chefs” concept, pitting Capua’s culinary team against one from Fiddlesticks CC in Florida, that set off a buzz not only among the membership and local area, but throughout the club industry.
But while all of these efforts bring recognition to Sycamore Hills, the club is also careful to make remaining an intimate and special setting for members a priority. It limits outside outings to just four a year and does not allow any between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It also focuses its food-and-beverage operation heavily on a la carte and special events for members, minimizing weddings and banquets.
“The vision for everything we do is as tight as it’s every been; it’s really focused now on always offering something special for members in a golf club setting,” says Head PGA Professional Tim Frazier, who’s experienced all of the transitions in ownership during his 22 years with the club.
And on the culinary side, Executive Chef Capua is convinced that he not only made the right choice for himself in coming to Fort Wayne, but that the industry has taken notice of where he now is, too. “We’re getting the club’s name out, and people see that it’s a place where we can do everything that can be done in larger markets,” he says.
At A GLANCE:
Sycamore Hills Golf Club, Fort Wayne, Ind.
Ownership: Privately Owned
Members: 281 Golf, 177 Social
Golf Course Architect: Jack Nicklaus Signature Design
Annual Golf Rounds: 16,000
General Manager/COO: Christopher J. Hampton
Head PGA Professional: Tim Frazier
Course Superintendent: John Thompson
Clubhouse Manager: Alfredo Hildebrandt
Executive Chef: Anthony Capua