Michael Smith’s Excellence in Club Management recognition for his achievements at The Country Club of Rochester also serves as well-timed affirmation for the legacy he shares with his mother, Mary Smith, as she completes an equally distinguished career at the Rochester Yacht Club.
At the age of 14, Michael Smith, CCM, CCE, got his introduction to the club business when he worked as a busboy for a women’s fashion show luncheon at the Rochester (N.Y.) Yacht Club (RYC). He had to wear a white shirt and red bow tie, and work with his mother, Mary Smith, who was a waitress in RYC’s dining room at the time and had pressed him into service because the staff was shorthanded that day.
Despite all of those factors, any of which would traumatize most teenage boys, Smith thoroughly enjoyed the action involved with serving the luncheon—and it proved to be the first step towards a steady succession of fulfilling career experiences that led to his recognition, because of his achievements as General Manager and Chief Operating Officer of The Country Club of Rochester (CCR), as the 2019 recipient of The Mead Grady Award through the Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards (see “A Celebration of Excellence,” below).
Receiving the ECM Award also proved to be timely affimation for the family’s club-management legacy that Mike Smith shares with his mother, who herself rose through the ranks at RYC to serve for the last 15 years as its Club Manager, before retiring this summer after a total of 27 years in the business.
“I learned great lessons about the club business from my mother, even from that first day,” Mike Smith says. “Not only how hard she worked to always make sure everything was done right, but the compassion and empathy she had for the staff, and the connections she made to be able to relate to members so well.
“Perhaps most importantly,” he adds, “I saw how she always kept the same calm, measured approach to solving problems, no matter how quickly they arose or how much they piled up.”
In addition to wanting to be able to spend more time with her grandchildren, Mary Smith does acknowledge that a pileup of unforeseen problems over the past few years did prompt her to move up her retirement timetable by a year or so. “We had [severe flooding of the RYC property from a rising Lake Ontario in 2017], then a good year, then another flood, and now COVID,” she laughs.
But even as Mary Smith was counting down her last days on the job in August, she still energetically led a tour of improvements being made to rebuild the RYC docks and discussed the details of how the club was adjusting to increased member usage while operating under the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
“I’ve always loved what I’ve done,” Mary Smith said while sitting on RYC’s lakeside patio and reflecting on her career. “How can you not like coming to a place like this? It’s not work when you focus on how you can contribute to having people enjoy being with friends and family.”
HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
Mike Smith has added to the lessons learned from his mother with his own ideas and philosophies, to fashion a successful career that included an internship while in college at The Union League Club of Chicago, and then roles with the Hilton Restaurant Group, the Country Club of Ithaca (N.Y.) and Penfield (N.Y.) Country Club, before becoming CCR’s GM/COO in 2015 (he had previously been Clubhouse Manager at CCR before becoming Penfield’s GM).
Smith took the top spot at CCR while the club was in the midst of a $6.2 million dining, fitness and pool project, and steered it smoothly to successful completion. Additional advancements followed in rapid succession in subsequent years, including Smith’s development of the “Thistle Promise” initiative (drawing inspiration from CCR’s unique logo) that served, along with extensive new training programs, to “reboot” the club’s service culture and contribute to sustained growth in membership (a net growth of 30 in three years), member utilization (steady gains in all food-and-beverage categories) and member satisfaction (service-score gains of nearly two points, on a scale of 1 to 10, in an 18-month period).
As 2020 began, plenty more was in the works to continue the momentum, including a transition of the pro shop to club ownership, plans for a new golf course maintenance facility, and expansion of CCR’s racquets program. It was also to be the year when the club would celebrate its 125th anniversary.
But all of that changed for Smith, he says, “as soon as I got off the plane” when returning from the Club Management Association of America Conference in Texas in February. And while he says the pandemic has posed the greatest challenge he’s encountered in his career both emotionally and physically, with “literally no downtime” since the need to plan and execute a response strategy arose, he’s drawn on the lessons he’s learned from observing his mother’s career, and pursuing his own, to calmly lead CCR through the crisis, even racking up some new successes along the way.
“There was certainly no playbook for this, so we just set out to learn everything we could as quickly as we could,” Smith says. “The key term we focused on was ‘pivoting’—not reacting, but trying to anticipate whatever could happen, and then being prepared for how we would need to respond if it did.”
Smith quickly assembled a Safety Committee team made up of not only his department heads but also a doctor, attorney and cleaning-supply business owner from among the membership. “We would review and revise our plans every time we would meet, always trying to stay two steps ahead, and having backup plans if needed,” he says.
It’s all worked out well enough for CCR to experience another active year, with golf rounds up 20%, dining “above normal,” and the now club-owned pro shop contributing some valuable newfound revenue. And next year, the club still hopes to be able to pick up on projects that had to be deferred, while also preparing for a delayed, but no less exciting, “125 plus 1” anniversary celebration.
Not surprisingly, given his family’s fondness for the club industry, Mike Smith has even found a silver lining from the trauma this year has brought. “It’s been gratifying to be able to be there for members and it’s really made me see what kind of impact we can have on their lives,” he says. “It’s given me new appreciation for what we have in a club setting, and how something like this can bring everyone together, members and staff, in a positive way.”
A Celebration of Excellence
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. A Selection Committee comprised of a peer group of leading club managers conducts the judging for the ECM Awards.
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
A full listing of 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.
The 2019 Excellence in Club Management winners were honored at an Awards Dinner held at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas on February 8, 2020 (“The Toast of Texas,” C+RB, March 2020). The Awards Dinner was sponsored by Denehy Club Thinking Partners, ForeTees LLC, Izon Golf, Outdoor Lighting Perspectives and Preferred Club.