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June 2017

Wonder Women

wonderwomen.jpg‭By Steve Eubanks

How daughters of a dynamic entrepreneur are carving their own niche at Fox Hills

Entrepreneurial women should be celebrated in every industry, but especially in golf, where there’s been a gender gap the size of the Grand Canyon for more than a century. While other major businesses, particularly in the tech sector, are on their second and third female CEOs, clubs like Muirfield and Royal Troon have only recently voted to accept women members, and places such as Butler National, Lochinvar Golf Club and the National Golf Club of Canada remain all-male with no plans to change.

Kathy Aznavorian and her younger sister, Sandy Mily, pay no attention to gender issues at other clubs. And they laugh at the idea of a glass ceiling. For 30 years, this dynamic duo has been blazing trails in the golf industry by staying ahead of trend lines, anticipating change, and adapting quickly.

As owners of Fox Hills Golf and Banquet Center in suburban Detroit, between Plymouth and Ann Arbor, Michigan, the sisters have grown what was a run-down, private, 18-hole club with dandelions growing in the fairways into the most thriving 63-hole golf complex in the region, a hotbed for innovation, and a model for operators from all over the world.

They didn’t do it through magic or some proprietary invention. They did it the old-fashioned way. “We’ve put our minds and our hearts to work here, every day, and have been doing it for years,” Aznavorian says.

The sisters were on the cutting edge of the economies-of-scale model, adding an additional nine holes to Fox Hills in 1983 once the tee sheet consistently filled up. Then they bought adjacent acreage from three farmers and built another 18-hole course, designed by Arthur Hills, in 1989. That brought the total to 45 holes, a number that provided significant economies of scale.

“Golf was booming at the time,” Aznavorian recalls. “The area around Fox Hills had been very rural, really out in the middle of nowhere, but it was growing and becoming a desirable suburban area. So, we saw a real need and filled it.”

That entrepreneurial spirit, and the courage to act on intelligent instincts, came naturally for the sisters. Their mother, Estelle Dul, had been an icon in the area for half a century. Dul, who started work as a secretary and bookkeeper in the automotive industry at age 17, parlayed her unusual acumen into a partnership at a company called Transmission and Gear of Detroit. It was an unheard-of ascension for a young woman during the war years. Then, in 1945, Dul purchased Collord Corporation, a metal-stamping company with patents in neoprene coatings. Nine years later, she took the Collord patents and formed Clips & Clamps, which supplied metal stamping to the auto industry throughout its heyday.

Aznavorian and Mily still own Clips & Clamps with Aznavorian’s husband, Mike, who left an engineering career at Ford Motor Company to enter the family business. Jeff, Aznavorian’s son, has recently become an owner as the family transitions generations.

The sisters took over their parents’ second business, the golf course, which Estelle and her husband Alexander Dul purchased in 1974.

“They took a huge risk,” Aznavorian explains. “[Fox Hills] was really out in the boonies, and there wasn’t much business to speak of. It had gotten run down and there wasn’t much business. So, my parents started refurbishing the course, cleaning up and turning it into a well-maintained property. People saw the improvements and started coming out.”

Mily worked at the club full-time from the early 1980s while Aznavorian became a CPA and worked at Clips & Clamps.

“I was out on the weekends helping out as a bartender, being behind the counter, whatever my parents needed,” Aznavorian recalls. “But as my folks got older, my sister and I became excited about the idea of buying or building another course.”

Purchasing the adjacent farmland and building the Golden Fox (the name of the newest 18-hole course) was the sisters’ first venture together as owners and working partners.

“We’d been plagued [at Fox Hills] with an older clubhouse, a log-cabin-style structure built in 1927 without any amenities needed for a public facility,” Aznavorian laments. “As young women, we wanted something fancier and nicer. So, we built a new 32,000-square-foot clubhouse where we could host groups and functions. It’s still a beautiful clubhouse, even though it’s 28 years old now.

“Golf was booming, and we had a 45-hole course,” she adds. “We were very successful.”

But their mother had taught them a valuable lesson, something they had witnessed firsthand in the automotive industry. No matter how well things are going, change is coming. Always.

They’d seen it with Clips & Clamps. While other automotive suppliers closed shop as the auto industry downsized, sending towns like Benton Harbor, Michigan, into a spiral, the Dul family never rested on one product or one customer. They innovated before it became urgent. By venturing into wire forming, slide forming and pre-manufacturing engineering, Clips & Clamps was poised and ready when the downturn came.

That same strategy applied to golf. Even as the industry boomed throughout the 1990s, the sisters saw diversity as the key to long-term success. They carved a niche in the small- to mid-sized wedding market in both Plymouth and Ann Arbor, providing affordable venues to young couples getting married on a budget.

“In addition to the two clubhouses, we added [retractable] sides to an outdoor pavilion,” Aznavorian boasts. “So now, if it’s a pretty summer day, you open it up and have a beautiful space under roof. But if you need to, you can close it and have a roof and floor, which is much nicer than any tent you might rent.”

Fox Hills hosts hundreds of weddings a year, a business that was a niche 20 years ago, but one that became a lifesaver during the Great Recession. “Without the weddings, we’d have been dead,” Aznavorian posits. “They saved us. But we weren’t anticipating [the decade-long economic downturn in the game]. We just looked at the space we had and said, ‘There has to be a better use for this than just selling golf balls.’

“For example, we’ve done Sunday brunch here for years and serve 300 to 350 covers every Sunday,” she continues. “It’s really quite popular, and it’s not what you’d normally expect from a public golf course.”

The sisters brought that same “highest and best use” mindset to additional farmland the family owned adjacent to the course.

“We saw a need for families, juniors and beginners as far back as the early 2000s,” Aznavorian says. “So, we took our family land next to the big course and built an 18-hole short course, thinking that we could move beginners over to the short course so everyone was happy about them learning the game.

“That soon evolved into a learning center with covered and heated bays, an indoor putting area and a conference room, which can be used for stretching, fitness classes or meetings,” she adds.

Currently, Fox Hills has 10 PGA and LPGA teaching pros working at the learning center. “It’s the only place in the area where you can practice and learn the game year-round.”

In fact, Fox Hills is known far and wide for its extensive player development efforts, including a step-by-step, progressive approach aimed at juniors and women. Progression for players at Fox Hills begins at the Learning Center, where they learn fundamentals of the game. Once a player is comfortable with the basics, they move on to the short-game area, which features three greens and bunkers of varying depths and complexities. The next step is to apply learned skills on the 18-hole, par-3 Strategic Fox course, which has holes ranging from 50 yards to 195 yards in length.

Continuing the stair-stepped approach, a player’s next challenge is to take on the Fox Classic, a traditional course featuring three par-35, nine-hole layouts with four sets of tees ranging from 2,100 to 3,200 yards. Once players have achieved intermediate-to-advanced skill levels, they’re ready for the Golden Fox course, a links-style layout designed reminiscent of Scottish seaside courses.

In 2014, Fox Hills added FootGolf, a combination of soccer and golf in which players use their feet as clubs and work the ball into 21-inch wide cups. Attracting non-golfing youngsters and families, FootGolf generated more than 15,000 rounds at Fox Hills in its first two seasons, creating an all-new revenue source.

Collectively, these efforts have garnered awards and generated national recognition. In 2016, for instance, Fox Hills won the NGCOA’s Player Development Award.

Indeed, the investments Aznavorian and Mily have made at Fox Hills are well deserving of accolades, but their innovation and impact has earned them much, much more than just a plaque. They’re the businesswomen their parents had always hoped they would become.

In the end, there is no better legacy than that.

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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