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March 2018

Russ Bloom Mr. Decisive

russbloommrdecisive.jpg‭

By Steve Eubanks

For a one-time playing professional, the key to success for his two thriving Southern golf clubs has been to make the smart call and then never look back.

Every decision point in life presents an opportunity. Do you stick with the Cobb salad or expand your palette with Korean sannakji? Do you accept that invitation to do mission work in Haiti or stay home and start that book you’ve been wanting to write? Do you take the job in Nebraska or wait for the off er you think is coming in Arizona? Each answer has a consequence, a path that leads to other places, other decisions and a web of potential outcomes. The straight-line plan you have as a young person almost never predicts the place you end up by middle-age. Those who are successful embrace their choices, seizing each opportunity they select without ever looking back.

That’s the story of Russ Bloom, a Southern California boy who grew up within walking distance of the dockyards of San Diego; a great golfer who played four years at San Diego State University in the mid-90s; a kid who got a part-time job in the cart barn at Torrey Pines and qualified to play in the Farmers Insurance Classic, having his name announced on the first tee just a few yards from the time clock he would punch the next week; a journeyman pro who barely got by on the mini-tours until, one day, he got sick of it. And that’s when the path of his life changed forever.

“I hated traveling,” Bloom says, ironically, while driving his car between the two golf courses in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama, that his company, Bloom Golf Management, now operates. “It’s crazy, since I was a tour pro, but I don’t even like going on vacation for more than a couple of days. When you throw in the kind of travel you do on the Hooters Tour [cheap motels, fast food, and wearing out the tires on your car], I got pretty sick of it.”

He stopped for a rest in Mississippi, where he had friends. Despite holding an economics degree from San Diego State, Bloom took a job in the cart barn of a club called The Oaks, a Landmark Land property near the casinos on the Mississippi River, just to catch his breath. A couple of weeks turned into a few months. Then
the golf professional asked him to come inside and become an assistant.

Decision Point One: Head back out on tour or give up that dream to fold sweaters, run credit cards, score the mixed scramble and vacuum the floors at night?

“Once I decided to go inside, I never looked back,” Bloom says. “For a while, I held the record for the shortest stint in the PGA apprentice program. It was 14
months from the time I took my Playing Ability Test until I was a PGA member.”

In 2005, his boss became the general manager and Bloom was promoted to head golf professional—a nice job in a good spot, the perfect place to nestle into a career.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit, devastating Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian and every little borough in between. The owners walked away from The Oaks. Pacific Life Insurance Company held the note. But Pac Life executives didn’t know a green fee from a greens mower. Their objective was to carry a lean operation on their books and eventually sell the assets.

Decision Point Two: Find another head pro job or become a turnaround artist and asset disposal expert?

“I took it as a challenge,” Bloom says. “Pac Life hired OB Sports as the management company and made me general manager. My job was to run it lean and mean while still keeping the service levels up. It was really exciting. I loved being creative and finding more efficient ways to operate.”

In 2014, when Pacific Life decided to sell, the asset manager for the company gave Bloom first right of refusal. Decision Point Three: Put your onsite experience as the general manager in front of a new owner and hope for the best, or raise some capital, put together a partnership and become a golf course owner?

“I was able to put together some investors and structure a partnership,” Bloom says. “We bought The Oaks at a great value. That’s when I created Bloom Golf Management.” Bloom had the foresight to structure his partnership with enough flexibility to branch out. But he didn’t look for new deals right away. Showing a
profit at The Oaks was his immediate concern.

Then, in 2017, a cousin-in-law from Mobile, Alabama, reached out to him. The private club to which the cousin’s family belonged was in dire financial trouble. Once one of the more vibrant clubs in the city with some 1,300 members, the place had been managed so poorly that it was down to 100 full golf members. They were taking out loans to buy copy machines and emptying cash drawers to pay the power bill. In a series of texts, Bloom’s relative outlined the club’s latest membership drive. Then he wrote the enticing words, “It’s a shame you’re at The Oaks. We could really use your help here.”

Decision Point Four: Write your cousin back that you’re sorry you can’t help, or take a leap of faith and become a multi-course operator, managing a club on brink of disaster?

“Within a week I had a meeting with the board, looked at the structure of the club, and put together a business plan,” Bloom says.

Heron Lakes Country Club, a classic 1950s club with a 42,000-square-foot clubhouse in need of more than a few repairs and a golf course requiring a six-figure capital infusion, became Bloom Golf Management’s second property and most daunting challenge.

“I immediately converted the club from a 501-C-7 tax-exempt company to a for-profit LLC,” Bloom says. “Then I put a plan together to make it semiprivate
while retaining enough value in the memberships to keep it attractive to join. It turns out, Mobile might be the most underserved public golf market in the country. With just over a million people, they only have three public courses within a 25-mile radius [of Heron Lakes]. And they’re full.”

Bloom raised $1.4 million, paid the club’s most pressing bills, launched a capital improvement campaign, opened the doors to limited public play and effectively took over ownership of his second club.

Now, he’s got proposals out to manage three more projects in the Gulf region. Just like that, the journeyman tour pro who took a few weeks off to work in a cart barn has become a multi-course owner with a story and a niche.

“The experience I have as an owner,” he says, “allows me to look another owner in the eye and say, ‘I get it. I’m there with you. I know what you’re going through and I know what it takes to turn this thing around.’ I have two success stories to show people. I can say, ‘Look, we’re in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and we’re making money. We pay the investors every year. This model works. It will work for you. Give me a shot. Let me show you.’ ”

That conversation creates another decision point. But it’s not Bloom’s. It will belong to the next struggling owner sitting across from him.

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

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