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May 2018

Spring into Action

spring.jpg‭By Kyle Darbyson

It’s understandable that newly minted stakeholders at struggling clubs would want the chance to turn things around during their tenure. No one wants to be the person to admit defeat and throw in the towel. Despite best intentions, a pattern can repeat for years without the systemic problems being addressed, leading to catastrophic results.

This was nearly the fate of Indian Spring Country Club in Boynton Beach, Florida. Former club president Bill Aronson says he fell into this trap himself. With membership aging and numbers stagnating, the former advertising executive fell back on his well-honed craft.

“I put together a little commercial they played on local TV,” he says, adding dryly, “It didn’t work.”
Even then, nine years ago, Aronson saw the writing on the wall. “We’re an older club and we just weren’t attracting younger members to replace anyone that left.”

On his last day as president, a local realtor approached him and planted the seed. “She asked if we were interested in selling the club.”

The timing didn’t work then, but the seed was planted. Successive presidents tried their own approaches to avoid selling, but the downward trend continued. With the ticking demographic time bomb only getting worse, pragmatic board members finally decided to act while they still had some leverage. They let it be known the property was for sale, and began approaching potential partners.
“One faction wanted to sell nine holes to a developer and build more units there,” Aronson says. Other members feared any buyer would go much further than nine holes, perhaps even developing real estate across the entire property.

Enter Concert Golf Partners, a private equity firm that has been recapitalizing distressed private clubs since 2011, and viewed Indian Spring as an extremely attractive asset. “We saw a lot of issues we thought we could solve,” explains Concert CEO Peter Nanula. “We could pay the debt off, fund some capital projects and eliminate the ‘management by committee’ that holds back a lot of places like this.”

Perhaps more important to the members at Indian Spring, Concert committed to keeping both 18-hole courses open for at least 10 years.

Town halls kept the members abreast to negotiations. Nanula says his message to members was simple. “We will fix the balance sheet and we will preserve your traditions, culture and identity. And all the risk is on us, not on you.”

The message was well received, with over 90 percent of voting equity members approving the sale.

A full-time marketing and sales director was brought in, who set out to attract younger members to the club. “We are looking heavily outside the development, trying to lower the average age of our golfers,” Nanula says.

Concert’s plan includes visiting nearby communities that lack golf amenities and enticing those residents with significantly discounted membership opportunities.

The deep pockets of Concert allow for aggressive plays like this, and they also put a lot of prospects at ease. “I think knowing you aren’t going to get dinged for assessments every year is important to a lot of people,” says Aronson.

So far, close to 30 members from outside the Indian Spring community have taken up membership. What’s more, they’re considerably younger than most current members, building a foundation for long-term stability that’s been missing for years.

Existing members have already seen what Aronson calls “immense improvements” to the golf courses. And, he says, they have bigger investments in the social aspect of their member experience to look forward to (see sidebar, at right).

“Some won’t be done by the time a lot of us are gone, but we’re all feeling a lot better about the future of the our club.”

Kyle Darbyson is a Vancouver-based freelance writer. 

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