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February 2019

Creating a Customer Culture

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A Servant’s Mindset Proves a Triumphant Model

By Steve Eubanks

The difference is summed up in five profound words, a phrase that has taken Billy Sitton, founder and CEO of Triumph Golf, from aspiring player to one of the most respected multi-course owners and operators in the golf industry.

“Service with a servant’s heart,” Sitton said in his disarming, down-home Texas twang. “It’s just that simple. That is the philosophy that drives everything we do. Listen to your members and give them what they want in a professional manner. When you’re looking to make a difference in any operation in any market, that philosophy will always be well received. We’ve also found that you will almost universally be more profitable if you follow that rule.” 

Sitton stumbled upon this business philosophy more than three decades ago.

“I thought I could play for a living,” he said. “A few of the executives from ClubCorp sponsored me through Q School. But they told me that if I didn’t make it, I had to work for them a year.”

He didn’t make it, but the selflessness of those ClubCorp executives stuck with him and he stayed with the company.

“That 12-month commitment turned into 28 years,” Sitton said. 

He became senior vice president of golf and country clubs, working closely with ClubCorp founder Bob Dedman and his son, Robert, as they grew the company to 376 golf clubs, the largest golf operator in the world.

“Mr. Dedman had what he referred to as a three-legged stool philosophy,” Sitton said. “You run the business like a three-legged stool: one leg is the members, one leg is the employees and one leg is the financial partners. If you make all your decisions trying to keep that stool in balance, you will be successful.”   

Then ClubCorp sold to KSL Capital Partners. And, as Sitton said, “I was one of the unfortunate people that they kept.”

He quickly realized that the three-legged stool was becoming unbalanced. “The members and employees were secondary to the financial partners,” he said. “(KSL) seemed bound and determined to improve their short-term financial position by raising prices and reducing services. I’m not saying their management philosophy was bad, it just didn’t mesh with mine.” 

So, after almost three decades with ClubCorp, Sitton walked away from a great job to go out on his own. That was the genesis of Triumph.

“Like everybody in the business, I started off with management agreements,” he said. “I had consulting contracts and management of Harbor Lakes in Granbury, Texas, and River Ranch in Lafayette, Louisiana.”

Those management agreements gave him time and freedom to develop a growth strategy. In 2012, he partnered with some of his old buddies from ClubCorp to purchase two clubs: Cypress Lakes in Houston and Pebble Creek in College Station, Texas. Two years later, he purchased Longwood Golf Club in Houston. A year after that, he ventured outside his home market and purchased The Tanglewood Club in Chagrin Hills, Ohio.

Then in late 2015 and early 2016, Sitton and his partners purchased two clubs in the Atlanta area, Heritage Golf Links and Woodmont Golf and Country Club. That gave Triumph six clubs in three states.
 
“We don’t really think in terms of saturating a market,” Sitton said. “We look at over 300 deals a year and run them through a series of strainers to figure out what makes sense. Our first strainer is we ask: Are we dealing with a motivated seller? If the answer is, yes, we move on to our second strainer, which will seem silly, but we make sure there is access to plenty of water. That is a big deal now and will only get bigger in the future. Then, our third strainer is: Can we make a difference? There are a lot of good clubs that are run so lean and professionally that we can’t do that much. If that’s the case, we pass. But if a club passes through all three strainers, we take a serious look at making an offer.” 

How does Triumph quantify something as subjective as “making a difference?” The best answer is an example. 

“Let’s take Pebble Creek, which was owned by a developer,” Sitton said. “If you created a college course called ‘What to do Wrong (in the Golf Business),’ Pebble Creek would have been the master class. The club was well below market in membership and revenues because they were well below market in quality.

“So, we called town hall meetings with all the members and outlined what we were going to do for them. We had artist renderings of what we planned for the clubhouse. We brought in pieces of equipment that we were going to purchase and showcased them in the dining room. And we told the members the entire story of what we planned. Then we delivered on schedule.

“Once we had some credibility, we started a comprehensive membership drive and doubled the membership. Today, it’s one of the most vibrant clubs anywhere. Now, we invested twice as much in improvements as what it costs us to buy it. But today, Pebble Creek is one of our best performing clubs.”

Service with a servant’s heart. Listen to customer needs, explain your plans, deliver on your promises, and then ask for their help in making your club a financial success.

“We always say, enhance the value of belonging,” Sitton said. “We strive to make your experience with us so good that when the economy goes bad you’ll stop going to Starbucks before you drop your membership at one of our clubs. We want to make it that much a part of your life.”

That philosophy and business model has worked wonders on all fronts.

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

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