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March 2019

The Art Of The Owner

The-art.jpg

Art dealer Sally Waranch turned around her golf course and saved her father’s legacy 

BY STEVE EUBANKS

Business is business and art is art. Different skill sets. Different sides of the brain. One is numeric, causal, linear and logical. The other is defined by sensory perception, emotion, imagination and feel. Both can be immersive, but in altogether different ways. A long night at the office and a night at the opera prompt different physical and emotional responses.

In fact, almost never do art and business intersect. Except when they do.

Golf is art. The game has been described that way from the beginning. Bobby Jones said that one of the greatest difficulties in learning golf is “it is taught as a series of calisthenic exercises, but it is learned as a game.” Jones was most certainly an artist with a club in his hand, a Rembrandt of the fairways and Vermeer on the greens.

No one would question that the poetry of men like Bernard Darwin and Herbert Warren Wind, who wrote so eloquently of the game, is anything other than art. And what about the canvases on which the game is played? Courses sprung far and wide through rolling hills and lowland marsh, sea to shining sea. Does anyone doubt the artistry of these designs?   

No, the mindset, conversations, passion and emotional investment in the game can be described as nothing other than art. 

But we all know that golf is also a business — a bottom-line, nitty-gritty, sweat-of-the-brow, stretch-a-dollar-and-squeeze-a-dime industry with operators who better know more about a balance sheet than they do about a backswing.

So, how do you meld artistry and arithmetic? How do operators who have to make payroll and pay the light bill embrace the brush strokes of the game? 

You do it, as Sally Waranch did, by leading with your heart. 

Waranch owns Rancho Vista Golf Club in Palmdale, California, a club she took over nine years ago by default when her father, Ronald C. Waranch, and his business partner, Greg Anderson, passed away within two weeks of each other.

“The golf course was my father’s vision,” Waranch said. “He and his partner went out to Palmdale when they realized that aerospace was heading that way. And they built a planned community with everything focused around the golf course. But when my father passed away suddenly from a heart attack, I let the golf course go for a while. I went through a tunnel of grief for some time. Finally, our attorneys called and said the golf course should be sold because it was in poor condition, the economy was bad, the water restrictions and costs were killing it. That’s when I opened my eyes and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not selling anything until I check it out.’

“I didn’t know anything about golf. I didn’t play golf. I didn’t even know what the bunkers were – I called them ‘sand pits’ in the beginning – but I knew that this was my father’s passion, his dream. And it was my responsibility to look into it.” 

Waranch knew more than she or anyone else thought. For more than 30 years, she has owned a successful high-end art gallery, the Sarah Bain Gallery, in southern California. She has also served on the board of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) for 25 years. 

“I’ve been on the board (at SCAD) longer than anyone,” she said. “From back when we only had one campus and about 2,800 students total. Now we have four campuses (including campuses in Lacoste, France and Hong Kong) and 15,000 students.”

Waranch had thrived in the industry of art, a cottage business that few understood and even fewer knew how to make profitable.

“When I got into the art business, I told my father that I was going to own an art gallery and it was dead silence on the end of the phone. Finally, he said, ‘Most art galleries you find in the phone book aren’t in the phone book in five years.’ So in my fifth year, I sent him the phone book. We were still in there.

“But to survive in the art world you have to adapt. The art world is changing rapidly. You have a choice to either change with it or die like most galleries.” 

Replace “art” with “golf” and that could have been Waranch’s mantra when she ventured out to Rancho Vista after taking a crash course in golf operations.

“It was so obvious that our course was being mismanaged,” she said. “There wasn’t toilet paper in the restrooms on the course. The restaurant had closed. You could barely get a drink out there. I’d heard about people booking weddings at our course and paying for a full bar and all that was stocked was scotch and vodka. I didn’t know anything about golf but I couldn’t believe this.

“The employees didn’t know who I was. So, I showed up like a secret shopper. I walked into the pro shop, which was poorly stocked, and the TV had been turned off because we hadn’t paid the DirectTV bill. That was very embarrassing.

“So, I was asking all kinds of questions. I said, ‘By the way, who owns this place?’ The man behind the counter said, ‘A couple of old guys owned it. They died and the families don’t care.’

“That hit me in the gut because I cared. That’s when I really had to pull myself out of my own grief. We got rid of the management company. We had meetings with the members that would show up — not many would — they weren’t happy and I don’t blame them. But I looked at those people and I told them what we planned on doing.”

Just as she did with her art clients, just as she had done numerous times with her fellow board members at SCAD, Waranch laid out a vision, not as a business plan or pro-forma, but as a lover of the art of the game, someone who connected with the passions of the people in that room and in that community.
   
“I told them that we would make changes that they could see,” Waranch said. “They looked at us like, ‘Yeah, we’ve heard this before.’ That was yet another blow to the gut. I was like, ‘Oh no, look what I’ve done to my father’s business. This was his vision and I let it go.’ 

“But we turned it around,” she said. “We took immediate action so those people in that community knew we were serious. The next day, we had new sand showing up to go into the bunkers. We restocked everything. We made the changes one at a time, but we did it in a way where the people saw constant improvement.

“Eventually, they trusted me. They knew that I wasn’t joking.”

The problems at Rancho Vista weren’t unique. But Waranch brought a unique perspective.

“Water was a problem, so we immediately took grass out of areas that were out of play,” she said. “We put in a driving range. It was hard to believe that we didn’t have a driving range. For a novice, I was like, ‘Well, where do people go hit balls? How do people get better? Where do beginners go?’

“We needed to open the restaurant, not just for golfers, but so people in the community would have a place to meet and belong. When I was a kid we went to Riviera and had dinners and Easter egg hunts. Those were the things I wanted to do for this community because that’s what was promised to them when they moved there.”  

When she joined the board at the little art school in historic Savannah, Georgia, Waranch, a Californian with the optimism of the old west, beat home a message. “Our mission is to prepare kids to make a living in their chosen field,” she said. “Now, every year we go back and talk to our alums and it’s crazy to say this, but 98 percent of our students are either working in their chosen field or have gone on to higher education. I can’t name any other colleges where that is the case.” 

As for Rancho Vista, she said, “You can call it a Cinderella story. But if you believe in yourself, believe in your employees, believe in your community; if you’re open and honest with people, things can work. In any business, you don’t have to be an expert if you have the passion.

“I trusted my father’s vision. I couldn’t be happier or more proud. And I think my father would be very proud, too.”
  
Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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