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January 2022

Constant Monitoring Makes Desert Mountain An Attractive Employer

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By Steve Eubanks

Every club does its best to attract top talent within the confines of the budgets. But margins in the golf industry remain tight. Any increases in payroll and benefits, be they from additional staff, raises or perks designed to attract the best and brightest, can have cataclysmic consequences to the bottom line, especially in a time when inflation is driving every cost skyward. Throw in things like the Biden administration’s tinkering with tip regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act or the looming threat of mandatory vaccines, and it is little wonder that golf courses continue to struggle to fill jobs. 

But one operation in Scottsdale, Arizona, one of the most crowded and competitive golf markets in America, is creating a work environment that is the envy of the industry. Desert Mountain, the private residential club with seven golf courses and 750 employees, has taken some extraordinary steps to attract and keep talent. For starters, the operation did not lay off a single employee during the pandemic, an almost unheard-of precedent when most clubhouses were closed or severely limited.

While that loyalty has been rewarded with a strong employee retention rate, the club didn’t stop there. It now has an on-site health clinic, free to staff and their families. Got a kid with a runny nose who needs a quick check-up? Bring him to work and run him through the clinic. No anxiety about deductibles or copays. Worried about getting your annual physical? Stop by after work and get it knocked out without worrying about cost.

“Having an on-site clinic allows us to focus our efforts on wellness and prevention,” said Wes Pudwill, director of talent and culture at Desert Mountain. “Having a healthier and well-cared for team is an excellent way of preventing high medical claims. It is also a convenience that turned into a necessity during the pandemic as we are able to provide COVID tests and COVID vaccines.”

The recruitment tools don’t stop there. Desert Mountain offers tuition reimbursement, parental leave for either mother or father and, more importantly, the best hourly pay scale in the industry. Beginning in January, hourly food and beverage employees have seen a pay increase from $19 to $28 an hour, along with life insurance, short-term disability benefits and competitive 401K contributions. Throw in the clinic, and, from an employee perspective, this might be the most attractive club in the nation.

“We have an excellent total compensation package that we compare to local competitors multiple times throughout the year to ensure we are at the top of the market,” Pudwill said. 

That is an important point and one that can be mimicked throughout the country. While very few golf operators can pay their service staff $28 an hour, everyone can stay abreast of the compensation being offered in your market and adjust during the year. There is no hard and fast rule that raises have to come at the beginning of a fiscal year. If you’re losing talent to the competition in June, the smart operator restructures pay and benefits to keep the best people and attract more of the same. 

Remaining on top of your compensation and being ready to restructure on a moment’s notice are crucial components in today’s market. Two generations ago, adults averaged four jobs in their lifetimes. Today, that number is 12.1 jobs in a career. People move frequently. The concept of employer loyalty is almost extinct. Without an ever-evolving package of benefits to attract and maintain talent, every operator risks devoting time and resources to train employees only to have them jump to the competition for a few extra dollars or some additional time off.

Being at the top of the compensation heap also saves Desert Mountain money on recruiting. The majority of new hires come through referrals. The club pays existing employees a $500 bonus when they refer another employee who stays with the company. That also boosts retention. A dishwasher will think twice about quitting if he was hired on the recommendation of a friend.   

“We also have incredible training and development tools, internship programs and opportunities for advancement in all areas,” Pudwill said. “We are fortunate to have a strong reputation in the club world, and in Arizona that helps to attract and retain top talent.”

On the service side, especially in the food and beverage operations, Desert Mountain experiences a 35% turnover rate, usually within the first year of employment. While that sounds high, the typical turnover rate in food and beverage is 50%. The club also has 130 employees who have been on staff for 10 years or longer.

That loyalty is built in several ways. First, the company provides constant training, starting with an intense, two-week “new hire training” program.

Customer-interacting staff are also trained on service standards and safety, along with the history and culture of the club. But after that, Desert Mountain continues the process, providing leadership training and monthly seminars.

Those sorts of things only work if there is a path for advancement. Not only is there a career ladder that employees can climb, the club helps them chart their course.

“Our training programs are inclusive of virtual training, facilitator-led training, and on-the-job training to ensure all different learning types are provided,” Pudwill said. “Desert Mountain is a huge advocate for experiential learning, allowing its teammates to learn and experience training in an interactive and engaging way. … (We’re) committed to developing every aspect of a teammate’s skillset.” 

The problem, of course, is cost. None of those benefits are cheap. But putting employees on a career path ends up paying off in the long run. “As of November 1, 2021, all new teammates in our F&B department were on a flat-rate, hourly-wage structure with no gratuities,” Pudwill said. “Then, starting January 1, 2022, all current teammates moved into the same high hourly wage. We’ve also added a career ladder for these positions, multiple levels to create promotion opportunities with higher pay. For example, a server can be hired as a ‘Server 1’ and can be promoted into a ‘Server 2’ position with higher pay once they meet the qualifications. 

“At this point we feel that having a flat, high hourly wage will be in the best interest for our teammates and members. Teammates can count on having the same wages all year round regardless of the business levels due to our seasonality, which will help us recruit and retain the right talent. Our members will see consistency in service. And with less turnover, (they) will have more familiar faces year-round.” 
 
Desert Mountain takes pride in being one of the top employers in the industry. “Teammate satisfaction, retention and doing what is right for our team is always a top priority for the club,” Pudwill said. “And these are dollars well spent.
“But also, the culture of the club and its members is shifting. We have more residents that stay here all year. And we continue to have higher utilization during our summer season, which in the past was always quite slow. Members care about having the best possible service and that is best derived from employees who truly appreciate how the club treats them with outstanding benefits. It also encourages employees to stay with the club a long time. Members appreciate it when club employees know their names and recognize their individual needs. It makes the club more personal and comfortable. Taking care of our employees translates into our employees taking care of our members.”

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