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May 2022

Managing the Unexpected

By Michael Williams

The pandemic has been a circumstance that virtually no one was prepared for. Businesses all over the world have had to make rapid drastic adjustments just to have a chance at survival. Golf fared better than many other industries, in part because operating a golf facility has always required owners and managers to be ready to make quick adjustments.

From losing key personnel to government regulation, from catastrophic weather to biblical rainstorms to devastating drought, owners and operators have to be ready to respond to the unexpected and the unimaginable.

Many managers are taking the opportunity to examine and understand their crisis management plans. How do you prepare for an unexpected crisis? And when the unexpected happens, how do you stay nimble in your decision making and make sure that you're staying afloat during difficult times?
Karima Mariama-Arthur is a leading consultant in the area of leadership and management. In a recent article for Success magazine, she advises that managers accept that a changing business landscape is the new normal.

“Taking appropriate action in the direction of change will help make certain that things go more smoothly for you,” Mariama-Arthur says. “And the earlier, the better.

“Get clear on the strategy and tactics that will help you overcome any roadblocks to your success. Then, without hesitation, execute.”

 Jeff Hoag is co-owner of Scott Lake Golf & Practice Center since 1975 along with his wife Nancy. As a current and past president of Michigan Golf Course Owners Association as well as a current board member and past president of the NGCOA, Hoag is no stranger to the unexpected surprises that can happen in golf course operations. He believes that his experience is one of his best tools when faced with managing the unexpected.

 “Obviously the pandemic is a special thing altogether,” says Hoag, “but in a business that is so susceptible to weather changes and things like that, nothing can replace experience. But then once you have that experience, then you still have to have a plan and have the ability to act on it.”

 Peter Nanula is CEO of Concert Golf, which owns over 20 private club properties across the United States. Nanula agrees with Hoag on the singular nature of the pandemic as a management challenge. “Literally in one week's time, we had furloughed 60% of our workforce and we told our investors and our board members after we'd done it all. That's one thing that is really different from a member-owned club that has a board committee structure where the general manager and department heads have a lot of what I call ‘delegation of authority’ challenges.

“Our company's the opposite; all authority starts at the bottom, not at the top. All authority comes from our general managers and line people who are serving members every day. For us, they are mini-CEOs. We tell them, ‘Do what's right, call us later.’ I think that really benefited us in that time period. In 2020, we beat budget in every respect, including membership, financial and member satisfaction.”

 One variable that falls into the “not if but when” category is weather. Extreme weather can put a facility out of commission for a day or a month, leaving management scrambling for solutions.

 “One recent Memorial Day our golf course was full of people,” recalls Hoag. “All of a sudden, I hear this loud crack of thunder. I look on the radar and it's a popup storm; we got five and a half inches of rain in two and a half hours…It was unbelievable! But with the hail and lightning we had to get people off the golf course.

 “And that was prior to GPS so we didn't have GPS on the carts,” recalls Hoag. “The experience inspired us to upgrade our carts to include GPS. When we needed to justify the cost, we thought back to that day and said, ‘You know what? If we had been able to send a message to all of our golfers, come in, there's a storm coming in, get off the golf course, that would've been helpful.’ And we would've been able to actually spot the golfers on the golf course and under the trees about having to go out there and scout them out. Again, experience leads us to prepare for the next time.”

 Golf is a people business, and the loss of a key staff member can be devastating if there are not people ready to step in and step up to fill the void.

“I think from my perspective that the ‘key man’ issue has been critical, especially in these last couple of years with the ‘mass resignation’. People are looking at their jobs and saying, ‘Is this what I want to do, or do I want to move back home to be with the parents? Or the kids?’

“The last 18 months, I've been worried about [my staff member] Shane; he's the second in command here. What are we doing for Shane? Are we doing all we can for Shane within the confines of our businesses? Are we giving him enough training so that if something were to happen to me, can he step in and do all he can? So we've got three key people beyond me, and we've really worked hard the last 18 months to try and increase their knowledge and increase their paying benefits. Two things, to try and make sure that we don't lose them because we're negligent in how we treat them.”
Another issue that can come up unexpectedly is agronomic problems.

 “Whether you're public or private, it's the loss of greens. It's almost like its own crisis,” points out Nanula.“You lose your golf course and it can affect your reputation.”

Water restrictions are another variable that can wreak havoc.  Notes Nanula, “We don't have clubs out in California, Arizona and Nevada right now, but the ones out there that we've spent time with say that when the water bill or availability of water gets choked off, it could be a major crisis, like Marin Country Club last year. I remember up here near where I live, the county, Marin County, told all the golf courses in the county to cut back 30 or 40% on their water usage immediately.
“I played one of the nicer clubs in town with a friend of mine and recalled that the greens were green and tee boxes were green. The rest of the golf course was brown. It was kind of weird. It was like links golf or playing in desert conditions. Everything's brown because you just couldn't water fairways, roughs, any of that.”

The list of things that can derail a golf property runs a lot longer and can include fire, medical emergencies and even crime on or near the course. Crazy things happen to everyone, but facilities that literally weather the storm understand what is necessary to keep things running relatively smoothly: a combination of preparation and timely decision making.

Says Nanula, “There's not some manual somewhere that we pull open when something happens. I think for groups like ours that are larger; it's experience, right? We have 25 clubs and we've been through it all. We’ve pretty much dealt, and so you just sort of learn as an organization.”
Nanula ultimately sees his people and the trust he has in them as the key to surviving the unexpected.

“I would say my biggest message for people in this particular industry is to push responsibility down. One of the biggest flaws I see in this whole industry is boards of member owned clubs who are part-time volunteers, doctors, lawyers, luminaries in town, show up at their club once a month for a couple of hours and have a board meeting and retain all authority to do everything at the club. The general manager can't tie his shoes without asking the board or some committee for a meeting, can't get capital to respond to a member's needs, can't make a decision without board approval.

“The clubs that we see that seem to do well and are more nimble in responding to situations like you're describing are the situations where the GM is much more like a CEO and the board is much more like a corporate board. They're responsible for setting the strategy and the business plan for the year and the budget, but they don't try to tinker with ‘let's have a meeting to decide our cyber policy’ or ‘let's have a meeting to decide on what we're going to do about some staffing issue’. That's a CEO's job. That's the GM's job. My message is to push autonomy and authority down, let your GM run the club.

Do you have a story about an unexpected crisis and how you handled it? Send it to us at info@ngcoa.com and we’ll share the most unusual stories on social media!

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