Profile: Golf club manager and friend of Ernie Els: Derek Cooke

Jenny Yu
By Jenny Yu December 28, 2011 10:56

Profile: Golf club manager and friend of Ernie Els: Derek Cooke

While many managers have recognised that an unstable financial climate has precipitated the need to invest in their clubs’ futures by developing their junior sections, some have been doing this for years.

Derek Cooke, general manager of The Millbrook Golf Club in Bedfordshire, is one such person, having increased the number of juniors at his club by nearly 40 times from when he came on board in 1998 to when he was named as a Manager of the Year finalist in 2007.

But now, with retirement approaching, following 20 years running golf clubs in two continents, it is a good time to profile a man who has embarked on an incredible journey.

Derek, who had previously worked in a number of different roles at Cadbury Schweppes for several years (and was chairman of the company’s sports’ club), left his Birmingham home in 1991 to live with friends in South Africa. Within a month he was employed as golf manager at Observatory Golf Club in Johannesburg, “following a relaxed interview that involved a few cool Castle lagers”, a facility with 400 members that was once home to Bobby Locke.

“Golf manager,” said Derek, “involved the marketing and sale of memberships and promotion of corporate golf, and to oversee all golfing aspects at the club. One perk initially seen as a bonus at first was the no limit expense allowance for use in the bar, but this became quite risky in a country where driving your own car was a must.”

Derek also ran the pro shop, purchasing and sales, and administered a separate golf driving range. It probably doesn’t sound too untypical of what any UK club manager experiences, but then few managers in the UK operate in one of the gun crime capitals of the world.

“Three months into the job, the general manager was held up at gun point after being called in to deal with an alleged alarm fault late at night by his head barman, who was being held at the time with a gun to his head,” he said.

“This incident happened three days after firing a member of staff. This indeed was a tough area; the robbers were aware of where every safe [the club had several due to a “culture of gun-toting golfers”] was; they fled with thousands and some gear from the shop. After this they were very cautious after releasing staff.”

Fidelity guards were then employed to deliver the club’s cash to the bank (which was manned by armed guards). But even they were robbed. “Thieves were seen walking around nearby Hillbrow with purple dye over their heads and the dye had rendered the bank notes useless.”

And while many managers have had to deal with members complaining about unavailable tee times, how many have experience of the following? “One day a visitor rushed in to the shop shouting ‘my caddy has stolen my gun and wallet from my golf bag’. I asked him to take a seat in his office as he quietly called the police. The police duly arrived and arrested the golfer for gross negligence!”

After 13 months, Derek resigned after being offered the position of assistant manager at Kempton Park Country Club (Ernie Els’ former club) in the country’s Gauteng province, in what he hoped would be a much safer area.

“I was involved in all areas of the club at Kempton,” he said. “I was actively developing junior golf and was a member of the South African Junior Golf Foundation.” In fact Derek hosted and organised the South African Junior Golf Foundation inter-provincial tournament in 1996 (and received a letter of thanks from a 16-year-old Trevor Immelman, who went on to win the Masters 12 years later). Professional tour school’s events were also held at the club.

Furthermore, Derek opened up a corporate membership and introduced 900 members in a two-year period. Over the entire four-and-a-half-year period that he was there, the club was a major success and Derek found the lifestyle he had yearned for. But experiences unique to the location were still in abundance.

“The black staff at the club were excellent at their jobs and most spoke at least three languages,” said Derek. “Some of them however were subjected to violent experiences in the townships and domestic troubles were common. So the club looked after them with dormitory-type accommodation to sleep over if they decided not to travel home late at night, and some accepted loans from the club to assist with rebuilding their homes after arson attacks.

“Caddies also often caused mayhem when trying to ‘get a bag’, often as a result of either too much drink or drugs. The caddy master regularly had to call me for assistance. Order was usually rapidly restored when I was seen rushing towards them wielding a 3,000-volt baton that was normally reserved for use by the local police!”

Violence seemed to rear its head on a regular basis in the face of widespread local frustrations. A golfer was shot on the course, a friend of Derek’s was robbed and raped, members’ businesses were held up at gun point, Derek’s company car was broken into three times and his home was ransacked. However, the final straw came when two golf club managers were murdered within a 50 mile radius of Kempton Park. In 1997 he returned to England.

The following year he began another eventful job, this time at The Millbrook Golf Club, located near the Duke of Bedford forest estates and nearby Ampthill Town. Millbrook, a proprietary-owned club at that time, was about to embark on a new debenture-style members’ buy-out scheme. Derek’s initial role was to take on the day-to-day operation of the business and help market the sale of memberships in a get-out plan already set in place for the owner.

“I had no idea what to expect when I joined, but I quickly realised that the club was in total disarray and badly managed,” he said. “The owner had the bar run on a concession and this only opened when the barman felt like it. Members used a local pub as the 19th hole.” Derek quickly employed the barman on proper opening hours until his departure nine months later, and then appointed a new bar manager in Toni Hernanz.

“This proved to be a master stroke. Toni has since become a major asset to the club and my right hand man,” Derek stated.

Moreover, Derek had to convince the owner to buy basics, such as sand for the bunkers, as members threatened to leave if the course was not improved – even though his role was to sell memberships costing between £1,100 and £5,000, and to encourage existing members who had already paid a joining fee, to pay these new joining fees too!

“The club changed its name to Lyshott Heath as a marketing ploy and then set about a plan to attract 960 members that would enable the owner to take his money and hand over the club to its members. Yet members left in droves and the target of 960 members was a pipe dream. With the owner residing overseas, I was left to fend off daily visits from bailiffs.”

Derek still sold 78 membership units during this time and introduced a member’s loyalty bar card / handicap system along with a new tee booking system. He also produced a regular newsletter and built a club website on his laptop at home. The club professional left during this time and Derek took control of the shop and green fees for nearly two years and assisted with competitions and administering members’ handicaps. The catering was franchised out by Derek and this encouraged a new social interaction with themed supper evenings and quiz nights, which were popular with members.

“But the club was still suffering,” he said. “In desperation, the owner made it known to agencies that the club was up for sale, going against his wish to hand over to its members. The club could have been taken over by yet another individual, leaving frustrated members in the lurch. The owner had admitted to members at the AGM that he wished he had accepted a previous offer of £1.5million from members. The club was at rock bottom with less than 200 members on board.”

Derek was involved in an approach to an outside company to buy out the 991 year lease from the owner on behalf of the members. In September 2002, with the owner now admitting despair, Lyshott Heath was wound up and the sale was agreed at a knock-down price of £960k. The Millbrook Golf Club Ltd was born and a 99-year sub lease – with a fixed rent plus an option to purchase in 35 years time – was agreed with new owners.

Setting up a new business was a costly affair and £35k was required to pay the solicitors fees – Derek collected £50 off each member to help pay the legal fees. Members were given an opportunity to have this money refunded on to a bar account at a future date, but only a few asked for this. Derek, now general manager, was given the added responsibility for the course. Fairway mowers were bought along with a tractor, tees’ surround mower and other items including a sprayer. Both Toni and Derek passed their national certificates and became the joint licensees.

The word quickly got around that the club was now in control of its own destiny and Derek managed to sign up 111 new members in the first year of the new club. Buoyed by this, the club embarked on a £300k building extension that was completed in 2005 and with 98 new members joining in the last year, the club is now well placed for the future. “Club member Bob Freeman was instrumental in the successful transformation of the clubhouse as project manager and club chairman Ian Hill – plus director Les Tucker – were the rocks that laid the foundations,” said Derek. “The new changing room facilities enabled larger groups to play the course and proactive marketing increased our society income by £13k in the first year – this growth has continued. Our landlords were most supportive on takeover with a rental holiday and a loan to start off the building project.”

To show how committed Derek was to his job, he even housed the new caterers (after ill health had forced the franchise caterers to retire just three months before the takeover and the club had struggled to find suitable replacements to work the unsociable hours) that he employed in his own home for 16 months!

He was also one of the first managers in the UK to respond to a Golf Club Management article on CASC (community amateur sports club) legislation encouraging the club to change its status at the AGM. “This saved 80 per cent on our hefty rates bill,” he stated.

With the club thriving, Derek was quick to spot free publicity when a member reported the sighting of a wild boar on the driveway to the club, (the previous owner used to keep wild boar in a pen near the course). He sent a press release out and following publication in the local newspaper, Three Counties radio arrived to interview Derek and a film crew turned up to ‘shoot’ the habitat.

Derek also caused quite a stir with a five column letter sent to Golf Club Management, published in the July 2005 edition. His passionate plea regarding the UK’s junior golf organisation prompted a three-page response in the next issue in a joint article from Paul Baxter, then CEO of the English Golf Union, and Mike Round, CEO of the Golf Foundation.

His commitment to junior golf development continues with 75 youngsters on the books at The Millbrook. “We now have over a dozen junior county players and three ex-juniors have joined the PGA professional ranks in the last three years. With the assistance over some years from volunteer members, the junior section has grown in strength and depth and provided some solid foundations for the club to take on. This process ultimately assisted three former juniors, Richard Kemp, Chris Fitt and Mark Brookshaw, push on to become PGA members and in turn they continued to give back their time and experience in helping youngsters at the club.”

Derek was one of eight local managers of private members’ clubs in Bedfordshire that met quarterly to help each other in many areas sharing ideas, supplier contacts and problems. “The results of these meetings were extremely valuable, not least a reciprocal golf scheme idea was seized upon by their club chairmen, and this has now developed into an eight course group offering free golf to members’ clubs registered in the scheme; this has proven a great marketing tool and a good member retention aide,” he said.

With a rent equating to approximately 33 per cent of total subs income, the club has limited resources for extravagant spending. “The club has been run on a shoe-string budget, but we do invest when it is necessary to do so. That’s why, for instance, we had a nett gain of 49 members from 2008 to 2009. It’s also because good customer service costs nothing and this will go a long way towards keeping the customers satisfied. Many golf clubs now operate in a different environment to the old regimented way of strict dress codes.”

As Derek heads towards his retirement in 2013, he is taking a steady slow down route and now works a four-day week.

But what does he believe is the secret of his success at The Millbrook? “A partnership of over a decade working alongside the same club chairman who lets the manager manage! Look no further than Sir Alex Ferguson for proof of this. Committees should take note – continuity works well,” he said. “All clubs should follow a plan that is structured for the future; captains change yearly, so why do some clubs give them authority over a chairman?”

Jenny Yu
By Jenny Yu December 28, 2011 10:56
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1 Comment

  1. John Martins April 9, 14:46

    Your message..Hi Derek! I don’t know where to start. I don’t even know if this is the right place. I have started as new fundraiser for the Greytown Child Youth Care Centre. It is a new field for me to raise sponsors for a NPO, cause I had only backround with schools. I reasondly got the green light for a gholfday to raise money for the Childrens Home. I thought that I maybe should also start to try to get a celebraty, or personal items of a celebraty maybe to auction. Forgive me for saying it here. Is there any way that you maybe can help me with. I know that Ernie must be exstreemly busy, but if I can ask if you could help me in any way in this respect that could make the day on the 18 of August this year a success. It is my first time with a gholf event, and am nervouse but excited to give my best to make an success of it. I really appreciate any time that you would spend on reading this message. We could also provide you with an Article 18 A if you could help with any donation of any kind that you could put an estimated worth on. Kind Regards

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