Meet the golf club manager: Gordon MacLeod from St Ives (Hunts)

Jenny Yu
By Jenny Yu January 15, 2018 06:20 Updated

Gordon talks about winning the GCMA’s ‘Newcomer of the Year’ award, the challenges involved in taking over a club that had recently relocated and what the venue’s strategic plan entails

Congratulations on winning the GCMA’s ‘Newcomer of the Year’ award? How do you feel, what were the criteria for selection and the achievements that tipped the win your way? Did you enjoy participating in the process and will it benefit you and the club moving forward?

Thank you. Well, to merely be considered a ‘newcomer’ as I rapidly approach my 50th birthday was reward enough! To be awarded the accolade was extremely pleasing both personally and professionally: personally, it vindicates my decision to change career path in my late 40s; professionally, it indicates that there is a significant amount of crossover from the world of business to the golf industry.

Insofar as the selection criteria was concerned, nominees had to have been in the golf business for less than two years; I was particularly pleased to be up for the award against a very good personal friend, John Reeder from Theydon Bois. Interestingly, John and I were on the same GCMA Introduction to Golf Club Management Training course in September 2016, we were both new to the golf world having had very different professional life’s beforehand. There was clearly very little between John’s outstanding achievements and what it was judged I have achieved – famously, it could have gone either way!

I must commend the professional and intensive manner in which the GCMA, the three award sponsors (Colt Mackenzie McNair, intelligentgolf and Golf HR) conducted the review of the candidates – I certainly felt that I had been ‘through the mill’! Whilst the award was, in itself an accolade, actually being part of the end-to-end process managed exceptionally well by the GCMA was, quite frankly, a privilege. To be sat around the dinner table or even on the golf course with some of the finest talent in the golf industry was both educational and therapeutic in equal measure. I now feel that St Ives (Hunts) Golf Club is considered worthy to mix with some of the bigger, better known golf clubs – we as a golf club should be assured that we deserve to be at such a table now.

What led you to change your career path in your late 40s?

Being Scottish, it should come as no surprise that I have been playing golf since my early youth. I loved the game, its traditions and what it tells you about yourself. I played my golf at Murrayfield Golf Club in central Edinburgh as a youngster and I recall the influence the then club secretary, Mr McArthur, had on my approach to golf – I now repair all my pitch marks, especially on the 18th green – you never know who may be watching from the clubhouse! However, I was determined to join the RAF as a pilot and so I did, leaving school at 18 to begin life as an RAF pilot having been sponsored to get my National Private Pilot’s Licence [NPPL] at 17, before I had passed my driving test. However, it wasn’t long into the jet flying programme that both the RAF and I realised that I was a, shall we say, ‘challenging’ student! Nevertheless, despite not making it as a pilot, I had a very successful 25-year career in the RAF engaged in some very exciting and rewarding appointments around the world. I left with two masters degrees – one in precision farming (yes, precision farming – it did come in useful when identifying poppy fields in Afghanistan some years later!) and the other in international relations – I won’t tell you which one has proved most useful in my role as a golf club manager! This led, as a matter of course, to an equally rewarding period in the defence industry where I worked as a specialist consultant and project manager with two of the largest US defence companies. I joined St Ives (Hunts) Golf Club on leaving the RAF in 2011, having visited the Titleist National Fitting Centre to buy myself an ‘end of career’ gift – this was my first visit to the club and I was immediately taken with the fantastic layout, undulating (by Cambridgeshire standards!) land and the outstanding practice facilities.

I was aware that the club had been struggling to retain a general manager, there had been four in the five years since I first joined; purely by chance I responded to a note from the management board which explained the trials and tribulations they were having in identifying a new general manager. I raised my hand and after a very thorough interview and assessment period, I was delighted to be offered the role; I took up my position on July 4, 2016.

What have been the advantages and disadvantages of the golf club relocation?

The club moved from an 80-acre, nine-hole course to a 240-acre, ‘big’ 18-hole course in 2010 – a real step change in all aspects. Moreover, it is a very different style of course now, an open, inland links-style on the outskirts of the town of St Ives compared to the tree-lined, parkland style course which was right in the middle of the town.

Clearly, there have been many challenges: a ‘new’, relatively immature golf course offering a very different golfing experience; a required change of culture by both staff and members alike in order to grow into what we have. Nevertheless, the opportunities presented by the visionary decision to move have provided opportunities which far outweigh the challenges: host club to the Titleist National Fitting Centre; and, of course, additional income from the ongoing sale of the old course which, the prudent and planned use of will both enable the golf club and course to realise its full potential in the short / medium term and provide certainty and longevity for the club well beyond its centenary in 2023.

What are the biggest challenges you currently face?

I think the biggest challenge I have had to deal with has been the lack of continuity of the day-to-day management of the club over the preceding years, in essence, since the golf club moved to its current site in 2010. My first priority was establishing key baselines in terms of figures – financial and membership. After almost 18 months in post, we are there. Of course, in parallel to this historic baselining work, we have had to plan for the future, recruit more members and develop relationships with the local community, local businesses and our key stakeholders and principal partners, most notably the Titleist National Fitting Centre and Paul Ashwell, our director of coaching, who runs his academy from the site.

How big is your team and what is the departmental / management structure?  

Not big enough! However, I am fortunate to have an outstanding team, most of whom have been invested in this golf club for many years, some for over 20 years at both the old course and our new site.

In terms of structure, it is by many standards, the archetypal structure: greens’ team, led by an outstanding course manager; bar and catering overseen by our hospitality / bar manager and head chef; an in-house pro shop which acts as the focal point for retail and coaching; and myself and an administrator who manage the business.

I am keen to grow the team in terms of numbers and, moreover, training and skill-sets. I am particularly pleased that a key tenet of our recently adopted strategic plan, directly linked with our vision ‘to be recognised as one of the eastern region’s finest golf venues’ is the recruitment, training and retention of a team of committed staff. This, to my mind, is the key component to enabling the golf club to realise our vision.

Can you tell us more about this strategic plan?

Due to the previous lack of continuity through staff turnover, the need for a clear plan, fully signed up to by the staff, management board and membership as a whole was, in my mind, even more essential, mindful of the income inbound for the ongoing sale of the old course. Whilst used to working to plans of differing complexity, longevity and detail from my previous lives, I was delighted that such a need was a central element of the GCMA Introduction to Golf Club Management Training course I attended shortly after taking up my post. Indeed, my view of the necessity for such a plan was cemented during my first meeting with our England Golf county club support officer, Marc Smith; Marc and I have developed an excellent working relationship since. Indeed, again from my previous life, I was a keen proponent of collaborative working practices across organisations – this I have been keen to continue working, principally, with the GCMA and England Golf.

Our plan, certainly not mine as it has been developed collaboratively with members and staff alike, has identified the following key areas: golf course; membership; business development and sustainability (finance, revenue, investment and clubhouse); business operations (staff); and governance and oversight.

Each of these eight areas has a precise strategy statement articulating where we wish to take each area and underpinned by a number of SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed) objectives. In addition to allocating accountability and nominated support for each of these areas, we have identified a number of key performance indicators (KPIs) which will be used to track the business performance against each area. Although it is still early days, the intent is that these KPIs will be used as a basis for wholly transparent communication to the membership.

With Titleist fitter Daniel Friend

Corporate partnership is an area you are looking to develop quite heavily. Can you tell us more about that?

Greater corporate use of our facility is a clearly articulated expectation in our strategic plan. We are keen to be seen as a growing, thriving business in our own right and for our venue to be a real meeting focal point for local businesses. Having created a corporate membership offering, a very well publicised and attended ‘Corporate Membership Open Day’ has generated a significant amount of interest and buy-in from businesses large and small. Central to our offering is the clear aspiration for a mutual partnership rather than a transactional membership sale. The local Chamber of Commerce has booked our clubhouse for nine events in 2018, the local paper has recently used our clubhouse for a number of seminars for their local business contacts which, in turn, is generating more interest and business for ourselves.

In terms of corporate partner targets, central to my thoughts is that this is a members’ golf club first and foremost; additional golf course or clubhouse events must be introduced sympathetically to the rightful expectations of our members. Consequently, I have set a limit of 10 such corporate membership / partnership offerings.

Indeed, insofar as our business-to-business relationships are concerned, we have identified a number of local companies with whom we may soon be able to announce some genuinely ground-breaking and exciting initiatives and opportunities to develop over the next year – watch this space!

With Titleist fitter Paul Thomson

What is the current membership of the club? What plans do you have to grow this?

Our current membership total is 746 – an increase of 139 (23 per cent) throughout the course of the year; of these, the playing membership has increased to 504, a nine per cent increase. We have a target of 700 ‘playing members’ in our strategic plan which we aim to achieve by the start of our centenary year in 2023.

The majority of the balance of ‘non-playing’ members are in our ‘Experience’ category which provides a fixed number of opportunities to play the course at a reduced rate as well as giving such members full access to our continuously improving practice facilities; this category has seen the biggest increase throughout the course of the year – a 64 per cent increase throughout the year. The trick going forward will be to turn as many of these Experience members into playing members.

Our membership category structure benefits from having generous discounts in four bands for those aged between 18 and 39; this has enabled us to significantly reduce the demographics of the membership over recent years.

We have had a big push on junior members this year – another 64 per cent increase to 46. This has been achieved through active engagement with and participation by The Golf Foundation and, of course, the additional coaching opportunities we have been able to provide with the recruitment of a new, recently qualified PGA coach.

Key focus areas for next year will also include ladies; I was surprised just a few weeks back to find my wife in the clubhouse early one Tuesday morning – unbeknown to me she had signed up for lessons with our new coach – exactly what I wanted to see here at St Ives (Hunts), even if it was somewhat of a surprise!

You hosted an outreach to the local community day in August, how did that go?

Moving out of the town, where we were right next door to the secondary school, the leisure centre and the town football club did, undoubtedly, have a detrimental impact on our relationships with the town’s folk. Indeed, as a member, I was utterly amazed at how many times I had to explain to local people where the ‘new’ golf club was – we had been ‘hiding our light under the proverbial bushel’ for way too long. Just one of our key initiatives in the year was to literally throw our doors open and host a ‘Family Fun Day’ on a Sunday in August. The driving range was filled with bouncies of all manner, marching majorettes, ice cream vans, a barbecue, open-air disco and even our local scooter club. However, the key attraction from our perspective were the various ‘golf try out’ events laid on in our short game area; the interest in these events was terrific across all age ranges and experience levels. The follow-on for us, in addition to both memberships and coaching class students, was the real interest from the local community, most of whom did not know where we were or what we had to offer in terms of facilities, both golfing and social. Consequently, we have had discussions regarding a whole variety of alternate sporting, charity and commercial opportunities to take place at our venue.

In addition to the fun day, other engagement with the local community includes getting us, as a business, to be part of the ‘St Ives Dementia Friendly Community’; being a host venue for the town’s jazz and blues festival; and even appearing in the town’s official calendar for 2018.

What is your current set-up in terms of the pro shop and PGA pro offering to members?

Some years ago the decision was made by the club to bring the pro shop in-house, breaking away from the traditional PGA model. However, I very quickly realised on arrival that the set-up was not working, either as a financial model nor as a service to members. It was trying to be all things to all customers. Again, on the back of the GCMA course at which I was introduced to Joe Kelly, the PGA lead business relationship officer, with additional support and guidance from England Golf, we floated various ideas and operating models for both the shop and the development of our coaching offering.

As I set about transforming our relationship with the Titleist National Fitting Centre, Acushnet writ large, from a landlord / tenant relationship to a full partnership based on a mutually beneficial, I took the decision to focus on the Titleist and FootJoy brands, in essence establishing a boutique-style shop. Some six months into this project, with terrific and dynamic support from Titleist / FootJoy, the current model appears to be working both financially and in respect of member needs. We also remain a fully committed member of the Foremost group, which enables us to provide all other brands to the specific requirements of our members and, indeed, visitors.

With the club’s director of coaching (and below), Paul Ashwell

As mentioned, you’re home to England’s Titleist National Fitting Centre. How does this work?

I often remark that every single golf club in the country, bar none, would give their left arm for the opportunity to be the host club of the Titleist National Fitting Centre – it is as important to us as our unique golf course in presenting the opportunity for St Ives (Hunts) Golf Club to be recognised on not just the regional, but the national and international golf scene. The right arm would be offered by many also to benefit from the ongoing sale of our ‘old’ course!

Our very open and frank relationship with one another has led and will continue to lead to further benefits for both. I was particularly delighted, and honoured, that Titleist opted to launch their new 718 irons to their European sales executives at St Ives (Hunts) in August, real testament to the growing nature of our partnership and a clear indication of their buy-in to our golf club.

Similarly, that fact that an image of our golf club features as the backdrop to the Titleist mission statement in their refitted reception area is hugely meaningful.

Food and beverage is an important part of any club’s offering. How do you ensure profitability and what plans do you have for the growth?

We currently employ two chefs; the head chef has full responsibility of menu choices and, in discussion with myself and the hospitality / bar manager, the pricing. However, as is a common conundrum with most golf clubs, we are continually attempting to adjust our offering to what our members like and expect, varying between simple savouries and fine dining! The hospitality / bar manager currently manages our alcohol offerings; again, as I seek efficiencies, potentially consolidation of supplier contracts, as well as working in a true partnership model with key suppliers, such as our brewery, I’m endeavouring to get them to buy-in to our club and not merely se us as a customer.

We actively seek and offer our hospitality to non-members; indeed, this is an area that has been a success for us of late and an income stream which I track separately in order that our members realise by exactly how much ‘external functions’ help subsidise their affordable golf membership – this is key in order that members understand why they can’t have free rein throughout the clubhouse when we may be holding a wedding fair, a Christening or, unfortunate as it may be, a funeral wake.

No manager can do the job without a team. What is your management style and views on best working practices for the betterment of the business?

Well, I quickly identified when I left the military that the general expectation of most of an ex-military man’s leadership style was more akin to Dad’s Army than reality! I would describe my style as considered and consultative, always keen to empower those working for me but always retaining ultimate responsibility, particularly for times when things may not go according to plan!

I think it essential that those working for you, regardless of role, have sufficient training and management support to enable them to make a decision when required.

What currently gives you the greatest satisfaction from your job?

The working environment is second to none; what other job provides the opportunity to work in a healthy, outdoor-style environment – and yes, I did serve in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Balkans!

The greatest satisfaction is from the subtle comments from members of long-standing that they believe we, as a club, are heading in the right direction. There are still detractors and nay-sayers, there always will be – key will be taking these individuals along on the journey with us.

I would say that, to date, my greatest satisfaction has been the significant redevelopment of water hazards on three of our holes, arguably creating a couple of real signature holes in the first, which now presents the real ‘wow’ factor from the start of a round, and the 12th, an ‘Amen Corner’-esque tricky little par three. We, and I do mean we (management board and staff), proposed this work to provide much clearer definition to the holes but also to indicate to both members and potential members alike that we are determined to realise the true potential of the wonderful layout of our golf course.

What advice would you give to youngsters starting out and wanting to pursue a career in the golf club management profession?

Do it, but do it with an open mind. If you want to play lots of golf on different golf courses, choose another career! Be prepared for hard work and long hours, particularly as you establish yourself with your staff and members, just as you would in any other job. A great believer in through-life education, I’d encourage all those wanting to pursue a career in the golf club management or changing career to complete a course such as the GCMA Principles of Golf Club Management at the earliest possible opportunity. Also, do not be afraid to seek advice from outside of your golf club: the GCMA, the PGA and England Golf or your relevant home union; in fact, I’d actively encourage engagement outside of your club – awareness of what is happening and what may or may not work elsewhere is key.

Ultimately, a lesson I was quick to pick up on changing my career, always remember that the golf industry is part of the entertainment business – it must be fun for all.

What changes do you think need to be made to benefit your profession?

Education and training! For too long, and I admit to being party to such views prior to assuming my new life as a golf club manager, there has been the perception that the role is but getting paid to do your hobby – my wife thinks otherwise now as well! It is a profession, one that rivals the challenges I faced in my military and industry career, the day-to-day challenges are significant, expectations often unrealistic and the role requires the most flexible people skills you can muster. The recently launched diploma in golf club management by the GCMA, PGA and BIGGA is an exciting opportunity which will go a very long way in formally professionalising the role; ideal for both youngsters and those not so – I’m actively considering the option myself!

All images on this profile of Gordon MacLeod are courtesy of Jim and Shirley Kevern (in support of The Alzheimer’s Society)


Jenny Yu
By Jenny Yu January 15, 2018 06:20 Updated
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