Noel Mackenzie: Why greenkeepers must survive these tough economic conditions

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:56

Noel Mackenzie: Why greenkeepers must survive these tough economic conditions

I cannot recall a period where so many course managers have lost their jobs. A number of clubs took it upon themselves to cut costs… and as a consequence there were quite a few course managers who ended up looking for a new career.

Note that I use the word “career”. Not “job”.  Where do these highly knowledgeable and skilled individuals go? Where has the 20 or 30, even 40, years of training in management, machinery, human resource management, ecology and the environment gone? Not to the benefit of another golf course in most instances. All this considerable talent has simply been thrown out as if these people are the rubbish, without a great deal of consideration in many instances for the consequences to either the club or individual concerned.

So why have some clubs done this? It seems it is down to the cost of employing course managers and in a market where there is an oversupply of golf, the price of a round has fallen to silly levels. £10 for a round and a meal or drink included. £10 a round, two for one! Clubs are competing for fewer players and as part of their marketing mix many are focusing on price and promotion to attract players… but in a way that undermines not only the opposition and their local market for golf but also the long term future of their golf course / club through a dangerous combination of underinvestment and overplay.

As an industry golf needs to wake up to a wider problem of oversupply. Up until the 1980s we had undersupply which allowed high prices to be charged and golf courses to run comfortably. Waiting lists were the norm.  Joining fees and high membership fees were the norm. Golf attracted a certain cache of members in clubs and “pay and play” was just a rumour. The R&A then announced we needed a huge number of courses to be built to meet this demand and popularise the game and for sure many were, though I believe it was a lot fewer than was suggested.

The game was certainly popularised and more people seem to be playing than once were. Certainly greenkeeper salaries rose on the back of the boom times. Now, on the down side, we have oversupply of golf courses in some areas and a changing economic climate is adding to the problem. There are spin-offs from this beyond the issue of greenkeepers losing their jobs – wages stagnating or even reducing, and potential reduction in the quality of playing surfaces and so on.

Golf courses are not going to have the means to spare staff for other activities.  Certainly a few of the lucky clubs with reputations and kudos will still be able to employ sufficient staff to do the work beyond maintaining the playing surfaces but for many there is the risk that the future will be running a course on a shoe-string budget. This will stall or prevent the laudable work on the ecology / environment front that The R&A and many others have done so well to promote and was necessary following the adverse attention from the environmental lobby during the golf boom years.

I do not know all of the course manager casualties but this is a worrying development.  My concerns are numerous. The course’s or club’s most important asset is the course manager. Without him / her the course is not managed. So making the course manager “redundant” removes a key asset of the club.  None of the instances where course managers lost there jobs was justified on the basis of incompetence or negligence. All were down to a need to save money. This is not new. About four years ago, near my birthplace of Guildford, a big salary greenkeeper was made redundant on the basis of employment costs. However, this was a one-off – not a dozen or so in the space of a few months.

If there is a trend pressurising salaries then this will affect all greenkeepers, especially course managers. We have had recommended scales of salaries for many years. It might be an area for BIGGA to monitor to see if greenkeepers have hit the ceiling? Are current greenkeeper salaries sustainable in the current economic climate?

The issue of greenkeeper redundancy is a symptom of a wider problem. These are not the only casualties. A few managers and secretaries have also succumbed to financial pressures I understand. But it goes further…

While attending the BTME exhibition at Harrogate the common theme I heard from suppliers of machinery and materials was, “Yes, we’re getting the sales volumes but our margins are being squeezed all the time.”  The outcome of this will be significant.  Without margins being met suppliers will look at increasingly ruthless ways to control costs. This may result in shows becoming unviable or services being reduced in other areas, such as event sponsorship and education. Does this sound alarmist? Probably – but this scenario played out in a much larger industry than ours some years ago.

Agriculture was big business years ago and traders in that industry made good margins. Then price competition came to bear with alterations in the subsidies paid and growth of supermarket purchasing power. Companies like ICI used to provide soil testing and crop agronomy services for free on the back of which fertiliser and materials sales would follow. Not anymore. As the market economics tightened so the margins shrank and then the services that supported farmers were withdrawn. Greenkeepers, I would suggest, would do well not to push too hard on price point when purchasing and focus on other elements of the buying process beyond price, ie, product, place and promotion, and, where services are involved people, process and environment.

Summary

Change is about the only thing we can be certain of. Our industry, pretty much the whole of it, serves another industry, that of golf, which itself is a leisure/service industry in the main. Our turfcare industry grew well and plump during golf’s good times and the signs are there that this is changing. It is not all doom and gloom; there can be a bright future. However, there are pressures and these generate questions that need to be considered. To my mind some of these are:

• Golf club management committees and managers / secretaries need to look carefully at how they handle their staff if making them redundant for economic reasons. This is to ensure that they behave ethically and with moral responsibility as much as avoiding legal action. Firstly they need to ask, what is the value of what we have? Not just “how much does it cost”?

• The value of course managers needs wider recognition. Despite people being better educated there is still a view by many that course managers are simply grass cutters with extra grey hairs and little else. Golfers and their club managers still have a pitifully weak understanding of the skills of greenkeeping and agronomics that go into presenting and managing a golf course.

• Greenkeepers need to ask if the price of a product or service is the true cost they pay. In other words – if the value that they obtain from a product or service is something they really appreciate and value. What is the value of the relationship with a supplier and / or sales person? They need to reflect on this to avoid driving the turfcare industry down to a point where there will be no further investment in technology, such as development of grass cultivars, machinery and fertiliser.

• Locally and nationally there needs to be an investigation into the sustainability of the golfing industry. Golf is here to stay, of that I am sure, but at what level? Is there a case for a managed reduction in golf courses where supply is too great, perhaps the amalgamation of some clubs? Or should this issue be left to “market forces”?

These are tough questions and ones that I can only ask and not answer. However, I would argue that in the same way The R&A promoted golf course building in the past, is it now time for them to get involved in reviewing the condition of the game and demand for courses now? Perhaps even the nature of the game itself. The R&A massively influenced the boom in golf two to three decades ago and as the game’s govening body I suggest it may be timely for the organisation to undertake a “management review” to ensure that the best interests of the game are maintained (and in so doing our future in the turf industry).

Meanwhile, I would encourage greenkeepers to support their industry by not nailing sales persons to a stake for the sake of low prices and looking at the true value of products and services they benefit from. Similarly, I would encourage club managers and / or committees to value their senior staff and the benefit to their courses as a whole beyond the short-term cost of employment issues. Remember “the true cost is not necessarily the price you pay”.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:56
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