Meet the golf club manager: James Fuller

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 19, 2017 21:54 Updated

In the first of a new series of profiles of golf club managers in the UK, The Golf Business speaks to the general manager of The Gog Magog Golf Club in Cambridge about running a club with more than 1,300 members, the skill sets within the club he utilises to boost performance and how the club is being returned to its former glory.

Please can you give a brief description of your background and the path you followed to golf club management. How did you learn and how long have you now been at The Gog Magog GC?

I started as a young lad wanting to emulate the successes of my idol, Seve. Alas, my one issue was that Seve had more talent in his big toe than I had in my whole body. However, I knew that I wanted my career to be in golf.

After several positions in and around London, I had the opportunity to work at Gleneagles. This is where my taste for management came from. Gleneagles is a fantastic operation that encourages a positive ethos for the rest of your career. They work you hard, but train you well, with management courses available for those that wish to partake. I loved it.

James Fuller. Images by Kevin Diss

After getting into management I have been lucky to manage some beautiful, top end venues, and to this present day, I am managing one of the best 36 venues in the south east, Gog Magog.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you currently face?

Every club will be facing the challenge of maintaining a healthy pipeline of interest for membership. The country is getting older and other sports are competition for your attention, once you have reached the age where the body no longer allows you to play football or rugby!

The other huge challenge is convincing the membership / committees to allow the manager to treat the club as a business, whilst allowing the members and patrons to enjoy the facilities. This is the balance that my peers and I constantly face.

How big is your team at Gog Magog, what is the current management structure and how well does this serve the needs of the club?

We have a staff of just under 50. This sounds a lot until I give you the size of the operation. We have 400 acres to maintain, much of which is playable area, we have 1,318 members and visitor numbers that compete with the larger venues in the country. We run our food and beverage service in-house, and provide the membership with over 250 competitions a year to compete in. We also run and maintain a 30 acre practice facility with two ranges (members and visitors).

The structure is relatively simple. I have reporting lines from department heads on a weekly basis, as well as a team meeting. My problems are their problems, we sit and resolve them together. We think we have it right, but we are responsive to the changing trends and constantly review our positon.

It is your belief that a good manager leads a club forward. You personally have speciality area skill sets under the headings executive management, project management, training and development and sales and marketing. Under the first, can you outline your philosophy with examples, how you use it and how it works for the benefit of the club?

I have been taught two valuable lessons.

1. Lead until you are told not to. 2. Governors govern, managers manage, members enjoy.

Executive management to me is the execution of the governors’ wishes, under my standards and taste. For example; if the governors wish to increase the pipeline of membership, I will propose exactly how I would see a club of this standing goes about it and execute that.

If they wanted to develop a part of the club’s facilities, I would ask them what they saw as the end product and then create a path which achieves that goal.

At the same time, I will influence the governers, many of them amateurs / voluteers, so that they avoid mistakes in arriving at their decisions.

The executive manager’s role is critical. Gone are the days of the secretary, in my opinion.

I believe in clear direction and accountability. My team are left in no doubt as to what my goal is and how I want it achieved.

Project management?

This is relevant to a project just completed by us. When I arrived at ‘The Gogs’, we had a lounge refurbishment in turmoil. There was no clear reason for the development, I established that some roof work needed carrying out and it escalated from there.

In a little under 10 months, we had determined what we had wanted, presented the vision to the membership and delivered the project.

My offering to the members was that they could feel comfortable using the facility for a variety of reasons (eating, inviting friends, relaxing, catching up with world golf). My motivation and the motivation of the governors was to encourage food and beverage spend which had been slowly falling.

In the first two months since the completion of the project we have seen a staggering 11 percent increase in our turnover.

The project delivered exactly what we wanted, because we asked the members and the governors what they wanted.

Sales and marketing – how do you use these skill sets to drive opportunity for the club in terms of membership, revenue streams and events?

Two important points here. The first is, ‘what is the market opportunity?’ If this is not identified your marketing will fail and you will spend an avalanche of cash on nothing.

Second point. Every tweet, press release, poster, sign up sheet and newsletter represents what you are trying to achieve. They should be succinct, targeted, professional in their presentation, consistent and aspirational.

What you are trying to achieve is appealing to the visitor and member that this is venue that they want to spend time at, in fact, why would they go anywhere else?

Training and development? How do you plan and structure training and what results have you experienced with this process?

Great question. As I said earlier, I have received training at all intervals of my career, so to me, it is second nature to embrace change. Among my acquired skills is recognising what a staff member needs.

I structure the training in the following way. I first sit down and create an organigram, this identifies responsibilities and gaps. Following this exercise, I identify what specific training is needed in the various departments and add the spend to the budget for the year. We have created, after many years of underinvestment, a culture of interest in training. We have the food and beverage staff on a NVQ path, the greenkeepers on various BIGGA related courses and training on modern systems for the admin staff.

We have found that happy workers + happy customers = better retention of both!

One of your objectives is to put Gog Magog back where it was in terms of perception. What do you mean by this, what areas of the business and market will you target to achieve this goal, what timeframe have you set to accomplish the mission and how will you measure the success?

When arriving at Gog Magog, it was made clear to me by the governors that the club needed more exposure in the market place. My research with Golf England identified where we should be targeting.

Gog Magog used to be a venue that was linked to history, quality and stature. When playing the courses, you felt you were at a special venue. Over the years, newer courses and heavy investment in big venues have stolen the limelight.

By employing a systematic plan that consists of subtle target marketing and the use of social media, we can elevate the club back into the front of people’s minds as a ‘must visit’ venue. We have two stunning courses and a team trained in first class service. Why wouldn’t you come here?!

We will measure our success on the visitor golf numbers and through extending our waiting list for membership.

What is the current membership of the club in terms of age and sex profile? Who do you look to target for future membership, what growth in membership are you looking to achieve and over what timeframe?

Predominantly men, with an average age of 60 to 65, although it is all relative, we are proud to boast a lady membership of over 230.

We are conscious that the average age is a little high, so we are using modern techniques to encourage the younger member. We are asking our younger members to proactively introduce other young members, we have also introduced a price structure sympathetic to those balancing a large mortgage and a family (me being one of those). This price structure change has already seen a boost in the 18 to 30 range. The trick, I think, will be to keep them into their 30s. Let’s see how we do. Its about creating emotional attachment, to make it hard to resign. By doing this you can really reduce the percentage of your attrition rate.

The new generation of golfers is imperative for the welfare of the industry. How strong is your junior section at present, what is the ratio between boys and girls, what are you currently doing to attract and promote junior golfers?

We have a 62-strong junior section at present made up of 53 boys and nine girls. We realise that this is relatively small, so the professional team have been proactively developing the Saturday Club to increase interest.

We have found that children have so many options these days, particularly with schools offering a wide range of options, both after school and at the weekends.

Throughout your career high standards have been at the top of your agenda. What plans and vision do you have for the delivery of a top quality product and service to the members and visiting players to Gog Magog?  

We are employing 59Club to help us benchmark the industry. I firmly believe in benchmarking and shamelessly steal good ideas. 59Club will help us to refine our offering from the moment you ring the club, to the moment you leave after your experience. We are looking at our product that closely. Every aspect will be analysed to make sure that we keep relevant in the hospitality and leisure industry.

The club has recently upgraded to a new Club Systems software package with new tools. What features does it offer and what areas of the business are now receiving stronger support?

Club V1 is great, it allows us to delve a little deeper into the analysis of the membership, it has better communication tools and we can send information such as invoices more easily by email. In a world where 60 percent of web traffic now occurs on mobile phones, it was critical that we kept up with the requirements of our members.

Part of your plan is to retain the mystique of Gog Magog. With this in mind, what plans have you set in place to market the club and ensure that mystique is maintained and protected?

We will never enter the ‘killing fields of price’; it is a downwards spiral of cost savings and competitive subs wars. We will create such a product that people will wonder why they ever chose anywhere else.

The club is known for the Lagonda Trophy. What other events are you currently hosting and what is your ambition for Gog Magog’s future events?

We have seven open events each year to showcase our club. Any more and the members may have something to say about it!

The pressures on the club manager to deliver a better product in terms of course, clubhouse, the facilities, food, bar, pro shop, quality, service and so on are mounting year-on-year, with the level of management professionalism having to rise in line with this. What do you think are the qualities now needed to meet the requirements and demands of members by someone in your position and how do you think this will help contribute to the long term business of golf club management?

I believe that the modern manager must have a plan, whether it is of his / her own making or from the governors of their club. They must not be afraid to hire the services of experts in their field to help them achieve their goals. They must delegate effectively to ensure that they do not get bogged down in jobs that do not require their attention, even if others think otherwise.

Most importantly, they must learn to navigate to achieve their goal. My peers will know exactly what that means.

No manager can do the job without a team; which is having the right people in the right place doing the right thing at the right time. What is your management style?

You have summed it up for me in your question. Right people. If you have the right people, you will be able to spend your time monitoring the projects and not the performance of the person.

Steve Jobs said it best “why employ good people and then tell them what to do?”

All I ask for is 100 percent integrity and respect. I give it in return.

What currently gives you the greatest satisfaction from your job? What do you feel are your biggest achievements to date at Gog Magog?

The greatest satisfaction is the faces of your visitors and the smiles of your members. If you see this, you are doing the right things.

Whilst we have already achieved a lot as a team, the strategic reclaim of the greens on both courses and the removal of hawthorn from the historical Old Course has really given Andrew (Howarth) and me a lot of satisfaction.

It has literally given the areas covered by hawthorn new life.

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

Find a mentor (I was lucky to find one), and listen to them.

What they tell you will kick in in later life.

Trying to do it on your own will only make your journey longer. Also, educate yourself on the CMAE programme, it’s the best out there at the moment.

The GCMA have also launched a really good package with the PGA and BIGGA. Knowledge is power.

Most importantly, be organised, if this is a weakness, get better at it quickly.

What changes do you think need to be made to benefit the industry sector and profession of the golf club manager?

Simple, clubs need to recognise the value of their manager, my club does.

This will be reflected in the remuneration and the support in education.

If they truly knew what the role involved and the skill set a manager must have to just survive at a competitive club, they wouldn’t argue against the right package.


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 19, 2017 21:54 Updated
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  1. neil sjoberg April 20, 20:55

    Good old James! Good interview James impressive and inspiring to us all. I couldn’t do his job

    Reply to this comment
  2. neil sjoberg April 20, 20:55

    Good old James! Good interview James impressive and inspiring to us all. I couldn’t do his job

    Reply to this comment
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