Meet the golf club managing director: Ben Laing

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir January 21, 2021 11:56

Running Branston Golf & Country Club in Staffordshire, Ben details an extraordinary year in his life, which began with him and four others buying a golf club – just weeks before the March 2020 lockdown (this interview was conducted shortly before the third lockdown in England).

Can you take us through your journey from director of golf to golf club owner, which culminated in you and four others buying Branston Golf and Country Club at the end of 2019?

I’ve been in the golf and leisure industry for nearly 30 years now. My journey started in golf retail and that is what took me to Marriott St Pierre Hotel and Country Club as retail manager back in my 20s. Marriott was a great business to work for with high standards across the business with a balanced approach to how you were measured across customer service, staff engagement as well as sales and profit. I stayed at Marriott for 11 years moving from St Pierre to Tudor Park as golf operations manager and then returning to St Pierre for a five-year stint as director of golf.

To gain more commercial experience and enhance my food and beverage knowledge with total P&L responsibility, I moved to Crown Golf and was general manager at The Bristol Golf Club for six years. Having worked for two big corporates for most of my career I decided to take a leap of faith (and a bit of a risk with a young family) and relocated to take on the role of managing director at Branston seven years ago. Cutting the strings of corporate support was a concern but also moving away from the administrative and political frustrations of a big company was attractive.

I was able to achieve great success at Branston and grow the business and during that period was also able to build a strong and positive relationship with the owner.

When the time came for him to step away and consider his options, his preferred route was to ensure the club was retained with independent ownership with a commitment to the members for the long term of investment and improvements.

Having built some strong personal and commercial relationships locally, I was able to put together a management buy-out package that enabled us to acquire this great club and we are all very much committed to driving the business forward for the long term.

Can you tell us a bit about Branston Golf and Country Club?

Branston is a modern and contemporary large independent country club. We have extensive golf, leisure and hospitality facilities including an 18-hole championship course, a nine-hole course and a driving range and academy within golf. For leisure we have a gym, a group exercise studio, a spin studio, large swimming pool, steam room and sauna as well as an outdoor hot tub!

We also boast a large clubhouse restaurant with an extensive patio which is a key feature as it looks directly over the 18th green. In a separate building called the Pavilion we house a 3,000 square feet dedicated conferencing and banqueting facility which plays host to conferencing, weddings, events and Christmas parties.

With five of you owning the club, do you share or delegate the management duties?

The new ownership team has an excellent and diverse skill set and as a board we work together in a very cohesive way. Within the team we have an accountant, HR professional and QS as well as a breadth of other commercial skills which have come to the fore during our ownership period.

We are therefore able to allocate tasks and projects with confidence with the directors taking complete ownership and responsibility to ensure the business is continually moving forward and progressing. With the new team owning and running other businesses in different sectors they have been able to take a commercial view on every aspect of the business bringing a fresh perspective and focus.

I believe this has added real value as it has challenged me and the management team to look at everything we do and enabled us to approach each part of the business in a different way.

Just as your first season as co-owner of the club was about to start, the club had to close because of the lockdown! What were your, and the club’s, experience of lockdown like from March to it reopening a couple of months later?

Initially, it was a feeling of devastation! We completed the management buy-out in December 2019 and then endured one of the toughest and wettest winters. While we were then planning for the year ahead, all our plans were of course thrown into chaos once the pandemic hit and we all realised what the consequences were! In the very early days it was a case of working out how to survive but then the various support measures were introduced such as the furlough scheme and this enabled us to plan ahead.

As a very proactive group of owners we quickly assessed the situation and options open to us and decided to be positive and try to take advantage of a difficult situation. With the club completely closed and no members to look after, that is when we decided that it was a unique opportunity to progress as far as we could with the refurbishment knowing that we could make a really strong headway and not disrupt our members’ experience.

Since reopening, what has it been like? Have you experienced the surge in demand that’s been seen elsewhere?

We certainly experienced a surge within golf, especially as that was the first area of our business to reopen post the lockdown. There was a strong membership growth as well as an increased course utilisation with our members.

Health and fitness also enjoyed an initial surge when that came back online but that was countered by the members who were not ready to come back to the club who were either shielding or in a higher risk group. Our newly refurbished restaurant was very popular, and developing and expanding the outdoor patio space also worked really well as members felt more comfortable eating and drinking outside during the spring and summer months. Our members were also extremely grateful and pleased with all the positive changes we had made during the lockdown period.

What social distancing measures have been put in place? How has the club been able to run gym classes in its studio in recent months?

Ensuring that all our members and guests felt safe was a high priority. Through implementing extensive risk assessments we were able to ensure the club was a safe environment for everyone but what was also important was that we took a common sense approach to also delivering exceptional customer service and a premium experience. Numbers had to be restricted in many areas of the club to allow for social distancing so we tried to be creative where we could.

One such example was with our group exercise programme where we were able to utilise our Pavilion conferencing and banqueting facility. While we could not use it for its normal purpose we were able to take advantage of the larger space so classes could continue at their normal sizes.

Has your approach to marketing the club changed because of the pandemic?

To a degree it has. The pandemic enabled us to push forward with our refurbishment programme so we do have a far better facility to market and sell. You always look for the key selling points in your business and during the last nine months customers also want to know they will be safe and protected with you so promoting we are as Covid secure as we can be has been important to many. We’ve also really pushed our digital marketing strategy through this period especially through the various social media platforms. Many more people have been working from home or have been furloughed so getting the message through to them has been important.

The club embarked on a series of upgrades in 2020 that were planned to take place over five years, why did you decide to do all the work in a few months instead?

With a fully closed club and not one member or customer to worry about we never had a better opportunity to get so much done. In normal circumstances and with a very busy club, the prospect of trying to completely refurbish the changing rooms for example is not an easy one to contemplate, so being able to push ahead with what would normally be such disruptive work was a chance too good to miss. It still had its challenges in different ways. We were able to source good tradesmen who were out of work with the building industry closed down in lots of places, but sourcing materials was really hard. Everything we did had to be accelerated which in a good way forced you to make decisions and in the end we were able to complete so much and transform the club with it having no impact on the members’ experience.

Can you tell us about the improvements that have taken place?

We started off with focusing on a new reception as we wanted to improve the sense of arrival for all our members and create a great first impression as you walked into the club.

The clubhouse restaurant is already a real focal point of our club and we wanted to enhance this further with a modern look and feel. We had two function rooms within the clubhouse and these have been converted into a lounge sports bar and the second into a high class dedicated dining space. Our patio is also a USP for us but we improved and extended this and also added a dedicated family space. The changing rooms were completely refurbished top to bottom and we also improved our wet side facilities with a brand new steam room and sauna. Work was also done in the gym and group exercise studio as well as the toilets and other public spaces so we tried to touch every part of the club.

How popular is the driving range now, since this was also upgraded?

The improvements in the driving range have been extremely popular and well received. We have seen a huge surge in numbers by installing Toptracer and Power Tee which also sit alongside an extensive refurbishment of the whole facility. This has helped to attract new golfers to the range from further afield, as well as beginners, groups of friends and families so we are excited how we can continue to develop this further.

You were a Crown Golf general manager for six years. How did you find this experience and how different is it to being the manager of a club that isn’t part of a major group?

When I worked at Crown Golf it was a very commercial business at the sharp end of the industry.

By the nature of a large group there is inevitably some generic management process due the size of the estate and this can also mean the business can be cumbersome in reacting to trends and opportunities especially in your local market.

At an independent venue you are able to be much more nimble and change course more quickly and react to opportunities. You can however be more isolated and you have to be proactive in seeking best practice and benchmarking KPIs. I certainly learned a lot working for Crown and worked with some great people.

What are your predictions for the next few years for the UK golf industry?  

I believe the sector will contract in terms of the number of clubs within the UK. It’s been said for many years about clubs being able to adapt and become more attractive to the leisure consumer and while there will always be a place for the traditional club model it’s also important to have the ability to offer a variety of services and facilities that can attract different customers and give the business more flexibility.

Excellence in customer service, quality of product and value for money will become an even more important metric and must be delivered consistently if clubs are to succeed in an ever changing market.

 

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir January 21, 2021 11:56
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9 Comments

  1. Mark G January 31, 20:47

    Great article Ben. Continued success at what is a difficult time for all us golfers.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Hosking January 24, 13:02

    The place has changed so much. I enjoy my time as a member there many years ago. Good luck guys.

    Reply to this comment
  3. PWhitcombe January 24, 12:43

    Been great to work with Ben Laing over the last year and watch the club transform.
    Looking forward to supporting the club as they welcome back the members as restriction ease.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Tony C January 23, 16:56

    We’ve known each other since your St Pierre days and your professionalism and your commercial & people skills were evident then. It’s no surprise that you’re enjoying success with partners in your own business.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Lockwood January 22, 15:59

    Great article Ben, wishing you continued success at this fantastic venue.

    Reply to this comment
  6. JRH January 22, 11:59

    wishing you great success – sorry further success

    Reply to this comment
  7. GB Hospitality January 22, 07:34

    Congratulations Ben on your journey and continued success to you all

    Reply to this comment
  8. Moran January 22, 04:29

    What a great article – good on you Ben.

    Reply to this comment
  9. LTJ January 22, 02:42

    You do a fabulous job Ben. We will have that beer one day

    Reply to this comment
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