A Business of Golf Discussion Featuring; Chris Bentley (CB) and John Cockayne (JC) Governance was the central theme of the first discussion in the series and it remains a key sub-text in this section. However, this month’s focus with Chris Bentley, who is the CEO of one of South Africa’s oldest and most prestigious golf clubs, will be from the perspective of the actual working environment i.e. at the grass face.
JC: Chris – you and I agree that the challenges faced by golf facilities and golf businesses are very similar, irrespective of where they might be located.
It is just over 20 years since Royal Johannesburg merged with Kensington Golf Club after the latter club sold its course to a developer and moved slightly further North to throw in its lot with Royal.
Given the need for many clubs to rationalise and restructure their operations, or face the spectre of closure, an amalgamation with another facility can be an attractive and effective option.
The influx of cash and new members must have been a mutual win for both clubs – was this the case and was the transition a smooth and the marriage a happy one, or did it sow the seeds for potential problems in the future?
CB: ‘Marry’ is a verb and so for me it is an active state and something that you need to do and keep on doing rather than just sitting back and waiting to receive, or for things to happen.
Historically it has been proved that it is human nature to avoid change and even to be fearful of it. However, it is equally true that change and innovation have been the pathways to a much altered and improved world.
Somewhat ironically I believe it is those areas where past changes have seen us fall short today, such as our environmental impact and the unacceptably high poverty levels, that our ability to change, both in attitudes and practise, will also prove be the spur to find lasting solutions to these issues.
Taken as a microcosm of change – two clubs merging will involve the mixing in of two quite different sets of members.
When two clubs, with very distinct and rich histories coupled with their own way of doing things, join it can be a nervous time and will obviously not all be plain sailing.
That said the key motivator in the transition was that the will was there to make it work and so while the initial transition, habits and cultural integration were a challenge, the merger has been a wonderful success.
This was however very much before my era, so by the time I came on board at Royal most of these really rough edges had been knocked off and, as a single club, we were faced with the usual challenges of diminishing revenues, stagnant membership numbers, etc.
JC: Before we get to exploring revenues, management’s interface with a club’s committee or board can be challenging – it shouldn’t be, but it often is!….especially where change is needed.
As you state, it is not an unnatural state to be nervous about change, even it if desperately needed.
We only need to look at the ANC here in South Africa, whose emblem should really be an Ostrich, to realise this and how difficult it can be to overcome the inertia of habit and change direction!
Royal did not escape unscathed from the spill-over from the financial markets’ meltdown in 2008, but we know that before any new structure can be built the foundations have to be in place.
What changes were needed in terms of club’s management structure to help it face up to and cope with the challenges faced after your taking on the GM’s role in 2012?
CB: The amalgamation of two very traditional clubs meant that we were using the original committee type structures.
This is fine in a custodial sense, but not the most efficient when you want to and need to make operational and strategic changes.
Fortunately, we have a forward thinking membership which, when it was presented with the facts and figures and the option to restructure the club’s affairs along more business like lines, including a change from a committee to a board structure, the proposal was enthusiastically adopted by a significant majority.
This underpinned and gave us the platform to implement the required changes which have since proved to be highly successful.
It’s no secret that the golf industry, specifically is South Africa, is in a state of over-supply and under demand and needs a more business-like forward thinking and innovative approach to combat the challenges posed by the current market.
JC: It can be argued that the difference between a group of individuals forming a committee or a board is just a semantic distinction and real change is only brought about through a different attitude.
This will require a fundamental shift in thinking, rather than just choosing a different label, otherwise the result will be little more than – business as previously!
CB: You are absolutely right – just changing the sign on the door will not usher in a new era, so the fundamental shift was in fact attitudinal and required the design of a ‘new’ culture.
JC: I am also concerned by what I believe is the philosophy, which seems to be far too widespread, of seeing the management team as merely implementers or gofers, as opposed to their also being an integral part of the decision making processes.
This is highly demotivating and although we no longer still live in a ‘30 years of service followed by a gold watch and thank you’ era, this must account for too people wanting to move about.
In this respect and looking back, I have been very fortunate in my career where the various golf committees that I have served with would never have ‘made a call’ to which they had not sought my inputs.
What factors made this change a watershed in real terms for Royal?
CB: As a management group we are involved in all the strategic discussions and planning.
It goes to reason that having been part of the process at the outset, there is a personal pride and sense of ownership in delivering a plan with which you have been involved from the ground up.
I agree that the staff can become demotivated and switched off, which is often as a result of feeling little more than a gofer, as opposed to feeling that they are a valued member of a team and being seen as integral to the overall success of the club.
JC: Based on what I see and hear in my travels, management seem to spend and increasing amount of time on HR issues.
While it is accepted that a settled and ‘happy’ staff complement is a cornerstone of any successful business, has this provided any or extraordinary challenges for you at Royal?
CB: Finding the right balance, in HR terms, will always be a work in progress. However, I feel that we have achieved considerable stability in this key area at Royal and we should take great satisfaction in that we have a settled staff and one where there has been almost a complete absence of the type of churn you are referring to.
To date we have had a 4% change in staff over 5 years which is a testament to our staff’s work ethic, dedication, belief in the vision and the inclusive team ethos which we have developed.
JC: That’s a terrific statistic and one Royal should be very proud of. It also offers just the sort of stability that you need in order to decide on and then implement plans effectively.
In our Governance discussion, Eddie Bullock made comments about the need to get the mix of skills right for a board to be really effective.
Did your board form itself by the chance of a vote, or was it ‘picked’ to match skills’ sets with the club’s strategic needs?
CB: The selection of the ‘right’ board members is crucial. Board members are ‘head-hunted’ by the current office bearers, put forward as candidates and then voted in by the members themselves.
The process looks to recruit members of the same mind-set, who have the necessary skills, ethos and respect the fact that management run the operations of club and board members are in place to develop strategy, governance and policy and to collectively support management’s drive to deliver the vision.
JC: So we now face the elephant in the room – revenues, or more accurately a lack of them and how to generate new revenues’ streams beyond the original staples of green fees’ sales and memberships’ subscriptions.
I wrote a piece some time ago about the need for fresh skills’ sets at the grass face.
This was motivated by observations that as an industry we are largely custodial in nature. A hangover from the days of opening a golf club and having a queue right around the corner waiting to play and or join perhaps, but a serious handicap when the team now needs playmakers and goal scorers as opposed to just goal keepers.
As cognisant of these needs as you are, what do you look for in terms of innovation and how do you manage the risk element?
CB: I believe that there is no such thing as a risk-free business environment and the ‘trick’, such as it is, must be to remain open minded, receptive to change and new ideas and prepared to try out new things i.e. take a chance.
I love the CS Lewis’ quote: “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” That said of course taking a chance does not mean throwing a dart over your shoulder and trying to hit the target!
There is also a need for agility and efficient decision making processes. Checks and balances are good, but not if they mindlessly impede progress.
From what I have seen and heard and my own personal experiences, I feel that clubs often miss out on business opportunities by having slow and overly tedious decision-making processes.
Of course, one of the key roles played by management and a board is risk management.
This process helps to weed out the taking of unnecessary chances and identifies those areas that will help to achieve the agreed business goals for the club.
People often see risk management as an excuse not to do anything.
My belief is that risk is an inevitable part of the growth cycle and so I like to associate myself with people who know different things or more than I do.
Life is a constant learning curve, so these types of associations, whether they are with business people at the club, members, my board members, fellow managers, specialists or consultants like yourself, all help to get alternative perspectives and a balanced view.
These types of contacts help me to see different perspectives and to make and support more informed decisions and they go a long way to help mitigating risk.
JC: Have the strategic changes resulted in anything radically different, or has it been a case of doing the normal things better or to the maximum capability?
CB: It has been a mix of prudent management – the custodial – combined with a mix of new activities – the innovative.
This has resulted in the approval of a long-term plan in property development surrounding the courses, the upgrading of the courses themselves, including family centric facilities, etc.
All of these activities have been undertaken with the express purpose of keeping the club relevant and in step with the in the needs of the today’s customer and the consumer of the future.
This in turn should help to ensure the club’s long-term sustainability with the delivery of high end products and service levels. The structure of the club has provided the foundations for efficiency and has allowed the office bearers, management, staff and members to agree and work together to drive a joint vision.
JC: If in the future you wanted to leave a legacy behind you as being representative of your tenure at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington – how would you sum that up in 3 bullet points?
- The development of an exceptional team with effective succession in place
- The creation of a business ‘Bible’ for the club
- A club which delivers uncompromising personalised service, luxurious amenities, pays attention to detail, is sustainable and with a ‘happy’ culture that creates a lifetime of memories for golfers and their families for years to come
Chris Bentley has been working in the golf industry for 14 years and is a AAA Member of the PGA of South Africa.
After a spell at Serengeti Golf & Wildlife Estate as the director of golf, he was appointed the general manager of Royal Johannesburg & Kensington Golf Club in 2012.
After a management restructure he took on the role as the club’s the CEO in 2014 and is one of the youngest executives in club management.
His passion for the golf business, attention to detail, distinctive approach and proven delivery has led Royal to two World Golf Awards and sets an excellent example in club innovation.
Chris also owns his own management company, consulting to some of the finest golf and hospitality facilities in the country.
His personal development is ongoing and he’s currently completing his bachelors in business administration, through the University of Switzerland.
John Cockayne, who will be hosting the Business of Golf Discussion Series is the originator of the series’ content, has had an eclectic career in golf.
He is a Founder and Life member of the PGA of South Africa and is no stranger to working inside the ropes having held operational roles as a head professional, director of golf, club manager, coaching director and as a tournament official on the Sunshine Circuit.
John is also a very experienced event manager, has had extensive marketing experience, worked as a project consultant on three continents and has developed and run a travel agency and two tour operator businesses.
This background has resulted in his being the first point of contact for ARC’s (Association of Residential Communities) 50 plus member golf estates in the Southern Africa region.
John’s business experience in tandem with his writing skills – he has written for numerous publications and is currently the golf editor with or a contributor to Destination Golf Travel, GolfVistaSA, Estate Living magazine and GolfWeather.com – makes him perfectly placed to identify the right story and host the appropriate industry professional to help to cover the topic.
John Cockayne, CEO: The Business of Golf