One week into its ownership of The Oxfordshire and Leaderboard Golf is beginning to feel at home – hardly surprising since Leaderboard’s joint-owner, Paul Gibbons, is a founder member of the club.
Leaderboard Golf already owns Chart Hills, the Nick Faldo designed course in Kent voted ‘best new course in England’ by “Golf World” in 1997 and the superb Dale Hill Hotel and Golf Club nearby, One of the two Dale Hill golf courses was designed by Ian Woosnam and was immediately described as a masterpiece. Leaderboard also owns Sandford Springs, a 27 hole venue overlooked by ‘Watership Down’ on the Berkshire/Hampshire border and the Leaderboard Golf Centre in Reading, a 37-bay golf range with a Cranfield Golf Academy.
Adding The Oxfordshire to the group completes a very impressive portfolio of top quality courses and adds credibility to the slogan “Leaderboard… owners of fine courses” but, ironically, The Oxfordshire was in fact the very first golf property which caught Paul Gibbons’ eye. Had it come to market when Paul first detected the signs that everything at the club was not going according to plan, it might have been Leaderboard’s first acquisition.
Leaderboard’s chief executive, Brian Cox, tells the story of how at that time he was still a senior executive with the Midland Bank in Reading. “We were playing golf at The Berkshire soon after Paul had sold his interest in “Auto-Trader” magazines. Paul said something along the lines of ‘If I buy The Oxfordshire would you come and run the business for me – just a couple of days a week should be enough?’ and I said, ‘Yes, of course, you put up the money for The Oxfordshire and I’ll soon fix my retirement from the bank”
“But,” continues Brian, “it wasn’t as easy as that. The Oxfordshire wasn’t for sale after all and it took me three years to negotiate my way out of the bank. By the time we were in business together Sanford Springs was Leaderboard’s first purchase and, just for the record, my job’s full time and I play less golf than I did when I was with the bank!”
The Oxfordshire, designed by Rees Jones, was constructed at a cost of some £22 million and was opened in July 1993. Development costs were to be funded by the sale of debentures both to individuals and to corporate members – a formula that had been highly successful elsewhere in the world, particularly in golf-starved Japan, but which had rarely succeeded in the UK.
The required number of debentures was never sold and it was almost inevitable that one day The Oxfordshire would have to call in a receiver. Earlier this year, as the final crisis point approached, Paul Gibbons made an offer to purchase the Club. The owners thought that they could do better with an open market sale and would also have been advised that this was the appropriate course of action. The guide price was set at offers in excess of £6 million and when the creditors met they instructed the administrative receivers not to accept any figure less than £6 million.
The final terms of the sale to Leaderboard are confidential but it would be reasonable to assume that £6 million is more or less what Leaderboard has paid and, moreover, that this is close to the figure that Paul Gibbons first suggested.
New Membership Structure
During the period of the administration, membership fees were invoiced on a quarterly basis. Clearly it was a difficult time for the members, who already knew that, at best, their debentures would turn out to be worth far less than had been promised. Rumours of who might buy the Club spread rapidly, including one about PGA European Tour Courses purchasing the property and the Tour’s headquarters moving from Wentworth to The Oxfordshire.
The members are relieved now that the identity of the new owner is known. Paul Gibbons has explained to them that the Leaderboard philosophy is to run their golf clubs in a style as close as possible to that of a private members club, whilst offering the financial advantages probably only present in proprietary clubs.
“We are very excited about this acquisition,” said Paul Gibbons, chairman of Leaderboard and co-owner with his wife Jennifer. “I have been a member of The Oxfordshire from the beginning and have always seen its great potential.”
Memberships will now be available without the need to buy a debenture and membership fees will be substantially less than at some other top quality clubs in the area. Existing members will be given the opportunity to purchase ‘Founder Member Shares’ and will be given incentives to introduce new members.
Fees and Subscriptions
Founder Member Shares will represent no equity rights in the company but there will be a limit upon the number offered and it is intended that ultimately there will be a market for trading such shares.
It is also proposed that Founder Members will benefit from a 10% discount compared with new members on their annual subscription and this differential will be preserved. The price for a 7-day Founder Member Share is £3,000 and the annual subscription for that member is £1,350. Other categories are available – 5-day, corporate and so on. The list of Founder Members will be closed when 250 7-day and 125 5-day memberships have been sold.
Ordinary memberships will be available until certain maximum has been reached. That maximum has not yet been set but will be assessed in the light of the number of rounds and the timing of golf played by members. “It is our firm intention,” said Brian Cox, “to ensure that membership numbers do not reach a level at which members are unable, within reason, to arrange the tee times they want.”
Existing members who do not wish to buy Founder Member Shares may rejoin as ordinary members. For 7-day membership the annual subscription is £2,000. The rate set for 7 day membership of a completely new member is a joining fee of £3,500 and an annual subscription of £1,500.
Members who introduce a new member previously unconnected with the club will be given two complementary visits to the four-star Dale Hill Hotel, including one round of golf on the Woosnam course and one round on the Faldo course at Chart Hills.
The Oxfordshire will in future be available for corporate and society golf and some green fee paying visitors but this will be carefully controlled to protect the position of the members. “We want to expand the club membership,” explained Paul Gibbons, “but will do so in a way that provides good value. We have to open the course to visitors to a limited extent to help meet running costs but we intend to keep members fees to a reasonable level. In all our clubs we really try to look after our members.”
Leaderboard will also look to develop non-golf activity at The Oxfordshire by making more use of the superb facilities in the 40,000 sq ft clubhouse. With a restaurant capable of seating 200 diners and a range of other meeting rooms they can cater for weddings and conferences, meetings and private parties, offering stunning views over the golf course and beyond.
Almost all The Oxfordshire’s staff will stay with the new owners – Leaderboard was happy to agree to this as a condition of the purchase agreement – and they are sure to notice a distinct change in management style. “We are a very lean organisation,” said Brian Cox, “and I am now in charge of five locations. Up to now the club has been very tightly controlled by its general manager and very little happened without his direct approval. I don’t work that way. I want to delegate more decision-making to the staff but I also want the staff to appreciate that they will be more responsible and accountable as well.”
Rees Jones designed The Oxfordshire as a ‘championship course’ – the contours of the land provide many vantage points for spectators – and it has staged a number of professional tournaments, including the Benson and Hedges International Open from 1996 to 1999. There has been much speculation about Leaderboard wishing to see the return of such an event but Brian Cox will not be drawn into a discussion on this subject.
“Our first priority is with the business we have taken on,” he said. “We want to establish a viable membership-based club while at the same time allowing more access to fee-paying visitors. This clubhouse building is operating way below its potential and we want to make much more use of its magnificent facilities.
“There has been talk about the return of a tournament, the building of non-golf sports and leisure facilities, the creation a 9-hole academy course, the acquisition of more land and construction of an additional 18 holes and, of course, the building of a new hotel. In time anything is possible but for the foreseeable future all these ideas are on hold.”
Leaderboard has a clear vision for their business. They are interested only in quality golf courses and venues and then focus on their members. They welcome both golf and non-golf visitors and offer to both a red carpet treatment.
“We have a programme of continuous improvement at all our venues,” said Paul Gibbons. “Profit is essential to sustain those programmes but our main objective is not to exploit the assets to the full in financial terms. We want everybody, members and visitors, to feel that they get great value out a visit to a Leaderboard venue.
“The trick is getting the balance right in terms of the various potentially conflicting demands. We might not get it right every time but we do try, and when we make a mistake we’ll take action to put it right immediately.”
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