The private club industry in the United States has been a work in progress for more than 200 years. Clubs are deeply grounded in history and tradition, which may help to explain why the pace of change tends to be slower than in other industries. The evolution of clubs over the last few decades is apparent in areas such as social and culinary trends, but not as easy to recognize on the business side of things, so we turned to a veteran club management professional to get his perspective.
Jim Butler, CCM, PGA
President & General Manager
Grey Oaks Country Club, Naples, FL
As a college student in 1985, Jim Butler took his first club job as a seasonal employee at The Forest Country Club in Fort Myers, FL. Three decades later, he’s moved through the ranks and navigated some significant challenges along the way: golf course and clubhouse renovations, new golf course construction, a transition from developer to member ownership. He currently manages Grey Oaks Country Club in Naples, FL and its two related property associations. In addition to learning the club management ropes from the bottom up, Butler holds an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a MBA in real estate development and finance.
Q: Over your 30-year career, what changes have you seen in the world of club management?
A: I’d say education and research – those areas have advanced since I started in the club business. Today, the education is available to help managers operate the business enterprise and we understand the business from a holistic point of view as opposed to a silo-view.
Q: Your degrees are in chemistry, real estate development and finance. How does that translate to your career in club management?
A: I enjoy digging into things to understand how they work and that’s been my approach to the club business. Data and research have always been extremely important to me and that’s particularly true at this club. The leadership, meaning the original owners and my board members, are all very smart, business-oriented people. So are the members. They expect to have fact-based discussions about the club, just as they do in their own business environments. As a manager, I have a vested interest in making sure they get the right kind of data – it needs to be relevant to whatever it is we’re working on. I’ve found that when we incorporate data into the decision-making process, it’s easier to maintain a strategic focus and that moves the club forward.
Q: What kind of information is important to you and your board?
A: We rely on all kinds of research. We use the club’s internal financial and operational data as well as a variety of regional and national market research and club industry data. That information definitely wasn’t as accessible early in my career as it is now. What has been done in the club industry in terms of research over the last decade or so has really been transformative. Groups like McMahon, RSM, Club Benchmarking, and Global Golf Advisors have all played a role in progressing the industry to catch up with the rest of the business world.
Q: In your opinion, what have those groups done to move the industry forward?
A: In terms of having an impact, I’d say each group has brought something game-changing to the table. RSM was really the first to do club-on-club analysis by region and club size. They are an audit partner for a lot of clubs in the Florida chapter and their annual trend reports are highly regarded. It’s a comparison on prior year and year-over-year data that we all use and refer to. The Florida chapter considers them an important part of the local industry.
McMahon Group has broadened their approach to include lifestyle and strategic management and research is a key component of that effort. They’ve been working with research scientists like Dr. Jim Fisher for more than 20 years. When you can take a scientific data-driven approach to something as critical as a facility improvement plan, that’s powerful. Clubs are able to make informed decisions with the data. It’s much harder for emotions and politics to get in the way and derail the process.
Club Benchmarking has introduced a level of sophistication in the way we think about our clubs by framing a business model for the industry and bringing it to my desktop. I can access the analytics easily and I use them on a daily basis. My board and I can dig in and really study our business now and being able to filter our comparison sets allows us to look at it from a variety of different angles.
CB also created a level of education that helps managers who maybe don’t have a background in accounting or finance discuss core concepts with their boards. When a question about something like golf course labor expense can be answered with data, it takes emotion out of the discussion. I know my board appreciates the use of key performance indicators that include standard strategic business terms like gross profit and gross margin. That by itself has been one of the most significant changes I’ve seen.
Global Golf Advisors is focused on the industry at a global level and they recognize the need for the private club sector to think outside traditional boundaries. Henry DeLozier is a tremendous advocate for and teacher of strategic management with an emphasis on utilization of data and research. The fact that we’re seeing those concepts taught at the entry level, as young managers start learning about club finance and eventually working toward their certification is certainly a positive shift.
Q: Where do you think all of this is headed?
A: It’s the private club industry, so maybe change doesn’t always happen as quickly as we’d like it to, but it is happening. We’ve made a lot of progress just in the last decade. Boards and managers are already starting to come together around these business concepts in a way that benefits their clubs and that’s going to improve the overall health and stability of the industry.