5 business tips I wish I’d learned as an assistant superintendent

Successful superintendents must possess business management smarts on par with their agronomic know-how. A veteran super shares insight on developing this skill set.


Business tips
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As I look back on my early years as an assistant superintendent, I am often struck by how little I understood about the business of managing a golf course. I was pleased with my developing skills in agronomy and crew management, but I spent little time thinking about what mattered most to the membership I served. I didn’t fully appreciate that, at its core, golf is a business, and that it would be my job to lead that business as I advanced.

I’ve always tried to share those lessons with the young turf managers who have worked for me over the years, to help them learn how important balancing agronomy and business management is to the career of a superintendent. Here are five key tips I pass along.

1. Find out how the finances at your facility work

Early in my career as a superintendent, I was surprised to find out how the money flowed at my club. I had no appreciation for the impact of dues, initiation fees, bonds and assessments, and I never thought to ask.

When a green chairman took the time to explain the intricacies of establishing and maintaining a depreciation fund — money taken out of dues to replace depreciating assets such as turf equipment — I felt like I had been given a peek behind the curtain, a look at something new and exciting. I understood that I needed to be more than an agronomist and a manager; I needed to be a businessman as well. Just about every course will handle its finances differently, but understanding that process at your facility is crucial.

2. Pay attention to what the member wants

In my third year at my club, I proposed a bunker drainage/rebuild project. I was excited about it, as I knew it would solve our problem of poorly draining bunkers. I wanted to eliminate the time we spent pumping water out of bunkers and dealing with the muddy aftermath, and I was disappointed when I learned that the club wasn’t in the mood to spend money on a project that would make maintaining the course easier.

I hadn’t considered that my club simply didn’t want to spend more money at that time, and this experience helped me understand a fundamental principle of golf course management: Give the members what they want.

3. Present the story in their context, not yours

A few years later, I asked to do this work again, but I took a different approach — I presented the story from the viewpoint of the golfer, not the superintendent. I talked about fixing the negative aspects of our bunkers as they related to play and our members’ enjoyment of the course. When the decision-makers at my club understood the good that golfers would derive from the work, the project was quickly approved, and I learned the power of this strategy for successful project proposals.

4. Develop and articulate an equipment purchase and maintenance strategy

Many superintendents struggle to get the equipment they need to satisfy the expectations of their members, but the stumbling blocks they face can often be overcome with thoughtful planning.

Leasing can be the solution to cash flow problems, for example, and purchasing certain pieces of equipment used instead of new can also prove fruitful. Careful analysis of purchase options that includes cost per year of ownership as opposed to initial price may be able to quell management’s objections to purchases. Broadening your thinking toward the long term is also a valuable approach.

5. Speak the language

When assistants are interviewing for their first head superintendent position, they’ll be up against other accomplished turf managers, and they’ll certainly be asked questions about agronomy and turf management.

But to stand out — to separate yourself from the other contenders — remember that the people who will be making the decision probably won’t be turf managers. They will be golfers and business professionals, and your chances of making a positive impression on that group will be enhanced if you can speak their language. Being able to read and understand a profit and loss statement, for instance, and being able to ask them thoughtful questions about the business side of their club will help set you apart from the other candidates.

Chris Carson is the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J. He is a 33-year member of GCSAA.