Tips for building a stronger core

By |  November 20, 2017 0 Comments

As the author has learned, a ‘next man up’ mentality in the maintenance building is an insurance policy in which courses should invest.

Nothing dooms a golf course to obscurity more than the absence of a long-term, stable core of employees. A well-heeled employee core ensures maintenance and club management a continuous linear history of the relevant practices, maintenance issues and daily operations inherent in an operation. A superintendent who embarks on a new position where a core of employees is absent is going to have a trying time getting up to speed with course demands.

Unfortunately, I have a great deal of experience in this area.

Been there, done that

Every course that I have taken over as superintendent has been nearly or completely devoid of a core. This includes a rural course where new ownership felt the need to remove the long-time superintendent, a municipal course whose management company saved money by not replacing the superintendent and assistant for six months, and a daily-fee course whose massive course-wide turnover never allowed retention of employees long enough to develop a core.

In all these instances, the course suffered as its tangle of maintenance issues had to be unraveled without any significant guidance. The takeaway: Without development of a core of experienced employees, any golf course operation imperils itself.

A proper core of employees will be trained, by experience or direct tutelage, how to handle detailed issues that arise. These employees are insurance that little issues don’t become big issues, and they also harbor explanations for why seemingly eccentric practices are employed in place of more conventional ones. They are the stabilizing links in case of the unexpected absence of management. Without this safety net, the maintenance manager is forced to reinvent the wheel to come up to speed.

Retain, retain, retain

Yet with all of its importance, little or no emphasis is regularly placed on this aspect of golf course management. It’s a mistake made by course owners/operators/boards of directors, and only comes to light as a crisis.

Retaining quality employees is crucial to building a core. However, the seasonal aspect of work on a golf course acts as a significant obstacle to this effort. Current federal law requiring that all year-round employees be offered medical insurance — a cost that significantly affects the bottom line of any employer — makes the establishment of a core of employees even more difficult. The powers that be use the insurance issue as an excuse to put off or ignore the need for core development. The question we all need to ask: Are the risks of continuing to ignore this issue worth the reward?

The cost of risk

There is no illusion here. The bottom line is always the deciding factor. A course can only afford what it can afford. A maintenance structure that employs a superintendent, two assistants, two second assistants and a mechanic as its core employees may be ideal, but also is unrealistic for a daily-fee course with a $160,000 maintenance budget. But it’s just as unrealistic to have the superintendent as the only core employee in the maintenance division. All eggs in one basket risks a messy result.

In the event a hypothetical superintendent relocates, becomes infirm or even dies, the only hope for a replacement coming up to speed with the intricacies of the course is if the predecessor kept outstanding notes and records. And those only go so far. On site, daily experience from other employees is the ultimate assurance of a smooth transfer of authority and minimization of risk.

How much, you may ask, does risk cost?

Any time we ponder the application of an insurance product — which is how we should view an employee core — we must weigh the cost of the insurance against what the event insured against would cost. In this case, we are considering the cost of continued course maintenance operations/course business operations against the cost of employing individuals to assure a smooth transition if required.

Consider the risk involved if our hypothetical superintendent, who is the only core employee, is killed by a runaway beer truck after an early July delivery to the clubhouse. Who holds the pieces together at the course? Certainly, the most critical time is immediately after the tragedy, before a competent professional is recruited and takes over. But nearly as precarious are the weeks that follow. Warranting concern here are individual idiosyncrasies of irrigation systems, the variety of annual issues each turfgrass manager must deal with, and the menagerie of daily “gotcha” problems.

Add to these that this replacement superintendent must also become familiar with all operational processes, great or small, that exist at the course (sometimes a daunting task in itself). There are more than enough opportunities in all this for declining course conditions. Such deteriorating conditions only hurt a bottom line.

By the numbers

Assume that during this hypothetical transition period, course conditions suffer. On a course with annual revenue of $1 million, a mere 3-percent reduction will mean a loss of $30,000. And that does not reflect additional losses that might follow if the organization’s reputation becomes sullied, a situation that could take years to repair and includes countless lost revenue.

That $30,000, in many areas, is enough to employ a year-round assistant superintendent who, if trained properly, will be able to step into the vacant maintenance leadership role and employ on-site knowledge to hold the pieces together until a replacement is positioned and brought fully up to speed. Obviously, the $30,000 would be an additional budget expenditure, but it offsets the postulated risk. It is insurance.

At the core of a core

What does a core of employees look like? Every course has variations, but a core begins with the superintendent, the assistant superintendent and the equipment manager.

As the lead of all things maintenance, the superintendent is the star of this show. However, a core is focused on making sure that continuity is maintained in the event of a superintendent’s departure, so the role is less of a core member than a core facilitator. The superintendent ensures that the core can function, and that there is an assistant and an equipment manager. Both role players must be fully informed concerning processes that regularly occur on the course.

It’s fair to assume the assistant is regularly involved in planning, assignment and execution of maintenance tasks. A bit more effort is required with the equipment manager, as their primary function is assuring a reliable maintenance fleet. Communication is the key here.

Beyond these key positions, further core employees easily could include full-time, year-round staff such as irrigation techs, spray techs or crew employees. All these positions, if provided with enough information, training and intentional retention, act as effective support personnel for an organization.

The core employee concept is a necessary long-game strategy for golf courses. Its “next man up” mentality insulates an organization from trouble. All core employees should be training their replacements. Every superintendent or general manager should have an assistant who can take their place in the event they are no longer willing or able to continue their work, and each of these assistants should have a crew member/foreman/second assistant who, in the same event, could competently perform their tasks.

The execution of this strategy affords a course better avoidance of failure. It’s one more way to assure long-term success.

Chris Sorrell, CGCS, is superintendent of Stonebriar Country Club’s Fazio Course in Dallas. This is the third time he has written for Golfdom.

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