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February 2014

New Horizons

By Steve Eubanks 

 

Incoming president Matt Galvin is poised to bring fresh perspectives to the NGCOA /uploadedImages/Articles/2014/(02)_Feb/newhorizons.jpg 

 

Getting into the golf business usually requires an obsessive love of the game, or at the very least a family history in golf. Indeed, there aren’t many examples of owners who choose the golf business with no prior history or connection to the game, and even fewer who then rise to the top of the industry.

 

One notable exception to this rule is Matt Galvin, the 47-year-old incoming president of the National Golf Course Owners Association and a 20-plus year veteran of the golf industry who never played the game growing up and didn’t even break 100 until he co-owned multiple facilities.

 

“It certainly wasn’t a traditional way to get into the business, that’s for sure,” Galvin says with a slight chuckle.

 

After earning his undergraduate degree in New Hampshire, Galvin went to graduate school for his MBA at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. While in school, Galvin interned at several aviation businesses at Santa Monica airport owned by David Price, the then-owner and chairman of American Golf Corporation (AGC). Following graduation, he was offered an opportunity at AGC, where he saw that Price was bringing business practices to an industry and sport that had rarely been operated as a business.

 

“I loved the people and the opportunity,” Galvin notes. “It was a young company full of young, smart people, and they were willing to give a chance to a new MBA graduate who knew nothing about golf.”

 

This appeared to be part of Price’s model—bring in people with an outsider’s perspective to ask questions that nobody who had spent a lifetime in the game would think to ask, and to offer opinions on values, acquisitions and management strategies that were not based on traditional golf thinking. Others at American Golf had similar stories. David Pillsbury was previously a marketing executive at Mattel. Joe Guerra had a construction industry background, while Gail Goodrich enjoyed a 14-year career in the National Basketball Association. Craig Price and Jim Stanich, both lawyers, wrote the book on golf course acquisitions and due diligence.

 

“When you look at the people who came out of American Golf back then—people like Joe Guerra who has Canongate Golf, Dave Pillsbury at PGA Tour Golf Properties, Steve Harker and Lynn Shackelford at Touchstone [Golf] and LaMott Smith at Raspberry Golf—it was a pretty deep bench in terms of talent and staying power in the industry,” says Galvin, noting that he could list a dozen more current industry leaders from those years at American Golf.

 

For his part, Galvin brought to golf what Bill James brought to baseball—a new way of thinking from someone who had never played the game. He was later part of a small team that split from American Golf in 1993 and formed National Golf Properties, a publicly traded golf course owner. Eventually, the business grew from 40 owned golf courses to hundreds across the country.

 

However, it was not all about financial statements and acquisitions. Over time, Galvin’s appreciation for the history, values and traditions of golf grew. “Some people, especially I believe many golf professionals, come to the sport and are enamored with its traditions before learning the business,” he notes. “I came from the opposite direction.”

 

Just like Guerra, Smith and many others, Galvin eventually branched out on his own, partnering with Chris Schiavone at RDC Golf Group based in New Jersey in 1996. The business grew, and Galvin and his partners acquired or managed golf courses and country clubs from New York to Florida. Purchases included Forsgate Country Club and Shackamaxon Country Club, both in New Jersey. The 36-hole Forsgate is acclaimed for its Charles “Steamshovel” Banks course built in 1931, while Shackamaxon is noted for its classic A.W. Tillinghast design, which opened in 1916 and proved challenging enough to have hosted five New Jersey Opens from 1922 to 2002. The group also purchased and managed Tuscawilla in Winter Springs, Florida, until its recent sale.

 

“We had substantial growth, especially in the private club arena, because we understood what it takes to make a club successful,” Galvin explains. “Many clubs fail in two key areas—food and beverage and membership sales. Chris Schiavone had an accomplished background in other food-service businesses, and we could make club restaurants a profit center rather than a loser. Schiavone had also grown up around a tremendously successful private club his family co-owned, Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club (Bedminster, New Jersey), and understood probably better than anyone outside of ClubCorp how to structure and market memberships.

 

“But more than anything, we stayed in touch with the people we were serving,” Galvin adds. “We were close to every aspect of the operation and purposely never added the layers of management bureaucracy that some management organizations have.”

 

Points like the last one are central to the way Galvin approaches business in general and his properties in particular. The way he sees it, customers—whether they’re daily-fee golfers or private members—“have to see that you’re invested in the property and that you understand what they need.” 

 

While still a co-owner of Forsgate and Shackamaxon, Galvin ventured out after 17 years to form Morningstar Golf and Hospitality, a Princeton, New Jersey-based management group specializing in investment, management and advisory services for golf courses, country clubs and other types of private clubs. Morningstar’s projects have included sporting and equestrian clubs.

 

“Our most precious resource is our time,” says Galvin, “so we only want to pursue projects where we can make a meaningful contribution and be rewarded appropriately.”

 

True to that idea, the Morningstar team continues to aggressively search for new acquisitions, even in a down market. But they’re not simply chasing properties for the sake of adding to their portfolio.

 

“We’re very selective, not only with the type of facility we want to be involved in, but the markets we want to enter,” Galvin says. “We’re looking at major metropolitan areas from Boston to Miami, but they have to be the right deals. We don’t manage more than one competitive property in any given market if it means competing against the interests of our partners, but we certainly feel as though we provide the right economies of scale to keep costs competitive while providing the best service for our members.”

 

That philosophy, forged from years in the business, is equally shaped by realities of the recent past. “The economy that we’ve had in the golf industry for the past five years has been tough, but it has provided some great opportunities for those who know what they want and are patient enough to wait for the right deals,” Galvin notes.

 

After all these years and with some prompting from his four children, Galvin has finally made it a point to play more golf. “I’m not any good and I don’t really have a lot of time to work on it,” he notes. “But that’s okay. I guess I’m like a lot of our customers: I’m out there to spend time with friends or family and enjoy the benefits of being outdoors in a beautiful setting. How I play doesn’t really matter.”

 

That’s a perspective a lot of operators learned a lot later in the process than Galvin, who brought it to the table from the beginning.

 

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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