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June 2014

Turning the Page

Turning the PageBy David Gould

Charlie Staples literally wrote the book on course ownership. Now, he and Fore Golf Partners are penning a new chapter to the saga

When Charlie Staples was asked by the PGA of America to author a full-length book on buying or leasing golf courses back in 1984, it’s quite certain no other association member could have attempted the feat. Born in 1943 and already a head professional and course superintendent at age 22—serving Ft. Eustis (Virginia) Golf Club, where he hosted an All-Army Championship—Staples broke the mold for his profession. All those years when people were telling each other, “Golf is a game, but we have to start treating it as a business,” Staples was way out front showing them exactly how.

The position of head professional at a hallowed institution like Aronimink Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia would suit some PGA members for an entire career. But Staples left there after handling host-pro duties for the 1977 U.S. Amateur to launch the company that would eventually become Fore Golf Partners. Before long he would be applying his management skills to public-access courses like Prince William Golf Course in the Washington, D.C., exurbs and Porky Oliver Golf Course in Wilmington, Delaware.

Responding to market forces in nimble style, Fore Golf has expanded, contracted, entered partnerships, exited them, changed its name a couple of times, and generally adapted to circumstance and opportunity. In 2007, the Tampa Bay Business Journal covered the company’s purchase of four local clubs by declaring that “Fore Golf, a small, family-owned golf management company” now had a sizable Tampa Bay presence. It also noted, “Fore Golf has owned more than 70 courses, but it only has 11 in its current inventory.” A quote in the article from company president and chief operating officer Michael Miraglia—“We just buy, fix up and sell golf courses”—said a lot about the enterprise in a few words.

Following a recent expansionary cycle, the company now owns 14 golf properties, has management contracts with four, and leases 22. “Our basic philosophy is to acquire, own and operate,” Staples says. “But over the past several years, we’ve gotten so many phone calls asking us to lease or manage that we decided it would be OK to do some of that—if we felt it was right for us and would benefit the facility, too.” Whereas lessees and management groups are commonly known to shy away from opportunities that don’t come with lengthy time horizons, it’s the opinion of Staples that “no time is too short” if the structure of the operation is appropriate to a tighter turnaround period.

Miraglia and Staples originally crossed paths in 1991, when Staples bought the Pensacola, Florida, club where Miraglia was working as an assistant pro. Staples, though demanding, is a natural mentor to those in his employ. In Miraglia he found someone who had a similar sense of the devil being in the details and an enthusiasm for keeping close, constant scrutiny of them. “Analyze anything in the operation that can be analyzed,” is the approach Miraglia noticed in his new boss, “and get every department talking to every other department, basically every day.”

Staples, who wouldn’t disagree with that assessment, views turnaround work as panoramic in scope. “Almost always, the area that you have to focus on is all of them,” he says. “That’s every profit center, every cost center.  When I study a golf operation, I generally find that every part of it needs to be managed better.”

The career of Charlie Staples can be tracked pretty tellingly through the partnerships his companies have formed. In the 1980s, five Philadelphia city courses were under the Staples umbrella, until ClubCorp “decided they would form a public division,” Staples recalls. “They needed a platform to start it from, and we accommodated them.” The Philadelphia contracts were transferred to ClubCorp, with consideration.

Later on, the leveraged buyout boutique of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, or KKR, decided to enter the golf market and they, too, needed a platform. The Staples group provided it. After that, it was KKR affiliate company KSL Recreation in need of a core set of properties, available to it through a 1993 partnership with Fairways Group, the name of the Staples-led firm.

In the summer of 2011, independent at the time, the operating tandem of Staples and Miraglia formed a joint venture to secure a stream of capital for acquisitions. Joining as their third was 27-year ClubCorp veteran Tom Bennison, who took on the role of partner in charge of the finance end. At the time this trio came together, Fore Golf had a portfolio of 13 courses, located in Florida, Ohio and the Mid-Atlantic. Manassas is still company headquarters, in deference to the skill and longevity of its core employees, but Staples and Miraglia work from home offices in Jupiter and Miami, respectively.

Show Charlie Staples a wage-earning golfer who pays $40 for a weekend round of golf and he’ll show you a man who is loath to pay $41. “The consumer is not able to go beyond a certain price for the round of golf, so you’ve got to work with that limitation and do other things to make the operation a success financially,” Staples contends. Ask him what those “other things” include and you’ll find yourself on a deep dive into the fine points. “Maybe the original design had pine straw and you discontinue the pine straw,” he muses. “Maybe you can edge bunkers with different equipment. Maybe you market better.”

Asked whether too much money is spent in a quest for high Stimpmeter ratings, Staples demurs. “You can get speed out of a green by rolling it, and rolling is cheap,” he comments. “What’s expensive is trimming along cart paths, mowing rough repeatedly through the week, blowing the clippings, hand-raking all your bunkers, putting down a lot of chemicals.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Staples’ trip through a maintenance barn would naturally include stops to get a sense of how often and how well the mower blades have been sharpened—a detail too often overlooked. The phrase Staples often uses about a golf facility is “presentation to the customer.” This has to be impressive, and consistent, but on the price-sensitive public side it doesn’t have to be over-the-top or perfect.

The course construction bubble inflated, swelled up some more, then basically popped, all while Charlie Staples was recording one successful year upon another. He was all the while put off by the excess and overspending. The net effect of it all, in his view, is turf quality standards that are a touch too high.

“Course closures are a good sign, though supply and demand is still lopsided,” Staples says. “No matter how stable the supply-demand ratio turns out to be, you still have the hangover effect of people thinking conditions need to be wall-to-wall perfect.

“When the USGA says brown is OK, that’s a good thing,” he adds. “When golfers are told that a dry, firm fairway is preferable to over-watering, that’s positive for everybody in operations.”

Under the Staples approach to golf ownership and management, there’s openness to change but never an infatuation with shiny new objects simply because lots of people are talking about them. A good example would be GPS units in golf carts. To Staples and Miraglia, there was upside potential in this technology if operators had originally deployed it based on an optional upcharge.

“We liked the pay-per-play model for GPS-enabled golf carts,” Miraglia says. “We did a full install at one club with the idea that the pay-per-play model would work nicely.”  It didn’t go that way in the marketplace, however, so Fore Golf’s network is not where you would go to see GPS-enabled buggies. “Just sticking it in the cart as a cost center doesn’t pan out, in our view,” Miraglia adds.

Fore Golf takes a similar stance with respect to tee time booking at public-access courses. Describing his incremental and detail-driven approach to turnaround work, Staples brings up the issue of phone communications.

“You might say that in public golf, it all starts when the telephone rings,” he opines. “Someone in a clerk-type role answers it. Is that person trained in how to greet golfers and answer questions? Most often they aren’t. Which is critical because 70 [percent] to 80 percent of the time, the golfer who wants to play your course is calling on the phone to reserve a time.”

Then there’s the instruction imperative Staples has long adhered to. At the company’s suburban Washington, D.C., facility, Hidden Creek Country Club, first-rate practice facilities include a wedge range that consists of a tee area with uneven as well as flat lies and a target field arrayed with concrete slabs marked by colored pennants on short flagsticks. If you haven’t yet heard of this practice center wrinkle, that’s because it’s in the early-adopter stage.

“People at the club love the wedge targets,” Miraglia notes. “It’s a great tool when you’re practicing alone, but it also inspires a lot of impromptu competitions—which of course we encourage and even help organize.”

The 30-minute private golf swing lesson is old-fashioned, but Fore Golf is delighted to provide it to golfers who prefer that experience. Meanwhile, new methods of coaching, teaching, clubfitting, group practice, specialty clinics, high-tech skills tests—the whole enchilada—is top of mind these days.

“I predicted years ago that the director of instruction position would eventually become the most important job at a golf facility,” Staples proclaims. “Now look around anywhere you see golf academies, you see technology like FlightScope and K-Vest or the putting tech systems. You see that people want to enjoy golf in a shorter time period, and the teaching or learning aspect is obviously a lot more important. To me, it’s the future of golf.”

Exit strategies are part of the golf course owning, operating and managing process. The Staples organization in its multiple iterations has exited dozens of times, very seldom without quite a bit to show for it.

“You become accustomed to walking away, and there’s always the next place that you’re excited to work on and improve,” Staples says. “I love what I do, running these golf facilities. I enjoy working with Mike and with all the people in our organization. Could I give out one of these days? Maybe, but I feel very good. So, the plan is to keep at it at least a few more years.”

As Fore Golf keeps at it, the work Staples and his group does will continue to involve every profit center, every cost center, at every club. Look as close as they do, and you’ll see that it all needs to be managed better.

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business. 

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