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September 2014

Back to Then

Back To ThenBy Trent Bouts

Market forces and personal tragedy threatened Susan Hladky’s vision for Superstition Mountain, but she and the club are once again thriving

James Hladky was a Wyoming oilman who flew and sailed for fun. Golf wasn’t his game. So his wife, Susan, was more than a little surprised when he came home one day suggesting they buy a golf course.

That was late 2009, and the facility in question was Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club in Gold Canyon, Arizona. Private, with two Jack Nicklaus-designed courses tickling at the foot of the mountain for which it is named, the club was hemorrhaging and in receivership, yet another victim of the boom gone bust that was the recession.

Uncertainty was rife within the community that opened its first course, Prospector, in 1998 and the second, Lost Gold, the following year. Those names shaped like they might head the first and last chapters of the Superstition Mountain story. Understandably fearful, a group of homeowners in the 878-acre gated community talked of taking it on themselves. Some, aware of his business prowess, wondered what Hladky thought, and later he floated the idea with his wife.

So in December that year, the Hladkys—on their own—added the golf club to a healthy portfolio of oil, gas and apartment interests operating under the banner of the family business, Cyclone Drilling. Less than a year later, they bought the entire property, believing real estate held the key to the ultimate success of their investment. In the meantime, though, some things would have to change.

For some members, the most disconcerting step was opening the club to public play. As Susan Hladky says, many are of a generation where country club membership was something “to strive for,” and quite a few had been successful in business themselves. They had to be in order to buy into such a facility with the golf-rich centers of Phoenix and Scottsdale just 25 and 45 minutes away, respectively. Those members would lose the privacy—and maybe some of the cachet—they paid for when the gates opened, not just to locals but to any of the masses who flock to the region on golf trips. A round at previously inaccessible Superstition Mountain would be an alluring add-on.

But for the Hladkys, the revenue those visitors would bring was at least a paddle for an otherwise oar-less boat. Still, they weren’t deaf to concerns and limited public access, opening just one of the two courses to the public on alternating days. Members would retain some of their space and exclusivity.

Following the conversion, money began flowing into the facility again. Just how many public rounds were played remains undisclosed, but Susan Hladky says, “It was definitely helping. We were in the black [on golf operations].” The plan was to remain semi-private until 2015, by which time the Hladkys hoped the economy would recover enough to lift membership from the low 300s to near 450. That would buoy operations to a point that was sustainable. Real estate would then be used to help fund capital improvements and begin shaping the long-term return on the couple’s investment.

Then, on October 1, 2011, tragedy struck. The helicopter James Hladky was piloting crashed, and he was killed. In that instant, Susan Hladky lost her husband of 44 years and gained full responsibility for Superstition Mountain. The club’s general manager left not long after. “It was a rough time,” Susan says, with an understated matter-of-factness you might expect of a Western rancher’s daughter.

Some might buckle under those circumstances. Hladky buckled down, spending more than six months running the place herself. During that time, she got her head and her hands, often literally, wrapped around the business of every department. She did it all, from “a lot of cleaning” to analyzing fertilization schedules with the golf course superintendent.

“It was a little out of the box,” Hladky says of her self-imposed immersion. “But when my husband was alive, we discussed how you can only have one boss. So while I already knew a lot of the staff, I didn’t have a lot of direct contact. I didn’t know who we were paying or what we were paying them to do. I didn’t know what it meant for the chef when we hosted bridal parties. I didn’t know the inner workings of a golf club.”

Several attributes stood her in good stead through that period where she was both in charge and in the trenches. “My father was a wonderful teacher who showed me how to fix anything, and my husband was like MacGyver,” she says, with a chuckle. So, nothing mechanical daunted her. In fact, among her many interests, Hladky is an artist welder, sculpting her own works with iron and a blowtorch. “I also had wonderful employees doing the best they could,” she says.

Eventually, Hladky was ready to hire a new general manager because she had learned what it was she was looking for—what skill set and just as importantly, she says, what personality was needed to go with it. “We had a nice gentleman in the role previously, but I knew if I didn’t hire the right person with a strong business sense, the membership would eat him up,” she says.

Hladky’s latter point reflects two truths. One is that private club members are often successful in their professional or business field and, so, are accustomed to making decisions and demanding accountability. The second truth is that the first was news to Hladky. Absent any previous golf ownership experience, the idea that members would want to know the whys and wherefores of her club’s operations came as a surprise.

“It was difficult for me,” Hladky says. “If you’re a member and play golf and the course is in wonderful condition and the food in the restaurant is excellent and I’m the owner, then how I do it and how I run things to make that happen is really not your business.

“Don’t get me wrong, as an owner you need input from members to know how you’re doing,” she adds. “But sometimes, people who have been in control of a business want that same level of direction or control. My husband kind of thrived on controversy. He didn’t let his emotions get in the way of making good decisions. But I’m a people pleaser. I had to learn not to take things personally.”

Hladky’s eventual hire as general manager, Mark Gurnow, has been the “perfect” bridge, she says. A 20-year golf industry veteran, most recently with Troon, Gurnow has impressed with an ability to be approachable but diligently business-like.

“Mark is so good at inviting members into his office and really listening,” Hladky says. “He’s friendly without being a friend—he’s a general manager, and the members love him. They’re satisfied after they speak with him, whereas I didn’t communicate well with the members, I don’t think.”

Part of Gurnow’s role has involved scotching intermittent rumors about the club’s future. Hladky says there was talk from the outset that once the club opened to the public that it would never revert. “With the economy, a lot of golf courses in the area were going under or going to conglomerates,” she says. “Yes, there have been approaches by different interest groups asking if I would sell. Mark addresses that rumor mill very well.”

Still, actions speak loudest and, in addition to a new general manager, a new chef and a new restaurant manager, the club took a major step in January by transitioning back to fully private a year ahead of schedule. Impressive, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean all the original goals have been achieved ahead of time.

“Real estate is starting to pick up,” Hladky says. “There were probably 10 or 12 homes built over our first five years, but there are four being built right now. It’s slow, but at least it’s turning around. We’re hoping that by 2015 we’ll be knocking on the door of our target of 450 members.” The club is at 405 now.

In the meantime, Hladky finds herself playing out a parallel of one of the legends of Superstition Mountain. That story holds that a German miner, Jacob Walts, discovered a mother lode of gold in the area. Its location remained a secret until, on his deathbed in 1891, he revealed the location to Julia Thomas, a boarding house owner who cared for him for many years.

James Hladky may not have anticipated the “mother lode” when he bought Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club, but like Walts, he too left the fate of any riches in the hands of the woman who cared for him for many years. It wasn’t a planned handover, but Susan Hladky has adjusted and, as she sees it, “everything is sitting better now.”

Trent Bouts is a South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor of Palmetto Golfer magazine.

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