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September 2017

Pleasantly Private

By Trent Bouts

The family-owned private model is working to perfection at Pleasant Valley Country Club

To say there was something a little off in the air when the Magill family bought Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton, Massachusetts, at auction in 2010 is a literal and figurative truth. The one-time glamour facility graced by the likes of Snead, Hogan, Palmer and Nicklaus had aged its way into a frayed and faded image of its former self.

“They told me the place stunk pretty bad out by the first tee when the septic overflowed,” recalls Jay Magill, who shares ownership of the private club with sister Beth Shropshire.

So one of the first projects the family embarked upon was to bring a sewer line, along with city water and natural gas, to the clubhouse. That took care of the odor and simultaneously began to clear the air for many members who’d grown as resentful as they had accustomed to promises unfulfilled.

They had a failed septic system and water from a well that wasn’t so clean,” Magill adds. “Members had been promised a lot over the years and were very frustrated with being told things would get done and then never get done. Being able to tackle that before opening in our first season was huge for us.”

That the new owners completed their first project so quickly—a matter of a few months from a November purchase to the new spring—speaks to a competitive advantage few golf course operators command. From pulling permits to moving the dirt, Magill did much of the work himself. Growing up in his father’s home-building business, he’s held an unrestricted general contractor’s license for much of his working life.

That DIY capacity saves about 25 percent on every project, Magill estimates, amounting to a lot of money considering that the family has invested more than $2 million at Pleasant Valley since their father John bought it for $5 million with a single bid. Improvements also include a new façade on the clubhouse, a renovated banquet facility and ladies locker room, on-course bathrooms, new bridges and cart paths, and a new site for wedding ceremonies on a converted putting green.

Business is good, Magill says. Weddings have tripled in recent years. “Banquets have also taken right off compared to where we were when we bought the place,” he notes. Membership is also on an upward tick, though not at the same rate. “If we gain 20 new members a year, we seem to lose half as many due to age, moving or illness. So it’s a climb, but every year we do come out on top.”

The mountain top to that “climb” is somewhere in the low 400s, Magill says. “I can’t see us going too much higher than that. I don’t think we’re too, too far away from that. I think there’s like 75 lockers that aren’t being used right now.”

Indeed, membership growth has allowed the family to increase dues by “a very small percentage” annually in recent years. That follows a decision soon after purchase to lower dues by about 25 percent and waive a $7,000 initiation fee.

Those reductions prompted an immediate spike in membership sales. “That first year we got so many new members it got chaotic,” Magill recalls. “Some of the new members found it tough getting tee times, especially on weekends when everybody wants to play. So the slow grow now is actually good with us. We don’t want it to go through the roof too quick[ly] on us and have new members feeling like they can’t get out of it what they want.”

Ultimately, Magill says, the strongest selling point at Pleasant Valley is the golf course itself. After opening in 1961, the club soon became one of the premier facilities in New England and gained a national reputation hosting either PGA Tour or LPGA Tour events into the 1990s.

“The best thing we have here is the golf course itself,” Magill boasts. “We hear that from our members and guests from other courses, that the course itself is the biggest attraction we have. It’s a beautiful design, beautiful greens—everybody raves about the greens over here. The flowers around this course, wow, sometimes even I can’t believe it, how lucky we are.”

Like her brother, Shropshire came to golf course ownership with a valuable skill-set. Along with their late sister, Tracy, she ran the historic Grafton Inn that her father also owned for 16 years. That background in hospitality made the transition to golf club management relatively smooth. As a perfect complement to her brother’s abilities, it rounded out their armory at the same time it mitigated conflict within, something that can destroy a family-owned business, not to mention the family itself.

“I think our unique skill sets are a big help as far as staying out of each other’s hair,” Magill says. “She’d never try to question what I’m doing out in the field, and I’d never try to question what she’s doing here in the offices. Because she doesn’t really know what I’m doing and I don’t know what she’s doing.”

That doesn’t mean they work in isolation. As Shropshire explains, “Every decision is made together. Everything is discussed between the two of us.” Magill laughs, adding that those discussions often happen after hours, when “we both have a beer in our hands.” “We get along fine,” he says. “I get along with her husband and she gets along great with my wife. The four of us vacation together from time to time. Our kids are the same ages and hang out together.”

It’s just as well. The family is also still in the home-building business and owns Highfields Golf and Country Club in nearby Grafton. They actually developed the facility and 160 surrounding home sites from the ground up on what was once the family farm. “We milked plenty of cows and cut a lot of corn to feed them in the day,” Magill laughs.

After their father discovered golf at Pleasant Valley in his 40s, he fell in love with the game and dreamed of turning the farm into a course of his own. When he did, opening Highfields as a daily-fee facility in 2002, he let his long-held membership at Pleasant Valley lapse. That was until he and Jay and Beth, who was general manager at Highfields by then, drove over to the auction of his old club eight years later.

“He’d looked at another golf course previously. But we thought this [the auction] was something he just wanted to take a ride out and have a look at,” says Shropshire, who was in another room at the club when the auctioneer’s hammer went down. “I actually said to Jay when it was over, ‘Who got the course?’ And he goes, ‘We did.’ I said, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’”

Her brother wasn’t kidding, but he was just as surprised as his sister. He’d been sitting quietly—“hoping to keep my mouth shut”—next to his father when the first call for bids drew silence. “Then he started whacking me in the shins with his cane to make a bid,” Magill says. “Then I was kind of hoping we’d get outbid. But everybody folded up like a lawn chair after that.”

Magill believes his father, who died in 2012, bought Pleasant Valley out of equal parts love and opportunity. “I do think he felt it was both,” he says. “He certainly loved this place.” That so many people at Pleasant Valley were familiar with their one-time fellow member and what his family had achieved at Highfields was another early advantage for the Magills. From being largely frustrated and fearful for so long, existing members were suddenly hopeful.

There was a board of advisors at the time, a small group of members whose role was to communicate concerns and suggestions to ownership. The Magills sat down with the group a handful of times in the first few years, but everyone soon agreed the meetings had become largely ceremonial. With their can-do and will-do approach, the new owners had quickly earned the trust of members and the board of advisors dissolved.

It helped, of course, that the members weren’t being asked to pay for anything more than their membership. “What we try to do is get the place to self-renovate,” Magill says. “Instead of borrowing more money, we try and take the proceeds that the club earns and reinvest that money into the club.”

Shropshire underscores that point. “We’ve never assessed any of the members. So they’re happy to see all the improvements because we’re not asking them for the money. That’s part of the way we’ve earned the freedom to choose the projects we’d like to work on, rather than things that perhaps some of the members might like to see first.”

Lines of communication remain open throughout. There’s a meeting in May each year when a significant portion of members return from their annual migrations south. There, they learn about projects completed over the winter and others on the drawing board.

“Our doors are always open to the members, who frequently pop by and feel free to express what they would like to see done here at the course,” Shropshire says. “But they’ve also been very thrilled with every project we’ve taken on. We’ve never made a promise to them that we were unable to keep.”

The autonomy makes for better business, Magill believes. Yes, he gets projects completed faster and more affordably because he does much of the work himself or at least manages it personally, but there’s also no time and energy lost campaigning for membership approval.

“I’ve never been involved with a member-owned course, but from what I hear there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians in most situations,” Magill says. “My cousin belonged to one, and told me at times they couldn’t agree on much of anything as to whether to go forward.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth at Pleasant Valley, making Shropshire and Magill each as bullish about the club as the day their father bought it. “All in all, we feel optimistic,” Magill says. “I think the economy is doing well, as well as it could be doing. As long as we keep gaining members instead of losing them, we’re optimistic.” 

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

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