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June 2018

Seizing‭ ‬the Day

By Steve Eubanks

The key to any successful venture is knowing when and how to seize upon opportunity. For Jonathan Byler, president and CEO of Byler Holdings in central Pennsylvania, the opportunities were plentiful. It was the “knowing how” part that required some work and innovative thinking.

“In 1999, my father sold his (oil and gas) business and we had a mutual friend who was selling a golf course,” Byler said. “I thought it made a lot of sense to buy the course, even though I’d never been in the golf business and was a mediocre player. I did own a landscaping business at the time so I understood turf and that sort of thing.

“So as I was negotiating the deal, we got to the end and my father said, ‘You know what, I’m selling my business. I don’t really want to be doing this.’ So, I talked my parents into cosigning a loan with me and off we went.”  

For people who know the golf industry, that sounds like the first chapter of a disastrous story. You simply don’t go from lawn care to golf course ownership, especially if you’ve never spent a day behind the counter in a pro shop or on a tractor mowing fairways. Byler was a former college baseball player, a grass man who thought he saw an opportunity to improve operations at a daily fee golf course even though he had no experience and only a novice understanding of the units that drove cash flow.

“The biggest surprise to me was how expensive capital improvements are,” Byler said. “Right away, we needed a new irrigation system and new equipment. That was eye opening.” 

An even bigger eye-opener to those watching from the outside was how successful Byler became at Lebanon Valley Golf Club in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. It didn’t take the novice long to figure out the metrics of the business and put people in place who could run an efficient and effective operation.

Then, another opportunity arose, one that would have made sense if Byler had been in the golf business for 10 or 15 years. But, he had to make a decision just one year after diving headfirst into course ownership.

“In 2000, just a year after buying Lebanon Valley, the guy who owned the course that was our closest competitor (Blue Mountain Golf Club in Lebanon) went through a divorce and needed to sell,” Byler said. “I think early on I knew I wanted to own more than one golf course. I didn’t think it would be quite so quick, but I bought the (second) course at the right time and at a good deal.”

Gobbling up the competition, Byler immediately realized the advantages of bulk purchasing as well as the synergies involved in marketing, accounting, human resources and administration.    

Byler now owns five golf courses and two full-service restaurants, while also owning and managing three movie theaters, a ready-mix concrete plant, a sand and gravel supply company and a trucking company.

“More than being a golf person, I see myself as an entrepreneur,” Byler said. “I think I see and understand what constitutes a good business and what makes a business a success. The courses I’ve bought since (2000) have been much higher end. I have a P.B. Dye design (Iron Valley Golf Club in Lebanon) and a Rees Jones design (Broad Run Golf Club in West Chester).”

He also purchased Berkleigh Golf Club in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, a 90-year-old private club that used to host the LPGA Betsy King Classic. Byler converted it to daily fee and it took off.

During one of the snow-packed winters, Byler went out to the driving range at Iron Valley, looked at the range’s length and elevation change and thought it would be perfect for sledding or maybe tubing down the snow. By the next winter, Iron Valley Tubing, a seasonal operation with 15 snow lanes, 900 feet long with 130 feet of elevation change, opened for business with daily fee and seasonal passes. 

“When I look at a business, I ask myself, ‘What are the right metrics that need to be measured to make this a success?” Byler said. “What changes or innovations do we need to make moving forward? And what customers are we serving with the decisions we make?’” 

Those questions helped Byler survive the Great Recession of 2008 and come out stronger on the other side. “We thought we ran things tightly before the recession,” he said with a laugh. “We look back on it now and say, ‘Boy, we really had to learn how to be efficient during that time.’”

That learning curve paid off. Today, Byler is a wise veteran of the golf business. His five properties are all within a day’s drive of each other. He likes it that way.

“We don’t have a specific time or place where we want to expand next,” he said. “We’ve stayed pretty geographically centered because the margins in golf can be narrow and the intensive management you need can be hard to do from a far-away place. So, I don’t feel like we need to get far beyond about a four-hour drive from one spot to the next.” 

Today he dispenses advice to newcomers, people who are ready to seize their own opportunities but don’t know if they have the knowledge or wherewithal to pull it off.

“As nice as it is in this industry, or any industry, really, to talk about synergies, you have to tailor each business, each operation, to a specific clientele,” he said. “What customer are you servicing at this location? What are their needs? Even in similar markets, geographically close to each other, you have to customize each operation to the specific customers who come through that door.” 

That is how you turn what could have, and by all rights should have, been a tale of failure and woe into one of triumph and success. 

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

 

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