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February 2020

Leading with Family Values

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New NGCOA president’s roots stem from generations of stewardship

By Scott Kauffman

On a recent October morning, Foxchase Golf Club co-owner Steve Graybill was pulling photos off the trail camera that monitors excess land adjoining his central Pennsylvania golf property when he noticed a big buck. The buck was part of a growing deer population and Graybill thought it was worth showing his dad, Art, so he called him over to the course office to take a look.

Graybill, nursing a herniated disc at the time, mentioned it was going to be a nice day and suggested his father go hunting on the eve of his 91st birthday. Graybill asked his father to meet him around 2 o’clock with a pole saw and some loppers and he would help carve out a crossbow hideout before he left for his doctor’s appointment.

“I told Pops all he had to do was back his 4-wheeler in the bushes and just sit there,” Graybill recalls “So, he did, and I went off to therapy. Later that day my phone rings, and he says, ‘Hey I shot your buck.’”

Not only was the buck the largest Graybill ever shot, Pops got profiled with the 8-pointer in the local Lancaster, Pennsylvania newspaper network and received 5,000 likes and 100 comments on the Pennsylvania Whitetails Instagram account. The next day, Graybill celebrated his birthday by shooting 5 under his age – 86 – on the family’s par-72, 6,607-yard layout. 

It was a fitting end to 48 hours of family-oriented Foxchase fun. Indeed, with the daily-fee course now under control of the second generation of Graybills, Foxchase has been a family affair in every sense of the word for Steve Graybill, who just took over as board president for the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA).

The younger Graybill, 58, joked he hasn’t shot any big bucks lately and certainly won’t shoot his age any time soon, but the modest single-course owner (SCO) was glad to share in his family’s recent golf-related glory.

“We had so much fun with the whole thing and to be 91 and still going at it. …,” Graybill adds, “What a blessing it’s been for both of my parents. My mom still golfs and she’s 90!”

The real blessing is the fact Graybill’s prime Pennsylvania property continues to thrive after five generations of family stewardship. At least that’s one way to describe the estimated 210 acre-golf property perfectly situated a few minutes off the Pennsylvania Turnpike midway between Philadelphia and the state capital of Harrisburg.

If there’s any question as to how well the former dairy farm is doing as an upscale public course, just visit the property on any given lunch hour during the week when the clubhouse restaurant is bustling with local business professionals and retirees, and the newly improved Double D Grubbery situated behind the clubhouse is serving up slow-cooked burgers, wraps and other casual fare to golfers and patrons enjoying the indoor-outdoor setting.

To be sure, like so many other successful public and private golf facilities evolving into multi-dimensional destinations, Foxchase and its peaceful well-manicured greenspace also does a brisk business as a popular wedding and events venue. In fact, one of the regular Friday events is the hugely popular ‘Brew and Q” outdoor party when the first hole of Foxchase is closed off, a mobile smoker is brought in for a celebrated regional barbecue chef and craft beer/BBQ foodies literally fly in for the festivities on their helicopters, small planes and ultra-lights, according to Graybill.

When it comes to the day-to-day business, Steve Graybill, an avid golfer routinely playing to a single-digit handicap, oversees the turf and golf shop operations. His cousin, Doug Graybill, who comes from the family’s longtime grocery store business and serves as a board member with the Lancaster County Restaurant Association, oversees Foxchase’s hospitality-related businesses. The cousins, along with their fathers, built the course in 1991 and purchased the business from their fathers outright 10 years ago.

Graybill credits his start in golf thanks to his deceased Uncle Donald’s terminally ill wish to meet Arnold Palmer. Graybill said he was fortunate to be along when the wish was fulfilled during a former Senior PGA Tour Bell Atlantic Classic played in Malvern, Pennsylvania.

As fate would have it, there was a rain out during the tournament and what Graybill and his uncle originally expected to be 10 minutes with the sports legend ended up being an hour and eventually led to an invitation to visit Palmer at Latrobe Country Club, the private club his family still owns.

“We really built a relationship with him and his staff that we kept up ‘til the day he died,” Graybill says. “It was really a cool thing. I was so taken by his graciousness coming away from that first meeting with him that the switch was just flipped. The family played golf and were passionate about the game, and I just said, I want to get into golf. It was powerful.”

And now that he is the new president of the NGCOA, Graybill would like to see the association become a more powerful voice for fellow SCOs and other mom-and-pop operations seeking guidance in the coming decade(s). And that’s not to discount the membership value of high-profile national golf management companies or smaller multi-course operators.

One idea Graybill has is perhaps starting an expert advisory panel of some kind allowing owners to call up or email at will in a more private fashion and fire off questions affecting their businesses or future.

“Let’s say you’ve been in the business 30 years and you want to sell your golf course,” Graybill explains. “How do you go about that? Or maybe you need advice on how to bring in the next generation of owners.  We should be able to be the go-to, where you’re going to call us so we can help guide you through that process. …

“The MCOs (multi-course operators) are in their own bucket. The SCOs really are the meat and potatoes of our business. Obviously, we want everybody to come in, but the best opportunity to grow our membership is in that arena.”

NGCOA chief executive officer Jay Karen couldn’t be more thrilled with the association’s newest top officer.

“Steve represents the type of member for which NGCOA came into existence over 40 years ago,” Karen says. “A family that pours its heart and soul into the business.  Steve, as much as any member I’ve seen, is the guy who always shows up when called upon. Associations rely on the ‘currency of involvement’ to work, and Steve has always been generous with giving to the organization. 

“And what I like to see as well is that he extracts as much joy from anyone I’ve seen from both operating the golf course and by being a volunteer in the NGCOA community. When your heart is in the right place and your moral compass is in the right direction, as is the case with Steve, you know the organization will be in good hands.”

Scott Kauffman is a golf business writer and the managing director of Aloha Media Group.

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