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April 2021

River Forest Country Club Recognizing Jamy Rankin

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By Scott Kauffman

When Jamy Rankin was working for General Motors right out of college in the mid-1980s, she went to a company barbecue one weekend at her manager’s home and got exposed to something that ultimately would help change the course of her life.

As Rankin recalls, she noticed the manager’s son hitting what turned out to be golf balls into an Indiana cornfield across the street from the house. At the time, Rankin, growing up in Pittsburgh, knew nothing about golf and had never touched a club before, let alone stepped foot on a golf course.

When Rankin approached the teenager and asked what he was doing, the prep golfer said he was “just hitting shag balls for practice.” After handing her a club and inviting her to try it herself, she ended up hitting some nice shots and eliciting the teen to tell her, “You’re a natural; you should get some clubs and learn the game.”

Encouraged by the message, Rankin not only bought some clubs the next day, but nearly 25 years later actually ended up buying her first golf club after taking early retirement from the Ford Motor Company and moving back to Pittsburgh to be near her ailing father. For Rankin, who purchased a 50 percent stake in River Forest Country Club with her husband in February 2019, the acquisition marked a dream to some degree for the lifelong avid golfer.

As a Black female course owner and general manager, Rankin’s “second career” is rare, to say the least. Indeed, the number of African-American female course owners likely can be counted on one hand, with former LPGA Tour player Renee Powell and Black Entertainment Television network co-founder Sheila Johnson being two of the other minorities in these rare golf ownership circles.

According to Rankin, who retired as President/Chief Executive Officer of Ford Component Sales, LLC in 2016 and serves on the board for publicly traded Motorcar Parts of America, her second act made perfect sense at this stage of her life after having worked her way to the top of the automotive industry.

“I was in a position now that if you’re going to work you might as well do something you love,” adds Rankin, whose husband is a longtime Pittsburgh firefighter and non-golfer. “And all the books you read, the people say you should do what you’re passionate about. And I’ve always been passionate about golf.”

Indeed, after “learning” the game at that weekend barbecue, Rankin immediately took lessons and was able to start “connecting more” with her new mostly white male colleagues who would show up on Monday mornings often talking about their weekend golf exploits. Years later, Rankin joined Detroit Golf Club when she was a global director with Ford and was able to stay on par with her male contemporaries in another way, as she started playing to an 11 handicap.

“Initially, I was kind of excluded from the conversation because I did not play golf and I didn’t look like them,” says Rankin, referring to her first manufacturing job with GM. “I was the only Black female so I was just sitting there while they all talked about their great weekends. After I started taking lessons,  I would come into work and people were like, ‘how are your lessons going,’ so then we started having a connection or something to talk about.”

After climbing to the top of the corporate ladder as a Black female, Rankin now has something else to talk about while she blazes new golf business trails. Rankin, 57,  came across the River Forest opportunity when she met club owner Andi Irwin at a women’s golf event and Irwin asked her to share some of her business acumen and golf club insights.

Soon after, the two women became equal partners along with their spouses, with Rankin now running the day-to-day affairs of the 550-acre development that features an 18-hole championship layout, 200-person banquet facility and newly rebranded Lily’s restaurant, open to the public.

In her first year, the investment paid off for the Rankins as rounds soared an estimated 25 percent from the previous year and overall banquets and events business did equally as well. According to Rankin, the club’s new partnership was set up to “really blossom” in 2020 but then the pandemic hit, cutting off approximately half of River Forest’s overall revenue streams when she was forced to all but close the banquet and restaurant areas.

“The sad part was we were poised to have an amazing, amazing year because our banquet room was booked almost every weekend through September,” Rankin says. “We had a ton of golf outings and weddings. … And obviously coming off a year when rounds were already up, we were poised for an even better year, I think, for golf.”

As Rankin enters her third golf season, Covid-19 continues to be a challenge for the new course owner, not to mention the industry’s ongoing perplexing problem in how to attract more millennials, minorities and females to a place she calls a “diamond in the rough.”

If anybody can successfully break down golf’s barriers it’s Rankin, who ironically now owns a place whose original ownership was known to discriminate against the Black community, as well as the Jewish community and women after it opened in 1966.

“This is a beautiful place,” Rankin says. “When I took over our clientele was primarily nice, older white men that just wanted to come play golf, drink some beer and have a good time. My vision is to continue to make this place more inclusive and just give basic good customer service.

“It doesn’t cost money to treat people nice. Just treating people with respect and dignity and showing someone cares about them.”

Teachings, of course, that transcend this business and game that Rankin learned to love in the backyard of that company barbecue as a young Black female who would go on to succeed nevertheless by “playing” in a white man’s world.

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