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The Three Biggest Myths About Private Club Governance

The Three Biggest Myths About Private Club Governance

A club president recently asked about common practices I observe at clubs that I would correct if I could. I told him about three typical behaviors I call the “myths of good club governance.”

The first: The board needs an “executive session” at the end of every board meeting, with the general manager excluded. Bad practice, a terrible idea and unsustainable in the long run if the club wants professional management.

Either board members believe they have a trusted partner in their general manager or they don’t. You can’t be half-pregnant on this issue. When you hold a portion of each board meeting without the general manager/COO, you signal to everyone in the club a need for a “secret discussion” without the key paid leader present. No good end can come of this.

Most capable general managers/COOs will begin to update their resumes if that happens at their clubs, with good reason. Why would they want to work with board members who do not trust them completely?

The private club is filled with “he said/she said” gossip. This feeds the rumor mill and gives fodder to the “barking dogs” in the club to undermine the general manager/COO. It is a bad practice. Get rid of it.

The second: Have multiple candidates for several open board positions. The days of “popularity contests” should be over in private clubs, and nominating committees should present the same number of recommended candidates as there are open seats on the board.

Most successful private clubs with which we work have adapted the model almost every successful business uses to nominate board members. This practice allows clubs to benefit from the best talent rather than take a chance on electing “barking dogs” because they have campaigned effectively.

The third: Expecting club amenities to produce a profit for the club. I often quote Phil Newman from the RSM accounting firm, who once said, “Private club budgets need to be driven from the top down in the sense that there is a collected group of people with common interests who want to enjoy certain amenities and they decide what they are willing to pay to enjoy those amenities. Contrast that to a typical business where the budget is driven from the bottom up or totally reliant on selling a product or service to produce revenue.”

Private club boards often expect food and beverage or pro shop merchandise or swimming pool fees to “carry” the budget for the year and take pressure off the dues line. Flawed thinking. If those amenities can contribute to the bottom line, that’s a bonus. But don’t plan your business or operational budget based on those departments producing revenue that should come from the dues line.

The club wasn’t created to make money. It exists to provide certain amenities for like-minded people who understand that the financial basis for the club resides in the dues and fees charges, not in how much money the kitchen can make on a hamburger.

If I could only wave the “magic wand” and eliminate those three myths in the private club world, I think some clubs would focus on what is truly important. Board members, general managers/COOs and club members would do better if those three myths went away for good. This much I know for sure.

THE BOARDROOM MAGAZINESeptember/October 2023

“This Much I Know for Sure” is a regular feature in BoardRoom magazine beginning Fall 2022. Dick will share some of his reflections based on his 50-plus years of working in the private club business.

The Three Biggest Myths About Private Club Governance2023-10-19T19:49:29+00:00

Gravitas – If You Don’t Have It, You Can Learn It

Gravitas: If You Don’t Have It, You Can Learn It

It was one of those hot, humid nights in Minnesota when the air conditioning in my small office was simply not capable of keeping me cool.

My sleeves were rolled up and I was sweating (literally) while working on the budget projections for next year.

I suddenly realized that it was 6:30 p.m. and our Tuesday Twilight nine-hole member group would be in the middle of enjoying dinner. It was also one of the weeks when members would invite guest couples to join the event.

I walked into the dining room…directly to my club president’s table and he introduced me to his guests. I then worked my way around the dining room and greeted members and their guests at all of the other tables.

As I walked back to my office, I felt certain that I had made a good impression, not only because I greeted every member table but also because I took the time to talk to their guests. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

When my club president, Mr. Rosenbaum, walked into my office for our typical meeting the following Saturday morning he was rather direct.

“Dick, do you understand what the word gravitas means?” he asked. I told him I did not. He then explained to me that the word was from the Latin word gravis, meaning serious and that Webster defined the word as dignity, seriousness or solemnity of manner.

But, he added, “I also think it represents how someone will comport his or herself and whether they demonstrate ‘class and grace’ in their social and professional interactions.

“When you walked into the dining room last Tuesday evening, your tie was loosened, your sleeves were rolled up and you were perspiring, which was even evident on your shirt. You appeared totally disheveled; the exact opposite of gravitas and I was actually embarrassed for you and for the club when you introduced yourself to my guests.

“While you clearly demonstrated a lack of gravitas last Tuesday, you can certainly learn how to develop that executive presence in the future.”

Then he shared three characteristics with me that he believed were key to exhibiting gravitas. While I might have heard some of these and other tips before, I decided that I would focus on the three he suggested.

The first is personal appearance. “Dick when we see you at the club, we expect to see someone professionally dressed who looks like they are in control,” he said. From that day on I never appeared in the club dining room without my sport coat or suit coat and the rest of the management team followed my example. Mr. Rosenbaum also said that part of appearance is body language with good posture and slow and measured movement.

The second is how you speak and the language that you use. He told me the best way to communicate was to ask questions and listen, instead of talking about myself.

“The best conversationalists learn more about the person they have just met than they share about themselves,” he suggested. “It is a great way to honor and respect the person you are talking to. When you slow down your speech you can say more by saying less and your comments will carry more weight,” he continued.

The third is how you act. Instead of moving around a room in an agitated fashion, slow down and take your time as you leisurely yet purposely stop to engage in conversation with people.

“Quite frankly, Dick, the way you were rushing around the dining room last Tuesday we thought maybe something was wrong. You seemed nervous and out of control,” Mr. Rosenbaum added.

I think we have all encountered people who seem to have that special “charisma” or “gravitas” and through the years I’ve observed that they will typically exhibit all three of the characteristics that Mr. Rosenbaum shared with me.

They will always seem to be the best dressed person in the room. They tend to ask more questions and listen attentively while speaking succinctly when it is their turn. And finally, since people tend to gather around them, they seem to move around a room at a very measured pace.

I’m not certain that I will ever achieve the level of gravitas that I see in so many people I admire but I will always work on the three tips Mr. Rosenbaum shared with me.

This much I know for sure. 

THE BOARDROOM MAGAZINEJuly/August 2023

“This Much I Know for Sure” is a regular feature in BoardRoom magazine beginning Fall 2022. Dick will share some of his reflections based on his 50-plus years of working in the private club business.

Gravitas – If You Don’t Have It, You Can Learn It2023-09-13T18:49:50+00:00

This Much I Know For Sure: The Fired Caddie – Perhaps My Worst Decision Ever!

The Fired Caddie

If only I had engaged the “Pilot’s Pause” before firing this employee, it might have saved me from making perhaps the worst management decision in my club management career. And one that I still think about to this day.

I often refer to the “Pilot’s Pause” when talking to club general managers and always encourage them to wait for 24 hours before making an emotionally
charged decision.

The airlines have a rule that pilots cannot drink alcohol for eight hours before flying, but they suggest to their flight crews that 24 hours is a better and recommended protocol.

I began to engage this suggested practice in my club management career shortly after reading about it. Waiting 24 hours or more to respond to a “hot
button issue” allows you to “respond” to a problem and not “react” to it.

Webster’s Dictionary defines react as a negative way to address an issue and conversely defines respond as a positive way to handle a problem. Unfortunately, I learned of this tactic after making what I consider one of the worst management decisions of my career.

Jason was the very best caddie we had at the club and consistently received the highest ratings from the members for whom he caddied. The club had sponsored him for the Evans Scholarship, an all-encompassing four-year college, highly sought-after scholarship. He was very likely going to be awarded that valued scholarship. And then it happened.

Not only did Jason caddie for us, but he also worked as a bus person on our banquet staff to earn extra money. He would often caddie in the morning and
work with our banquet team in the afternoon. The club was hosting a wedding reception on our outside patio lawn, and I was casually viewing the function from a second-story window. The bartender had stepped away from the service bar and that is when I observed Jason pour himself a vodka and coke in a plastic cup.

One of my unbreakable rules at the club was that I didn’t allow any employee to drink while on duty. I set the example and our employee team knew that not only did I personally adhere to that standard, but I would terminate any employee caught drinking on the first offense.

I took it that seriously. I walked down to the function patio and confronted Jason, who had the plastic cup in his hand. He admitted to what he had done
and I told him he could go home as his employment with the club was finished.

The termination of Jason resulted in his becoming ineligible for the Evans Scholarship since the club withdrew its sponsorship. Jason was devasted by the
news and his father came to visit me at the club. He explained that he would never have the money to pay for four years of tuition and this termination
would probably end Jason’s dream of going to college. He was in tears as he asked me to reconsider.

I called a meeting of our club department managers and asked them for their opinions. They unanimously supported my decision because they truly believed in our employee policies and standards and did not believe there should be an exception.

I also called our club president and after a thorough discussion, he concurred with my action. My next call was to Jason’s father, where I sadly informed him that I was standing by my decision, as gut-wrenching as it was for me. And quite frankly, it still is today.

Upon reflection, I have often thought that had I engaged the “Pilot’s Pause”, I would have suspended Jason until I had a little time to process the situation. I would have had time to respond rather than react.

I sense that my decision would have been different. I would have terminated his employment in the clubhouse, but I would have allowed him to continue to caddie, and that probably would have ensured his receiving the Evans Scholarship.

I don’t know if Jason ever went to college. I do know that he did not receive the Evans as another caddie from our club was awarded that scholarship. I’ve struggled with this judgment for many years and if I have learned anything, it is that emotionally charged actions and life-changing decisions need at least 24 hours for an appropriate response. This much I know for sure!

THE BOARDROOM MAGAZINEMay/June 2023

“This Much I Know for Sure” is a regular feature in BoardRoom magazine beginning Fall 2022. Dick will share some of his reflections based on his 50-plus years of working in the private club business.

This Much I Know For Sure: The Fired Caddie – Perhaps My Worst Decision Ever!2023-07-06T20:08:18+00:00

This Much I Know For Sure: Empowerment, The Key to a General Manager’s Shorter Workweek!

Empowerment - The Key to a General Manager’s Shorter Workweek!

Early on in my club management career, I was fortunate to benefit from the wisdom of a club board member who was a very successful business consultant.

Dr. McDonald (a PhD in industrial psychology) gave me the key to balancing my work and personal life and it was perhaps the best advice I’ve ever received as a club manager.

He told me it’s all about one word: Empowerment. Most of us have heard that concept bandied about for many years, but I, for one, didn’t exactly know how to begin. Then it happened.

One of my new board members told me that his son had a company that provided a better system for washing dishes than anything else on the market. We had been using Eco Labs for their service and products for many years and were quite satisfied with the results and our relationship with the company. I agreed, however, to meet with his son to evaluate the merits of this “new and better system” for washing dishes.

When his son, Chris, arrived at my office for his appointment, I had Tim, our dish room manager, join us for the discussion. I then explained to Chris that he and Tim should spend some time in the kitchen dish room to review what he was proposing and how it would be an improvement over our current system. Chris asked if I would also view the presentation and I told him no, that Tim was our dish room manager and he would make the decision.

After saying that, I noticed that Tim was sitting up a little higher because of that assignment of responsibility. (Tim had been at the club for a few years and I compensated him at the level of a club sous chef because I viewed him as that valuable to our kitchen team.)

The next morning Tim walked into my office with the brochure and proposal Chris had left him and I could see that Tim had made a significant number of notes. He told me he had studied the proposal at home for a couple of hours and his recommendation to me was that we continue with our current vendor. I thanked him for his thorough review and told him I concurred with his decision.mWhen I called Chris to inform him of our decision, he became a little irate and said he would be sharing his experience with his father who was on our board and happened to be the house committee chairperson.

A few days later at our monthly board meeting Chris’s father took some time to inform the entire board that “Kopplin was allowing a dishwasher to make a major capital decision and he wanted to know why I would give a line employee that much authority.”

Before I could give my explanation the club president, Mr. Haik, responded.

“I think everyone on this board knows that Dick Kopplin is our general manager and he has our complete support when it comes to club operations. I have noticed that Dick will empower, not only his department managers but other employees to make decisions, often with his guidance, but understanding that the employee needs to own the outcome. I happen to think it is a great leadership philosophy and it has obviously served our club well. Subject closed. Next topic,” he said.

While Mr. Haik was affirming his confidence in my management, I noticed that Dr. McDonald was smiling his approval and I’m sure he would have jumped into the discussion if needed but it wasn’t necessary. The entire board clearly understood from working with me that I would always guide an employee recommendation, if necessary, but that I wanted our team to own their decisions and take accountability for the results.

Here’s the valuable lesson I learned. By empowering our employees, I was able to replicate my leadership philosophy resulting in my ability to take time away from the club whenever I wanted. Our entire team took pride in their operational decisions and they knew I would give them the credit if everything worked well but as the leader, I was also willing to shoulder the blame if things didn’t go as planned.

I’m thankful for learning about empowerment early in my management career. It was very gratifying to watch our employee team grow and mature as I allowed team members to make and take ownership of their decisions.

And an equally good result is that I had as much personal time away from the club as I desired. Empowerment has multiple benefits. This much I know for sure!

THE BOARDROOM MAGAZINEMarch/April 2023

“This Much I Know for Sure” is a regular feature in BoardRoom magazine beginning Fall 2022. Dick will share some of his reflections based on his 50-plus years of working in the private club business.

This Much I Know For Sure: Empowerment, The Key to a General Manager’s Shorter Workweek!2023-06-23T20:15:47+00:00

This Much I Know For Sure: Wake-Up Call

Wake-Up Call

I sensed that after my two-plus years as general manager of a thriving club in Minneapolis, my board and committee members were getting too involved in the day-to-day operations of the club. I scheduled a meeting with my club president and told Mr. Haik that I believed I was being micromanaged by well-meaning club volunteers.

I knew he was a strong supporter of mine and, more importantly, I also knew he believed club boards should focus on policy and strategy rather than operational issues. After I outlined my concerns, I was sure he would sympathize with me and use his influence to support me. Imagine my shock when he looked into my eyes and said, “Dick, if you believe you are being micromanaged, maybe it’s time you stepped up and became the general manager/COO we thought we were hiring a few years ago. You need to quit whining and begin to lead the employee team and the club members on the board and on the committees like a true club executive would.”

I felt like I had been hit alongside my head with a two-by-four. As I left Mr. Haik’s law office, I was too stunned to go back to the club, so I went home to carefully process what he told me. As I reflected on his comments, I knew deep down he was right. I scheduled a meeting with one of our board members, who happened to have a successful consulting practice coaching corporate executives to become better leaders.

I spent an entire day with Mr. Stanton. He helped me develop a multi-phased program for how I could demonstrate more leadership in every area of my club responsibilities. I will share a few of the strategies we discussed that resulted in my metamorphosis from club manager to club leader.

Mr. Stanton told me that I needed to control the written record of the club by taking the minutes at every committee meeting and every board meeting. As he told me, “Your success at the club will not be written by a volunteer. You need to write the story.” Our club secretary welcomed my notes after each board meeting, and soon he relied on me to edit his minutes and combine them with mine before they went to the board. No matter what issue or decision appeared in the minutes, I was able to ensure there was a positive presentation.

Another key strategy Mr. Stanton shared was to “understand and know the club’s monthly financial operating statement and balance sheet better than any board member.” Since I was an English and history major in college, I had never taken an accounting class and could barely balance my checkbook. That would change dramatically.

I reached out to one of our club members, a retired CPA, and he happily agreed to coach me on how to read the numbers until I understood them better than our club auditors. In fact, at the end of the year, our club treasurer told the board “that while the annual audit report was very good, if they wanted a clear understanding of our club’s financial condition, they should pay more attention to the report Kopplin wrote about the audit report.”

Maybe one of the best practices Mr. Stanton shared with me was to get to know and understand my board members so that I could benefit from their expertise. He suggested I make an appointment to visit each board member at their office, or if they were retired, at their home. I did so with each of the nine members; while the meetings created a positive result, there was one meeting that was truly impactful in turning what had been a strained relationship into a positive partnership going forward.

Mr. Olson, our vice president, was in line to be president in less than a year. The few conversations we had always seemed abrupt and almost adversarial, and I could never understand why. While I visited him at his office, he seemed to warm up after I noticed his Notre Dame diploma on the wall. My brother-in-law graduated from Notre Dame, so I commented on the great football program. That allowed us to engage in one of the better conversations we had ever had. Additionally, Mr. Olson toured me around his printing plant and introduced me to many of his employees. Our communications dramatically improved and a year later, Mr. Olson became one of the best club presidents I ever worked with.

I will always be grateful for the “wake-up call” Mr. Haik gave me, and I appreciate the wonderful advice and coaching Mr. Stanton provided. I learned that if you have the title of general manager/COO, you also have to step up and act the part.

This much I know for sure.

THE BOARDROOM MAGAZINEJanuary/February 2023

“This Much I Know for Sure” is a regular feature in BoardRoom magazine beginning Fall 2022. Dick will share some of his reflections based on his 50-plus years of working in the private club business.

This Much I Know For Sure: Wake-Up Call2023-05-19T17:32:22+00:00

This Much I Know For Sure: Pick Up The Pencil

It was a hot, humid August Saturday night in St. Paul, MN, and the club was hosting the wedding reception for the daughter of one of our most prominent members.

The father of the bride had asked me two weeks earlier to make sure the air conditioning units were serviced and working properly, which I failed to do.
And then it went from bad to worse.

Three of my best dining room servers were in a car accident on the way to the club. While they only had minor injuries, they were unable to work. Our executive chef had called in sick, and while we had a fairly good culinary team, our club member had made it clear that he wanted Chef Bob to oversee the dinner preparation.

The pre-dinner outside cocktail reception was hastily moved inside to the grill lounge bar when a severe thunderstorm with pouring rain and high winds demolished the tented patio area. Wedding guests mixing with the golfers who had fled the storm to the shelter of the lounge did not make for a pleasant scene.

The wedding dinner was poorly executed because of a lack of staff and poor communication with the culinary team and because it took place in the dining room, where the temperature was almost 90 degrees; in short, a total disaster. I wanted to hide in my office for the rest of the evening. Before leaving, the club member said he would be calling me to “discuss” how the evening went.

On Monday morning, my assistant told me Mr. Robbins, true to his word, was on the line and wanted to talk to me. I told her to tell him I would call him back when I finished my meeting. I didn’t call him back. On Tuesday, he called for me again and I didn’t call him back. Wednesday and Thursday he didn’t call. Friday he called for me and I didn’t call him back.

Saturday at 9 a.m., our club president, Mr. Rosenbaum, walked into my office for our weekly meeting. Immediately after sitting down in front of my desk he said, “Dick, I understand Mr. Robbins has been calling you repeatedly regarding his daughter’s wedding reception last Saturday. Is that correct?”

I responded, “Well, yes that is true, and I have been trying to call him back.” Without hesitation, Mr. Rosenbaum said, “Dick, do you see that pencil on the floor?” I answered, “Yes.” And then he said, “Either you pick up the pencil or don’t pick up the pencil. You don’t try to pick up a pencil! And you don’t try to call someone. Now, here is Mr. Robbins’ home phone number. I know that he is waiting for your call. Dial the number now!

I called while Mr. Rosenbaum was observing me, and I listened to a rather severe critique of the wedding reception. I agreed with every point Mr. Robbins made and apologized as best I could, and we obviously made a significant adjustment on the final bill.

Mr. Rosenbaum then schooled me on a very important business tactic: always return calls immediately, not the next day, not even at the end of the day, but
immediately. It was a great lesson learned and one I shared on a regular basis with our management team at that club and every club I managed.

One of my previous assistant club managers, who now owns a very successful real estate company, shared with me what he believes were the two most valuable lessons he adapted from his time working with me in the club business: 1) Always be 15 minutes early and 2) Always return phone calls immediately. Jeff told me his clients always remark on how he always arrives before they do when viewing a home. But he said they are even more impressed with how responsive he is and how he calls them back so quickly.

I will always be grateful for the lesson Mr. Rosenbaum gave me, and the metaphor is even more relevant today. Either you pick up the pencil or you don’t pick up the pencil. You don’t try to pick up the pencil.

This much I know for sure!

THE BOARDROOM MAGAZINENovember/December 2022

“This Much I Know for Sure” is a regular feature in BoardRoom magazine beginning Fall 2022. Dick will share some of his reflections based on his 50-plus years of working in the private club business.

This Much I Know For Sure: Pick Up The Pencil2023-05-19T17:33:30+00:00
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