Sometimes the best laid plans end up being just that…plans! And what happens after that often is serendipitous.

Serendipity often takes us on a path we’ve never considered but a path that often leads to a passion. In a nutshell, that describes the long, illustrious career of Dick Kopplin, a mainstay of the private club industry.

It all began on a cold, snowy night in Eau Claire, WI, where Kopplin was studying for final exams during his senior year of college.

The phone rang. On the other end of the line was the president of the Hillcrest Country Club.

“Dick, the executive board of Hillcrest would like to meet with you at my home Thursday to discuss if you might have an interest in being our next club manager,” Kopplin related recently about what the president said.

“The president told me he knew I’d been working part-time in the restaurant business to earn tuition money.

“I said I’d be happy to meet with them, but that my career plan hopefully was being accepted at the University of Wisconsin law school after I had graduated with a double major in English and history from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. I was interested in politics and was elected as the youngest member in the history of the city by defeating an incumbent running for the Eau Claire City Council.

“My uncle served as our state representative in the legislature, and I envisioned myself following in his political footsteps,” he added.

“My college roommate and I had been sharing a small apartment and pooled our weekly grocery money of $10 each. I’d shop and do the cooking and my roommate did the dishes. There were some days when our final dinners that week featured a can of Spam and baked beans, although we always saved a little money for Friday nights when we’d walk five blocks and buy a cold mug of Michelob at Smitty’s Tap Room for 25 cents. We had enough money for two each. Those were the days!”

Dick Kopplin’s plans changed that chilly December evening and set him on a path that has culminated in an outstanding 45-year career. No question, he’s been as resilient as the private club industry itself.

“The club executive board offered me the club manager’s job at a salary of $800 a month and a $50 a month car allowance. I thought I’d won the lottery!” Kopplin exclaimed.

Reality set in on a Monday morning, his first day at the club.

“I walked into the club to assume my new duties as club manager, and there were three gentlemen waiting in the lobby. ‘It was very nice for some club members to welcome me on my first day,’ I said to the club’s office administrative assistant.

“’Dick, those aren’t club members; they’re vendors we owe money to and they heard that a new club manager was starting today. They’re here to collect,’ she replied.”

Kopplin quickly discovered the club was out of money, had lost over a hundred members and had experienced dishonest management and fraud over the previous couple of years.

“I was overwhelmed by the financial issues…a 24-yearold management neophyte who didn’t know the difference between a balance sheet and a profit and loss statement,” Kopplin related.

While commenting on his fiscal ignorance and the club’s sad financial state to the club’s chef, one of the dishwashers overheard his comments and injected, “Mr. K, I’m an accounting and finance major in my senior year in college. Maybe I can help you.

“’Roger,’ I said, ‘take off your apron. Your dishwashing days are over.’”

It happened to be the most challenging work Kopplin had ever taken on. Still, within three months, he and Roger, the financial guy, had discovered the financial holes and put together a recovery plan for Hillcrest.

“After one year, the board promoted me to general manager and rewarded me with a bonus and substantial salary increase. When I left three years later for a general manager opportunity in Minnesota, the club had money in the bank and prospered with the third largest club membership in the state of Wisconsin,” he recalled.

The Club Managers Association of America (now Club Management Association of America) has also played a considerable role in Kopplin’s life, as has his work in the life of the association.

“George Carroll, a fellow manager in Minneapolis, invited me to my first CMAA meeting, and I found two very valuable features in CMAA. First was the obvious focus on education and the second and, probably as valuable, was my networking ability with other managers.” Kopplin’s work with CMAA became a lifetime commitment that continues today.

After 10 years in the Twin Cities, Kopplin moved to a residential community club in Florida and was there only a year when he was offered the opportunity to participate in the development of Castle Pines, a few miles south of Denver, CO.

However, after three years of a dismal economy, the clubhouse project he was working on stalled. But while at Castle Pines, Kopplin served on the executive committee for a PGA event, The International, and enjoyed three years of observing a very successful and unique tournament.

So, it wasn’t a lost opportunity… but there was more to learn and understand, all of which set in motion a vision for the future – running Desert Highlands in Scottsdale, AZ.

“While having lunch with our golf professional, he shared a magazine focused on golf course communities. The cover picture featured the stunning clubhouse of Desert Highlands in Scottsdale, Arizona,” Kopplin added.

“I kept the magazine on the top of my desk and while looking at it every day wrote in my journal that, ‘Someday I will manage Desert Highlands.’ Be careful what you write in your journal. Was it not Goethe who said, ‘Even when you don’t know how, believe that you will?’” Kopplin believed in the will, and the way happened shortly after.

“One afternoon, while in my Castle Pines office, the developer of Castle Pines, Jack Vickers, called to say he had a friend in town who would like to see the property. He asked me to show him around.”

That three-hour tour around Castle Pines with Lyle Anderson resulted in another incredible opportunity in Kopplin’s career.

“As we were saying goodbye, Lyle said to me, ‘Dick, I’ve developed a couple of golf course communities in Scottsdale, Arizona and I really need someone like you to oversee the club operations. Do you think you would have an interest?’ he queried.”

Two months later, Kopplin arrived in Scottsdale as the new director of club operations for Desert Highlands and Desert Mountain.

“During one of the many conversations we had over the years, Anderson asked me if I’d ever thought of starting a company in the private club business to focus on what I had done for his clubs – finding all of the key personnel, including general managers, golf professionals, course superintendents and chefs.”

“That started me thinking,” Kopplin said, but it was a process that was going to take a while, because after six years at Desert Highlands and Desert Mountain, Kopplin, recruited by KSL, took over the club operations at PGA West in La Quinta, CA.

“I continued to reflect on Lyle’s question and in April 1996 decided to venture out on my own by starting Kopplin Search, Inc., a search firm for the private club industry,” Kopplin recalled.

Enter John Fornaro.

About the same time, another industry entrepreneur, John Fornaro, happened to be launching a new publication for the private club industry, BoardRoom magazine.

“While in California, I was fortunate to meet John Fornaro. I told John the magazine was a great idea and, in the very first issue, took out a full-page ad for Kopplin Search, Inc.” That happened to be the start of a long and prosperous relationship for both Kopplin and Fornaro.

Kopplin has not only continued to advertise with BoardRoom for the past 25 years, but he and his compatriots have also written dozens of articles on various club management and governance topics for BoardRoom.

“John’s proven to be a good friend and we have watched our respective businesses grow and prosper over time,” Kopplin recalled recently.

When he started the company 25 years ago, Kopplin decided a great way to market his company’s search services would be to offer information and education sessions to the many CMAA chapters around the country.

“I shared some of my experiences from decades of club management and talked about how club managers could more effectively work with their board members. John Fornaro was very supportive of my efforts and BoardRoom magazine often shared the same message I was delivering to club managers around the country,” Kopplin added.

Shortly after launching his company, another fortuitous meeting occurred. A mutual friend introduced Kopplin to Steve Graves, the owner of Creative Golf Marketing, another industry consultant.

“I found we shared the same philosophy about private club governance and Steve introduced me to the board of a small club in Kansas needing a new general manager. That happened to be a successful search, after which I began to receive calls from other potential clients. My search business began to flourish,” Kopplin recalled.

“Club executives have always been eager to discuss the ‘best practices’ for private club management and governance. I delivered hundreds of presentations to individual clubs as well as CMAA and CMAA’s chapter meetings. As well, writing in every issue of BoardRoom magazine provided great exposure for the company.”

Kopplin added: “No question, my focus on education resonated with club general managers and club board members.”

There’s an adage, especially for budding entrepreneurs, “One and one makes three.” After working solo for a couple of years, Kopplin realized he needed some help. One person couldn’t do all the work required for a growing company, so Kopplin turned to Nan Fisher, whom he recruited and had worked with for many years at Desert Mountain. “Nan took a chance on helping me build this little company and has been with me, providing strong administrative support, for 23 of the last 25 years,” Kopplin said.

As Kopplin Search, Inc. grew, so did the need for more help. Kopplin fostered a friendship with Kurt Kuebler and lured him away from a successful management career to join the Kopplin group as a partner.

“Seven years ago, we added Tom Wallace as a partner in what is now Kopplin Kuebler & Wallace. So, from the two of us, me and Nan, our firm has grown to include 17 associates, either as search and consulting executives or staff in administrative support roles,” Kopplin explained. It hasn’t all been a bed of roses for many companies, including Kopplin’s group, servicing the private club industry. The great recession of 2008 put a damper on activities as many companies and clubs struggled with just surviving, let alone growing and expanding. Much the same has happened again, as the industry has hunkered down and has had to develop innovative ideas to meet club members’ demands during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not all gloom and doom. “We’re very optimistic about the future and evaluate opportunities that we see emerging as we come out of this terrible pandemic,” Kopplin emphasized.

“The private club business has proven to be resilient and we have been proud to partner with so many great general managers, club department heads and board members creatively to survive and thrive in these challenging times.”

It’s been a long time since Kopplin picked up that phone call from a club president in Eau Claire, WI that put Kopplin on a path of incredible success.

“Working in this industry is my passion. It’s something I enjoy every day,” Kopplin added. “My KK&W partners and associates keep me very busy and while I don’t travel a million miles a year anymore, I’m fortunate to work on the projects I choose.

“I’ve cherished every one of my 45 years in the private club industry, and I tell people who ask what I am doing these days that these are not my retirement years. They’re my Renaissance years!” To which we say, Amen!

COVER STORY BY DAVE WHITE, EDITOR, BOARDROOM MAGAZINE

Kopplin’s Accomplishments Recognized

BY JOHN FORNARO, PUBLISHER

Today, we honor Dick Kopplin for the part he has played in the success of BoardRoom magazine. Both, Dick and I started our companies at the same time… 25 years ago.

Kopplin Search, founded by Dick, happened to be our first advertiser and has been advertising with us for 25 years.

Dick’s support has been another significant contribution to us, and a belief, many in the industry were not accepting, of the need for development of the private club board of directors. That belief? That an informed board is good and uninformed board member is not.

Today it continues that many clubs are setting there board members to fail, and increasing micromanaging, by not informing and developing the board’s knowledge along with the detailed roles and responsibilities for board members.

Dick, and his partners  in Kopplin, Kuebler & Wallace – Kurt Kuebler and Tom Wallace – along with their staff play a vital role in our industry. There is a talent in whom he has chosen as partners. Dick is not uncomfortable sharing his strengths and weakness, and he has made sure his partners fill in the areas that help make the company better.

Let’s not forget, the qualified general managers KK&W places at private clubs across the country and helping provide millions of private club members a great experience and purpose for the remaining years of their lives. Yes, what Dick has built benefits every member his company has helped.

Dick’s values and principles, through his vision and innovation place Dick Kopplin as one of the most influential people in the industry. I love Dick as a person and am grateful to have him as my friend.

As BoardRoom magazine celebrates its 25th anniversary, I hope this recognition of Dick will remind him of our company’s appreciation for helping make BoardRoom magazine successful by being who he is and what he has accomplished.

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