Construction conversations

Features - Cover Story

Five golf course builders. Five perspectives on the jubilation, challenges and future of the industry’s dirtiest jobs.

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October 6, 2017
Guy Cipriano

Golf course builders can relate to superintendents in multiple ways.

For starters, an improved economy yields steady work – and tremendous labor challenges. Outdoors work. Hourly wages. Competition from other industries. Generational changes. Sounds familiar, right? Once they field a reliable crew, a builder must deal with unpredictable weather, limit distractions to play, and manage the expectations of owners and committees.

Builders also must be adaptable. The Great Recession forced them to change their business and management practices. Savvy builders emerged from the slowdown with fewer competitors and steady work.

Humility permeates when a group of builders fill the same room, like they did for the 2017 Golf Course Builders Association of America summer meeting in Charlotte. The educational portion of the meeting included a candid conversation about golf course construction in 2017.

Realizing humble people are more revealing when flanked by their peers, I suggested conducting a panel discussion. GCBAA executive director Justin Apel and his team found a quintet of willing participants representing companies of varying sizes: Total Turf Golf Services’ Greg Hufner, ACC Golf Construction’s Chris Harz, VM Golf Services’ Mike Perez, Glase Golf’s Jim Glase and MacCurrach Golf’s Allan MacCurrach. The participants are based in multiple regions, with Glase and MacCurrach living in Florida, Hufner in Pennsylvania, Perez in Texas and Harz in Colorado.

The panelists tactfully handled themselves, providing a slew of anecdotes, lessons and strategies designed to help, and perhaps inspire, others in the industry. Nothing I asked fazed this group. Answering a few post-lunch questions doesn’t feature the same complexities of rebuilding 18 holes for an owner or membership unwilling to close the course for even one day during the peak season.

Participants in the GCBAA panel discussion included from left, Allan MacCurrach and Jim Glase.
© photos courtesy of the GCBAA

How has the business changed since you entered it and have the changes been for the better or for the worse?

Greg Hufner: It’s the same problem every business is having – people aren’t coming into it. Golf course superintendents have the same issue. The loss of H2B this year has had a huge impact on our business. One of the things I struggle with the most is trying to relate to millennials. People that come out of college, have degrees, expect to make a certain amount of money and want a big, fancy title. I find myself trying to adapt. It has been difficult even though I’m not that far away from them.

Chris Harz: The biggest change I have seen is how schedules have gotten more condensed. The owners and architects expect us to be more miracle workers and we are. At some point, there’s a breaking point. You look at certain jobs now and they say, ‘We want this done in six months or five months.’ You say, ‘OK, you might be better suited with a different contractor.’ We have walked away from work based on owner group schedules.

Jim Glase: What has changed the most are the people that you get to work for you. When I first started in the business, I actually worked in a union and you had plenty of people. You never had a problem finding people. I think the biggest change now is it’s tough to find people who are going to do physical work and spend 10, 11, 12 hours a day working outside when they want to sit behind a desk or sit behind a computer and work six or seven hours.

Allan MacCurrach: I was working with Pete (Dye) and was pretty passionate, and it was a lot of fun. As the little business kind of matured, I spent a lot of time picking up the damn phone and hearing problems about this employee or this client or this thing. It changed for me a lot and, fortunately, I was blessed to have a guy come into my business named Brian Almony and it took the whole thing from me. I got back out into the field. I kind of changed my own role in the business. But how has the business changed? It has just changed immensely. It has drawn back a little bit from the time we were building a lot of new golf courses and the national brands. As the industry has gone along, we have become a lot more regionalized. People have started to draw circles in their own competitive regions and that’s also a result of employees not wanting to leave the house too much.

Participants in the GCBAA panel discussion included from left, Mike Perez, Chris Harz and Greg Hufner.

What is it like managing younger workers, and what strategies have you implemented that allow you to connect with younger workers?

Greg Hufner: None of the strategies have worked. If anybody has any, I’m all ears. It’s difficult. I’m not much older than them, but to relate to what they are thinking is the hardest thing. Everyone comes into this business and thinks it’s glamorous. Yeah, you’re building a golf course and that’s great. But then they spend two months in a hotel and worrying about their cats at home. It’s difficult and we all go through the same challenges. There are some guys who love it. They love being out there actually building something from start to finish. That’s what I love most about this business. You can walk on a site full of trees and two months later you have a nice short game area where you start to see the fruits of your labor. But millennials, in particular, want things right away. They are not necessarily patient enough to see how things go.

Chris Harz: Retention has been the hardest thing for us. You get one good, young kid or two or three good kids, they are there for a year and starting to make some real progress, and then because the unemployment rates are so low, there are a lot of great offers out there. We’re getting a lot of young talent scalped away from us. But we try to offer as much as we can upfront. It seems like nowadays millennials want more and more up front. They always have a cell phone, they have a computer, we pay them pretty darn well. You get a new truck for the most part. We don’t put them in a 1997 Ford F-150. They get a nice F-150. There are some entitlements you have to give them and hopefully they appreciate that.

Mike Perez: We try to take good care of our people. We do have to go through five workers and we train them, and hopefully we get one or two that move up the ladder. But my mentality is take good care of people and the good ones will stay.

Jim Glase: We don’t really have many young people who work for us. We tried to hire people. Of our 14 to 15 best people, they have all been with us for at least for 15 years. I have two sons in the business and they are the only young people we have hired and stayed with us.

Allan MacCurrach: Early on we had a great policy. We had a 90-day rule for everybody we hired. And after 90 days, you either got a raise or you got let go. It was a work ethic, culture, attitude standpoint. You just go to the file cabinet or fax machine, and pull out the next one. We were able to build a good, solid culture. I tried sticking to that rule and it got pretty lonely because there weren’t many folks around anymore. We had to get off that rule. It’s a huge problem. But it’s a huge problem in almost every level of employee you are talking about.

It’s not just builders. Superintendents are having trouble finding labor, the clubhouse staffs are having trouble finding labor. Is it the pay? Or does it go deeper? Is there a negative connotation that golf is fighting when attracting workers?

Chris Harz: Even guys who have been with the company for a long time don’t want to do golf jobs. We are a multidisciplinary company that does civil work and golf. You get on a pretty premium wage job and an operator is making $28, $29, $30 an hour and a laborer is making $21, $22 an hour. You’re going to have a hard time to convince those guys to go back to golf work for $14 an hour. They just don’t want to do it. When we do golf work, you pay a premium to keep your guys wanting to do that and we do that, too.

Jim Glase: I don’t think it’s a problem with pay. Most of the people we start are somewhere between $12 and $13. And for our area of Florida, that’s a good amount of hourly pay. It’s hard work, it’s long hours, you’re outside and it’s hot in Florida. It’s just not easy. People look for something that’s a little bit easier.

Allan MacCurrach: I think it’s 4.3 percent unemployment. When we were building 300 new golf courses a year … new work definitely has a sexier connotation than renovation work does. And Tiger Woods. And the whole upswing we experienced. Golf was a shining rock there for a while. I don’t know if you can say golf and sexy, but it had a nice connotation to it. Today’s young folks work to live. I hear that all the time. You have to cut back. You can’t live to work. You have to work enough to live. It’s the whole mindset of these young folks.

How tough are some of the timetables now and what are some things you do to temper expectations?

Greg Hufner: That’s the hardest part of the job – to manage people’s expectations. Unfortunately, for us a lot of the work in this country is dictated around the golf schedule. Florida is busy in the summer because it’s too damn hot to golf. The North is busy in the winter and fall because nobody wants to play when it’s too cold. The schedules have gotten condensed. We did a project two years ago in Colorado where we built 20 golf greens in 45 days. We can do it, but they paid for it. The reality sets in when they say they want to do something in 90 days and then they see cost of building it in 90 days. We can pretty much do whatever – we all can – it’s just whether the customer is willing to pay for that service.

Mike Perez: With us being a smaller company, those kinds of projects are hard to handle. We have two, three crews and for us to try to complete a project in a small amount of time, it becomes hard for us.

Jim Glase: We don’t really guarantee any timetable. We have a hard time down in Florida with the weather. If it rains, there are times we have no idea how long it’s going to take. The month of June, we got over 30 inches of rain and probably missed five, six days of work. And when we went back and did those five, six days we missed, we had to do everything over, so right there we missed 12 days. We’re on a job right now where we are two, three weeks behind. We can’t guarantee when we are going to finish. We told them we are going to finish when we could and we put two crews in there.

How do you endure lean periods and how do you handle prosperous periods? What are some things you do to stay humble through the highs and lows of this business?

Greg Hufner: This business will pretty much humble you. I don’t think you have any problem staying humble. As a company, we are pretty diversified. We’re not just in golf course construction. We do some sports field work and we have a fairly large commercial landscape division of our company, which helps provide some recurring revenue if golf ever dries up again. One of the things we did as a company prior to the slowdown was geared more toward renovation-type work. We kind of prided ourselves on being able to do the big jobs – the multi-million-dollar jobs – but we also focused on going back to our customers, the people who want to do the $25,000 and the $50,000 jobs. We treat them just as well as the golf course that wants to blow the place up.

Chris Harz: Diversification. When ’08 happened, my boss came to me, ‘We don’t have enough golf market business to justify your salary so you have to learn how to do something else.’ With our company being a big civil contractor, we started learning how to do bridges and roads and that retrains you and you start to get humbled when you don’t know anything about what you are doing. We did sports fields, big parks, so it’s not just golf and bridges. We finished a couple of big university projects for synthetic fields.

Allan MacCurrach: When things went really bad, I decided it was time to diversify, but I decided at the same time everybody else did so it was brutal. We never did a lick of anything outside a golf course. We looked at building a cemetery. That didn’t work. We looked at a lot of different things. And, ultimately, we survived because the company was really well capitalized and all of our equipment was paid for. I sat my senior guys down and showed them how much money was in the bank, and said, ‘When that’s gone, we’re done.’ I think they appreciated the fact we showed them the complete number and the total net sacrifice I was going to make. We didn’t buy any new equipment for three years. We basically squeezed all the capital out of our equipment and survived.

What does the future hold for your company? What does the future hold for the golf business, and would you recommend getting into this segment of the golf business if a young person asked you about it?

Greg Hufner: I’m pretty optimistic with where the state of the industry is at. But in the back of your mind, you’re always worried. You never know. I would encourage people to get into this business because I think if it’s something your passionate about and love, it’s not work. It has provided a good life for a lot of us. I think it can provide a good living for some other people.

Mike Perez: Having started my company in 2008 when it was really, really slow, every year after that it has been better and better. I’m really looking forward to that. Now that I’m seeing some bigger projects come in, I’m happy to be here and looking forward to 2018.

Alan MacCurrach: This renovation wave we are on is getting hot and crazy. It kind of feels like we are partying like it’s 2006. I think in ’09 and ’10 we were doing renovations to things that were broke and it kind of made sense, starting with structural renovation and kind of crept from the whole thing based on irrigation, bunkers that were bad, a few businesses didn’t work and could use a renovation to move themselves in a particular market. But some of these renovations and the scale of the renovations we are doing today are almost euphoric. It’s the same way I felt in 2006. You see the volume and the money and the before-and-after pictures, and you kind of just scratch your head. But I think the health of the industry short term is great. 2018 is going to be great. As far as encouraging somebody to getting into this, absolutely. It’s been so good to me it would be hard-pressed to not say it could be good for the next generation that’s going to come in.

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.