Outsider No Longer

Features - Conversation with Jonesy

Armen Suny’s latest career as a top recruiter proves curiosity can take you anyplace.

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January 10, 2019

Armen Suny leads superintendent recruiting for Kopplin Kuebler & Wallace.
photos: brian kraft

When I last interviewed Armen Suny in 2010, he had already reinvented himself from teenaged turfhead to working for Richie Valentine at Merion to major championship host at Cherry Hills to suit-wearing general manager at ritzy Shadow Creek to golf course designer partnering with a Tour player. At every step along the way, he had blazed his own trail.

You will be unsurprised to learn that, in the intervening decade, he has reinvented himself again … and in a most unlikely way.

Suny, for many years the industry’s leading outsider, has now become one of its top insiders. He has become The Man for superintendent recruiting at Kopplin Kuebler & Wallace, the club industry’s leading search firm.

Suny has managed the search processes for some of the industry’s elite clubs who are all seeking elite superintendents. Suny and our friend, Tim Moraghan, account for many of the big-time superintendent jobs that have been filled in the past four or five years. And, as Baby Boomer superintendents begin to retire in earnest, more of those jobs will open for the first time in decades. In short, business looks good for those who help clubs find key personnel.

For those who want to know more about a man helping fill those positions …

Suny is a Philly guy. He grew up in the cradle of golf between Aronimink, Rolling Green and Merion. He played as much as he could and caught a job working for our pal, Mike Rothenberg and Steve Campbell, at White Manor CC, who helped him get into the Penn State turf program. That’s where Suny met Dr. Joe Duich, the legendary – and curmudgeonly – head of the program. The two would be lifelong friends.

Incredibly, after graduation, he was offered the assistant’s position at Merion, where he understudied with Valentine. If you’re younger, you may not understand that Valentine was Paul Latshaw before Paul Latshaw was Paul Latshaw. He was the pinnacle of our profession and Suny learned much from him. He stayed through the 1981 U.S. Open.

He ended up at Cherry Hills just four years later, hosting the 1985 PGA Championship. It was a landmark event for two reasons: Suny’s unapologetically tough setup for the Tour players, and the fact that he demanded and received the first bonus paid to a superintendent for hosting a major. He later moved south to Castle Pines GC, where he annually hosted the cool and quirky old International, which was the only Stableford scoring event on Tour.

His next stop was Shadow Creek CC, the ultra-exclusive course outside Las Vegas which, at the time, was owned by the iconic Steve Wynn. Suny was GM under one of the canniest businesspeople in the world. Much was learned. Eventually he headed back to Monument, Colorado (the man loves to ski), and began doing architecture work with Richard Zokol. He remains happily married to his wife Christy after 31 years. And, in another crazy Golf Course Industry connection, Christy introduced our friend, Terry Buchen, to his wife as well.

When I interviewed him in 2010, we covered his entire career and he seemed perfectly happy doing what he was doing. Little did we know that he had yet another career in store.

What’s an average day like for you now?

I have two kinds of days. I have the ones at home and I get up 6:30ish, drink coffee, and plan out emails and calls. Then I do a lot of phone interviews. I also look at Twitter. I love to see how superintendents are using Twitter. I’ll obviously look at the Twitter feeds of potential job candidates. It tells me a little about how guys and gals are using it, and what they think is important.

The other days I’m getting on a plane. I do about 50 trips a year, usually just for a couple of nights. I’ll be talking about proposed searches with clubs or doing interviews with prospects.

How do the searches usually work?

There is no typical arrangement other than we always work directly for the club. We’re not a placement service for people looking for jobs. It’s interesting that I do as many general manager searches as I do superintendent searches.

With superintendent searches, sometimes the GM is driving the bus, but usually I’m working with the GM and the search committee. We spend our time trying to figure out what kind of candidate would be best. I survey the group, visit the site, talk with the staff – try to get insights from every angle we can.

For some searches, I’ll narrow it down to six to eight really good candidates. I send out a questionnaire that’s maybe 10 pages or more. It’s a lot to digest so I tell the search committee they don’t need to read the whole thing but instead focus on the questions they care about and believe to be the most important. From there, we reduce it to a manageable number for interviews, probably three to five. GCSs like to visit the course and sometimes come up with extensive reports. During the interview, though, I want face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball discussions, not a presentation. That’s where we figure out the personal and cultural fit. There are lots of talented agronomists out there. Finding that fit between the candidate and the culture is where we really know we’ve done the job.

Seems like, with the Baby Boomers retiring, your business should be strong for quite a while.

True, but what’s scary is that I think we’re going to run out of talent in three to five years. Yes, kids are going to turf school, but also clubs have raised their expectations and there aren’t nearly enough to fill that demand. We also aren’t recruiting from communities and local kids anymore. It’s gonna be a crisis unless we begin to find different ways to bring young folks into our business.

Do you just focus on the Top 500 or so facilities?

No, we work with a pretty wide variety of clubs. We maybe have 3,000 potential clients.

A lot of leads come from our reputation in the industry. That started with Dick Kopplin, then Kurt Kuebler, then Tom Wallace. We’ve all been at great clubs so we get it. And it’s not just GMs and supers. We do golf pros, tennis and fitness, chefs, and assistant GM searches. We are the largest firm in the club world that does recruiting. We are big on education scene which really helps us build relationships.

Why are more clubs using search firms for supers these days?

Why wouldn’t they? It always fascinated me that clubs felt they could do super searches on their own. To me, it’s one of the most technical searches out there. They don’t know what a good answer is to the questions they’re asking candidates, so they ought to get assistance with the search. Plus, it takes a lot of time and they’re volunteers. They have way too much on their plate already.

How often are you placing a super at a club where KKW has already placed a GM?

A pretty high percentage – maybe half – are places we’ve already done a search. That said, I think that if they don’t retain us to help with their search, that they hire someone else to assist with their search. Clubs really need professional help.

What’s the biggest benefit to clubs?

Our finalists are often people who are not looking for a job until we go knock on their door. We look for the best talent, not just who’s available.

What should candidates do? I’m always surprised at how reticent they are. Sometimes they just don’t get it or sometimes they don’t want to appear disloyal.

Everyone asks, “How do I get on the radar scope?” One of the first things I do is tell them there are two kinds of people that look at applications: the ones who look at cover letters and the ones who look at resumes. You have three or four seconds to get their attention, so you need to make the most of the first few sentences of both the letter and the resume.

Remember that, ultimately, clubs hire you because of the person you are. You have to tell them why you’re the right person for them. I think of one guy who listed his three top personal values. Not his objectives or successes … his values. That’s great. Most people put their career objectives at the top of a resume. No one cares what your objectives are. The bottom line is they want to know what kind of person you are and they are busy people, so you better get their attention fast.

What are some typical mistakes?

Dumb stuff like spelling mistakes or factual errors about club. Also, if they have a hard time reaching you or they try to call you and your voicemail is full or you haven’t set it up. Not good.

I also see lots of candidates pitch their renovation experience. That’s really secondary to most clubs. They are far more interested in the championship conditions you provide every day.

But I’ll tell you the biggest mistake is not asking for the job. Imagine that, you get the interview, have a great interview and don’t close by asking for the job and explaining why you believe that you are the right person. Mindboggling.

OK, what are some tips for winners?

In your cover letter, show you did some homework. You’ve read between the lines of the job description and added something you learned that’s special about the club.

Also, Ritchie Valentine always said lots of guys could grow grass, but few were good communicators. I think that almost always comes up in superintendent searches.

We don’t offer services to candidates – we’re only compensated by the clubs – but I get calls from guys all the time and I coach them the best I can. One thing I always says is that if there are two equal candidates, the passionate one is gonna get the assignment.

Hmmm … that suggests the job might be open because the previous superintendent lacked that passion.

Every super should take this to heart. When you start driving by little problems you would have never driven by when you were younger, it’s time to reassess. When you stop playing your own course, it’s time to reassess. When you lose that passion, it’s time to reassess.

What do you think has changed most about the qualifications to be a good super over the years?

It’s interesting with golf being less of a draw for clubs than it used to be – it might not be the No. 1 or even No. 2 amenity for members – supers who have a global vision of where they fit in the club and they’re part of the team become even more valuable. Those are the ones that fit in the organizations.

We grew up with the whole “man vs. nature” philosophy in our profession. That was the mindset of supers, to be rugged individualists. And that impacted their relationships with other managers, the us vs. them mentality. Plus, being geographically removed down in the barn didn’t help. The ultra-successful people today understand that they’re on a team and have great relationships. There’s no more room for curmudgeons working in silos these days.

I’ve interviewed three supers with MBAs in the past couple of years. That really grabs the imagination of successful business leaders on search committees. A turf manager who thinks like a businessperson!

Armen Suny worked as a superintendent, general manager and course designer before settling into the recruiting side of the industry.
Photo: Brian Kraft

How should a candidate talk about compensation?

A lot of clubs have survey information about average salaries for superintendents in their area via the CMAA or whatever, so that’s going to be par. The market is the market. If you think you’re worth X and the market doesn’t agree, the market wins. That said, superior candidates will always get a second look.

Super salaries are definitely starting to climb and they’ll be climbing quite a bit more. We’re starting to see some big increases and the market is very competitive.

What do you tell assistants who are looking to build their careers?

I don’t tell, I ask. What are your aspirations? What do you want to do? Where do you want to be? They get enamored with having big-name clubs on their resume, but that isn’t all that important in searches run by firms like ours. It might help you with clubs that aren’t using a search firm, but we try to educate clubs about what’s important and not important.

We’re getting back to the point where they’re coming out of school and they’re going to get assistant’s jobs right away. The questions is, “What kind of training are you going to have before that?” I was spraying greens when I was 14 and making chemical plans when I was 18. How much time do they spend on their tech know-how? A ton. How much on careers? Hardly any. That’s why I encourage mentorship for these AITs and assistants within the club to learn about the other aspects of the organization.

You mentioned Twitter earlier and I obviously agree it can be a great tool if you’re savvy. Does your firm check old Facebook pages or Tweets to see if candidates have said stupid things?

We check open sources. We also have a company that does background checks and occasionally they turn up something that’s a problem. You have to be responsible about what you post. It’s not a reason not to do social media, it’s a reason to do it wisely. One other thing for all searches: not having a particular degree or certification might not disqualify you but lying about it will.

Tell me the single most important thing that search committees from Top 100 courses really want.

They have to feel good about you and you have to feel good about them. It’s gotta go both ways. They have to believe that you can take them to the promised land.

What’s most underrated by superintendents approaching a job search?

Probably their mentoring and leadership skills. How did they go about the process of developing people? Give specific examples of how you’ve done certain things. Don’t just say, “I’m a great mentor.” Instead say, “Let me describe my program and how this works.”

How about presentations and portfolios and pictures of your current course?

Everybody knows that every golf course looks great when you take the pictures well. Pretty pictures don’t matter. If you’re going to do it, make sure it’s good information and it’s going to educate them. This is all for the pre-interview, too. The interview is about a conversation and for the committee to get to know you and to understand what it would be like to work with you

Towards the end of the process, the follow-up interview might include a 20- to 30-minute presentation on a specific topic. We’ll ask them to prepare a white paper or presentation on one topic that’s important to the club. After last year, one topic might be: “What would you do to prepare for a difficult summer?” Could be a soft topic or hard topic. Whatever the committee thinks is relevant.

What are some critical things about the relationship between supers and GMs you’ve observed in your recruiting role?

Again, it’s so important to have a global vision. They are part of the success of the club, but it takes a team to make it work. Cross-department exposure and training is very, very important. For example, an assistant pro shadowing a super for the morning and learning what life is like for the maintenance crew and vice versa. It creates one team going forward.

If a young ambitious turf professional is reading this right now, what’s the ONE thing you’d scream at them to do in order to move up the ladder?

It’s not a thing the need to do. It’s a trait they need to establish. They must be CURIOUS. Joe Duich told us never to just drive by anything you think is interesting. Not just on the golf course, but anywhere. I’m inherently curious, but hearing that come from Joe was profound. I preach that all the time. Never stop being curious!

Pat Jones is GCI’s editorial director.