So, you want to climb the club ladder?
Guy Cipriano

So, you want to climb the club ladder?

A major championship superintendent is making the leap to one of the Midwest’s top general manager jobs. What advice does he have for peers seeking more professional responsibility?

September 7, 2021

Carlos Arraya became a general manager in his early 30s. He recently became a general manager again in his early 40s.

His life has experienced some enormous changes between stints in a lead club management role, none bigger than the tragic death of his son, Isaih, following a 2016 auto accident. Losing Isaih forced Arraya to reexamine what he wanted from his career, which included hosting the 2018 PGA Championship as superintendent at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis.

“After my son’s tragedy — and I’m going to be blunt with you — it’s either A) I’ll be drinking, in a dark place, hating everybody and be angry and grief stricken, or B) I’m going to take the grief and manage it through loving and growing people,” Arraya says.

Arraya’s opportunity to lead and grow more people expanded when Bellerive officially appointed him as general manager in early August. His career had been trending into a return to a club management position when he was named assistant general manager/director of agronomy following the PGA Championship. Arraya’s first stint as a general manager came at Hawk’s Nest Golf Club in Vero Beach, Florida, when he was admittedly at a different point in his life and career. His biggest professional influence over the past decade has been John Cunningham, who left his role as Bellerive’s assistant general manager/director of agronomy in 2017 to become general manager at Aronimink Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia. 

Cunningham’s career trajectory demonstrated to Arraya that it’s possible to shift from leading a turf department to the entire operation of an upper-echelon club. “Cunningham set the path forward,” Arraya says.

Arraya is now responsible for leading a club with the equivalent of 125 full-time employees. Bellerive’s staff swells to more than 225 employees during the peak season. Seven department heads, including superintendent Nick White, report to Arraya. “You should put this in the article,” Arraya says, “Nick grows grass better than I do. I’m focused on growing people. The golf course is in better shape than it has ever been because of Nick White. He’s one of my best hires. He came with me in 2017 and he took a blind leap of faith.”

From hiring quality people to managing a substantial budget, Arraya is generous about sharing lessons and perspective from his own career with others, including turf professionals seeking internal advancement. Here’s some guidance he offered shortly after officially moving into his new role:    

What would he tell superintendents considering a club management role: “Don’t be afraid. I think too many of us are afraid. Superintendents receive mostly negative feedback. You are always receiving negative feedback and that prepares you to deal with those challenges that are inside the clubhouse. Don’t be afraid to go inside the clubhouse, don’t be afraid to talk business and strategy, and to talk about the challenges the club has, because there’s always an opportunity. You have to look for it and embrace it.”

The differences between a general manager’s and a superintendent’s workday: “You have to be protective of your time. For instance, at Bellerive, from the moment somebody gets to our facility to the moment somebody leaves, we’re basically a 19-hour operation when we are open. There’s no way a general manager can be there all the time. It’s like a golf course superintendent. You might get there at 4 in the morning, but you shouldn’t be there until 8 at night. Those who do really get burned out and really get frustrated. The biggest schedule difference is that it varies day to day. Since you are so strategic, you are meeting with boards at various times, and you have to be fluid.”

Be accessible to employees: “I have an open-door policy. People can come in whenever. During an all-team meeting, I told our facilities manager to come in, he came in and dropped the door” — he had literally removed the door from its hinges — “and I said, ‘There it is. The door is open.’ I have done it a couple of times in my career, and I’ll be glad to do it again at an all-team meeting. You say want to give back. How do you give back? You give back by being vulnerable. It’s constant evolution. One of the things you can do to give back to people is having conversations and making time. We can always make time.”

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.