The revolving door


June 5, 2019

© Kyle Thompson

I was intrigued by managing editor Matt LaWell’s first Golf Course Industry cover story this month for several reasons. First, because it’s an excellent examination of turfheads who leave the business and then come back. Second, he sources studies from outside of our industry in the piece, something none of us do often enough. Finally, he gets to the heart of the matter: some superintendents have a love/hate relationship with the profession.

The passion that attracts so many great people to the business is a double-edged sword. It motivates, stimulates and rewards … but it also aggravates, infuriates and exhausts. Honestly, I’m surprised more people don’t get burned out and leave for good. Plenty do bolt for something with less stress or more dollars, but many return. They are moths endlessly attracted by the flame.

Matt’s story touches on several folks who did things outside of agronomy and then came back. In my experience, the revolving door between course management and sales is the most common example. Superintendents boil over like an unwatched pot on the stove and angrily decide to jump to sales where things are “easier,” and you get weekends off and such. The only problem is sales comes with its own set of challenges.

I’ve always estimated that only about one in five turfheads who go into sales last five years. Sometimes they just miss growing grass or the job isn’t what they thought it would be. But the most common reason is that they just aren’t wired for it. Switching roles can cut to the very core of your self-image. We tend to define ourselves by our job and our peer relationships. When you change from being the hunted (customer) to being a hunter (salesperson), it tends to be jarring.

It’s relatively easy for a newly-minted superintendent-turned-salesperson to show up for chapter meetings, drop by with doughnuts and tweet about their new products. It’s harder when the moment comes and you have to sit face-to-face with one of your former peers and slide an order across the table and ask them to sign it. That is where the rubber meets the road. Coffee, as they say, is for closers.

Also, let’s be honest about the fact that our culture has historically treated salespeople as second-class citizens in the turf community. We’re happy to take their sponsorship money for chapter meetings or go to the ballgame for free, but ultimately they’re just “peddlers.” I’ve talked to tons of superintendents who made the transition into sales and loss of identity is a big issue. Some deal with it and some do not.

Another thing to consider as you look longingly at the grass on the other side of the fence is that there are currently waaaaaaay too many people selling things in our happy little industry. The golf business has been in a slow deflation mode for 18 years and that’s caused lots of musical chairs. The result has been more folks than ever hanging out a shingle to sell widgets and potions to golf courses.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s terrific to have educated, agronomic experts selling things. The problem for anyone new to distribution is cutting through the noise and the clutter, and understanding that they’re competing against top-notch professional salespeople with customer relationships that go back decades. And there’s this: Golf Course Industry did a study about 18 months ago that showed most superintendents are intentionally consolidating their purchasing with three or fewer distributors. The days of “spreading it around” to keep a bunch of people happy are over.

So, people leave for more money, or better hours or less stress … and then they come back. Because for some, the passion never really fades. It gets masked by the frustration and the anger and the hours. But it doesn’t ever entirely get snuffed out.

As crazy as the job might make you, it also defines you and touches something primal inside you. You can hear everything growing on a warm spring morning. The smell of fresh-cut grass is heaven. You see Mother Nature’s gifts right in front of you every day. You have amazing relationships with peers who share a common set of values. Your office is 150 acres of living, breathing beauty. Not an easy thing to give up, eh?

I hope you’ll read Matt’s piece and ponder on the lessons it contains. On those terrible, awful, very bad days when you want to chuck it all, remember there certainly is life off the golf course. The question is whether it’s the life for you.

Pat Jones is the editor-at-large of Golf Course Industry. He can be reached at