Editor’s notebook: An educational program to call their own
Guy Cipriano

Editor’s notebook: An educational program to call their own

Guy Cipriano spends two days in suburban Philadelphia to observe how the country’s fastest-growing private golf operation is taking employee development and growth to another level.

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January 27, 2022

Scott Bordner received direct messages before the event ended: His colleagues, peers, friends and former co-workers are already seeking to participate in the second edition of a career development and training program his massive club debuted earlier this month.

Bordner is the director of agronomy for The Union League of Philadelphia, a 160-year-old club that included zero golf courses less than a decade ago. A three-course operation today, the Union League is the country’s fastest-growing private golf operation.

Supporting the rapid growth — the club purchased its third golf course last March and will unveil all 27 holes at much-ballyhooed Union League National Golf Club in southern New Jersey this summer — requires talented and committed employees. Finding and retaining those employees in 2022 requires investing in people. Investing in people requires providing continuing education and career advancement opportunities. 

Enter Union League University.

The two-day event brought more than 70 industry professionals to Union League Liberty Hill, a suburban Philadelphia lodge and conference center with an 18-hole golf course. Nearly half of the attendees were employees on the three turf teams Bordner oversees.

Bordner handpicked outside attendees, purposely trying to avoid overcrowding the room with industry professionals from similar clubs or backgrounds. Bordner urged attendees to sit next to different people during meals and educational sessions. Union League University represented a rare event where a horticulturist, assistant superintendent, equipment technician, vendor and established superintendent exchanged stories at same table.

And to think, Bordner didn’t start the process of organizing the event until mid-December. Hectic might be a mild way of describing the Union League’s current golf pace, thus the accelerated planning process.

“I knew what I wanted,” Bordner says. “I knew the speakers that I wanted, I knew the differences in personalities I wanted, and I wanted all levels of clubs represented. I handpicked Year 1 and I had to text some of my friends to tell them, ‘Don’t be offended. You’re on the invite list, just not for this year.’ I want different perspectives each year and I want different bloodlines here. I didn’t want all the superintendents I worked with at Merion here hanging out together because they hadn’t seen each other. Go do that somewhere else.

“This was my social experiment to see who I can invite and how I can make sure there are enough vocal and loud people combined with those ‘silent assassins,’ the real quiet people who when they ask a question, it’s a really good question. How can you mix that with the people who are more outgoing and make it all work?”

And …

It worked beautifully.

Because the event wasn’t affiliated with an association or a presenting sponsor, discussions were candid, with attendees receiving inside info and guidance from respected internal and external voices, including Union League CEO Jeff McFadden and director of golf Sean Palmer, Club Thinking Partners president Dan Denehy, Manufacturers’ Golf & Country Club green chairman Jeff Jones, former superintendent-turned-sales professional Jamie Kapes, and industry consultants Steve McDonald and Tyler Bloom. McFadden’s and Palmer’s macro-level presentations about the Union League and its golf operation combined with breakout sessions led by the club’s three course superintendents — Pat Haughey, John Canavan and Andrew Dooley — localized the program for club employees.

Union League National irrigation technician Herb Phillips led one of the most engaging presentations, using practical concepts, hands-on visuals and a zest for his craft to describe the transition from PVC to HDPE pipe and satellite to 2-wire. Phillips, a former superintendent who temporarily worked as a carnival game operator before returning to the industry in 2019, interjected dry wit into descriptions, inciting laughter from all generations in attendance. “I tell everybody with irrigation that you have to use your 95 senses which you were born with,” he deadpanned at one point.

Union League University resembled a turf retreat. Every educational session, meal and networking event was held at The Lodge at Liberty. Bordner quickly found companies to sponsor meals and an evening networking event. “I looked across our financials and said, ‘Who do we spend the most money with?’” Bordner says. “I went to the top five and they all said yes right away.”

Massive scale and tremendous facilities make it difficult for most clubs to emulate Union League University. But as education needs evolve and the emphasis on employee well-being expands, it might be time to consider bringing structured programming and different personalities to your facility for a day or two. 

It doesn’t take 95 senses to understand the need for employee growth.  

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