This massive industry serving this mostly happy game features myriad job titles and descriptions.
Consider the possible titles within one agronomy department. Director, superintendent, assistant superintendent, equipment technician, irrigation technician, spray technician, assistant-in-training, horticulturist, crew lead, equipment operator, intern, seasonal employee. Yes, we know we’re probably missing a few. And we know that’s just one department at many facilities.
Gautam Patankar possesses a job title not imbedded on many business cards. Patankar holds the position of vice president of culture and coaching for Bobby Jones Links. VP of culture and coaching? It’s the question Patankar fields often.
“By and large,” Patankar says, “we have a lot of people in our company who are introverts, and we have to teach them how to be extroverts.”
Bobby Jones Links is in a position similar to nearly every company in the golf business. Getting the most from people — and creating an atmosphere where they interact well with strangers — shapes the customer experience.
Formerly known as Mosaic, Bobby Jones Links is a Georgia-based management company overseeing operations at public, private, resort and community golf facilities. A collegiate golfer at Rutgers University who grew up caddying in New Jersey, Patankar joined the company in 2006. He was the general manager at a pair of Georgia clubs before shifting into a vice president of operations role in 2014. Understanding the need to elevate the customer experience, the company moved Patankar into his current position at the start of 2021.
“We said, ‘What’s our biggest gap and how can we differentiate ourselves from other management companies, whether big or small?’” Patankar says. “We all landed on the fact that one thing the industry says it does really well, but it really struggles with, is customer service.”
Patankar visits clubs within the Bobby Jones Links portfolio — the company’s highest-profile property is the renovated and rejuvenated Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta — and works with department heads, including directors of agronomy and superintendents, on leadership skills. The overarching goal, though, is to connect with frontline workers, whom Patankar says represent 90 percent of the company’s workforce. “By sheer volume, they are the ones that make this company go, so we tell them how important they are, and we teach them how important they are,” he adds. The training program has evolved to the point where frontline workers are now leading Zoom calls or in-person sessions.
Like any company relying on hourly workers, Bobby Jones Links has experienced challenges hiring and retaining quality employees. Patankar emphasizes in his interactions with department heads that companies and facilities with an empowering and caring culture have the best chance of succeeding in the labor market.
“People want to be part of something where they are really valued and that’s why it’s important that we follow through on what we talk about,” he says. “There’s more to it than giving somebody $3 (more) an hour and thinking this person is going to be great and they’re going to stay forever. I understand money means a lot, but I still think it comes down to recognition and being valued. We have a work family and people want to be included in the work family.”
Providing opportunities for career advancement is a proven way a department can show employees they are valued. On the turf side, that means explaining to employees they can make the leap from an hourly or seasonal employee into a full-time position such as an assistant superintendent or technician. The golf industry lags behind other industries in this area, Patankar says.
“Our industry has to start giving people a legitimate trajectory or a legitimate path to keeping them in the business or otherwise we are going to continue to lose really great leaders to industries that allow them to see a path that they don’t have in our industry,” he adds. “All these other companies do that … they put you through school if you need to, they educate you if you need to, they take time with different programs for your personal growth.
“The golf industry has been a little bit archaic in that regard. Some do it better than others. It usually takes the cart attendant or server to do something awesome where they turn around and say, ‘I have to do it with that person.’ I can’t afford to lose them. This isn’t about affording to lose them, it’s about cultivating talent and giving them a reason to stay because they can be a future leader.”
Investing in culture and coaching takes times, a scant resource for department heads and employees who are already overexerted because of labor shortages. The upfront time, in Patankar’s view, is worth the investment, especially considering the alternative. “If your employees are happier and they come to work more, you don’t have that churn of trying to rehire,” he says.
Happy employees. Happy customers.
“In the last year, golf membership sales are skyrocketing,” Patankar says. “If you go to the club and talk to the members and ask how it’s going, they say, ‘I have never seen a chef come out now as much as in the past. I was out on the course the other day and hit one into the woods, and the guy on the mower got off the mower and gave me three golf balls.’ You start hearing and seeing those stories, and it starts penetrating through the team.”
Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry's editor-in-chief.