Transforming Essendon with business logic

Essendon Country Club, formerly known as Hatfield London Country Club, was acquired by brothers Kieran and Liam Griffin in December 2011. Glyn Pritchard went along to see how the club has been transformed over the last three and a half years.

The Griffin family are the former owners of the Addison Lee mini cab company in London and Liam remains the company’s CEO, while Kieran is an entrepreneur with a range of business interests. Prior to the purchase, the club was owned by Tokyo Leisure, which built a new 18 hole course, opened in 1992, alongside the original course designed by Fred Hawtree, which opened in 1976. The club is now run by a brother-in-law of the family, Jonny Harvey, whose previous experience was in new media sales.

“I worked for Yahoo for six years and then joined Facebook to open its first sales operation outside of the United States in London. I was there for four and a half very dynamic years which saw huge growth, but it was very intense and I wanted a better work-life balance for me and my family. Kieran and Liam acquired Essendon just as I was beginning to look around, so it was an ideal opportunity for us all.”

Ess-HallThe Griffin brothers had several reasons for purchasing Essendon as Harvey explains. “First they have a passion for golf, having been introduced to the game from a young age by their father. This opportunity presented itself and there was desire to see the club continue as a golf facility and not be acquired for other use. And finally as astute entrepreneurs they saw the potential of the business if it was managed correctly.”

The club had suffered from underinvestment and was facing some serious challenges, Harvey says. “There were only 268 members left, there wasn’t a fulltime PGA pro, they had reduced the society rate to £10 a head, and had hosted only five weddings in the previous year. Worst of all the staff morale and motivation were at rock bottom.”

Faced with this challenge, Harvey set to work as general manager. But as a non-golfer at the time and with no previous golf management experience, what made him feel qualified to do the job. “While I didn’t have specific experience in the golf industry, I had managed large teams and I knew how to set goals and motivate people to achieve objectives. As a customer I knew what I expected in terms of service and product quality from food and beverage delivery. The main challenge was to restore the staff’s self-belief and motivate them to achieve.”

One of the first decisions was a change of name. “The club isn’t really that near to Hatfield or London. We also wanted to emphasise a clean break with what had gone before.” The logo was changed as well from a faux heraldic coat of arms to an antler design based on the deer found in the area.

“The first year was very tough. From a commercial point of view we needed to increase the amount of activity in the previously dead months from November to March. To succeed this has to be a twelve month operation.” Harvey introduced a series of members’ events through the winter months and also promoted the club as a venue for parties, weddings and business functions. “We introduced a Sunday roast for families and that’s become very popular. As a trial, we also ran a crèche for members to leave the kids with trained nursery staff while they played nine holes.” The number of weddings hosted by the club soared from five to 45 in the last year. “We have a wedding nearly every week now”, Harvey confirms.

Increasing the membership was another immediate challenge. “The previous management had been very focused on our Japanese members, with little thought about attracting a wider customer base. We wanted to retain our loyal Japanese members but to make the club viable we had to look at growing the membership numbers.” To do so Harvey introduced a family membership and age structured pricing with a junior rate from 18 to 22 and an intermediate adult rate for those aged 23 to 30. A joining fee has also been waved.

The flexible pricing structure and better marketing has had the desired effect. “We have increased the overall membership to 837. Our seven day membership has gone from 214 to 423, almost a 100 percent increase. Five day membership has gone from 48 to 116. And our under 18 juniors have gone from just six to 55.” Improved services have attracted new members, but Harvey says a welcoming attitude has also been critical. “We got rid of all the ‘keep off the grass’ type signs, the petty parking restrictions and all the things that make people feel nervous about coming through the gates. The only signs I wanted up were ‘You’re Welcome’.”

For the members the club has introduced what Harvey terms a player pathway. “There was no progression. People joined and were left to get on with it. We now provide a playing progression from joining for casual roll-ups through to serious competitions for category one players.”

There is a big emphasis on communicating with the membership and as one might expect given Harvey’s career background, social media plays a major part. “Communicating with our staff and our members is very important. We can only get people to accept change if we keep them informed and carry them with us. We run an annual members survey with 25 questions each on membership matters, the courses, our service teams and the clubhouse. It provides invaluable feedback.” In fact poor ratings for the changing facilities led to them being completely redesigned and refurbished.

Ess-ShopWith the new management implementing a raft of changes, was there resistance from the existing members? “The members committee broadly welcomed what we were doing because we kept them informed and they understood the rationale behind the changes. What surprised them was the speed of our decision making, compared to the previous management. But in the new media industry you have very short windows of opportunity so you have to move fast.”

For the courses, a new green keeping management system was introduced. “Previously there had been one team across both 18 hole courses, but we decided to have two specific teams for each course to instil a sense of ownership and pride in the teams. For the new course we have embarked on an improvement programme that includes rebuilding all the bunkers so they drain better and require less maintenance.”

One thing the new management has not done away with is the secondary greens on the new course. “These are not temporary greens but full size secondary greens on 16 of the holes. It makes almost double the workload for the greens staff to maintain them, but it does mean we can rest the main greens in the winter, while still providing an excellent putting surface.” Another change is a bespoke set of stroke indexes on score cards for playing the ‘B’ greens.

Additional improvements have also been made to the practice facilities. “We constructed our 9-hole ‘Muntjac’ pitch and putt course and a new golf academy which opened in the autumn of 2013. Previously the club did not even have a driving range.” The academy includes an indoor swing analysis facility equipped with Flightscope for coaching and club fitting. The new range also has a covered teeing area for inclement weather practice. Ian Taylor is the head professional supported by professional Chris Davis and assistant pro Freddie Russell. The club is now a fitting centre for Ping and Titleist. “The members have become very interested in custom fitting since we installed Flightscope swing analysis.”

Essendon has a small shop area in the main reception hall. “We are part of the Foremost group. Ian does the buying selection helped by Elaine, one of our staff members who brings a ladies perspective. I also get involved. For apparel we now major on IJP Design, Footjoy and Adidas and those lines have worked very well for us.”

Asked what he thinks the new management has brought to Essendon Country Club, Harvey replies, “We have a passion for golf but we have coupled that with a hard business logic. We have focused on the staff teams here to raise their expectations of what’s possible, so they feel empowered and proud of what they do.” Could this approach work elsewhere? “I’m sure it could but right now Kieran, Liam and myself have got our hands pretty full here!”