Tactics for Financial Stewardship in a Crisis (Part 2)

This article continues a series of communications from GGA Partners to help private club leaders address challenges confronting their businesses and their employees as a result of the global health crisis. Today, in the second of two articles discussing financial stewardship, partner and head of transaction advisory, Craig Johnston, outlines information and tactics which should be considered in developing your club’s financial plans in times of crisis.

As businesses across North America begin to re-open, ever-changing social and economic circumstances further complicate the decision-making process, and now more than ever it is imperative that business leaders have access to the critical information which impacts their business.

In the midst of a crisis, we believe prudent financial stewards should embark on a phased approach to financial planning and analysis. The three phases are:

1. Cash Preservation

2. Sustainability

3. Opportunity

The immediate focus should be on cash and cash preservation. The familiar adage Cash is King takes on even greater importance in crisis situations. Next, the focus shifts to reviewing key risks to long-term sustainability and developing plans to reduce and combat those risks. Once a game plan is understood for sustainability, business leaders should explore opportunities to enhance member experience, reduce operating or capital costs, and increase return on investment.

To navigate these three phases, two critical financial platforms are required: a detailed annual budget and a club financial model.

Often these platforms are considered one in the same, but they are not. A detailed annual budget should be designed on a monthly basis and based on agreed upon key performance indicators (KPIs) and specific circumstances for the year. A club financial model should be designed on an annual basis and based on historical and budgeted KPIs as well as other economic inputs. The monthly budget is important to support cash preservation analyses while the financial model supports long-term sustainability scrutiny and enhancement opportunity exploration.

Both platforms should be dynamic, both platforms should encompass all three financial statements, and both platforms are a must-have. By “dynamic”, we mean easily adjustable for various economic and club-specific KPIs and, by “all three”, we mean income statement, cash flow statement and balance sheet. (Yes, a club should set and approve a budget at the outset of every year, but that does not mean the platform it was developed under needs to be static.)

The information required to develop both platforms include:

  • Historical audited financial statements, including notes.
  • Detailed department financial schedules, including breakdown of fixed and variable expenses.
  • Membership information, including counts, fees, attrition rates and sales expectations.
  • Debt agreements and schedules, including covenant calculations, coupon rates and terms.
  • Labour contracts and employment agreements.
  • Supplier and vendor contracts and agreements, including terms and pricing.
  • Capital project listing, including historical expenditures, reserve studies and facilities plans.

The specific tactics under each phase of planning and analysis will vary from club to club, but some predominant examples include:

1. Cash Preservation

a. Analyze current club liquidity: evaluate the club’s current balance sheet, including available cash, receivables and payables based on an up-to-date budget, then leverage the monthly budgets to assess the near-term (three to six months) liquidity based on estimated revenues and expenses.

b. Scenario analysis: complete various scenario analysis within the annual budget platform (designed on a monthly basis) based on potential closure and re-opening scenarios. This requires a realistic evaluation of the impact of each scenario from department managers.

Based on the results of the above, determine if any near-term adjustments (staffing changes, discussions and negotiations with suppliers and lenders) are required for cash preservation.

2. Sustainability

a. Anticipate attrition rates: depending on the timing of annual dues payments, attrition rates during times of crisis can be significant. Running scenario analysis based on various levels of attrition and their impact on the club’s long-term sustainability is essential.

b. Estimate decline in membership sales: some clubs may rely on entrance fees to support operating expenses, or more predominantly capital maintenance expenditures. Evaluating the potential decline in new membership sales over the short and medium-term, and its impact on club sustainability is critical.

Based on the results of the scenario analyses, scrutinize the club’s operating model to address discrepancies between cash inflows and cash outflows. This may require moderate or significant reductions to the club’s operating profile, including hours of operation and levels of high-touch service, for example.

3. Opportunity

The review of enhancement opportunities may come about during the focus on sustainability, as the club looks at unique ways to better align cash outflows with cash inflows. However, for clubs where sustainability is straightforwardly achievable, the focus on opportunity will follow sustainability. Areas of opportunity include:

a. Staffing profile: use times of disruption to consider changes to your management team and right sizing of your staffing profile.

b. Debt re-structuring: meet with the club’s lender(s) to discuss revised terms to the current debt agreements. Interest rates are near all-time lows, and although the numerator on certain coverage ratio calculations has declined, a preferable rate or term may be available.

c. Capital projects: favorable prices may be available on large-scale projects or purchases during times of crises. Consider moving ahead with large-scale projects if the potential savings are meaningful and there is a high degree of confidence in the club’s financial sustainability.

Navigating through crisis in this phased approach – while adhering to the guiding principles of financial stewardship – will help clubs develop financial plans which offer short-term solutions and lasting success.

Guiding Principles for Financial Stewardship (Part 1)

This article continues a series of communications from GGA Partners to help private club leaders address challenges confronting their businesses and their employees as a result of the global health crisis. Today, in the first of two articles discussing financial stewardship, founding partner Stephen Johnston outlines the guiding principles for being a prudent financial steward.

Despite the opinions of pundits and experts parading before our television screens, no one can accurately predict how long this pandemic will last or its economic impact. By the same token, it’s impossible to anticipate every challenge club leaders will face in the days ahead. But we can say with certainty that long-term financial stability is an issue confronting every club leader. Those who evaluate the challenge and develop a strategy with both short-term and long-term plans give their clubs the greatest opportunity for success.

From our perspective, actions in these uncertain times should follow these guiding principles:

1. Fairness. Prior to a final decision, step back and ask yourself if the anticipated action is fair for all parties, starting with members and the employees. This crisis will pass, and people will remember how they were treated.

2. Transparency. Do not take anything for granted, especially when it comes to sharing information with employees and communicating with membership. It is important for members to understand and appreciate the conscientious approach and the lengths taken to ensure the viability of their club. Video conferencing and electronic pulse surveys make timely communications and opinion convenient and efficient.

3. Value. It is important for members to understand the club carefully considers the value members receive for their fees, dues and other financial support of the club. The value for money proposition for each club and each member is different; “we’re doing what other clubs are doing” discounts this uniqueness.

4. Ownership. Ensuring members maintain their club participation and pride of ownership during challenging times is critical. Maintaining a sense of ownership in the club will help members appreciate the difficult decisions being made in the face of unprecedented circumstances.

5. Right Things Right. Make sure each critical action or decision is conscientiously considered and prudently implemented. By considering the long-term economic and social consequences of your decisions, leaders often realize that efficiency and cost savings are not automatically the top priority.

6. Think Long-Term. Short-term planning and tactics are the priority. But before executing, assess how the short-term actions affect the long-term plan and vision for the club. Always measure the impact any action will have on cash preservation, club value, member and employee satisfaction. Adjustments to the short-term plan may be necessary to reduce the impact on your long-range strategic plan.

7. Preparedness. It’s easy to say we should be prepared for the worst, but it’s impossible to anticipate every calamity. What we can do is make sure all the club’s business information and resources are readily available. This generally means putting in that extra hour or two each week to stay organized. As we prepare for reopening and the new normal, develop a reopening plan and adjust this daily based on new information which comes available.

8. Listening. We are a firm believer in the importance of empowering the general manager to make critical business decisions. We’re equally committed to the idea that managers need to listen to the ideas, challenges and concerns of their board members, department heads, members and industry and government leaders. Their input and feedback are essential in making informed decisions.

Financial stewardship matters most in times of crisis. Even the most prudent financial stewards cannot anticipate every obstacle they will confront. But experienced, poised, and attentive leaders will follow proven guiding principles to protect the club’s members, brand and overall financial health. In our next article, we will explore specific tactics for developing a financial plan to ensure short-term success and long-term sustainability.

Smart Moves by Smart Leaders

This article continues a series of communications from GGA Partners to help private club leaders address challenges confronting their businesses and their employees as a result of the global health crisis. Today, Henry DeLozier offers several examples of the right things to do if you are a crisis leader.

Excellent leadership is a mixture of many important ingredients and information – access to it and knowing how to use it – is critical to the mixture. Smart leaders are using time during the novel coronavirus outbreak to sort through many sources of information to choose the most relevant and insightful information sources available to them.

During this pandemic, leadership qualities are being revealed in no uncertain terms. Those who have reliable information and can explain circumstances succinctly, consistently, and timely are viewed as “crisis leaders”. At GGA Partners, we consider someone to be a “crisis leader” when they are able to do the right things right.

Following are several examples of the right things to do, if you are a crisis leader:

Understand the significance of trustworthy leadership.

Achieving trustworthiness requires having reliable and current information, maintaining an on-going dialogue with those relying on you, and being truthful in your dealings. If the news is bad, trusted leaders are able to convey the combination of truthful expectations or projections in an empathetic manner.

After England suffered the fall of Dunkirk, Winston Churchill described “a colossal military failure” when reporting to the House of Commons at Parliament. He did not mince words and aligned accountability – his own – with the authority given him. People trust those who can step up in tough times.

Manage information aggressively.

Keep your stakeholder groups of members, employees, suppliers, and extended business partners – like bankers and insurance carriers – well-informed. It is essential to be inclusive, informative, and accurate. Do not make any incorrect statements.

Club leaders serve many stakeholder groups which often have different needs and priorities. Evaluate your stakeholder groups and refine communications which decisively and clearly address the expectations and needs of each group.

Express optimism.

US President John Kennedy focused his countrymen on a goal of putting a man on the moon in May, 1961, when he told the US Congress, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” At the time, this was not a popular idea as 58% of American’s polled were opposed to the idea. And yet, in July of 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins fulfilled the slain President’s goal.

Churchill’s ability to deliver dreadful news, like the fall of Dunkirk and Singapore, was supported by his bull-doggedness in telling the British people that they would “never surrender” as he pointed out that Britain’s far-flung empire and the New World powers would come to the rescue, as they did. Bitter truth was supported by an optimistic outcome.

Be present.

Maintain regular – if even predictable – contact with your stakeholder groups. Address their concerns in the context of updated information. See that your information updates are available using multiple media – such as email, social media, direct mail, and conference calls – and be willing to repeat certain key bits of information for the sake of emphasis.

Communicate your plans – and act on them.

Your members want information, to be sure. Even more importantly, they want confidence that their club is in steady hands. They want to see evidence – action more so than talk – that the club is taking measured steps and addressing the key strategic issues without distraction with petty short-term matters. This capability requires a reliable game plan.

In her 2018 book entitled Leadership in Turbulent Times Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, cites several specific lessons that can be drawn from Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in leading America from the depths of the Great Depression. First and foremost, indicate that there is a center-point of leadership and direction. Roosevelt made clear his understanding that he was chosen to lead. Then, came the Hundred Days and the New Deal…so there was a plan. Now, as for Roosevelt, planning must be very dynamic and agile.


Sound leadership is a matter of thoughtful and comprehensive planning. The clubs that will prosper after these difficult times are the clubs with a plan that is comprehensive in nature and not drafted in piece-meal fashion.

Turning Insights Into Action

GGA Insights exists to support you as a club leader, offering you solutions, tools, and tactics today that can help you improve your work life tomorrow.  But putting change into practice can be a challenging endeavor. GGA Director, George Pinches, offers a road map for translating genuine insights and data into meaningful boardroom action.

Most private clubs are like cruise ships; they do change direction, but very slowly. They are often steeped in tradition, and while this is a powerful asset, it can also hold clubs back.

In reality, clubs need agility if they are to respond and adapt to the fast-evolving demands of changing markets, new technology and generations of new members.

But don’t lose hope; with more data available to us than ever, there is reason for optimism.

Data can clarify the changes that need to be made, shape the direction of travel, and safeguard clubs from the obstacles and pitfalls they may otherwise run into.

But the truth is, before data can be put into such effective practice, many clubs and boards require a cultural shift to recognize the value of it.

Commitment first

When my GGA colleague, Fred Laughlin, first introduced the Club Governance Model, he stressed the importance of obtaining a board commitment before undertaking transition.

This is because research demonstrates it usually takes three administrations for significant changes to be fully adopted by a club board.

In order to move away from what we typically see – decisions based on anecdotal evidence rather than genuine insights and hard facts – this is the process to follow: commitment first, then change follows.

For you, obtaining commitment from your board and committees means convincing them that the use of data-driven decision making is mutually beneficial.

Once your board members start asking “What are the facts? Do you have comparable data or industry benchmarks to support this recommendation?”, then your club will be on track to a brighter future based on genuine insights.

Shifting the dial

It’s clear that clubs can no longer rely on decisions based on institutional memory and personal opinion. But how do you (in practical terms) achieve such long-lasting change?

When it comes to shifting the culture, timing is key.

One of the best opportunities to start a culture shift is at the beginning of a new tenure. This tends to be a ‘honeymoon period’ for the new GM or COO, when support and expectations are running high.

Take the opportunity to assess the culture and seek ways to introduce change: commitment first, change to follow. If your board has an annual board retreat, this can be an opportune time to take action.

Beyond that, I’d recommend focusing on these three key areas to encourage a sustainable culture shift towards a data-driven future:

  1. Board recruitment and development – The nominating committee can add “an aptitude or understanding of data-driven decision making” to the list of attributes when recruiting nominees for the board. The GM/COO can use the same criteria when filling senior management positions.
  2. Board policy – Alterations to the Board Policy Manual (BPM) can ensure that the decision-making policy stipulates the required data, back-up information, and consultation necessary to support a recommendation. Proponents, be they committee or management, soon learn what is expected by the board before considering an initiative or making a decision.
  3. Education – Club industry resources that extol the virtues of data-driven decision making can be shared during board and committee orientation to support the culture shift away from anecdotal to fact-based practices.

Finding ‘your’ way

Process and structure will help, but a true shift in culture can only be achieved through intelligent and thoughtful execution. In some cases, this means finding the unique tactics which work best for you and your Board.

‘Shifting culture’ will not appear in many job descriptions of club leaders. But, for a lot of clubs it should be at the very top. It holds the key to disrupting what can be a perennial cycle of decisions based on what those in power ‘think’ is right.

My advice: think long-term (beyond 5 years), actively gain the buy-in and commitment of board members, and put a structure and process in place to ensure data and intelligence are at the heart of how your Club operates.

Averting Surprises

On the west coast of Scotland, between the islands of Jura and Scarba, lurks a monstrous whirlpool so menacing that it even has its own name. Fed by a tidal surge that picks up speed as it races through the narrow strait separating the islands, Corryvrekan is a devilish surprise awaiting ill-prepared sailors, taking unsuspecting ships to a watery grave.

Though not quite so devilish, it’s often the unknown that sinks a good year and an otherwise solid strategic plan in the golf business. But rather than chalking up performance setbacks to something out of your control, consider five planning suggestions that will help avert those ever-lurking surprises.

Align Your Core Values

Know what you stand for and what you mean to accomplish. Ask yourself:

What’s most important to me? Your work and interactions with others demonstrate your value system, whether you are a hard-nosed money manager or a touchy-feely departmental manager. See that your actions are consistent with your core values.

How does my work serve others? In management, one is often a servant leader who must place the needs and expectations of others ahead of his or her own. Study your course or club and understand what values are most important to your customers, members and staff. Organize your work to fulfill their priorities and your desire to serve others.

What legacy do I wish to leave? Most people do not consider the lasting impact of their countless hours of dedicated work. But they should because the best way to serve the interests of your facility and the environment is to make sure your work is building the reputation you want to leave for your successor and generations to come.

Understand Your Market

What do you know about your market? Is it primarily golfers? Families? Non-golfers seeking socialization? You should know. Are your golfers mid-level managers or high-flying wheeler-dealers? Are the women of your club working professionals or those who do not work outside the home?

Three ways to know more about your market:

  1. Understand the demographic profile of the most current member survey.
  2. Obtain the demographic profile for the local area that you serve (www.census.gov).
  3. Host discussion groups or roundtables so that your market segments can tell you about themselves and what they want from you.

Establish Clear Goals

Be specific in what you expect of yourself and your staff. Set goals that align with your long-term vision, then confirm that they align with those of management and board of directors.

Your goals for next year should be set by now. If they’re not, have a conversation with your manager and make sure you’re both on the same page. While you’re at it, set up regular meetings during the year when you both can sit down to review progress and make adjustments.

Develop a Realistic Action Plan

Convert your core values, goals and objectives into an action plan that is sized appropriately to your resources, including staff and budget. Then align authority and accountability to make sure everyone knows their roles, responsibilities and deadlines. reckoning as certain as the Corryvrekan.

Refer to the action plan and chart of accountability every week, month and quarter to ensure that you are on-course. Good or bad, report your progress up the organization. Transparency builds and sustains trust.

Re-evaluate Constantly

Few plans are perfect and most goals and objectives requires adjustment from time to time. Be flexible. Stay current and measure everything accurately and without bias.

Similarly, ask your staff to evaluate their own work and yours. Ask members and regulars for feedback. Listen to the most frequent critics … they often know what they’re talking about! Hold yourself and your plan accountable for the results being achieved.

Sometimes, as was the case with ships encountering the vagaries of the Corryvrekan, surprises are out of our control. Often, though, some careful planning will give us the opportunity to steer clear of turbulence that lurks ahead.

This article was authored by GGA Partner Henry DeLozier for Golf Course Industry.