September 2021

Adjusting Course for the Crosswinds: Charting Success for a Country Club During a Pandemic

by M. Scott Weaver

James Nanson is General Manager and Chief Operating Officer for the Milburn Country Club, situated among the close-in suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. He's an executive coaching client and completed the Leadership Excellence Course in 2019. He began his career in the hospitality industry as a teenager during the 1990s, working his way up from the kitchen to being among the Club's key management and decision makers 2010. James is a gifted leader, well-respected by his fellow country club general managers and his Club's board of governors.

On any journey you must take account of the winds. Arriving where you're aiming involves steering through adversity and adjusting your course. This holds true in driving, sailing, flying, playing golf, and in running a business. Members enjoying their golf games is crucial to business for James Nanson, General Manager of the Milburn Country Club in Overland Park, Kansas.

James is no stranger to adversity. In November 2010, Milburn's clubhouse was destroyed by fire for the second time within 100 years, and the Club's board of governors considered closing the club and selling the property. James, other key members of the staff, and the board developed a shared vision for taking the club forward. He became its champion. The country club and golfing market was transforming, as were prospective members' expectations. With the help of James's insight and championing of their shared vision, they rebuilt. Milburn's 18-hole golf course enjoys an outstanding reputation and was among Golf Digest's Top 10 renovated courses in 2017.

Across sectors of the hospitality industry, negotiating the COVID-19 pandemic has been like playing a round of golf through a series of strong Kansas crosswinds. As a player you assess the course conditions, select a club, and pour your experience and judgment through the swing to connect with the ball. With the thwack of contact, the wind—an external force beyond your control—influences the journey you'll then make to each green on the course. Crosswinds of inside-out market conditions and disrupted supply chains land business operations far off the fairways. March of 2020 brought those winds to everyone's game.

In January of 2020, James and his team saw a terrific year ahead. The Club's membership was full-to-capacity, the local economy was booming, and an extensive, 18-month renovation of the pool facilities was underway. When we met in late February to review his outlook for the summer season, his top priority was finding qualified staff in the tight local labor market, after having made two difficult, key personnel changes in the past two months.

With COVID-19 already in the news, we briefly discussed key assumptions used by the U.S. government in planning against a flu pandemic. Those assumptions proved useful to James in the weeks following March 13, 2020. Local mayors put public health emergency measures in place and closed-down public life.

James took three key steps. First, he guided his leadership team to accept 2020 would be different and focused them on adapting. Second, he led them through hard decisions and quickly adjusted the staff's size. Third, he communicated daily with the Club's members and its board of governors. He prioritized always explaining what his team was doing and how it all worked to keep the Club open for members' use. James also gave his team three key tasks:

  1. Keep the environment safe as possible through responsible actions,
  2. Stay open and as fully operational as is appropriate to circumstances, and
  3. Be friendly and inviting for all members.

As conditions changed, James and his team always asked and answered, "what can we do next to do our best by our members?" They continually improvised and adapted.

Throughout the Spring and Summer of 2020, the Club saw a 40% increase in golf course use. The opportunity to be outdoors with others, at a distance, with relatively little risk was like gold.

The restaurant started a curbside meal and grocery service. Not only could members still enjoy their menu favorites while sheltering in place, but they could also take advantage of the club's access to food and household necessities that were hard to come by at the store.

When schools transitioned to an online format in the Fall of 2020, James and his team transformed their indoor and outdoor dining areas into socially distanced, monitored study halls available to the children of the members. This was a win-win scenario: parents could continue to work, and it kept the Club's staff employed.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

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James and his team delivered outstanding results in overcoming COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges throughout 2020. This became clear in late October. Mid-November and New Year's Day traditionally make the year's financials for businesses in this industry sector. Several other Country Clubs in the nation faced precarious fiscal situations just weeks ahead of the year's end. Early on, James and his team understood and took action to set a different course. 2020 ended with Milburn Country Club financially sound.

During 2021, the Milburn Country Club team has adjusted, innovated, and invested to respond in a dynamic public health situation. From April through July, the Club's operations returned to more typical form as vaccinations and low infection rates brought members back to the dining rooms and newly renovated pool facilities. Now as Autumn approaches, some of the optimism of Spring and early Summer has given way to caution with the Delta variant of COVID-19. James and his team continue to focus on the three key tasks for keeping Milburn Country Club a welcome respite:

  1. Keep the environment safe as possible through responsible actions,
  2. Stay open and as fully operational as is appropriate to circumstances, and
  3. Be friendly and inviting for all members.

James's effectiveness comes from the trust he's earned by communicating honestly, openly, and continually with Milburn Country Club's board of directors, members, and staff. He creates the motivational climate for his staff to innovate and take initiative, sets clear priorities to focus their efforts, and uses feedback in communication. Applying what he learned in the Leadership Excellence Course, James continues to grow in his ability to successfully maneuver through conflicts and difficult decisions. With his leadership, the Milburn staff is successfully negotiating a once-in-a-generation pandemic to serve the Club's members and keep their operation a success.