It’s been anything but politics as usual at Highlands (N.C.) Country Club; the club’s Certified Golf Course Superintendent, Brian J. Stiehler, was recently elected to a seat on the town Board of Commissioners and the property became the first in the Carolinas to become Golf Environment Organization-certified.
Golf course superintendents often wear many hats during a day’s work, but not every superintendent is willing to throw his hat into the political arena. Then there is Certified Golf Course Superintendent Brian Stiehler of Highlands (N.C.) Country Club.
In the fall of 2011, he achieved a longtime goal when he was elected to the Town of Highlands Board of Commissioners.
“I am high-energy, and love challenges and learning,” he says. “I am very determined to represent the people of Highlands. That’s what politicians should do, but rarely do.”
Doing the right thing also is a matter of course at the golf property, particularly when it comes to environmental stewardship. Last summer, under the leadership of Stiehler’s First Assistant Golf Course Superintendent, Christian Drake, Highlands became the first property in the Carolinas – and only the third in the country – to receive the prestigious Golf Environment Organization Certified award.
Club Website: www.highlandscountryclub.com
Since its inception in 1928, Highlands CC has attracted a geographically wide membership that values the close connection between the property and the diverse flora and fauna of the surrounding temperate rain forest. As part of its mission statement, the property, like Stiehler, also “is a responsible and involved participant in the Town of Highlands.”
Stiehler recently spoke to us about the property’s GEO certification and his new political career.
Q. What does it mean for Highlands to be the first property in the Carolinas to earn the Golf Environment Organization award?
A. It means a tremendous amount to the club and the staff. The GEO program certification, led by my Assistant Superintendent, Christian Drake, was an effort that affected all operations of the club. It predominately dealt with golf maintenance but also included food and beverage, golf operations and building maintenance.
Highlands CC has always prided itself on being a leader in our community and a committed and responsible participant in town activities. We live in a very pristine environment in the Blue Ridge Mountains, enjoyed by thousands and thousands of visitors each year. Protecting our resources and doing what is right is a belief the club as a whole shares. We all want Highlands to be a special retreat for years to come.
Q. Tell us about your history of environmental stewardship at Highlands.
A. As I just mentioned, Highlands is a unique town in a special environment. We are one of a few temperate rain forests in the United States, averaging 90 inches of rain per year. We have a tremendous diversity of wildlife and plant material that make this a unique destination for folks from Atlanta, Birmingham and Florida. At an elevation of 4,000 feet above sea level, our average high temperatures in summer are in the upper 70s. When I served as Assistant Superintendent from 2001 – 2003, I completed the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certification. I worked for a supportive superintendent that saw the need for me to be challenged. I completed the program in seven months.
Since that time, I have always kept my eyes open for areas to improve the club. At the time, I had a great 35-year tenured employee, Rickey Holland, who had a love for wildlife. He and I worked together on numerous projects like native landscaping, wildlife enhancements, wildlife corridors and even started outreach programs to local schools and club summer camps. I like to think we have impacted a lot of children through the years who will always remember how golf can impact the environment positively. Rickey was a special person who passed away in 2010 from cancer. There is a huge void at HCC with him gone, and a void in my personal life. At times, members ask if I will replace Rickey in that position, but I am not ready to. He created it due to his love of HCC and the environment.
Q. What kind of changes did you have to make to qualify for the GEO award?
A. Most of the changes were in our thought process. It was a very eye-opening program that made us look at all aspects of club management. This ranged from recycling plans, energy efficiency, composting programs, supply chains and labor to all the things superintendents do on a daily basis. Under the leadership of Club Manager Gregory C. Crawford, CCM, our clubhouse was rebuilt in 2005 with state of the art equipment and quality materials. We reviewed several years worth of utility bills from each structure on our campus. We learned a 3,000-square-foot employee dormitory was utilizing more kilowatts of electricity annually than a 20,000-square-foot clubhouse! This allowed us to make adjustments with things like light switches, insulation and heat sources. Our kitchen staff began hauling off food waste to a local farm. A recycling program has been hugely successful despite no local ordinance requiring it. Our talented building maintenance personnel are always improving our facilities. For example, our on-course bathroom facilities were rebuilt in 2011 and motion-detection light switches were installed. Programmable thermostats are located in most of our buildings, allowing the heat to be turned down in off-times. Our grounds landscaping continues to evolve with only native landscape material used, ridding the property of any invasive species.
Highlands Country Club has a talented and supportive membership that gives its time and resources to help us complete these goals. It’s about doing “what’s right,” and we stay ahead of the curve at Highlands CC. It also involved showing how sustainable the club was. In our town, our membership and several staff members are involved with a number of nonprofit organizations that are vital to the community. It made us realize that environmental awareness goes far beyond chemicals and water quality. If you have something nice and great, how can you, and what are you going to do to keep it that way? That’s how we approach things now – How can we make all of our practices at HCC sustainable? That means financially and environmentally. It made me focus on using local labor rather than folks who have to drive long distances to work and back. We support as much local business as possible. Our chef continues to use locally grown produce and other ingredients, for example.
Q. Your assistant superintendent, Christian Drake, led the drive to secure the GEO certification. How important is it to give your assistant responsibility for projects like this?
A. Christian reminds me of myself at the age of 21. He is very energetic and positive, always looking for ways to improve professionally and personally. He came to HCC as an intern in 2009, then back fulltime as Second Assistant Superintendent in 2010 following his graduation. In 2011, my First Assistant moved on to a superintendent’s position in Mississippi, allowing Christian to move up. There was no doubt he was ready for the promotion, and he still impresses me each day. He will be a very successful superintendent in the future!
Christian recognized the importance of our environmental objectives and came to me in early 2011 asking if he could begin the program. On his own time, he compiled the 50-page report and projects, keeping us in tune every step of the way. His excitement for the program was contagious, and he was able to motivate employees club-wide.
In June of 2011, Christian and I spent three days with Tom Mead, one of GEO’s attesting consultants. By July, we officially became the first GEO-certified club in the Carolinas and the third in the U.S. Since then, Christian has gone on to certify HCC as a Groundwater Green site. He is always looking for new challenges and certainly dislikes any kind of stagnation. I am extremely proud of Christian and look forward to continuing to see him grow in his career.
Q. What was your role in the process?
A. Without a doubt, all credit for the project goes to Christian. I simply supported him through the process and gave him background information when needed. Greg Crawford, CCM, was also instrumental in the process in addition to a supportive Green Committee led by Wayne Beckner. The staff at HCC is fortunate to have a strong membership, all of which were successful in their own right. They understand the need for us to stay challenged and grow in our careers. You couldn’t ask for a better work environment and support team.
Q. What kind of changes, if any, to your environmental practices will you need to make before it is time for the property to earn GEO recertification in 2014?
A. Our primary goal is to continue to expand what we are already doing. A lot of these changes and programs are an education process to our membership. It involves the staff working together across department lines to realize areas we can help each other become more efficient. Unlike the Audubon program for golf courses, this is a club-wide program. I personally have a lot of objectives for the golf course including increased irrigation efficiencies. Ongoing tweaks to our agronomic programs and timing changes reduce other inputs required to our playing surfaces. As I said, it never ends. We are always striving to do better in all departments. That is what makes it so fun and rewarding.
Q. In addition to navigating country club politics, you entered another political realm when you successfully ran for Highlands Town Commissioner last fall. Why did you run for the seat?
A. I love Highlands and feel an obligation to the community I live in and am raising my daughter in. In addition to that, I felt like our town is lacking good leadership that represents the constituency. Lack of communication and transparency to the people of Highlands has been an ongoing issue, and I feel like I can be a voice of the people of Highlands.
In the short time I have served on the Board thus far, I feel like we have made strides in that direction. I am a positive, energetic person, something our town board was in need of. Finally, club politics has taught me a lot and allowed me to mature as a professional. Town politics has given me an avenue to enhance that skill set. I want to support our town employees and give them the tools they need just like HCC has supported me and given me the tools I need to succeed.
Club politics and town politics are so similar! In one, I deal with taxpayer money; the other deals with dues-paying members. The income is collected in similar fashion and requires conservative, open, transparent use that gives those folks the most benefit for their money.
Q. How can your background as a golf course superintendent help you in your role as a city commissioner?
A. I understand the needs of our town employees. I understand the nature of that business and how they can be placed in difficult positions at times, just like club politics. I realize the need for a strong town manager that can run the town efficiently, day to day. Every town needs a strong manager who can lead the employees and manage resources just like a club does. This makes the Board’s role an advisory one, rather than micro-managing department heads. I also feel I have a better understanding of the financial side of both industries. Both require responsible and transparent use.
Q. More and more, superintendents are becoming political advocates for their properties and their industry. Why is it important to have a say in the political process?
A. Superintendents are responsible for the largest asset that any club owns. We are also well versed on a number of subjects and have to be in order to be successful. Of course we are experts in the field of agronomy and have strong backgrounds in accounting. Superintendents typically have the largest staff of any club department and one of the largest operating budgets. The daily decisions made by superintendents can have a greater impact on the club than other department leaders. Who else knows the property better than the superintendent?
On top of that, a golf course in many cases is the largest or one of the largest parcels of land in a community. Our inputs can have a great impact on the environment. It is important for superintendents to educate the community on what goes on because we all have a vested interest in the town.
Q. As a representative of the golf industry, what do you hope to accomplish on the local level in your role as a town commissioner?
A. Again, my role as a town commissioner is to increase the transparency of the town board and promote the manager-council form of government in Highlands. I want to help create an environment where town department leaders are comfortable making decisions and doing what they feel is right. Currently, we are lacking that. There is too much micro-management that instills this paralysis in the decision-making process.
In regard to the golf industry, I realize we selected a very time-consuming but rewarding career. However, I have come to realize that there is more to life and being involved in something bigger certainly gives me more satisfaction. I feel like I am impacting something greater. I have been blessed with good organizational skills and finding the time isn’t an issue. Having a supportive membership at HCC is also very beneficial!
Q. What goals do you hope to achieve overall as a town commissioner?
A. In the past, the town operated by assigning various commissioners to the various town departments. This meant the department head that managed the electric department reported to a commissioner who, by training, was a veterinarian. That commissioner was responsible for performance reviews and mentoring. It was like running a club without a GM. It is hard for the older commissioners to let go of that. I am a strong proponent of the manager and have fought to give him full responsibility over all town employees. Just like clubs, I am a proponent of the Board’s role as being one to advise the management. Then, we hold the manager accountable and trust that position.
Highlands also has a disconnect between the people of the town and the Board. Several things have occurred over the past year that have given the residents of Highlands reason not to fully trust the Board. Dealing with taxpayer money, we have to be transparent. Like other communities, we are dealing with hard economic times. I believe good business leads to a vibrant town, and I fully support our business and merchants and want to do what is best for them. I have recently supported a way-finding signage program in town to help businesses located off of Main Street. I am opposed to the excessive regulations that hurt business. There is certainly a balance between keeping the small-town feel of Highlands and regulations.
Q. Besides your service as a town commissioner, is Highlands Country Club involved in community affairs in any other way?
A. Highlands CC is very involved in a number of community organizations. Our membership takes a very active role in the community and generously supports many of our local nonprofits. Bobby Jones was an early member at HCC and to this day, we host an event called the Bob Jones Tournament. It is a great event where former Walker Cup players are brought in to compete. Over the years, this event has raised more than $3 million dollars for our hospital. The club annually will host three Rotary Club events that raise money for our two local clubs. Finally, HCC will partner with the Highlands Chamber of Commerce each fall and host the annual Culinary Weekend kickoff event. During the off-season, HCC has proudly hosted Leadership Highlands networking events, Chamber of Commerce Board retreats and Highlands Literacy Council socials. Our mission statement clearly states, HCC will remain an active and responsible participant in the Town of Highlands.
Personally, I serve as President of Leadership Highlands, President-Elect of the Rotary Club of Highlands and the Highlands Chamber of Commerce. I am Vice President of the Highlands Literacy Council and VP of the Western NC Turfgrass Association. I was appointed in 2010 to the Macon County Economic Development Commission.