Hosting its fifth U.S. Open this June will add new prominence to how The Olympic Club stands as America’s oldest and most diverse athletic club.
As City Club Manager Jay Bedsworth leads a top-to-bottom-floor tour of The Olympic Club’s ten-story clubhouse in downtown San Francisco, he provides a running commentary of benchmark figures that speak to the scale and scope of activity in the building:
800 members use this rooftop fitness solarium every day…we get $900,000 a year in lodging revenues from our 18 guest rooms, and the occupancy rate is up to 81%…we have 1,400 non-resident members, and they account for 20% of the room nights…we take in $850,000 a year in sports team entry fees…for handball, we still have about 150 members who play…here’s our Sports Shop, it sells over $250,000 of logo’d items each year…
Occasionally even Bedsworth, whose family has been in club and hotel management for three generations, can’t help but acknowlege the enormity of some of the numbers, knowing how they compare to most operations. We take in $800,000 a year in locker room fees…we have 4,200 lockers in this building alone…lockers are such a big deal here, after we remodeled this clubhouse in 2006 and had to reallocate the locker assignments through a lottery, we had the Statistics Chair from Cal-Berkeley validate the fairness of the process…
Bedsworth is not being boastful with these facts and comments; they’re all needed to help describe the full range of what the city club involves. And after his tour is over and you realize that another one, at the Lakeside property out by the Pacific Ocean, is still to be taken and will involve equally impressive numbers, the proportions of all that’s involved with managing The Olympic Club start to approach the realm of staggering.
If the sheer size of it all weren’t enough, there’s also the responsibility that comes with being entrusted with not only the traditions of America’s oldest private-member athletic club, but also one of the country’s most storied golfing venues. Another chapter to that story will be added this June, when The Olympic Club hosts its fifth U.S. Open on its Lake Course. And while it might seem that loading a major tournament onto all that The Olympic Club team handles on a daily basis would just elicit shoulder shrugs and a chorus of “OK, add it to the list,” everyone is acutely aware of how much grander and more immense the Open has become compared to the last time it came to the Lake Course, in 1998.
“The scope of the tournament has expanded dramatically [since 1998],” says Jay Friedrichs, the club’s President for 2012. “For the last two Opens that were here, our main parking lot was enough to accommodate the merchandise tent, but it will be too big to fit there now—we’ve had to move it to a fairway on our Ocean Course, and we will also have to use a big proportion of [the Ocean Course] for the loading and storage areas, generators, corporate hospitality, media, and other supporting equipment that’s now required.”
And While You’re At It…
The Ocean Course will also be the focus of another “little project” that will further occupy The Olympic Club team this year. The Lakeside property (which the club acquired in 1918, after the former Lakeside Golf Club fell on hard times) provides 45 holes of golf in total—18 on the Lake Course, 18 on the Ocean Course and 9 on a charming, par-3, 9-hole Cliffs Course that overlooks the Pacific and was created in 1994.
While all three courses enjoy spectacular settings with easy accessibility from San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area, they are also located in a climate zone that presented the perfect storm of conditions (fog, wind, sun, little rain and temperatures rarely over 62º) for nematod-related damage to their poa annua greens. The Lake Course’s greens were converted to bentgrass in 2008, and rather than subject members to a second round of disruptions, The Olympic Club decided to renovate its Ocean Course greens this year, through a $2 million project that will keep the course closed after the Open until September.
But even with the extra challenges, and scrutiny, that 2012 will bring, Friedrichs knows The Olympic Club has a management team in place that’s more than up to the tasks. “This is a complicated operation, even without special events or renovation projects,” he says. “We have two campuses with substantial clubhouses and athletic facilities, including multiple golf courses. Our elite athletes and teams of all ages compete in over 21 sports, locally, nationally and internationally.
“To make that all work, you need superb management,” Friedrichs adds, “and we are very blessed to have veteran professionals who can take all that needs to be done and run with it. We survey our membership to help identify needed projects and policies, and then the Board looks at that information and tees up the ones we feel have the greatest priority. But let there be no doubt—[the management team] plays the bigger role, to make sure everything is executed properly.
“And while my Presidency has only just begun,” Friedrichs says, “I already know I’m not going to have to worry about getting calls from club managers asking for my help so something can get done. Across the board, the staff’s attitude is ‘Can do, will do—we’ve got it covered.’ ”
Even with those proven abilities and attitudes, the Olympic Club management team, along with 400 co-workers, have been working on new approaches to help them perform even better as all of the events, regular and special, unfold in 2012. These steps were not instituted expressly for the U.S. Open or Ocean Course greens renovation. Rather, they coincided with the arrival in 2010 of a new General Manager/Chief Operating Officer, Greg DeRosa, who was most recently with Cherry Hills Country Club in the Denver suburbs, but also has an extensive background in athletic and sports club management.
DeRosa says he’s “an acronym guy”—he thinks his affinity for a by-the-letters approach harkens back to an advertising campaign by BASF, the global chemical company, that made a strong impression on him. “Nobody knows what BASF stands for, but they kept using the tagline, ‘At BASF, we don’t make blank, we make blank better.’ That really stuck with me; the acronoym didn’t have to be especially catchy, but it did have to be associated with something you remembered. And I thought it was especially inspiring and fitting for being in the club business, where our jobs are all about making people’s lives better.”
Now, there’s a new addition—“VASA”—to The Olympic Club management lexicon. The letters stand for “Vision, Alignment, Standards and Accountability”—and collectively they provide the direction, structure and drive that DeRosa wants to instill permanently within all areas of the club’s operation, to not only ensure continued excellence, but also keep The Olympic Club at the forefront of industry leadership and innovation.
“Everything starts with vision,” he says. “You have to have that, to keep pushing the boundaries beyond the norm. The Olympic Club has evolved tremendously in 152 years, and it’s been because people here have had an uncanny ability to see beyond ‘what is’ to imagine ‘what could be.’
“The alignment part is a no-brainer,” DeRosa continues. “You have to get everyone to commit to doing things together. In a perfect world, all constituencies—9,000 members and 400 co-workers–would be properly aligned.
“The standards are needed to make sure everyone knows what’s right—left undocumented, how would you know you’re doing something wrong?” he says. “If pineapple is supposed to be cut into quarter-inch cubes, we have to make it clear that’s the barometer by which performance will be measured.
“And accountability provides the checks-and-balance system to gauge how we’re functioning, and to put needed corrections or confirmations into motion, in the other three areas.”
While management-by-acronym can always run the risk of inflicting a terminal case of “MEGO” (My Eyes Glaze Over) throughout an organization, DeRosa’s management cohorts say they have found VASA to be a useful and refreshing technique that has helped to place a renewed focus on achieving top performance within their various areas of responsibility—a focus, they note, that will only need to get sharper this year.
“We have a lot of employees who have been here a long time—and that’s good,” notes Head Golf Professional Chris Stein. “But that can also mean you run the risk of letting the standards just be defined as ‘the way it’s always been.’ It’s been good to take a new look at how we do things, and in many cases record standards and procedures in a binder, for areas like customer service at our driving range, or how to properly prepare for an event like a member-guest, to make sure it’s a positive experience for everyone involved, including the staff.”
In a presentation last fall to some of the country’s top assistant superintendents at the Green Start Academy, Pat Finlen, The Olympic Club’s Director of Golf Course Maintenance Operations, told the group why VASA is the kind of technique that leads to better management and performance. “You should want to work in an environment where your GM is asking questions, and you’re having to provide the answers, versus one where everyone’s just allowed to do whatever they want,” Finlen said.
At that meeting, Finlen also provided further insight into how the “can do” approach has helped The Olympic Club excel for so long and on such a large scale, when he described that much of the labor pool at his club is unionized. “You can look at a union, and the work rules and cost structures that come with that arrangement, as an obstacle,” he told the group. “Or, you can embrace it all and learn to manage with it, just as you learn to manage what your GM or your Greens Committee or the weather might bring your way.”
Perhaps the strongest testimony for the value of VASA—and the renewed energy and sense of purpose it has helped to infuse into The Olympic Club as it gears up for an especially memorable year—comes from Jay Bedsworth, who served as the club’s interim General Manager while the search for a new GM/COO was conducted, and presented a strong candidacy for the position himself.
After his first meeting with Greg DeRosa and his “thousand-watt personality,” Bedsworth says, “it took me three minutes to know I could work with him, and 10 minutes to know I wanted to. The clear message was that we were going to shoot for constant innovation, and that anyone who had an idea for the ‘next great thing’ should bring it on.”
That increased wattage has spread out to shine new light on areas that will help The Olympic Club stay properly positioned for future generations. For the club’s waiting list, a closer look at the application process revealed o
bstacles that could be removed to make it easier to obtain needed sponsorships. More is also being done to make junior members (every membership within a family is individual) feel less restricted and give them more access (upon demonstrating ability and responsibility) to the golf courses and facilities, so they will be more inclined to actively keep the club in their lives during the critical ‘tween and teen years.
“We’re absolutely moving in a better direction,” DeRosa feels. “I think the vision bucket is full, and the alignment piece is pretty much in place—so now it’s all about proper execution according to established standards and responsibilities.
“The clock is spinning towards some unique opportunities that we’ll have this year,” he adds, “to show the world what a special place The Olympic Club is, and at the same time give our members an amazing experience. But it’s only going to spin faster [as the Open approaches]. This is our chance to elevate our game to the top. I know we’ll be ready.
It might be surprising to learn that the most popular food at a club so focused on athletics is an elongated, rectangular hamburger served on a hot dog bun. But then you remember this is The Olympic Club, so there must be a lot more to it. And there is.
As featured in “The Club Menu: Signature Dishes from America’s Premier Golf Clubs,” the selection for The Olympic Club, the Burger Dog, is described as “not fast food, but quality, quick food you can eat on the run.” Prepared at the club’s golf course and driving-range snack shacks by crews trained and supervised by Candy Parrish, who carries on an over-50-year-old tradition started by her father, Bill, the Burger Dog starts with a mixture of ground chuck and lean sirloin that’s molded into its special shape and then cooked fresh (never having been frozen) as soon as it’s ordered, over gas grills at very hot temperatures and in very quick fashion (four minutes). The Burger Dog is then served on a toasted, eight-inch hot dog bun and tucked into a glassine bag for easy portability—an especially appreciated feature when a full complement of cheese and fixings are part of the package.
As many as 160 made-to-order Burger Dogs can be sold in a day, according to The Club Menu—a number that grows into the thousands when The Olympic Club hosts tournaments, as it will this June for the U.S. Open. “Each time I play with a guest,” club member Rick Riess is quoted in the book, “I don’t know if there’s more anticipation for the course, or the Burger Dog.”
PHOTO BY GEORGE OLSON and COURTESY RICH CLARKSON & ASSOCIATES, LLC, DENVER, COLO. REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE CLUB MENU (WWW.PINDARPRESS.COM), COPYRIGHT 2009 BY SCOTT SAVLOV AND JON RIZZI. THE CLUB MENU IS NOW ALSO AVAILABLE ON AMAZON.COM