The patron saint of public golf.” That’s how they describe Mike Keiser, the most prolific and respected golf course developer of the last 20 years. The visionary behind the five courses at Bandon Dunes, Oregon – four of which are listed in the Top 15 public courses in America – with 14 others completed and 10 under development around the world, Mike turns nothingness into gorgeousness. Learn as he explains beating adversity with creativity; outdoor over indoor meetings; testing ideas before rejecting them; the mistake of guessing instead of asking; and the surprising benefit of rivals – all in this wonderfully insightful conversation with Rob Cornilles. As a bonus, we also get some interesting facts and lesson about golf – the real golf.
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Mike Keiser | Golf’s Wind Walker
Do you want to know who Donald Trump competed with long before he became president? Meet this episode’s Game Face exec Mike Keiser, the patron saint of public golf. In this episode, you’ll read a rare interview with a man who built and sold one of the top greeting card companies in America then used his wealth to pursue his passion. Lots of people’s passion, developing six of Golfweek magazine’s Top 60 Modern-Day Courses in the US but don’t worry if golf is not your thing. This interview fills anyone’s bag with lessons from an influencer who hasn’t lost his humility and grace. Mike Keiser, golf’s game-changer.
I am thrilled to have my friend which is a label that I’m grateful for. My friend and someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time. I’ve been fortunate enough to have an association with him both publicly and privately. Mike Keiser who’s joined us on Game Face Execs. A name that is well-known throughout the golf world and throughout the sports world for his innovation and creativity. He is truly a transformer and a game-changer. Mike, thanks for joining us.
It’s nice to be with you, Rob.
Mike has been kind enough to join us from his home. We’re grateful for that. Mike, we have had an association for many years now. I’m a little older but you’re still as young as ever. I want to take the audience back to when we first met and talk a little bit about the conditions that brought us together. It was a pleasure to meet you the first time under the conditions that we did. That was back in the State of Oregon where our company, Game Face, was based in the Portland area. I raised my family in the Oregon community. You’re very familiar with the Oregon Coast so we’ll talk about that here. I was serving on a particular board that had a plot of land on the Oregon Coast that was of particular interest to you. Could you tell a little bit about how that story unfolded?
I assume it’s okay to mention that the owner of a big parcel of land was Camp Meriwether which was a Boy Scout summer camp. They had a big section of land right on the ocean that, for various reasons, they never used. They use areas in North, South, and East of it but never this big parcel. Rob and Matt’s idea was if that became a golf course, it would make money to increase the operations and day-to-day outreach of Cub Scouts. They called me to sell me on this site and it was their salesmanship plus visiting the site which is magnificent.
It had about a half a mile of ocean frontage in the Northern Oregon Coast. I immediately saw that their plan was a good plan and spent a lot of time and some money trying to figure out how we would fit eighteen holes which are called a routing on this great site. Sadly, we had a great routing but it included 2 to 3 holes on what turned out to be wetlands. We didn’t have enough space to move it. What went from an exciting fundraising project for the Boy Scouts of America became, not a failure, but we couldn’t make eighteen holes work. It was big enough for fifteen holes but not eighteen holes. My judgment was that fifteen holes wouldn’t do it.
I want to give credit also to Tim Boyle who is the CEO and Chairman of Columbia Sportswear. You were golfing with him at some point in Oregon. Tim has always been a great supporter of Boy Scouts of America, at least in the Northwest. He was the one that thought of introducing you to me. I was the Chairman of that board and Matt Devore was the Chief Scout and CEO of the scouting organization in that area. Tim introduced us and we had a good 1 to 1.5 years run at it, didn’t we, Mike?
It was almost to the point where we’d hired a golf course architect, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. They were excited and everyone is crestfallen to find that unbeknownst to us right in the middle of this beautiful site was a wetland and you can’t move wetlands so that did us in.
As we walked that site, that was a unique experience. I would say to my audience who are a lot of them are fans of yours, Mike Keiser. If they have the opportunity to walk a course with you as I did, they would learn so much not only about the game of golf but about the vision that a talented developer like you brings to the game and how you embellished the game in a good way because of that vision. Your connection to Oregon started in the mid-1990s.
I started even more than that. I began buying properties in the late ’80s. I didn’t open Bandon Dunes, the first of now five golf courses until May 1st, 1999. My real involvement with Oregon and the Oregon Coast started in 1999, but I started buying land for it in the late ‘80s.
You gave me the privilege of walking those five courses at Bandon Dunes with you as we were contemplating a transaction upon the Northern Coast of Oregon as you’ve described. You said, “Let’s go down the Bandon. Let’s walk those courses together and I’ll show you how I put together these types of courses.” That was a once in a lifetime experience to walk Bandon Dunes with Mike Keiser.You're better off with a pathway through the wilderness than braving it on your own. Click To Tweet
I’m glad you had fun, Rob.
I had a ball but I’ve got to tell you, I was tired at the end of the day because you insisted on walking the whole thing.
Remember, it’s a walking sport.
Talk a little bit about that, Mike, because when I pass golf courses in my travels and even in the area where I now live, many people are in carts and some people are enabled to walk but they may have some limitations physically but you always walk courses. Could you tell us a little bit about how that began for you? Is that for you the natural way of golfing?
That is the natural way of golfing. It all starts in Scotland back in the fifteenth century before Columbus discovered America. Scotsman, sheepherders were playing golf in the dunes in the linksland of Northern Scotland. There were no carts and they walked with their shepherd’s crook, hitting stones into small holes and crevasses. That’s how golf started and has continued to this day in Scotland, Ireland and I would include England as well where golf is a walking sport.
America post-World War II discovered the electric and gas-powered golf carts and married that into the game of golf that is played in America. That was a decidedly contrarian choice that American golf made to leave walking only Scotland, Ireland and England going one way, which has preserved its golf as it was meant to be a walking only nature. They introduced golf carts to golf, which in my opinion, has harmed the golf ever since World War II and they began building golf cart courses. A handful of private clubs that have been walking only ever since World War II most caved in to the pressure of the golf cart makers and with the promise of making more money for the pro shops, club-after-club, facility-after-facility went to the electric golf cart. The bane of existence for those who believe that Scotland knows how to play golf.
On those courses that you described, they’re known as links courses. For those who aren’t as familiar with the game of golf, I know that may sound sacrilegious to you that someone would not be as familiar with it as anyone else, but I talk about links courses and what attracts you to that type of course because it is unforgiving and sometimes relentless to golf on such a course as that.
Linksland is what the Scottish shepherds found in Northern Scotland way back when. It was the land that linked the beach which is not arable and is worthless for agriculture. Linksland link the beach with arable pasture land. It was the land between the beach and pasture land. It was poor in quality that nothing agricultural was done on it back in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th centuries. It was simply referred to as the common area, the linksland and because no one owned it, the shepherds could roam around it and make a game of it, which they did. The interesting thing about Bandon Dunes is we found what I would call linksland, beautiful dunes with minimal agricultural characteristics. Since no one wanted it, I was able to buy it for a small amount of money and develop the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on what became 3,000 acres of agriculturally worthless linksland like Scotland.
I remember when we walked the course up on the Northern Coast of Oregon on that land that the Scout’s own, you kept saying to us repeatedly, “There has to be sand here. If there’s no sand, I can’t build the course that I want.” That, along with the natural terrain, made me constantly think about, “This man likes difficult golf.” I’m not a good golfer, Mike. I want it as easy as a course as I can get but there are some life lessons for young people and professionals about tackling the difficult or doing the hard things. You might have some thoughts about that. How the natural terrain of links is like life and business.
It is. I would refute your statement that it’s more difficult. The fact that it’s built on sand dunes doesn’t make it more difficult. What makes it more difficult are the windy days because it’s coastal whether it’s got at Ireland or Oregon. There are days on the coast when the wind whips up. The Scotsman says, “When there’s no wind, there’s no golf,” which is to say the golf is a lot easier when there is no wind. When there is wind, deal with it. In that way, your observation was correct. We walked in on a windy day and you concluded rightly that playing in a 30 mile an hour wind makes golf challenging. Some people rise to the occasion, others cave in and say, “It’s too windy.”
Could I surmise then that good golfers on a windy course not only require skill but they also have to hope for some luck as well?
They need to exercise creativity. An example, if you’re playing a hole into a stiff 30 mile an hour wind, a lot of golfers hit a high ball, high drive or a high three would. The good links players know that if you keep it low to the ground, it will bore through the wind rather than willowy wade blowing off because it’s too high. Using your creativity to come up with ways to deal with a windy golf course is part of the fun challenge of golf and links courses.
Hearing you talk about that, Mike, makes me think of what might be a dichotomy about the game especially the game that you enjoy and promote. That is you go back to the traditional side of golf. You bring us back to the way golf was meant to be played and yet to do that requires tremendous innovation. To be a traditionalist doesn’t mean that you’re uncreative. It means that you have to be more creative in nowadays world than perhaps others. Am I on the right track here?
I would put it this way. Before Bandon Dunes proved the popularity of links golf in America, there wasn’t Scottish-Irish golf in the dunes in America. Those few that I would list are all private clubs on the East Coast where the typical golfer can’t get in or can’t get there, or can’t get on the course. Most of America is golf cart courses or tree-lined fairways, definitely not on the ocean and sand dunes as they are in Scotland and Ireland. That’s the product that is different than what is being sold in America up until Bandon Dunes took some courage to present it to the American golfer and they liked it as much as they do in Scotland and Ireland.
I would think that your readers would enjoy hearing that it’s always good to have a model. If you know where you’re going and it’s going to look roughly like this to have a target or a model that you’re seeking. I had a model in the form of the links courses in Scotland. Royal Dornoch up in the Scottish Highlands in particular was my favorite model because it’s extremely remote like Bandon Dunes. Every day, all summer, tour buses full of American golfers rolled in and out, and they went to play golf in this magnificent golf course called Royal Dornoch. That was my model. Figuring if tour buses would come to Northern Scotland, it would go to Southern Oregon.
You talk about a model, Mike. I’ve always thought that you had an unusual vision. Are you suggesting that visions have to come from somewhere or something?
The cardinal rule, but in general, if you can have a model of where you want to go, you will be better served. It’s basically a pathway. You’re better with a pathway through the wilderness than braving it on your own. You give me too much credit. I had a model. I played it numerous times, watched it and it was Royal Dornoch.
When I have a vision or a model of that, which I’m trying to either replicate or create with my twist. Can you describe for us a little bit about how that process works, at least for you? In your successful career, seeing something as one thing but executing on it and making it a reality is completely another ball game. How does one successfully go about it as you’ve done over the years?
If you don’t have a model, you’ll flail away. As I’ve already said, I had a model, Royal Dornoch. To make the business case for that, is I said to anyone who would listen like friends, family or business, “I want to build something like Royal Dornoch in the United States.” I picked the State of Oregon as having fabulous beaches and linksland. I’d like to go there. Even though that’s remote for most people from New York City, Atlanta, etc., I think that like Royal Dornoch, they will come. I made the case which to me was worth trying.
Frankly, Rob, almost no one thought it was a good idea. They all said, “That’s an interesting vision you have, Mike, but there’s no way we’ll finance it. There’s no way we’ll go see it. There’s no way it will work. It is simply too remote.” Forgetting that I made a big point of Royal Dornoch is at least as remote in the Highlands of Scotland as the Southern Coast of Oregon. That didn’t matter. I was presenting a different product.
My model was different than what people were used to because it was different. They said, “We won’t finance nor support it. We think you’re crazy.” If you find yourself in that situation, you need financing to do it on your own whether it’s bank financing, private equity, venture capital or your own money. It comes down to who’s going to take the risk. It’s the “visionary” who may not have this great vision but able to come up with the funding to get it started, at least.
I want to share with the audience something that David McLay-Kidd said and he was your first architect at Bandon Dunes. I know that he worked with you on other courses including Sand Valley in Wisconsin. Let me share with everyone what he said about you. He said, “Mike has an ability to draw out of people much more than they thought they were capable of or more than they were capable of.” I respect the fact that you have to get finance and you have to go sell the bank or the private equity firm, or what have you. Whether it’s the financers or an architect who perhaps has never been to the State of Oregon who doesn’t even know how to find it or your family and friends. How do you go about communicating, Mike? How do you draw out of people either that is dormant in them or they don’t even have now, but through your communication, your expression of vision, they want to follow you?
The only thing I can lay claim to was knowing that American golf architects were by and large illiterate when it came to links golf. Early on, I decided I wouldn’t try to convince Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, or Jack Nicklaus what a links course is. I decided to use someone who knew links courses and there are not many people in the world at that time who knew much about links courses. Up came David Kidd and his brother Jimmy and they said, “We’ve heard you want to build links courses. We don’t think it’s that crazy. We work at Gleneagles Golf Resort in Scotland. We summer every year at Machrihanish. We know what a links course is. We are your man.” I hired them as visionaries to join me because there was no one else who knew enough about golf to do it. It turned out they were brilliant. I don’t think they knew at that time what a good site it was. They certainly didn’t know what a good job they would do with input from me and others as they developed it.Don't talk about your accomplishments. Prove yourself by doing them and let others talk about their success. Click To Tweet
If someone has met you or perhaps watched an interview with you, they wouldn’t know but Mike Keiser is not a bombastic fiery pound-on-the-desk type of leader. If you’ll excuse the description, you’re a gentle giant in our industry. Your demeanor, when I first met you in the years that I’ve known you, has always been one of your greatest qualities. I’m hearing from you that persuasion and influencing of another person or parties is not about being the most vociferous person perhaps in the room or the person who is getting people to submit to your will. There has to be some gentle persuasion along the way. Has that always been your nature or have you learned that’s the best way to operate your business?
I would say it’s always been part of the atmosphere because my three brothers and I picked that up from my dad who was above all else matters. He was a World War II pilot war hero. He went to the Navy Cross. He never bragged about it nor talked about it. We learned from him that you don’t talk about your accomplishments, you prove yourself by doing them and let others talk about their success. You never tout and engage in braggadocio and loudness. You lead the way and let others notice that it’s a good path. I owe all of that to my dad. You’re right to pick that out as a characteristic of great leadership or even good leadership, modesty is a big factor.
It seems so much in short supply now. We’re in a business culture where it seems like we are encouraged to constantly toot our horn whether it’s through social media or other types of media. It’s about, “Look at me, see what I’ve done, see what I’m eating for lunch now. Aren’t I great?” Is that difficult for you to watch? Do you not pay much attention to that type of personality?
I ignore that kind of personality. I try to ignore those people who are bombastic and egotistical. I keep noticing that many successful business people are low-key even when they talk about themselves. I’m thinking of Charles Schwab who grew up at Madison. He’s a great golfer having been a caddie. You can even talk about my vision because he does and talking about Charles Schwab and why it makes sense to work with him. Even when he’s talking about himself, he does so in a modest way. Accomplishments speak louder than egotistical statements. There are a lot of people who follow your correct system that people keep a low profile and that your deeds speak for you.
That is a struggle that I’m going to say nowaday’s generation of business leaders or up-and-coming business leaders have because in this world of social media and everyone knows what everyone else is doing 24/7. It’s almost a voyeuristic world that we live in. The persona that you carry and the style that you’re known for is refreshing. I don’t want to say it’s old school. I wish it would become more prevalent now.
It is old school. I don’t know where my dad got it but I know he felt that a Rockefeller was much maligned for the wrong reasons. He was very church-going. My dad used Rockefeller as an example of dutiful tithing and that was part of the old school that we saved 10% of what you made and you gave at least 10% away to those who were needing which is part and parcel to that old-fashioned lead by example, not by your mouth.
You and I have spent a lot of time together when you have talked about your father. We met because of our mutual affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America. Your father was a big scouter if I’m not mistaken.
You’re right to recollect. He was an Eagle Scout and was dismayed when his sons, led by me as the oldest son, did not follow him. We began Boy Scouts but we didn’t have the gumption to go ahead and get our Eagle Scout Badge. I was one of many disappointments.
I’m like you, Mike. I joined scouting as a youth. I did not finish it but I do have three sons and I’m proud to say that all three of them became Eagle Scouts.
They must’ve had a good dad.
They have a good mom. That’s the key.
It’s good going. Three for three is good.
Mike, about your youth. You were a caddie when you were young. Being a golf caddie taught you a lot of important lessons that you have since passed on to younger generations. We’d love to know more about how being a golf caddie shaped your character? Why do you feel it’s important that young people perhaps look into that? How have you created avenues for them to take advantage of those opportunities?
Rob, caddying is all about making money while carrying a bag. My fruitful years were 10 to 14. At ages 10 through 14, all young people have no idea about their abilities. I quickly learned that in caddying, you’re selling yourself. The proposition is this. I’m assigned to someone like Rob for eighteen holes but the only way I can get Rob to reuse me the next time he plays golf is to do a good job. Kids, both sales guys and not sales guys have to learn that or they’re the ones who no one ever chooses to be a caddie. The basic, “Here I am. I’m ten. I’m with this adult who I’ve never met for four hours. How do I get that adult to say, ‘Are you available on Thursday because I’d like you to caddie for me again?’” That was the sales proposition for all these young people at East Aurora Country Club and every other club throughout the world. We caddie at an early age. It’s about selling yourself.
Thus your disdain for golf carts because it’s difficult to use a caddie when you’ve got a cart instead, isn’t it?
I think about the time spent between a young boy or young girl and that golfer and the minimal but impactful mentoring that can take place during that time. I’m sure you have seen golfers who lend good advice to caddies. It’s almost free advice. The caddie is getting paid to take that advice and to have that one-on-one is a remarkable experience.
My worst experience caddying was my best learning experience. When I was twelve, the Champion of East Aurora Country Club, Bud Dow, decided he would use me. He had heard good things from other people and said, “Mike, I’ve never used you before. You can caddie for me.” We took eight holes to get used to each other and on hole number nine, for the first time, he said, “Mike, you’ve been watching me, what should I hit?” He was 150 yards from the ninth green after his good drive. I had no idea. I knew that I should have an idea because I’d been with him for eight holes but I had no real good idea what Bud Dow should hit from 150 yards. I said, “4 or 5-iron.”
I said that because that’s what I would have hit. He looked at me and said, “Give me the eight.” He hit an 8-iron 8 feet away and never used me as a caddie again. His advice after he hit his eight-iron to the green and it works in all situations to this day was, “If you don’t know, don’t guess.” I’ve asked that of employees throughout my business career. One of the great signs of a good employee in a future good manager is when you don’t know, ask. Don’t guess. Bud Dow taught me that with one 8-iron.
That’s a great story. There are many applications in all aspects of life.
That’s the tendency for most people. They say, “I guess it’s a 4-iron because that’s what I would do.” “I’m not you. I’m Bud Dow. I’m the champion. I hit it a lot farther and you should have known that. If you didn’t know that, you should have turned it back to me and said, I don’t know.”
My grandfather who lived to be almost 102 years old said to me that the three most powerful words in business sometimes are simply, “I don’t know.”
It’s Cardinal Rule number one. It’s your willingness to say, I don’t know.A past success finances the next vision. Click To Tweet
That position of being a caddie had a great impact on your life. You’ve created opportunities for more young people to have that experience. Can you share with the audience a little bit about how you’ve made that a reality for so many kids?
It’s as simple as having five golf courses in Bandon and other courses elsewhere. We don’t have carts. We are walking only because most of our golfers are eager not to carry their own bag but to employ someone. We have tens of thousands per year rounds that need caddies. At Bandon Dunes, we have 350 caddies. Many of whom are kids and many of whom win scholarships to go to college. It’s called the Chick Evans Scholarship Foundation. There are 1,200 kids in college with a full ride.
Mike, we talked about Bandon. I want to get into a little bit of the granularity of how that project became a reality because as I say, I’m a native Oregonian. As one who grew up in the northern part of the state and the Portland area, Coos Bay which is the largest semi-big city, close to Bandon Dunes growing up, and nobody went to Coos Bay. You only went there if you were raised there. It was not a destination spot. Granted in the late ‘80s and ’90s, I was no longer a child but I can understand people’s puzzlement and dismay when they heard from you that you wanted to go to that part of Oregon and build a world-famous golf resort. There had to be pushback even locally as well because you were a disruptor. You had some opposition as you and I experienced in Northern Oregon when we try to drive that project on that scouting property. Can you share with us a little bit more about the opposition that you faced and what it took to overcome it?
There are two types of opposition, the harder to overcome where the environmentalist is saying this is precious even though no one even knows it’s there, “This is too precious to build a golf course, you can’t.” There’s the environmental push back which was significant. It took years for my partner at that time and master architect, Howard McKee, to reason and horse trade with the environmental group. The other source of negativity with all the locals who shook their head and said, “If you want to do a foolish thing, Mike, go out there and spend $15 million building a golf course because no one ever comes here to Bandon much less to play golf. It’s windy. Who would come?”
I remember with that group, I’d already passed that bridge with the model of Royal Dornoch. None of them had ever heard of Royal Dornoch. The best I could get from them is you’re wrong. There are enough examples in Scotland and Ireland that people will drive ten hours from San Francisco or five hours from Portland to play a links golf course. They shook their heads and said in their body language, “You have to be an idiot if you think that’s true.” The environmentalists were a harder opposition group but I’d say the casual naysayers who were all over the board in terms of friends, financiers, bankers, etc., were uniform in their skepticism that that made any sense whatsoever. In a way, they were bigger critics from the environmental groups.
Mike, every salesperson faces opposition, objections as we call it. You can either walk away and say, “This is too hard. The objections are too great, too high. That hurdle is too high to get over,” or you can patiently work through it and you did the latter. Was your appetite and desire to build this course because you knew it was a moneymaker or because it would be the preeminent course in the United States? Some might argue broader than that. What was it that continued to drive you forward to work with these individuals and how did you work with them?
Rob, this is not your perfect answer but it is true. I went forward because I had the money in hand which I could lose without going bankrupt to build the resort. I’d been dependent on other financial sources. I assume that I have no money. I couldn’t have got a bank to lend even 80% of the project because I’m sure I could have raised from reluctant friends the downstroke. I have a number of banker friend and they said, “There’s no way we would have lent you a dime on your project no matter what your equity stake was. It was too dumb.” The only reason I went forward is I had the money from the sale of our greeting card company three years earlier. If it hadn’t been for that, it never would’ve gotten built. In that case, the lesson would be a past success, finances the next vision, which had no certainty about succeeding.
I will say to our audience, Mike Keiser is a saint in Southern Oregon because what you have done for that community, not just the economic impact, which is perhaps they’re measurable, but also you’ve given people opportunities there. You’ve given them jobs, you’ve sustained families, and you’ve put it on the map. There is no question about it. People come from all over the world. How many hours from the Portland International Airport?
Four and a half to five hours depending on how fast you drive.
Mike, if you’ll allow me, I want to share a brief story with the audience. I think you’ll remember this. When you and I walked that course or the five courses of Bandon Dunes which was a once in a lifetime experience to be able to do that with you and to hear your description of why you did the things that you did there. The obstacles, not only the community obstacles but also the geographic obstacles and the terrains, etc. At the end of the day, I was exhausted, you were fine. Finally, we were picked up by someone in a van from the resort. It was one of your new employees. Along with Matt Devore, the three of us were wearing baseball caps and sunglasses most of the day because it was a blistery Oregon day.
As this young man picked us up in the van and began to take us back to the resort, I struck up a conversation with him and I said, “How long have you worked here at Bandon Dunes?” He said, “I started two weeks ago.” I said, “I bet you’re feeling lucky to get a job like this.” He says, “You wouldn’t believe how fortunate I feel. This is a great place to work. It’s such an honor to be able to drive Mr. Keiser back to the resort. In fact, everyone is jealous of me back at the resort that I get to drive Mr. Keiser and also you.” I thought, “What’s he talking about? Why would he be talking that it’s a pleasure to drive me?” He says, “It’s a pleasure to drive you as well, Mr. Wahlberg.” I was somewhat into the skies that day. He thought that you had better, more impressive guests with you.
Mark Wahlberg is a good golfer. I played with him.
You’ve played with him. Why would they think that I would be him?
I don’t know.
I want to ask you about the fact that you have a family business. You have brought your sons into your work. They are accomplished developers and designers themselves. I’ve met your sons and like you, they’ve inherited that DNA of gentlemaness and dignity. A lot of people have been in family-run businesses, contemplating bringing their sons or daughters into a business, or joining mom or dad in the business. Many times that fails. That doesn’t work out. Why did you make that decision? How did you allow that to happen? Why is it working well for you and the Keiser family?
My elder son is Michael. My younger son is Chris. They both are avid golfers. They both had been to Bandon Dunes before they were employee age. When Michael was in college, he expressed some interest in going to Bandon and working in the summer. I said, “We can do that, Mike, but I need you to know this. If you go there, you’re going to get the job that is least desirable, the one at the bottom. You’re going to raise your hand and say, ‘I want that job that no one else wants to do.’ You’re going to arrive always early. It’s not to be on time, you need to be at least fifteen minutes early. I want you to continue to always be open to tasks that no one else wants to do.”
He started at the bottom out there and stayed there for the first two years. He raised his hand and did a number of customer-oriented things that enriched his experience and helped the guests. In observing other families, they so often start their kids at the executive level with no experience managing people or doing things on their own. I would say, my son, Michael, with many other examples, paved the way because he was willing to do the jobs that no one wanted to do.
Over time, he learned the skills necessary to take on executive responsibilities. He’s a name of his own. What was the first course that he designed? Wasn’t that in Wisconsin? David Kidd was involved in the second course.
He did the second. Ben Crenshaw did the first course and Michael worked with both of them in developing those sites into some good golf courses. Michael did that because he had experience with Bandon Dunes. I forget which courses he participated in on the ground but he had ground-level experience going into being in-charge role at Sand Valley, Wisconsin.
You talked about Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw who have been your partners for many years. I don’t want to limit it to five individuals, I know there are many more. If I was to be a fly on the wall to watch you all interact and communicate with one another in any business operation, what would I learn about sales watching all of you “nontraditional” salespeople when you’re trying to get a project started or get a project to completion? How is there influencing and persuasion going on in those internal meetings?
Letting them know based on your own responses that all ideas are welcome. All ideas are not great but the only way we can sample them is first to hear them. Second is to look for opportunities to test as many of them as we can. In golf course development, it’s fairly easy. In all of our meetings, we’re outside specifically targeting one aspect of one hole where 1 of the 6 of us would say, “What if that were a little higher?” Ben Crenshaw would say, “It should be lower.”
In many cases, Rob, we could watch the bulldozer come and make the bump bigger, smaller or wider. It’s a good microcosm because whenever possible, you test ideas instead of saying, “I don’t like it.” Much better to say, “That’s interesting. It has merit. Let’s at least test it to see.” In the golf course, as long as you’re okay with spending a lot of time on site, testing is easy. You can do it in the sand. Another good attribute about sand is it’s easily moved. Unlike heavy dirt and worst is rock. Moving sand is easy.
Mike, you talked about going out on-site and having those conversations and even those small debates onsite, it reminds me of an old Japanese term called Kaizen. Kaizen is when a group of workers who might have totally different perspectives and experiences will meet onsite to look at a project or a problem that they’re experiencing on their assembly line. They will recognize that we need to see the problem rather than sit in a boardroom and talk about the problem.If you want to train yourself as a leader, raise your hand to that job that no one else wants to do. Click To Tweet
That sounds wise. I’m thinking of the fisheries people in Port Orford, south of Bandon. They have been complaining for years about overfishing and they’ve had meetings where various people will say, “The fish lacks.” No one ever got to a concluding business plan until one day, Jim Seely, who worked for me said, “Instead of our meeting inside, why don’t we go out to where it used to be great fishing and we’ll all see what fish we catch.” He got 5 or 6 fishermen to get in their boats and go out to this rocky outcropping and see if they could catch any fish. They didn’t catch a single fish which galvanized them into communal action to limit fishing from then on. The fish are now back and an environmental group called Rare does the same thing around the world. They go into fished-out fisheries and convince the locals like taking them onsite and showing them that no one is catching fish.
Taking that long walk with you, as I’ve mentioned, reminds me that that’s a good way for me to manage systems and organizations and how to lead people. Even getting the exercise and being out in the fresh air is a great way to communicate. I have a great friend in the Portland community who’s a leader of industry in Portland. One time, we had a meeting and unbeknownst to me, when I showed up at this office, he had his tennis shoes on.
He said, “Let’s go take a walk.” We walked around downtown Portland. That’s how we talked about the issues that were important to us at that time. That’s another reason why golf is such a great way to do business. Mike, I know your golf courses are like your kids but I’m going to ask you one of those questions that I’d be curious if there’s an answer to. If you could take a guest to one of your courses so they could see the definitive Mike Keiser course, which one would it be?
It would be Cabot Cliffs. For years, I didn’t have a favorite but Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia is my favorite now because it was a series of parcels that had to be bought by somebody. My partner, Ben Cowan-Dewar is a Canadian who was able to buy enough parcels for us to have beautiful good land, flat land and cliffs. It’s a great combination of holes that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw fashioned with a lot of great work by Ben Cowan-Dewar in buying what ended up being twenty parcels to put together one exquisite golf course.
Mike, I’d like to wrap up our conversation with a couple of more questions. This last one might be sensitive on the surface but it’s not. That is, I want to talk about rivals for a moment. When you and I met, you had a particularly well-known rival in the golf developing world. He has more courses than you but yours always outranked his. Yours are always ranked higher. I’m speaking about someone who’s no longer in that space anymore. I hope he’s not. He should be doing other things and that’s President Donald Trump. We won’t talk necessarily about the politics of Donald Trump because whatever side people are on, that’s neither here nor there for this conversation. I want to get your view about rivals and how we should view them in business, sports or even in politics. Do rivals make us better or do they aggravate us?
The best word is they should make you better. In the case of Trump, he has a larger number of golf courses that he owns. He defines golf as a luxury. Everything he does in his courses is luxury-oriented. He built waterfalls. He’s definitely not walking. He has a special cart so it wouldn’t surprise me that they have Rolls-Royce grills. He sees golf as a luxury thing that you aspire to that one day, you’ll be well enough of Mr. Businessman to play golf. He’s welcome to that view but it’s the opposite of my view which is more Scottish and Irish where the common man is the 90% of the golf playing in Scotland, Ireland and Bandon Dunes. The fact that it’s walking only would be the opposite of luxury. That’s one rival point of view. Fortunate for me, he’s not the only rival and he’s in a different space. He’s in the luxury space than I am.
I think of my friendly competitors, Pebble Beach, who I admire and Pinehurst is my two major competitors. An example of how we help each other as healthy competitors, I visited Pinehurst number two after Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw who I raved for getting the job. He redid Pinehurst number two which is their gem. It’s one of the top ten in the world and we wanted to see it. We did, we were shown around by the general manager and we were impressed by what Bill and Ben had done in renovating the course.
The general manager, Don Padgett said, “If you like what they’ve done with the eighteen-hole course, you should see what they’ve done with the putting green. We’d built this fabulous putting green by Bill and Ben. I want to tell you, you should have one of Ben in doing. It’s the most popular thing we have here. People come from 4:00 PM until 10:00 PM and play our par three. The name of which alludes to me.” Here’s a friendly competitor showing me the new thing that works. We, of course, went right back to Bandon and built a putting green. It’s been as Don Padgett said a huge success. Two kinds of competitors, one that belittles you and the other that wants you to succeed for the greater good.
That’s a wonderful story. Speaking of Mr. Trump, I know he likes polls and you like rankings because your golf courses are always at the top of the rankings around the world. In sales and business, numbers matter. Numbers don’t lie as they say so they have to be important to successful people. How does that relate to those of us trying to get to the top of our field? Should we be concerned with our ranking within an office or an industry? How should that drive us?
It’s competitive feedback with the sole goal of getting better. If you are numbers or ranking-oriented, it should be not to be able to boast it on number one or I’m moving up to number 3 or 4. It’s to learn what things worked for others as well as yourself and watch them move you up or down depending on your sales success. When you think of what you’re selling as a finite thing, that’s the wrong way to think about it. What we’re selling is a constantly evolving set of circumstances, architectures, buildings, or whatever it is. We’re always looking to improve it. That’s the value of ranking. If you keep getting better, the rankings will show as well as your revenue.
Mike, one of the culminating facts that come to your courses whenever you get to host a world class event. I have to ask you, as we wrap up, are Bandon Dunes still slated to host the US Amateur Championship in August 2021?
Yes. It’s a week-long event and the USDA decided that they would have the US Open Men’s and Women’s and the US Amateur. Those four tournaments versus thirteen which they initially thought they’d do. We will be hosting the US Amateur Men’s Division in early August 2021. I’m excited to be hosting what has always been a major.
The COVID-19 has hurt a lot of businesses. I know that it has hurt yours in some respects, at least your courses have not been as full. My last question is how did you deal with that disruption? What’s been your attitude throughout?
My first thought was let’s make sure that we keep employees employed even though we were shut for six weeks. I’m proud of the fact that we employed 50% of our employees and we furloughed the other 50%. In the case of a furlough, you’re still an employee, you’re just paid by the unemployment compensation. Unfortunately for us, the closure was only six weeks. We’ve come back strong. It won’t be quite as good as 2019 but close. A big reason for that is all of our employees came back. I would say in about all cases joyfully much like your example of the young man who was driving the bus.
Mike, I don’t know if you’re a businessman first who loves golf or if you’re a golfer who loves to be successful in business. I don’t know how to describe you. Which one is it?
I’d say I’m an avid golfer. Once an avid golfer, always an avid golfer and most of them aren’t in business. I’m in that big group, certainly. I’ll go anywhere to play golf like Tasmania, New Zealand and St. Louis which is where we’re building one. There are great sites still all over the world, Rob.
Mike, I sure appreciate the time you spent with me and our audience. I appreciate as always your wisdom and to share with us the insights as to what has made you successful and influential in this industry and to provide all of us various venue all over the world where we can do business, live these principles with clients, prospects, employees, co-workers and etc. Thank you for making that happen. I want to thank you for your friendship. It means a great deal to me.
It’s always fun, Rob. It’s good to hear from you. We will see each other again.
Yes, we will. Thank you, Mike Keiser.
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