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March 2016

Painting a Different Scene

paintingadifferentscene.jpg‭By Steve Eubanks

By being in the community, Sharon Painter is creating her own brand of management company

In an age when it’s vogue to gobble up as many properties as you can manage and then sell yourself as “bigger” than the competition, it’s refreshing to run across a multi-course operator who’s content to stay close to home and manage the people and properties she knows.

JCD Sports Group, the 25-year-old management company specializing in the operation of municipal courses in South Florida, is a perfect reflection of its CEO, Sharon Painter, who hasn’t lost her Florida Panhandle drawl or her downhome sense of what it means to be local.

“We’re here,” the native of Milton, Florida, says with a chuckle. “We live in the community; we’re part of the community. So, when someone says something about one of the [municipal] golf courses, I know about it and I take it personally.”

Painter got into the golf business by accident. A college player at the University of Alabama who was good enough to qualify for the 1979 U.S. Women’s Open, she had aspirations of making it on the LPGA Tour, dreams that ran headlong into players like Beth Daniel and Nancy Lopez once Painter left Tuscaloosa with an advertising and marketing degree.

“I played the mini-tours for a few years, like we all did when we were going to be rich and famous,” she quips. “After I graduated from Alabama, three of my teammates and I decided to go to South Florida and play. So we worked on a golf course in the maintenance department in Boca Raton in order to eat and pay the rent while we played all the tournaments in the area.”

It didn’t take long for the fascination with golf course operations, particularly turf maintenance, to surpass Painter’s desire to play. “I stayed in the maintenance business and moved to Palmetto Dunes [on Hilton Head],” she recounts. “Then I went to Hollister, California, and Phoenix [Arizona]. I learned a lot.”

Despite nationwide experience, when Painter got her first full-fledged management job at Oak Ridge Country Club in Hollywood, Florida, she realized the importance of becoming an expert in a single market.

“Golf is a personal-touch business at every level,” she says. “You have to know the customers—what they want, what they don’t want, what they’ll pay for, and what will drive them away. And you have to understand your owners, especially in the public sector where you’re dealing with different committees, boards and municipalities with different rules and ways of doing things.”

For instance, in her position, Painter may find herself having to explain to a parks and recreation director or a county commissioner or a committee chair why a certain course needs new greens when they might not know anything about golf and can’t understand how the investment will be recouped. “Sometimes, they’ll say things like, ‘Well, just charge higher fees,’ not understanding that you can’t always do that,” she notes. “Being local and knowing everyone has helped tremendously on that front.”

Since 1990, Painter has spearheaded the management of a handful of public facilities in Palm Beach County, Delray Beach and Hollywood, Florida, working with both city and county governments to make the public courses the best they can be in a heavily saturated golf market.

“We’ve been lucky enough and our company is flexible enough to go with the flow and adapt to the differences in these [governmental] operations,” she says. “What we do at a county course is much different from what we have to do at a city course because there’s no consistency in government.”

That’s where being the face of municipal golf in a market for a long period of time becomes an invaluable asset. “A lot of times, a committee will want you in a meeting tomorrow,” Painter explains. “They don’t want one of your managers; they want to meet the person where the buck stops. That’s a great advantage. I’m able to be there.”

There have been plenty of opportunities for Painter to expand JCD Sports to other markets, including plenty of non-muni properties in South Florida that the company could have added to its portfolio. But when you’ve carved a niche, it’s often better to focus on the business you know.

“You almost become a fortune teller when you’ve been in an area for a long period of time,” Painter says. “Where we have an advantage over some of the larger firms is that we specialize in being here—right here in South Florida. And we know what’s going to happen. We know people are going to empty out the week after Easter. We know they’re going to come down after Thanksgiving, but head back home during the [Christmas and New Year’s] holidays and be back in January. We know what the temperature has to rise to before they’ll come out and play, and what discount you have to offer to entice them out when a cold front moves through. And we know when to change our rates and hours.”

You don’t get that through computer models; you get that by being on the ground, in the shops, with the customers and in the communities. That’s where Sharon Painter excels.

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.


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