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October 2017

Helping Hands

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By Steve Eubanks

Mark Whetzel and Vanguard Golf Management have built a company based on good values–doing the right things, caring for others and building friendships that transcend economic ups and downs

If you’ve ever been to a hospital, or a newsroom, or any other 24/7 business on Christmas Day, you’ve likely seen goodhearted Jews, Muslims and Buddhists who have volunteered to work so that their Christian friends can take time off. It’s what people of conscious do to help others. The fact that some of those workers get holiday pay makes it a win-win for everyone.

PGA professional Mark Whetzel created a management and golf course ownership company, Vanguard Golf Management, based on that same principal.

It began in 1996 with a club called Thanksgiving Point Golf Club in Lehi, Utah. Part of the Thanksgiving Point Institute, created by WordPerfect software founder Alan Ashton, the golf course was one asset in the nonprofit complex that included one of the nation’s largest dinosaur museums, a theater, cafés, gardens and a farm. The Ashtons named the place Thanksgiving Point because of the gratitude they felt for being so blessed. But there was also a problem, at least on the golf front. Ashton and his wife were devout Mormons, so the Institute and everything in it closed on Sundays.

That’s when Whetzel, who was the director of golf at the time, jumped in to help his owners and friends. The fact that doing so helped him realize a dream of creating his own management company was a side benefit.

“I’d been thinking about creating what is now Vanguard Golf Management for some time,” Whetzel recalls. “But the right opportunity wasn’t there yet. Then, Thanksgiving Point …being closed on Sunday is tough in the golf business. So, I went to the owners and said, ‘Let me form this management company and we will execute a lease of the golf course from you.’ That way we could keep the course open on Sundays because the foundation was no longer the operator.”

The owners of Thanksgiving Point accepted the proposal, Whetzel formed Vanguard management, the golf course opened on the weekends and everybody remains happy. In fact, the Vanguard Golf Management headquarters is still at Thanksgiving Point, even though Whetzel and his partners now own four other golf courses outright.  “It just worked out as a win-win for everybody,” Whetzel says.

For years, the company leased Thanksgiving Point while managing the construction, grow-in and operation of another resort course, Sand Hollow, in St. George, Utah. Whetzel was happy with his company and with the clubs he managed. Then, the Great Recession hit.

“With every downturn comes an opportunity if you enter it with the right attitude and see things in the right way,” Whetzel posits. The company’s management agreement with Sand Hollow went away during that period, but another course nearby, Coral Canyon, came up for sale.

“I was able to go to some investors and explain to them that this was a great deal, that golf was still a great deal,” Whetzel details. “They agreed, and we were able to buy Coral Canyon without going to a bank, without assuming any debt. It was already established as the top course in St. George and a top-five course in the state. It was just a matter of managing and marketing it properly, and being patient for the economy to turn.

“Today, I look back and think, God only knows how we put it all together,” he adds. “At the time, because of the relationship I had with the owners at Thanksgiving Point, I was able to go to them and say, ‘Look, golf is toxic right now.’ They knew it. They were experiencing similar things in other parts of the business. So, they were great. They worked with us and allowed us to ride through that huge storm. It also helped that we raised funds and paid cash [for Coral Canyon]. That’s how you ride out an economic crisis.”

You grow in a crisis by earning a reputation as a good neighbor, by being a friend who does the right thing and helps people out, who builds a business not on the backs of others but beside others, hand in hand.

After closing the deal with Coral Canyon, Whetzel was approached by the town of Eagle Mountain, a relatively new city that sprang up in the Utah mountains during the boom years when money was cheap and banks were handing out lines of credit like lollipops. The sad story the city managers told became common throughout the industry. The town’s developer, Ames Construction, was overextended and could no longer own and operate a money-losing golf course. But if the golf course shut down, the value of the residential and commercial property–indeed, the value of the town–would diminish.

“It was a stressful situation for everybody involved,” Whetzel explains. “So we worked out a deal where Ames Construction donated the course to the city so the city wasn’t out anything, but the company was relieved of the burden of operating a money-losing course. Ames also got a tax write-off for donating an asset to a municipality. Then, the city leased the golf course to us for a dollar a week. It was up to us to turn around the annual losses and right the ship. We were able to do that, so everybody won.

“Our lease agreement was actually a lease-to-purchase agreement, which we executed in 2012,” he adds. “That’s how The Ranches at Eagle Mountain became the second course that we owned.”

No blood was shed in this transaction; no tears or hard feelings. Three entities got together, worked through a problem and came up with a solution that was win-win-win. That’s the Vanguard business model.

The final two clubs in Whetzel’s portfolio came about because of bankruptcies. First, a bank in Minnesota approached Whetzel about being the court-appointed receiver for a course in Mesquite, Nevada, called Falcon Ridge, close enough to St. George, Utah, to make sense for the Vanguard team.

“My only caveat to becoming a receiver, and I had to go to the judge in Las Vegas and talk about this, was that we might be a potential buyer,” Whetzel notes. “I didn’t want there to be a conflict of interest. But the judge told me that as long as everything was transparent, there was no conflict.”

Vanguard ultimately bought Falcon Ridge with the same investor group Whetzel used at Coral Canyon.

Similarly, during a business trip to western Montana, Whetzel and his partners played a course called The Ranch Club. “While we were there, one of the guys in the shop mentioned that the course was bankrupt,” Whetzel says. “This was early 2013 and we’d just finished Falcon Ridge. But the banks wanted too much because there was a real estate component. We went home and didn’t think much about it until about seven months later, [when] we got a call from a developer who was purchasing the property from the bank but wanted to spin off the golf course. He said, ‘Hey, I know real estate but have no business owning and operating a golf course.’”

Once again, because of Whetzel’s reputation as the guy with a helping hand, he and his partners bought the The Ranch Club in Montana and shared marketing with the developer of the surrounding real estate.

“It’s hard to believe, but the best times and the best opportunities for us came because of the economic downturn,” Whetzel says. “We didn’t panic. We just shifted gears and made some good decisions.”

They also built a company based on good values—doing the right things, caring for others, and building friendships that transcend economic ups and downs.

“We’re very happy with where we are,” Whetzel concludes. “We’re happy with the people we work with and the people we have developed relationships with. And we love what we do.”

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

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