Greener pastures

Features - Maintenance

Making the transition to maintaining golf courses takes a lot of knowledge, but can bolster your bottom line.

October 4, 2013
Kristen Hampshire

You deal with customers who always want their lawns to look like a well-maintained golf course. So what better way to learn how to do that than to actually maintain a golf course?

But breaking into the golf course business requires deep expertise and a background in the industry, says Bryan Bielecki, vice president of agronomy at Bill Casper Golf and Buffalo Turf and Landscape Company. Buffalo TLC lives under the Billy Casper Golf umbrella – a firm that owns and operates 158 golf facilities around the country.

Billy Casper provides turnkey management for municipal, private and member-owned golf clubs. Its staff includes professionals in agronomy, finance, operations, human resources and sales. “We manage the entire property of the golf facility for golf course owners,” Bielecki says.

But about eight years ago, Billy Casper was approached by a golf course in Topeka, Kan., that wanted a maintenance-only contract – just the agronomy piece of the puzzle. “We said, ‘Why not?’” Bielecki says.

In fact, there is a movement toward outsourcing the maintenance operations at golf courses, and Bielecki says growing demand for services piqued the company’s interest in starting a landscape maintenance-only division. And, for landscape businesses that have a former superintendent on board, or someone with experience working with golf turf, there could be opportunities to crack maintenance contracts from golf courses. “Before starting Buffalo TLC, we looked at the golf course management industry and the component of courses that are outsourcing either their turnkey operations or maintenance operations is growing,” he says.

Billy Casper has always been a name in the turnkey facility management side of the business. But to capture the maintenance-only contracts, it formed, Buffalo TLC, and created a transparent fee-for-service agreement – what will give Buffalo TLC a competitive edge, Bielecki says.

Know your stuff. Bielecki, who initially joined Billy Casper as a golf course superintendent before helping run its other operations and now, Buffalo TLC, says you have to know your stuff if you plan on adding golf course maintenance as a service.

“Golf course maintenance is really a science,” he says.

Greens are typically cut at 1⁄8 of an inch or less. Tees and fairways are cut at ¼ to ½ inch mowing heights. “You are managing turf under very stressful conditions, and then you add golf carts and equipment and foot traffic,” Bielecki says.

Businesses that want to vie for maintenance-only golf course contracts should bring a pro on board so they can market their expertise. Similarly, while Buffalo TLC brings its golf course pedigree to the table, Bielecki says the firm will look to partner with landscaping companies if it wins large contracts that involve caring for a golf course plus community areas (including residential lawns, such as in a golf course community).

For now, Buffalo TLC is focused on obtaining golf course maintenance-only contracts. Add-ons to those contracts include caring for common areas in a development. But before the firm would consider branching out into commercial landscaping such as shopping centers or corporate parks, Bielecki says they’d want to acquire that expertise.

“We are not going to try to be something we are not,” he says.

It’s a win for golf courses that are seeking dependable maintenance solutions, because the quality and presentation of their turf can make or break the business, Bielecki says. They’re looking for a partner they can trust. “The risk involved with hiring the right person for your maintenance operation really goes away when you bring an experienced provider on board,” he says.

Selling transparency
. Breaking into the golf course world will take more than knowledge of how to mow the greens. There are a lot of intricacies in the business side of the service. In a way, landscape companies that focus on golf course clients are a lot like auto mechanics. They’re specialists. They can set a price and their clients may nod at the details, assume the situation is handled and write a check.

Branding its specialty

Awareness is the main obstacle Buffalo TLC faces as it rolls out this model and begins marketing its maintenance-only contracts to golf courses.

Golf is Buffalo TLC’s sweet spot and where it plans to play its maintenance-only game for the time being, but Bielecki says the landscape division is structured to eventually serve sports fields, parks and recreation areas, along with residential and commercial developments.

“We are focused on building and growing a business that is sustainable,” Bielecki says of the decision to go with what it knows: golf course agronomy.

“If you take your car into a mechanic and tell him the engine has a knock, he can tell you everything that is wrong with it and, ‘That will be $1,500,’ and who are any of us to tell him he’s wrong?” Bielecki says. “An HVAC guy shows up at your house because your air conditioning is broken, and he can tell you anything. Our world isn’t much different than that.”

Some golf courses spend as much as $1.5 million to maintain 18 holes. And, most of those pay a flat fee, and no matter what happens that season, the price is what it is. Buffalo TLC is bucking the typical contract with a transparent fee-for-service structure, giving clients all the spend details throughout the contract season and the option to ramp up or pull back on the budget.

It’s a more honest way to do business, Bielecki says.

“In the traditional model, say you budgeted to put down a pound of fertilizer on a golf course,” he says. “You could easily throw down a half-pound and no one would know. Then, you could put that money back in your pocket. We feel like our transparent contract is a better way to create trust between us and our clients, and it establishes more of a partnership atmosphere.”

That’s not to say that flat-fee structures are built to take advantage of customers. Many reputable businesses use this type of contract – it’s a widely accepted model and the way golf course maintenance-only contracts have been structured for years. But Buffalo TLC thinks it can carve a niche in the world of maintenance-only by presenting a fresh option to golf course clients. “The owner will have peace of mind because they’ll know how money is being spent,” he says.

Rather than bidding a lump sum, Billy Casper worked with the client to set a maintenance budget. For clients, the fee structure is a win because they can see line-item expenses and they aren’t locked into a lump sum.

“We manage the maintenance operations for a fee and show clients where the money goes,” Bielecki says, adding that golf course maintenance is a “gray area” for many golf course operators. So they agree on a flat fee and assume the course is set for the season. “Our side of the business can be very subjective.”

Once Billy Casper began servicing that first maintenance-only contract, the company realized the potential in rolling out a maintenance-only division and branding it as such.

For now, Buffalo TLC is a division under Billy Casper, utilizing the resources already in place: regional agronomists and a full maintenance support staff. If the division reaches critical mass – and for now, Buffalo TLC has fewer than 10 maintenance-only contracts – the landscape division may become a stand-along operation. But for now, it’s advantageous to tap into Billy Casper’s robust network.


Photos courtesy of Buffalo TLC