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August 1, 2014

Risk-Taking

Daily Fee Owner Succeeds with Satellite Range

Funds were set aside for capital improvements to his daily-fee course in southwest Ohio, but Chris Hale used them to buy a golf range 12 miles away, earning strong returns from the get-go

BY: JOHN TORSIELLO

Several years ago, like most privately owned daily-fee courses, Penn Terra Golf Club found itself with a list of pending capital projects from cart paths to clubhouse décor. Chris Hale, PGA Professional and owner of the 6,100-yard Lewisburg, Ohio course since 1985, studied his business prospects and crafted a plan. But Hale didn’t summon contractors to Penn Terra. Instead he went out and bought a driving range down the road.

Realizing that practice and teaching were the golf activities with true growth potential, Hale recognized that his 18-hole course lacked the acreage and configuration to handle them. Today he is balancing his time between Penn Terra and the North Dayton Golf Academy, 12 miles away in the town of Clayton. “It took about $60,000 in cash to purchase the business assets of what was a failing range and then renovate the facilities,” recalls Hale, who has a long-term lease on the acreage the range occupies. “That was money well spent.”

His motivation was to find a practice facility to complement the golf course and tap into the time compressed golf activities that a learning center is all about. The NDGA had its grand opening in June of 2010 and established early momentum. First-year revenue growth (over previous ownership) was a reassuring 22 percent—and it kicked off an extended upswing. “We seemed to reach an untapped segment of golfers that wanted everything when it comes to practice and instruction,” says Hale. Sales in year two continued higher, rising 24 percent. In year three the revenue growth topped 28 percent. “Naturally things will level out, given that fewer people will be discovering us for the first time,” Hale says. “But in general the word is out that NDGA is the place to go and we feel very fortunate for that.”

His teaching partner at both facilities is Gip Hoagland, who serves as PGA Head Professional at Penn Terra as well as men’s golf coach and director of golf for the University of Dayton. The market NDGA serves tends to feed in from a 20-mile radius. That orbit has stretched a bit owing to the startup of two- and three-day golf schools.

Hale uses Constant Contact, the web-based tool for small-business engagement marketing, to promote the academy. “We have over 1,000 email addresses and use the platform extensively to promote programs and new offerings,” he notes. “I find it very affordable and easy to use. Between the emails, our website and signage in and around the facility, customers all know what is coming next.”

Dayton is a low-key market where conscientious service builds loyalty. Hale developed a well-earned reputation as a fine instructor over the years, dedicated to helping his clients enjoy golf to a greater degree. “I have always been known as a good teacher but also a professional who would work to put his students and members first,” he reflects.

New this year at the academy is TPI golf-specific fitness training. “We are fortunate to connect with a certified TPI fitness trainer at the local hospital rehab center,” Hale explains. “Sports medicine and fitness are all he does.” The NDGA struck an arrangement with the hospital to provide out-patients with 20 private sessions at an affordable fee structure. The facility’s short-game practice area is another focus for 2014. “We simply need this to be better and will work all year on providing an improved short-game experience,” vows Hale. The Academy’s indoor putting surface was installed by Jack Nicklaus-endorsed Southwest Greens. The range has 14 hitting bays and 12 acres of target area.

Hale considers North Dayton Golf Academy unique because it “offers quality in every aspect, from practice to instruction to clubfitting and even club repair.” He adds, “We do it all here and we do it right or we won’t do it.” He feels strongly about “making things nice, clean and neat.” By that he means fresh paint, new mats, flowers in pots along the tee line and by the main entrance.

Hale’s clients generally put in onehour sessions at his facility, unless clubfitting is involved. In that case the visits can stretch up to two hours. A one-hour lesson is usually followed by practice. The goal at the Academy is to make sure every need a client might have for golf instruction/practice is met, making the customer want to stay longer than at a traditional driving range.

The indoor clubfitting studio at North Dayton Golf Academy includes a launch monitor. After testing on the monitor, the golfer can take the club he or she is fitted for, go outside, hit the new sticks and get immediate feedback. “That is crucial to the client and to us as fitters,” says Hale, who personally gave over 1,400 lessons last year. “I would never feel comfortable only doing an indoor fitting. Because our outside bays are heated, we insist that the client go outside to truly see and feel his or her new fitted equipment.” The Academy did over 100 fittings in 2013, which, Hale notes, “helps our bottom line.”

There is a high-minded approach to the range and course operations that Hale has observed during his 45 years in the golf business: If you do what is best for the golfer, the financial benefits will always trickle down to the facility’s managers and golf professionals. “Almost every time in my career that I entered into a new service or program with my focus on the costs or the profitability, I have failed,” he recalls. “If the service is good, if the product is good, the costs and the benefits will take care of themselves.”