CEO Governance Model

The following is an article appearing in a recent edition of Boardroom titled ‘CEO Governance Model Builds Momentum in the Club Industry—Part II of II’

When Dylan Petrick arrived at Kenwood Country Club in Cincinnati, OH, after accepting the position of chief executive officer, the veteran general manager and ClubCorp alumnus remained largely unfamiliar with this governance model. 

Three years later, he’s a believer. Indeed, he’s convinced that he’s out in front of a trend. “There are something like 1,200 chief operating officers” leading US private clubs today, Petrick says. “Of course, there was a time – not too long ago – when no private clubs in America had turned operations over to a COO. I’m gonna go ahead and predict that the next movement in our business will be from a COO model to the CEO model.” 

Petrick credits the enlightened leadership of Denise Kuprionis for much of the club’s successes, which include an enviable cash flow, an even longer waiting list, initial renovation of the club’s Kendale course, and landing an LPGA Tour event. Kuprionis served as club president and board chair from 2019-2021. 

She’s the individual who instituted the CEO model at Kenwood. Not surprisingly, she’s also president of The Governance Solutions Group, a Cincinnati-based consultancy that specializes in outfitting clubs and other non-profits with cutting-edge, durable leadership infrastructure. 

Despite all this progress, the philosophical shift continues to trickle down at Kenwood, where the various committees are chaired not by members but by directors who are club employees. 

There’s a related logic here, however, one familiar to those who pay particular attention to the golf course industry: Many course superintendents have today assumed the role of director of agronomy. Kenwood’s new super, Nate Herman, hired in the fall of 2021, was given that title. Herman and Shawn Costello, Kenwood’s director of golf, naturally work with the green committee to sort course-related strategy and policy. But it is Costello who makes buying decisions for the golf shop. It is Herman who makes decisions about what fertilizer to buy, how much to apply day to day, and how best to prepare the golf course for the inaugural Kroger Queen City Championship, which debuted at Kenwood in September. 

“The staff here, including the green committee, is very, very good and our success ahead of the tournament will be determined by how well and fast we gel, how well we listen, and make the right choices,” Herman, who arrived at 36-hole Kenwood from Harbor Shores Golf Course in Benton Harbor, MI, permanent home of the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, said before the tournament.

 “When I was at Harbor Shores, it was all me. But I’ve learned I’d rather have five or 10 sets of eyes than one set. That’s how we work collectively. Teamwork and zero ego, especially myself.” Empowering directors at the expense of member-led decision-making is no small matter. It is, in fact, an enormous change for members and club employees more familiar with the traditional equity club model.

“It is a big change,” Petrick explains. “Under our system of governance, our operating committees don’t have as much power as they traditionally do at other clubs. They provide buy-in, support, idea generation and feedback but do not make operational decisions. If the majority says no, we very likely won’t do something. But we’ve seen how this approach balances resources, and I see bigger clubs trending this way. A lot of board members don’t want to run a club. In their own businesses, they hire experts and get out of the way. 

“When I was at ClubCorp, we acquired a massive, prestigious club down south and we did so for 10 cents on the dollar. It wasn’t the GM who ran that club into the ground. They probably went through half a dozen GMs, pointing fingers the whole time. It was the membership and board that was responsible for the poor allocation of resources and the poor decision-making there. It makes way more sense to hire an expert and hold that expert accountable. If he or she doesn’t produce, get rid of the CEO. 

“We were very fortunate that Denise Kuprionis brought this change to Kenwood. Kirk Reese, another savvy member, was an important voice when implementing that change. He teaches and speaks on these matters. We still have disagreements with members and the board on operational matters. We’re a work in progress. But there are no board discussions on the price of beer.” 

Kuprionis was the first female board member at Kenwood. She was also the club’s first female board chair. Her influence at the club has obviously been enormous. And yet that influence has been manifest in other, more nuanced ways. So as soon as she joined the board, Kuprionis recruited another woman, Janel Carroll, to join her. Finding more women to serve in club roles remains a permanent goal of the nominating committee, Petrick says, though it’s not so easy or straightforward as that. 

“Only a primary member can be a board member and most memberships at Kenwood – at most clubs, in my experience – are traditionally held in the gentlemen’s name,” he says. “In terms of eligibility and professionalism, that’s an obstacle. We’ve got to work harder to identify them and get them involved in various committees, as a stepping stone. We have to continue to progress in our standard of governance to have a wider pool of potential board members. 

“But I’ll tell you where Denise’s example has been even more influential: staffing and hiring. We’ve hired a lot more women throughout our operations team, at the director and executive level, and I think that leads right back to Denise. Employees see how involved we are in getting women further education.” 

F&B Director Haley Hopkins is going through the YWCA’s Rising Star Leadership accreditation right now. Kenwood was also awarded a LaRocca Family Executive Scholarship because the management team includes a mentor (Petrick) and mentee (Hopkins) worth supporting. The food and beverage manager in training at Kenwood is a woman, a recent Kent State graduate. Three of its four seasonal college interns are women. 

“We have 10 employees with CMAA memberships working on continued education in our industry,” Petrick adds. “That’s up from just two when I was hired. Bringing in the LPGA Tour is still more evidence of the club’s commitment, the Tour being such a strong proponent for women in golf – not just on course but in the industry.” 

The Kroger Queen City Championship was played Sept. 5-11. The off-course centerpiece of tournament week was a women’s leadership summit. The program was formulated by Kroger, P&G and the LPGA, with input from tournament director Emily Norell and local stakeholders like Kuprionis and Lesli Hopping, immediate past president of the Greater Cincinnati Golf Association. Hopping is the first woman to serve in her position. Does all this female leadership translate into more membership interest from women? 

“I think it’s been good for the recruitment of new members, and some of our current members have echoed this sentiment,” Petrick says. “Studies indicate the younger generations of members certainly want to be involved with doing what is right for society. We’re doing the right thing when it comes to hiring, by focusing on equality and diversity. It helps build a better work environment and culture. A better environment provides better member service and elevates the experience. So frankly, it does matter. 

“I also think it’s important for future membership that we’re trying to advance things. It’s been great for recruitment to our staff, for sure. They say, ‘Hey, this is an industry I can grow in.’ PGM (Professional Golf Management) programs and turf programs are being cut left and right. We want to become the nursing school of the hospitality industry: If you graduate, you get a job. It’s a good way to stand out.” 

Skip to content