Interview with Mike O'Reilly, HP at Whistling Straits

August 9, 2010

This week The PGA Championship travels to Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin for its 92nd running. Mike O'Reilly is the Head Golf Professional at Whistling Straits and he has been kind enough to give his time for an insightful interview. We hope you can learn a thing or two from his knowledge!

Based on your experiences, what makes your facility/operation unique from others?

Many things...
Courses. We have one of a kind golf courses that are very rare in the United States. Location. We are the only Five Diamond Resort in the Midwest. Service Standards. We are consistently ranked highly for our service. We have genuine people serving our guests. Caddies. The Straits is a walking only facility where caddies are required. This makes the operation unique because the caddies are tightly woven into out day-to-day practices. Also, this enhances the guest experience as most players rarely walk a golf course any more and almost never take caddies. Majors. We host major championships on a regular basis. This creates a "major" feeling for our guests and members.

What are some aspects of your position, that if you didn't do them well, they would be detrimental to the operation?

Hiring good people. You can have the best facility, course, training, etc... If you don't hire the right people and place them in the right position you will always have an uphill battle.

In your eyes, what does it mean to "serve"? What are the best ways that you have found in your experience, to serve the members and their guest's?

Service is a mindset. It's not about being at the bag drop or in the shop to "take care" of the guest. It's about caring for other people and their experience at your facility. Obviously the staff needs to be in position ready to assist the guest with their needs but actually serving the guests/ members needs graciousness and sincerity. If we are not sincere in our service the guests/ members will notice.

What do you look for in a potential assistant professional?

They must be professional, knowledgeable and guest focused: Professional. They must carry themselves in a professional manner at all times. Both in the way they look and the way they act. Knowledgeable. They must be educated in the golf business, our operation and our company. They must be working towards their "Class A". Guest Focused. They must have ability to make decisions based on what's best for the guest. They must have the ability to read people and situations and remain flexible when odd situations arise.

What kind of advice would you give a young assistant professional?

I would give this advice to any young professional... Not just golf professionals:
1) Figure out what you want to do for a living. 2) Find the organization or company that is the best at doing what it is you would like to do. 3) Get a job there scrubbing the floors and work your way up from there. Working for the "best" as a young professional exposes you to so many good things. You develop habits that will pay dividends for the remainder of your career. If you work there at the entry level you also learn what it really takes to run the operation. As you advance in your career you will always appreciate what the "guy who scrubs the floors" does and understand how each role plays a part in creating a product / experience.

Do you hire assistants without college degrees?

I do hire assistants without them but 5 of my 7 do have them. Not a requirement but it's preferred. I have a master’s degree in business and would recommend having at least a bachelors to any of my assistants.

Some clubs don't have an assistant professional hierarchy, i.e. First Assistant and/or Second Assistant and so forth. Do you buy or sell the hierarchical concept for assistants? If you buy it, why? How might it potentially hurt an operation?

I do buy into the concept of having a First Assistant, Second Assistant, etc... As the Head Professional, it gives me the opportunity to promote individuals that perform well. Also, the system establishes a reporting structure within the operation. The Second Assistant can clearly look the First Assistant for direction.

How do you draw the line between being your direct reports friend and their boss?

This is like everything else in life and business... There is a balance. Establishing a good relationship where I care about the individuals that work for me goes a long way in maintaining engagement of the associate. Associate engagement is critical to the success of a business and having a relationship where the associate knows that I care about his personal life is important. Becoming best friends with an associate where we spend a lot of time together outside the operation can become dangerous. Not only can this become a problem for the associate that someone is friends with, it can develop problems amongst the other professionals and staff. Questions about being treated fairly / unfairly will come up. Again, There is a balance.

Its easy for many to assume that once you're a PGA member, a head professional position just falls in your lap, and that simply isn't the case. When an assistant of yours works hard for a lengthy period of time and achieves his/her Class "A" status, and asks you "What's next?" What would you explain to them?

It depends on the person and the timing. Some people that finish their PGA Apprenticeship are ready for HP positions and some are not. Some people that are ready are timed just right and some are not. It depends. If there is an individual that is ready for a HP position and there is not one available with our organization or another organization, then I would ask the individual to continue "doing more than what's expected of them without expecting anything in return". I find that when this mentality is taken it almost always works out well if you can have a little patience.

During your different experiences, how have you approached and handled the ebbs and flows of the fluctuating wants and needs of the members and guests?

Again, there is a balance. We have an operation with members, resort guests and public golfers. Each is different and each have different expectations. The answer for one group of individuals will not work for another. Myself and the staff need to look for ways to make the experience special for each group of guests / members that we have. A member wants a special tee time because they are a member... We try to accommodate. A large group is at the resort and they need special scoring because they are spending money with us... We accommodate. It's all about taking acre of each guest and making them feel special.

How have you approached the economic downturn of the past few years?

Has the economic down turn impacted our operation?
Yes. I don't think there are many organizations in the hospitality industry that have not been impacted. When business lulls like the current one hit, it's important that we do a couple things...

1) Manage the operations expenses appropriately.
It's not realistic to think we can cut 75% of our labor costs and still provide the service our guests have come to expect but our labor & supply expenses should be strongly correlated with rounds and revenue. If rounds are down 10%, then expenses should be too. If rounds are down 10% and expenses are down 50%, then we are trimming to much and the business will suffer long-term.

2) Maintain the long-term approach.
This is critical to the success of the business. Slashing prices to get every player on site in and hope that they will spend in the shop and restaurant will have a huge impact on the perception of your facility and the future business. When you do this, you will have a very tough time getting the same player to return when you try to charge full price. Instead of cutting prices, try to add value to the round by packaging things together.

Well said. Mike, thank you for your time and your willingness to share your knowledge. You have paid it forward.