Michael McCarthy, CEO and General Manager of Addison Reserve Country Club, Delray Beach, Florida, USA.
This is an interview from the Spring 2018 issue of Golf Kitchen Magazine.
John Fornaro CEO of Boardroom Magazine introduced me to Michael McCarthy, Chief Executive Officer and General Manager of Addison Reserve Country Club in 2017. After meeting Michael, I quickly learned why. He has a talent for thinking on his feet and rebounding from ups and downs. Michael teaches us all that although a good education is important, sheer hard work, determination, self-belief, and resilience are what makes for a great life and career. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: You were initially a Chef, how did you become a General Manager of a Country Club?
I grew up in Secaucus, New Jersey in a blue-collar family. My Dad was an electrician, and my Mom was an incredible lady. I had some challenges growing up, including dealing with dyslexia. My mom had me participate in all kinds of different trades from woodshop to auto mechanics, and then we started cooking. She knew that going to a formal college would be tough for me. When I was in school, there wasn’t staff that could assist students like myself on an individual basis.
I started cooking at a young age and found a passion for it. I was hooked. There was that high that I got when I was getting my head kicked in at 7.30 pm on the line and also when I was interacting with the customer. I excelled at making them happy and doing unique things for them. It gave me great, great, satisfaction.
I had the opportunity to go to culinary school at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City; it was a community college as my family couldn't afford to send me to the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson and Wales. I was advanced in my skill sets because I had been working and cooking since the age of 14. For most of the students, this was the first time they were learning to cook, so I had the upper hand on everybody in the class. Most of the professors had catering jobs in Manhattan who were running restaurants on the side. I was also working at catering events in New York, and I came across one of my professors (Gary Bensky) that offered me a job to go to Lake Mohawk Country Club, for the summer. That was 1987, and at that time I didn't know what a country club was. I was a kid, I took the job, and then I needed a place to live, so they gave me a cottage right on the lake on the boardwalk. It was a hundred yards from the club, and it was all young people working there in the summer. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. We worked hard and played hard.
We were working a hundred hours a week, and the following year my professor brought me back as a sous chef. I spent eight years there. By the time I was 21 we had built their business so much on the catering side that he could no longer handle both the university and the executive chef job. He couldn't juggle both, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. He stepped aside, and I became the executive chef, and he began working for me. Toward the end of my time at Lake Mohawk, I took over the food and beverage department. I was very good with the numbers. Not long after that, I wound up getting an opportunity to open up a restaurant, and I left the club just when my now wife Irene and I were about to get married. We were going to open up a restaurant in Clifton, New Jersey for the owner of Bareli's Restaurant which was a trendy spot at that time. The day we arrived his wife filed for a divorce and locked up all the money. I was super frustrated, and he offered to move me back into the restaurant world, which is not what I signed up for. We had a baby on the way, and here I am flipping omelets and making pasta. A search firm called me and introduced me to a club in North Caldwell; a super high-end Jewish club called Green Brook Country Club in Jersey. I knew nothing about the Jewish culture. I didn't think I had an opportunity at that job and I was just 25. I was the youngest guy interviewing for the job. I met with the search firm that worked with the board at the club. Three incredible people sat on that board. One was the founder of Equal the sugar substitute, one was the founder of Boston Chicken, and the third was the founder of Restaurant Associates. They understood food, and they knew how to make change happen. These guys took a liking to me, and I got the job despite my young age. It was December, and we turned the culinary operation upside down immediately.
The members were excited going into our first season. Then suddenly, the general manager left going into my first season, and I was still learning about the members, their wants, and needs, and we didn't have a leader. I went to my key guys on the board, and I said, " I have an idea for you. I know that my professor who taught me almost everything I know is available because the universities are off in the summer and the chances of finding a new general manager right now are slim to none in New Jersey. If there's anybody available right now, well, there's a reason they're out of work. Why don't I call him? We'll put him in the kitchen. I'll go out to the front of the house, and we will stabilize everything. That way the food will stay consistent. Then in September when he goes back to university, I'll go back in the kitchen. You will have the entire offseason to find yourself a new leader."
September came around, and I was ready to go back in the kitchen. They said, "the general manager's position is your job if you want it." I still remember the day. They agreed to do it on an interim basis. They asked me about clothing. I had one suit, one dark green suit, and no ties. I'll never forget. I got to go to my first Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord and Taylor, and a custom men's shop; they took me shopping and filled my closet overnight!
In September, when my professor went back to the university, I brought in my former sous chef, Ray Perdas, who was with me for eight years at Lake Mohawk and my college roommate as the Executive Chef.
GK: When did you begin to discover Florida Country Clubs?
After about five years at Green Brook Country Club, I started to get bored. I wanted more. Irene and I started to travel to Florida each February. I had been watching the turnover in New Jersey and New York, and I'm like, boy, I'm young, and if I ever lose my job here, it's going to be difficult to find another one, and we're probably going to have to move whenever that happens. I was always looking ahead, you know, the politics - one day the board comes in and doesn't like you, the next, you're out on the street.
Irene was an engineer in communications for AT&T. She had the flexibility of working remotely, and I spent my time checking out all of these country clubs. Every corner you turn in Florida, there's another country club. I said to Irene "this is a much better lifestyle. First of all, my off-season here would be the summer. That's when the kids areoff from school. Up north, my offseason was in January, February, and March. What good is that? You’re off, and the kids are in school. What am I doing? The seasons just needed to flip for us."
I had reached out to my friend Jay DiPietro over at Boca West Country Club in Boca Raton, and he made an introduction to Norm Spitzig at BallenIsles Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, who hired me 1998. I came down as a club manager for Norm, who was a legendary manager in our business, and the former president of CMAA. We relocated our family and a year into it; he retired and went into the search business. I was only 29 with a young family and very worried.
GK: What did you do?
BallenIsles was at the time, the fifth largest country club in the USA, we were doing 30 million a year in revenue, had over 450 employees, and I am just learning this whole Florida residential thing, and the developer came to me and told me that they were going to go through this process of a national search. At the time, the members, whom I had a good following with took out a petition and 600 signed it to give me an opportunity at the general manager role. The headhunter, John Sibbald, who is the founder of The Platinum Clubs America and owned the largest search firm company in club management at the time; came in and met with the board and several members on the search committee. The members had told him at that point that there was a tremendous support to give me the opportunity. John turned around and said, "What have you got to lose? He's a young rising star. If this doesn't work out a year from now, we'll come back, and we'll do a national search." I got the job. I took BallenIsles, a non-ranked club, through turnover from developer to member-owned, in an eight-year period down to number 16th ranked Platinum Club in the country.
GK: What brought you to Addison Reserve Country Club?
At the time in 2006, I was the President of the Florida Chapter of the CMAA. Addison Reserve had gone through an incredible amount of staff turnover five years before me speaking to them. The first five years was controlled by the developer; this was probably one of the most successful real estate projects in the country. They built this incredible club and community and turned it over in a seven-year period, 717 homes, 27 holes of golf and facilities, that's how hot the real estate market was at that time. The developers were in and out of here. The members wanted control. They were going to run the club, and they churned through a GM a year for a five-year period. They had a 76 percent employee turnover rate. They had another project under construction called the Esplanade in 2006. They were almost a year behind schedule, and they were $5,000,000 over budget. I was asked to come in speak to the board about governance and how we did it under a developer's model of club governance versus the way they were operating. They had 43 people on the House Committee, 25 people on the Social Committee, 27 people on the Green Committee. It was a complete nightmare. They had 25 people on the finance committee. Every one of those individuals knew what everybody was getting paid. That meant the whole club knew what everybody was getting paid. It was complete chaos.
As I got done speaking to them, and learning what their issues were, I started to share how we operated at BallenIsles under a developer with clear goals, objectives and strategic plans and how the professionals are running these businesses and that those professionals are being held accountable for their daily performance. I asked one significant question. I said, “If you had the opportunity to bring back that big bad developer that you all hated when he was here, would you bring him back?" And every person in the room said, yes, because they had lost control of their business. They all agreed that they would be better off with a developer. They asked me if I would consider. I had no interest in the job. That evening they said, listen, we've interviewed a bunch of people over the last six months. Nobody operates the way you operate. "Would you consider coming to Addison Reserve?" they gestured. I said, "there is no way, the clubs half the size, literally half the size." I was accustomed to 54 holes of golf. There are just 27 here. "You're not going to be able to afford me. There's no way I'm going to do this I'd be bored," I replied. "We have a lot of projects we want to to do. You're the right guy. We will put a deal together, you will see." That was eleven years ago. If you look back at our success here at Addison Reserve, you will see that we have a goal driven organization, not an agenda driven organization. We've been that way for over eleven years now.
Over that eleven years, the club’s revenue has grown from $15,500M to around $26M. We are a Distinguished Elite Club Award recipient and are recognized as a Platinum Club of America, ranking #7 among the top 150 Platinum Country Clubs in the nation and ranking #34 in the Platinum Clubs of the World. Addison Reserve is also recognized as one of America's Healthiest Clubs, ranking in the top ten percent in the nation with a focus on health and wellness for members and staff.
In 2009, our membership voted with an over 80% approval to enhance our clubhouse. In 2010, we added 24,000 square feet to our existing clubhouse and did a complete refurbishment to existing space. The 70,000 square foot clubhouse now boasts five dining areas, card rooms, golf pro shop and administrative offices.
We continue to move forward – at the end of 2016, the membership approved a new Esplanade project. Construction on the new project, located in a former parking area adjacent to the clubhouse will have 35,000 square feet under air with increased footprints in our ever growing in popularity Fitness Center, Spa, casual dining restaurant and bar and aquatic center. This new project will be adjacent to the 11 har-tru tennis courts, which will not be affected, and near the full basketball court and four pickleball courts. We are South Florida – and the lifestyle continues to trend to being outdoors. This new project will offer lushly landscaped areas with water features and soft seating and will also provide us the opportunity to capitalize on 365 days a year al fresco dining venue for our members.
The Spa and Fitness Center will be amazing, and I could go on for hours – but I’d rather invite you to come see us after the first part of next year!
GK: Tell us about your succession plan.
These places must last forever, and you must make sure the success that you are creating now is going to continue after you have left. We have a succession plan for all our positions, and it's something I've never heard anybody discuss before. It's fascinating and right now the reason we've promoted superintendents, golf pros and chefs is that we owe it to them. It is my responsibility to develop people. I have a five-year rule. If they have reached their full potential with us I will start marketing them to other clubs to find them their first GM job. You will still need to close the deal. In my career we’ve graduated eight club managers to general managers at other clubs in addition to numbers of chefs and superintendents to clubs around the country.
We owe that to our people. You know, some people in the business like to keep people forever, but I believe that people deserve to reach their full potential and maximize their earnings. I want every single person here to do better financially. If they have reached their maximum growth potential with us, we have a responsibility as a company to find more good people to train. There are many more opportunities nowadays, and it makes it harder for us. But we all get better when we bring in some new talent. They have innovative ideas. I get to learn how the younger generations think today and I think we just all get better as an organization and we keep repeating this cycle. Some come back, and others don't. But it's definitely worth the effort. We are proud to say that our employee turnover rate is less than 7%.
GK: Tell us about your leadership principles?
This is real simple – surround yourself with the most talented individuals around. Share your vision for constant, never-ending improvement. Be persistent as possible in your pursuit of excellence. Lead by example with a great attitude and constantly show appreciation for your teammates.
GK: What are some of the communication struggles?
We teach all of our team members that the members are always, right – they are the purpose of our work. I mean that's still a big customer service thing, correct? However often when the issues get to me, they're not always right. I've got to tell them no, I've got to tell them whether their behavior was unacceptable, or their kids’ clothing was inappropriate. I don't care what the trends are today, this is the dress code, and we're not changing it. Those situations are always most difficult, but we can’t lose focus that the club has certain standards and rules and they must be adhered to.
GK: Let's talk about Executive Chef Zach Bell.
I found Zach Bell at Café Boulud; Daniel Boulud had taken over the restaurant at the Brazillian Court Hotel in Palm Beach and Zach was his executive chef. My wife and I loved his food. I am probably not allowed to go to Boulud ever again! [laughs]
Since hiring Zach, it's been an incredible ride for all of us here. We've changed the dining landscape at Addison Reserve together for the better. His innovative menus have been something almost unheard of in the club the industry. Frequent menu changes, pop-up events, and traditional chef dinners round out a round out a full dining experience for our members. Zach is the most talented chef I have ever worked alongside of.
Zach is a workaholic, and like every executive chef works a great number of hours, especially during the season. Cooking was his entire life when he was in the restaurant world. He had no hobbies or time to develop any outside interests. We pushed him on that, and now he has a life outside of here as well. I understand how you can be so involved in your profession, but now when he goes home, he can find that balance. He’s finally had a chance to embrace the joy of living in South Florida and in his spare hours, you’ll likely find him enjoying the ocean, his backyard fire pit for cooking, of course, his dogs and his wife, Jennifer, who shares his passion for the culinary arts.
You can read more about Executive Chef Zach Bell in a future edition of Golf Kitchen Magazine and also in the second Golf Kitchen Cook Book, coming 2019.
The clubhouse at Addison Reserve Country Club, Delray Beach, Florida, USA. Image courtesy Addison Reserve.