Writer: Roy Green.The history of the game of golf can be traced back at least as far as the 12th century to St. Andrews, in Fife, Scotland, where people say – probably in a thick Scots brogue – that shepherds tending their flocks became so bored they began using their wooden crooks to whack rounded stones across the glens and into rabbit holes. And while there is no record of the first business deal consummated on a golf course, it probably took place soon after, when an entrepreneurial Highlands laird organized a foursome of potential fleece buyers for 18 (rabbit) holes of stonewhacking.Today, golf and business are solidly intertwined and the grand old game has become the martini lunch of the modern workforce, the buoyant venue where business gets done. “Golf for business is a hole-in-one opportunity,” says business guru and author Harvey Mackay. “In the United States, an estimated $28 billion in annual sales is attributed to contacts and relationships initiated on the golf course.”As far back as 2000, The Wall Street Journal reported: “As the game continues its transformation from province of the wealthy to mass pastime, a growing number of major international companies are sending young executives to ‘business golf’ experts to learn the art of selling themselves on the fairway.”
Or, as Bill Storer, president of Business Golf Strategies, puts it: “Think of it as a sixhour sales call.”
And if the ‘tight wee island’ of Scotland is the acknowledged birthplace of golf, it is in the vast open spaces of Canada where, centuries later, the game is enjoying its greatest growth. Canadians, perhaps because we have all this room (and any number of rounded stones and rabbit holes), have taken to golf with great enthusiasm.
“With six million golfers, Canada has the highest per-capita participation in golf in the world,” says Vince Kishimoto, of the Central Ontario chapter of the National Golf Club Owners Association of Canada. “About 20 per cent of the population takes part in the game, many of them for business reasons. And the real benefit of playing business golf is relationship-building; the opportunity to spend four or five hours in a captured situation. It’s a very useful tool you won’t match in an office setting.”
Business leaders who took part in a National Post/COMPAS survey revealed for each dollar they spent on golf, they earned more than $1,500 in business revenue. “Only restaurants surpass the golf course as an effective place to conduct business outside of the office,” stated the survey, “with hockey games, squash courts, tennis and nightclubs placing distant third, fourth, fifth and sixth place respectively. Not only is golf an important part of some business cultures, but business leaders say that it has set the stage for business transactions.”
Tom Fischer of Barrie’s Tangle Creek Golf Course, waxes poetic about the charms of the links as the ideal place to schmooze. “It’s where two to four people can meet in a beautiful, scenic, social environment and build a relationship together,” says Fischer, who has more than 20 years experience in the golf industry. “ You’ve got all that leisure time with clients who are relaxed and comfortable and everyone’s having fun. In most business situations, that’s hard to do. In the board room, it’s all serious business.” For young sales people, he says, the golf course is a natural place to build rapport with clients. “In what other environment can you see your customer for four to five hours straight, without interruption from phones, meetings or competitors.”
Chris Sadler, who operates an executive search company in Barrie, says entertaining clients on the golf course is a great way to break the ice with new business contacts. “Taking someone you hardly know to lunch can sometimes be awkward,” he says.
“What are you going to talk about? On the golf course, you have the game, the drives, the putts and whether you hook or slice, to talk about. You build a friendship without once having to talk about business. The golf course is a nice distraction, even as you solidify a relationship.”
The golf course can also serves as a second corporate office, according to Teresa Grattan, business development officer at Midland’s Brooklea Golf & Country Club. “There are two large employers in Midland, Franke Kindred and Elcan, and they regularly use the golf, dining and meeting rooms to treat their best customers and visiting officials from head office,” she says. Mark Parrish, director of sales and marketing at the Georgian Bay Club near Collingwood, agrees. “Executives and corporate clients come up and enjoy an afternoon of golf, preceded by a meeting in our boardroom – a little bit of business, a little bit of golf.”
But the key to the success of business on the golf course, everyone agrees, is to not actually do business out on the golf course. Bringing something up about business after your client has just driven three balls into the water isn’t a good idea and you should be thinking more about signing your scorecard before you worry about signing a deal. “It’s not a place to close deals,” says John Peters, General Manager of the Barrie Country Club. “It’s a great business tool, a four-hour round and some social time is a great way to get acquainted and learn about a person. The more people get to know you – and the golf course is an excellent place to learn something about a person, the more they’ll want to do business with you.” Peters also believes private clubs like the Barrie Country Club, established in 1913, offer even better opportunities for business golf. “The attraction to joining a club is to meet people of a similar ilk and the possibilities of networking and business opportunities expand. It’s the perfect place to blend business and social networking.”
Private or public, Randy Fielder, owner of Bonaire Golf in Coldwater, agrees the actual business of business isn’t a good idea on the course. “No one’s going out there with an order pad in the golf bag. It’s all about the companionship, the lead-up, the getting-toknow- you,” says Fielder.
And if soft-pedaling business talk on the golf course is a good idea, imagine how successful you could be if you bowed out of the picture altogether and let the client go golfing without you.
That’s the premise of Sean Manias, who left his job with Xerox three years ago to open Golf Hunter Inc., a Barrie based company that connects golf clubs, businesses and, most importantly, potential customers. Manias now has agreements with 10 golf courses in an area from Uxbridge to Muskoka, allowing foursomes to golf anytime they please, with Golf Hunter making all the arrangements.
“Business people who want to woo clients but can’t spend hours on the golf course can have the best of both worlds, and many clients really don’t want to golf with a sales rep,” says Manias. “If you had a chiropractor or real estate agent who sent you golfing two or three times a year with your friends, you’d never switch chiropractors or real estate agents. For businesses, we’ve eliminated all the logistics. You’re not out of the office and your client is having the time of his life.”
But for those business people who prefer to join potential clients in the sand trap, there’s another advantage to golf – it’s a great test of character and an ideal way to learn more about those potential clients. As golf legend Bobby Jones once said, “You can learn more about a man in nine holes than a lifetime.”
Working the greens
Bill Storer, who regards golf, along with following dinner and drinks, as a six-hour sales call, reminds: Pick your partners wisely. You want to play with decision makers, not the golfers with the lowest score. Don’t discuss business unless the client brings it up. And avoid it altogether before the fifth hole and after the 15th. Don’t drink: Save the six-pack for weekend outings with your buddies. Know Thy Partner. Pay attention to his/ her personality. If your partner is solemn and serious, act accordingly. Just as you get to see them, they get to see you, too. Play for the 20th Hole. Don’t feel you have to have a deal wrapped up by the end of the round. Your first priority is making sure your playing partner has fun. Follow up later with a thank-you letter or other appropriate correspondence that will get you back in front of your customer.