Tee up to make solid connections and sign lucrative deals.
by Jerry Davich
Greg Fox took a beverage break between holes to talk a little business with other golfers in his foursome.
Fox, principal owner of Kramer & Leonard Office Products in Chesterton, knows full well that golf and business-talk go together like a putter and a putting green.
“I have seen a lot of business agreements concluded during a round of golf. I’ve seen buildings sold out here, just with one meeting on the course,” Fox says, taking a sip of a cold one at Sand Creek Country Club in Chesterton. “I guarantee that tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars in business is conducted on this very golf course each season.”
Fox, a 26-year member at Sand Creek, took part in the Duneland Chamber of Commerce’s annual golf outing in early June, along with coworkers Julie Leonard, Mary Pomeroy and Roger Moehl. Their company has 150 clients who also play golf and talk business here, somehow finding time to hit a little white ball into an elusive, faraway hole.
“Recently, I observed two people meeting for the first time and, within a week, one party agreed to have the other build their new company’s headquarters building,” Fox says. “Golf allows people to think about their answers longer, observe the other person’s character and feel more informed about whether they want to do business with each other. Plus, how often can you get four hours of leisure time with a busy CEO to talk a little business in such a relaxed setting?” he asks. “It’s really a four-hour business meeting, and some people are very experienced at it.”
Golf courses across Northwest Indiana serve as spacious satellite offices for thousands of business people, some who can barely play the sport but who know how to hit a hole in one when it comes to making a deal. Even if a golf course is tough to play, most of the posh ones are ideal for networking, landing a job or schmoozing potential clients. Plus, they’re flanked by million-dollar homes and home to multimillion-dollar deals.
“It’s the perfect place to develop relationships, gain someone’s trust and reveal personal insights about yourself,” explains Sandra Jostes, director of marketing for White Hawk Country Club in Crown Point. “On the other hand, if you see a potential client acting like a jerk, do you really want to give him your business?”
Playing a round–or three–of “executive golf” gives clients several hours, not just several minutes, to sum up a future business contact, Jostes says.
“It’s also a great setting for brainstorming ideas without deadlines,” she says, noting how many business deals are first written on “19th hole” clubhouse napkins or golf scorecards. And then they are later given to company attorneys to make them official.
Tim Firestone, general manager at Blackthorn Golf Club in South Bend, says his 18-hole course cultivates such a business atmosphere for working professionals, whether it’s for a foursome or a 40-player corporate outing.
“It’s a big part of our business, with roughly 20 to 25 percent of it involving corporate golf business,” says Firestone, whose course was ranked the number one municipal course in the state of Indiana, according to Golfweek magazine.
With such fairway negotiations, golf transforms itself from a leisure sport into a “five-hour sales call,” as some deal-seeking duffers call it. Using 200-acre picturesque pastures as a workplace, business people zoom around in golf carts sporting big clubs, fat cigars and stout pitches to seal a deal. Sometimes they successfully birdie the pitch (one under par), other times they bogey it (one over par). But usually they’re allowed to take a mulligan (a free extra shot) because there’s often another hole for another sales pitch.
“There is so much downtime in golf, mostly in between holes and in between shots,” says Corey King, Sand Creek’s assistant golf pro, while touring the 27-hole course in his golf cart. “If you’re shooting an even par over the course of a four-hour round of golf, you’re really only playing actual golf for about 15 minutes, so you have a lot of downtime to talk business and get to know potential clients a little better.”
East Chicago School Board President Jesse Gomez recommends playing a few holes of golf simply to better know potential clients or partners. “Experienced–not necessarily good–golfers can usually figure out the temperament of their partners within the first six holes,” Gomez says. “The 19th hole serves to reinforce whatever arrangements have been discussed or might be discussed in future meetings.”
Bob Wichlinski of Boone Grove, an entrepreneur and small business professional who founded ON-SITE Computer LLC more than two decades ago, has been a member of the United States Golf Association since 1992.
“Over my 30-plus year business career I can attest to the fact that I have closed more deals and achieved more on the golf course than I have in the office,” says Wichlinski, whose only pet peeve is the increased use of cell phones during a round. “I insist that my playing partners turn them off and only check their devices at the turn, and the conclusion of our round.”
Jim Magera of Chesterton, another Sand Creek member who works at First Source Bank, notes that he always has his smartphone with him. Most working professionals do, so they can readily connect with their office or contacts in between rounds.
After nailing an 18-foot putt, Magera says he has 50 to 60 “real solid clients” who also regularly play that course. On par with many business-minded golfers, his apparel and equipment reflect his past and his passions: Notre Dame-embroidered socks, Irish leprechaun golf club covers and chatty talk of Coors Light beer.
Golf-playing executives insist that pleasant chit-chat should initially tee-off any business-related outing with clients, followed by chip shots of personal insights, not professional ramblings or political diatribes. And never talk while someone else is putting, especially if it’s business talk.
Other tips regarding the sport of business-minded golf include:
* Avoiding talking shop before the 4th hole and after the 14th.
* Don’t drink too many cold ones during the outing, but don’t offend a client by pretending you don’t drink either.
* Be complimentary to players but not patronizing to the point of revealing any insincerity.
* Play to win and to your ability, not to lose or to inflate your opponent’s ego. Then again, don’t play too well if it means embarrassing a client.
* Do not misconstrue “recreational golf” with “executive golf”; the former should focus on your golf game, the latter should focus on your client or partner.
* Golf can be a true test of character, one of the most defining aspects in any business relationship. You want your game to reveal character, not publicly display you as one.
* If all else fails, lose the game but only after a nail-biting finish and a promise for a rematch down the road. This allows you to take a “mulligan” for another shot at a future deal.