September 2008

Behind the Gates: Meet the GMs

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

Belfair. Berkeley Hall. Palmetto Bluff. Hilton Head Plantation. Wexford. Haig Point. Six private, gated residential communities on Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Daufuskie have different personalities, but all have one thing in common: a general manager. While their duties differ somewhat, those general managers all share one trait. Each says, “I love what I’m doing.” They also all agree, “You have to.”

David Porter, Belfair
David Porter manages a staff of about 180 employees. When he came to Belfair as general manager last year he was immediately impressed by what he saw. No, not the two beautiful Fazio golf courses. “I golf poorly,” Porter admits. “I’d rather be with my kids,” he said. What impressed him was the community, where just over 320 families live.

“This is definitely not a retirement community. The school bus comes through here every day,” Porter said. “It’s that sense of community, the hometown community feeling that is the real personality of Belfair.”

Responsible to a board of directors, all volunteers from the membership, Porter is in charge of everything associated with the smooth running of Belfair. From seeing that the Fitness Center opens earlier than in the past—“because members want to use it before they go to work”—to seeing the golf program stays first class. “I have to wear many hats,” said Porter. “I didn’t get into this business to stay in an office,” he laughed.

As he sees it, his job is to bring the “collective vision” of the board of what Belfair should be to his staff. Then the staff translates that vision, in terms of service, to the members at Belfair.

Adrian Morris, Berkeley Hall
According to Adrian Morris, Berkeley Hall is all about golf. His Irish brogue fits perfectly where everything is about golf. Morris moved to the U.S. from Dublin, Ireland 14 years ago. “I grew up in a golf environment. Played it since I was eight years of age and worked in a local golf club in Ireland beginning at the age of 12,” Morris said. “I have 770 members here. They are extremely successful in there own business and their own life. I learn from them every single day. People have very high expectations now days. We, as a staff, try to provide social events and a series of services and activities to meet those expectations. “

Berkeley Hall is also governed by a board of directors, but it’s Morris who makes the community work. “My attitude with the board is that I like them to set the vision of what the facility or community needs to be. It’s up to the management and staff to make that happen for them,” Morris explained.

Morris’ passion for his work and the game of golf has led him to study golf course agronomy with hopes to officiate at a USGA golf tournament. “I have a passion for all sides of this business. My wife calls it ‘the golf sickness,’” he laughed.

“Everything we do is the best we can do it. That’s my charge: setting the right culture for our staff, a great group of people, who really care about this club,” said Morris.

Trip Shine, Palmetto Bluff
“Palmetto Bluff is not a typical private club. But it has all the components,” said general manager, Trip Shine, who joined the 20,000-acre community in March. He has owned a home in the Lowcountry since 1988 and is happy to be returning.

“I don’t have [manage] the hotel or spa. But what that means is I have the POA which includes security and the ARB. There are three retail facilities, the equestrian center, RT’s Market, Wilson Landing, the club amenities, the new Canoe Club, aquatic facility, pool at the hotel and May River Golf Club and racquet club,” Shine said. “And it’s great.”

Palmetto Bluff is slightly different because it has a public component also. The Inn at Palmetto Bluff, the retail shops in “downtown,” and the equestrian center are open to the public. Also, guests at the Inn have Palmetto Bluff membership privileges during their stay. But everything else is “members only.”

“Typically, you don’t hear from a member unless they have a problem. That’s just the nature of the beast. What I appreciate are those members who come in and sit down and be real honest and chew your ear about things they don’t like. But at the same time they’ll come in and tell you how great things are going. I think that’s the balance. You don’t come into the business thinking you’re going to get a lot of ‘attaboys’. You get your gratification in knowing you did a good job and members are happy. The old saying in this business is: ‘You’re only as good as the last hamburger you cooked,’” Shine said, smiling.

Peter Kristian, Hilton Head Plantation
Peter Kristian doesn’t have to manage golf courses, though there are four in Hilton Head Plantation, privately owned. What he does have to deal with is what he refers to as “a boatload of people”—the residential community’s approximately 10,000 residents.

“They’re such a terrific group,” said Kristian, who is the 2008 president of the national Community Associations Institute (CAI), a voluntary position. CAI has 58 chapters throughout the U.S.

Kristian got into the business of community management “through the ranks.” He was a special ed teacher in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington DC. Like many teachers he had a summer job. He was a competitive swimmer in high school and college so he took a job managing the swimming pools at Montgomery Village, a large (current population 40,000) planned community in Maryland.

Over the years, the commute to his teaching job, due to traffic, changed from 30 minutes to well over an hour. His wife, also a teacher (she now is an ESL teacher at Hilton Head Elementary) and Kristian decided it was time for a change. He began working fulltime at Montgomery Village and eventually managed virtually all the community’s facilities. “It was a real paradigm shift,” Kristian said. His next shift, in 2000, was to accept his position at Hilton Head Plantation.

“I love it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. I’ve been very blessed with really good, supportive boards of directors. They’ve been challenging in a positive way. They’ve challenged me to do things in the community and get them done. I enjoy that. I enjoy trying to solve problems and I have a great staff to help me,” Kristian explained.

In describing the character of Hilton Head Plantation, he said, “That’s easy. One word: Volunteerism. People love living here, being part of the community.” As an example, he mentions the Fishing Club, where experienced anglers teach eight- and nine-year-olds how to fish. “That’s generational teaching taking place. People are proud of their home and want to give back to it,” Kristian said.

Bob Gusella, Wexford Plantation
“The way Wexford is set up, I’m the general manager of the club and all of its amenities and then chief operating officer of the Home Owners Association. What that really means is I’m chief cook and bottle washer,” Gusella laughed. The part he likes best about his job: “The beauty of it, there is no such thing as a normal day.”

Gusella came to Wexford in 1998 and has seen it evolve over time. “Today, we perceive ourselves as an upscale, manicured community, with estate-style homes and diverse amenities. There is also a next generation of folks moving in. Our whole demographic is getting younger. The energy is excellent,” Gusella said.

When initially developed, marketing materials touted the “snob appeal” of a Wexford address. “I think that was a mistake,” Gusella says. Wexford is a great address, but none of the members walk around with a big ‘W” on their golf hats. In fact, our greatest strengths are the people here. They are a caring group of folks and very much supporters of the entire island community,” explained Gusella.

Mark Nordman, Haig Point
Nordman may have one of the most unusual general manager jobs of all. Located on Daufuskie Island, the only way to get to what Nordman calls, “one of the most spectacular venues in the world,” is by boat. A Haig Point ferry to be exact.

Nordman actually works for Troon Golf, a highly respected golf course and golf community management company. However, as a representative of his company, he is guided by Haig Point’s board of directors. Haig Point is member-owned.

Of his job as general manager, Nordman says, “It’s like being a town manager. Here we’re involved in every aspect of the members’ lives, because the club is your life. We’re the source of their transportation. We sort their mail; we get their newspapers. Even if they shop at Publix (on Hilton Head Island), members leave their groceries at the bag drop. We put groceries on the ferry and deliver them to their house,” he explains.

While golf is central to Haig Point (it includes an award-winning 20-hole Rees Jones course, newly restored), there is also an equestrian center, fishing, tennis, a new beach club, a historic lighthouse and mansion. And there are no cars.

“Haig Point is on an island without a bridge. It’s the pinnacle of member involvement. The difference is that personal involvement is essential.” Nordman explained, “and gaining consensus more challenging.”

General managers. A tough breed. The average general manager’s tenure is about three years. Yes, member expectations in private communities are high. Trip Shine at Palmetto Bluff says he tells his staff to use plenty of “duck oil” to let criticism roll off their backs. But, as Adrian Morris of Berkeley Hall says, “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

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