THREE years ago Whickham Golf Club had lost 99 of the 686 members they had two years previously and were about to shed another 78 in the following 12 months.
They had driven a bus so far through their £70,000 overdraft limit it had careered into six figures. The bank was on the brink of calling in the debt.
Now, membership is in excess of 700, there is money in their account and they made total profits of £110,000 over 2011 and 2012 despite investing £100,000 in their clubhouse and course machinery.
All this has been achieved against the national backdrop of England Golf reporting an average dip in club membership of 5.3% over the most recent two years for which figures are available, 2009 and 2011.
So, in overcoming twin hurdles of the general economic downturn and the bad weather of the last two summers to spectacularly reverse their decline, how did Whickham do it?
The initial steps were taken by Les Britton, then newly installed as club treasurer and a retired member used to apportioning budgets amounting to billions during his time in the electronics industry.
His first move was to launch an appeal. Two thirds of the members either lent or donated cash which raised £20,000, enough to buy precious time from the bank.
The full-time greenkeeping staff was cut from four to three with most of their admin work taken on by the volunteer committee.
Two other redundancies were the husband-and-wife catering team.
Instead, the job has been done by franchise with the club receiving 20% of the profits.
“It was a crisis,” admitted Britton, now the president and acting treasurer. “We had to quickly start balancing the books and creating the team ethos essential to any successful business.
“The committee was reduced to 10 from 17, common sense but flying in the face of 100 years of the club’s tradition.
“Also, it had been common practice for members to be voted on to the committee and then be allocated a role.
“At Whickham now, all ten committee members are managing specific roles suited to their skill sets and work experience, whether that be the course, the clubhouse, facilities, marketing or golf club development.”
That The Journal is now about to quote Whickham’s director of marketing Ken Greatbatch, a former graphic designer and art director, is unusual. Step outside committee-free zones such as Close House and Rockliffe Hall and sometimes you run into traditional golf clubs who give every indication they think of marketing as something to do with fruit and vegetables. Greatbatch added: “Les launched what amounted to a root-and- branch change of our golf club’s culture.
“Thankfully, the majority of the members bought into it, not least our 2011 centenary captain Eric Turner, and many volunteers who have been a huge driving force for good at the club.
“I now head a volunteer marketing sub-committee of six, each of whom are golfers experienced in sales, marketing and customer service.”
These days, good ideas progress rapidly.
For example, a Whickham member will know at 7am on a Saturday or Sunday morning if a club competition has been called off because of adverse weather conditions.
An email from the greens staff will ping into their smartphone and, if the member so desires, he or she can turn over and go back to sleep.
Visiting parties are always asked, meaningfully, if all is OK after their rounds.
Feedback has led to the club’s tees and bunkers being improved.
Anything which might make a member or visitor’s sport more enjoyable is sucked up by the Whickham ideas machine, most recently single-seater three-wheeler course transport for less mobile golfers.
There’s nothing magical about the two main secrets of the club’s revival – elbow grease and a full grasp of the concept that the customer is king.