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How to identify the right search firm for your club

One of the most important decisions that a private club makes is in the selection of its Chief Operating Office/General Manager. The right General Manager – someone accurately attuned to the various social, athletic, and financial needs of the club and genuinely concerned with meeting and exceeding the various expectations of the membership – increases overall membership satisfaction and produces long term financial stability. The wrong general manager breeds a disgruntled, restless membership, an unproductive “directionless” staff and, more often than not, costs the club “big dollars” in inefficient operations, declining volume and mismanaged capital expenditures.            

While a relatively small number of clubs still “go at it alone” (i.e., look for their next general manager without the assistance of an executive search firm specializing in the private club industry), most clearly recognize the critical need for professional assistance in this important matter. Indeed, there are a number of quality executive search firms who specialize in the placement of club general managers. This article offers suggested guideline and standards to help the reader identify and select the firm that is right for your particular club and, in doing so delineates what you can and should reasonably expect from the executive search firm your club engages to identify, attract, and retain its next general manager.           

  1. A company that works for your club – not individual club managers. Unfortunately, many club Search Committees are unaware of the different types of executive search firms that ply their trade. Do your homework! Research and understand the different modus operandi and source of income of each and every firm you are seriously considering. There are essentially two types of search consultants: retained search professionals charge a fixed, mutually agreed fee in advance; and contingency search workers, whose fee typically a percentage of the starting salary, is paid only if a successful placement is made. Be careful in choosing to engage a firm that has an underlying motivation (contingency) in hiring your next general manager.
  2. Full service to your club. A search “professional” who gives your club seven “perfect” candidates  four days after he or she is hired without doing due diligence, checking references, credit and credentials first, and failing to show up for the candidate interview sessions is clearly someone to avoid.
  3. Comprehensive and accurate knowledge of your club. The search firm you engage must be willing and able to spend appropriate amount of time “up front” with the Search Committee to fully understand the workings of your club. Ideally, the chosen professional will also dedicate a sufficient amount of his or her time to meet with the influential members and key employees to gain a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the wants and needs of the club before the search process begins. Beware of the club that does not peruse your club’s financial statements, history, rules and regulations, mission statement before beginning the search process “in earnest”. How can a person or firm find the right general manager for your club without completely and accurately absorbing this vital information?
  4. First hand working knowledge of the private club industry. It should be a given that any firm you are seriously considering to conduct the search firm for your club’s next general manager knows the myriad intricacies and technicalities of how to successfully conduct a professional executive search. In our opinion, it also should be a given that any firm that you are seriously considering truly understands – preferably with first-hand, working knowledge in quality private clubs – what makes a general manager successful.
  5. Current, verifiable and comprehensive industry compensation and operational statistics – ideally by geographic area. The search professional should know “cold” what compensation package is appropriate for the size, location complexity, history, traditions and member expectations of your club. Master Club Advisors is unique in that we conduct yearly gatherings of top general managers (by region and/or similarity of club) called Symposiums, where detailed compensational and operational data is shared, and issues of importance and concern to the private club industry are discussed.
  6. Familiarity with and knowledge of a large number of quality private club general managers. Beware of the fellow club member who works for a search firm (or has a good friend in the search business) who tells you he has the perfect firm to help find your next general manager. Make sure that the firm you hire personally know a sufficiently large number of quality candidates for your club’s general manager position. Don’t be fooled by firms that speak of their massive “data bases” on club managers. First-hand, ongoing professional contact works best.
  7. A formal system that effectively and impartially evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of potential candidates. Clearly, the recommendation of candidates by your chosen search firm is good and important information, but only up to a point. We at Master Club Advisors are proud of our Managerial Strength Analysis, a patented formal system that impartially pre-evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of candidates so that the Search Committee has a sound basis for determining those whom they wish to interview.
  8. The passion and “fire-in-the-belly” to want to do the very best job for your club. Face it. There are some private club search firms out there who’ve been at it for so long or are handling so many searches at one time, that it’s hard to see how they can truly be passionate about helping your club. Ask if they place a self-imposed limit on the number of searches they will handle at any given time in order to provide the necessary attention and the very best service to your club. Remember, the biggest search firm may not be the best.
  9. A complete list of placements for the past three years. Again, do your homework and check references. Investigate each and every club in the past three years where the firm placed a general manager and check the results thoroughly. It’s not important how many searches the firm has done in the last couple of years as how many they have done successfully!
  10. The person you hire is the person who actually does the search. Is the search professional that you hire the one actually doing the search? Ask each search professional that you are seriously considering this important question and measure his or her response. Beware of the search firm that gets itself spread too thin to do a good job for your club!
  11. A “no loopholes” guarantee for a reasonable length of time. Be sure that you understand the terms and conditions of the guarantee offered by each search firm you are considering. Read the fine print. What is the length of the guarantee? Are there any specific conditions that are excluded?
  12. A reasonable, competitive fee. There are still a few search firms out there that charge a large percentage (up to 35%) of the first year base salary of the executive they locate. How can that be in the best interest of their client – your club – when the higher the salary, the higher their fee? MCA charges a flat fee.  Our fee is competitive, fair and fixed.
  13. Contract negotiations and appropriate follow up after the placement is made. Make sure that the search professional you hire is thoroughly experienced in providing appropriate guidance and oversight with regard to the specific terms of employment for the selected candidate. Also, make sure that your search professional appropriately follows through after the selected candidate has started working to get feedback on how things are going.
  14. A core synergy with your club. Matching the right professional with the right club is, in the final analysis, more than a quest for technical and competence based upon past performance. The most successful search results are obtained when there is a core synergy, mutual respect, unquestioned confidence and an underlying trust between the search professional and the club leaders in charge of the search. When all is said and done, trust your “gut”.

In summary, it is critically important that the person or persons ultimately responsible for the general manager search (club owner, club president, search committee, etc.) do their due diligence before the search professional is hired. The time and effort you commit “up front” will pay huge dividends for the club and its members for many years to come.