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Created as a way to enjoy the young nation’s growing affluence, country clubs turned golf from a pastime into a lifestyle. They brought out the social side of golf, and soon clubs were a destination for family dinners and corporate get-togethers as much as they were for golfers looking for the 19th hole.
Today, golf is a billion-dollar industry. As such, country clubs have had to step up to provide the same elite service they’ve long been known for. Private ownership and conglomeration helped aid this cause, perhaps best exemplified by Invited.
Founded in 1957 as ClubCorp, Invited has grown from a single Dallas country club into a global portfolio of more than 200 golf and country clubs, city clubs and stadium clubs, with a membership of more than 430,000 people. The Invited difference is a heavy emphasis on giving back to the community and welcoming people from all walks of life with open arms; a philosophy that has made it the largest owner and operator of private golf clubs in the US.
Throughout his lifetime in the golf industry, David Pillsbury had long admired the Invited way. “I worked for American Golf Corporation for 14 years, working my way up from manager trainee to Co-CEO – I had just about every role you can imagine,” he says. “I was General Manager of Nike Golf during a prolific time for the brand, and I had an 11-year-plus run at the PGA Tour before I was recruited by ClubCorp.
“We recognized that certain clubs are positioned differently than others, and member expectation is different at those clubs.”
“Needless to say, I was very familiar with the business by that point. I had many friends who worked there, and for many years I’d thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing someday to be a part of the ClubCorp team?’ I really loved what ClubCorp stood for and stands for today. So it was an opportunity of a lifetime to make the move to get back into the business that I loved and also to work for one of the great companies in the golf business.”
David joined ClubCorp as CEO in 2018, a time he says was a turning point in the company’s evolution. “We’d just been taken private by Apollo Capital,” he says. “My job was to come in and figure out how to reposition the company and significantly improve performance, but the good news was that we’re three times larger than anyone else in the space.”
Assessing the strengths of the company, David was attracted to the company’s “circle of purpose”, created by its Founder, Robert Dedman. “It’s the answer to the question, why: why do we do this, why are we in this business, why do we go to work every day? It’s about building relationships and enriching lives,” he says.
When David came on board, he found a network of clubs that had become homogenized through cost-cutting measures. “They all started to look quite similar,” he says. “We recognized that certain clubs are positioned differently than others, and member expectation is different at those clubs.”
With this in mind, David embarked on a strategy that focused on improving member experience and the quality of the product. “We call it premiumization and segmentation. We’ve spent a lot of energy on that over the last four years and it’s worked very, very well.”
Perhaps the most dramatic change overseen by David is the total transformation of the brand from ClubCorp to its new name, Invited. “While we recognize and honor the traditions and important elements of the history of the name ClubCorp, it was time to create a new brand that showcases what we’ve become and who we’ll be, moving forward,” he says. “Invited isn’t just a name; it’s everything we are. We want our members and guests to know that Invited is where they belong.”
But shedding the former name hasn’t meant sacrificing the company’s longstanding belief that clubs should be accessible to all. “We have a program called ClubLife Gateway, which is in partnership with First Tee. It allows kids who otherwise would have no opportunity to belong to a private club to earn a scholarship through performance and behaviour,” David says. “We give the kids exposure to a private club environment, and, more importantly, give our members exposure to these kids that maybe didn’t grow up with the same number of opportunities and who are using golf to make a difference in their lives.”
“We’re not in the golf business, we’re in the human connection business. That’s what a club is.”
Invited has also gone beyond the links and into other areas of clubbing. “Invited is so much more than just golf courses, tennis courts and pools. We connect to diverse social, charitable, family and business elements of the community through city clubs and stadium clubs,” David says. “We take great pride in creating places, events and opportunities in which our clubs have become pillars and hubs, so we’re going to be growing those very aggressively, probably three-to-five stadium clubs per year.”
David’s tenure has seen Invited’s competencies develop and increase. “We can go in and buy a club, overlay everything we’ve learned and have it be a very attractive acquisition,” he says. “We create more value for members, which means they’re happier.”
The more products and services on offer, the better the economic results for Invited, enabling it to acquire more clubs. “Remember, we’re in a business where members vote with their wallet and their feet,” David says. “You can’t make a member spend more money. They’ve got to like what they’re getting or they’ll leave.”
Robert Dedman’s motto was, ‘The more you give, the more you live’, and Invited has adhered to that ever since. “We’re not in the golf business, we’re in the human connection business,” says David. “That’s what a club is.”