Stepping off the green for the last time is a tough decision for golf professionals, but some manage to take it in their stride and use their knowledge of the sport to great advantage. James Shippey had no doubt about what he wanted to do.
He’s the Managing Director of Absolute Golf Services (AGS), leading a team with specialised skills in golf course and resort management. His career path has led him on a journey to Thailand via the Middle East, always with the small white ball at the centre of his focus.
"I’m a PGA golf professional by trade. I gained my qualifications in the UK before moving to Dubai in 1999 for a position at the Emirates Golf Club. I spent the next 17 years in the Middle East in various operational roles, from golf coaching to the management side of things. My first general manager role was at a golf course called Taba Heights Golf Resort in Egypt. I then moved back to Dubai as general manager at Al Badia Golf Club, prior to moving to my current role in Thailand with AGS in 2015," James recalls.
The golf-as-holiday industry has changed significantly over the past couple of decades, with established business models no longer a licence to print money. Greater competition, cut prices and a fluctuating clientele have caught many golf resorts short, with changing client volumes and spending habits. That’s where AGS can step in.
"Historically, many golf courses were built for status or simply the love of the game rather than as commercial enterprises. Now most owners, and certainly in Asia, are looking at their businesses from a much more financial performance aspect and focusing on that part of the business to make sure their return on investment is actually there. Asia is booming, and has been for some time, which is great to see, but also it’s really important that any owner or development company investing in a golf facility develops it in a way that becomes self-sustaining and isn’t a drain on resources," James explains.
I certainly believe in people having the freedom to let their own personality shine through when they’re working.
AGS has the runs on the board – or more accurately, the short game – to prove it. "At one of our golf courses, Thana City Country Club in Bangkok, we’ve just completed a full renovation of the facility to bring it up to five-star international standards with a clubhouse renovation, a partial golf course renovation with an irrigation system, and construction of a 194-key hotel, which is operated under one of our brands, the Eastin Thana City Golf Resort Bangkok.
"Another one of our facilities, Nikanti Golf Club, has been awarded many accolades, including Best Golf Club Experience in Asia–Pacific for the past two years. We provide consultancy services to support this six-star, Pirapon Nimatra-designed golf facility. It has set the new benchmark for services in Asia and is a significant achievement when the competitive edge is so strong here," says James.
"We’ve also just signed a long-term pre-opening and management contract for a new golf course at Phang-Nga in Phuket, called Aquella Golf and Country Club, which is planned to open in June 2021."
AGS’s preference for using partners in the management and operation of golf courses and resorts means that it has built a coterie of specialists to harness the best resources and expertise available to AGS and its clients. "This helps to streamline our costs and makes us more effective as a company," he reveals.
"We operate in ways that really deliver dynamic options for owners, from long-term management contracts to shorter-term consultancy agreements. A golf club can pick and choose areas where they need support, whether that’s sales and marketing, golf operations, or food and beverage, as well as a full package program. It makes us more versatile.
"Obviously, as our business further develops and grows, our corporate partnerships in turn become stronger. This allows us to leverage corporate pricing in many areas, which we can then pass on to owners and developers. These aren’t just restricted to golf operations, but include food and beverage, IT services – basically a whole operational platform. Couple this with our parent company, Absolute Hotel Services, whose network of more than 60 managed hotels throughout Asia allows us to leverage significant resources we have at our disposal to further enhance the AGS value proposition to owners and developers," James points out.
The complex process of managing golf courses and resorts, coupled with utilising a partnership structure, can be boiled down to a simple mantra, says James.
"Just do the right thing. As a company, we think honesty, integrity and customer focus go a long way towards achieving success. People want to understand what’s behind a company. At Absolute Golf Services, integrity and doing the right thing are very important, and certainly something that spreads throughout the team. We then flow that into the businesses we manage."
That’s reflected in James’ workplace attitude of letting people take the lead in their sphere of authority and making their own imprint. After all, personality counts for a great deal in the hospitality industry. With that responsibility comes higher performance, he believes, and the results are plain to see at AGS.
"I certainly believe in people having the freedom to let their own personality shine through when they’re working. We definitely don’t tell people how to operate and how to behave. We believe in giving the people the room to be themselves and we find that this gives great self-motivation and the drive to succeed," he says.
"At the end of the day, we’re in the hospitality business, and we know that it is people-driven and customer-focused, so we hire the right personality to fit our team and company goals. Sometimes people may not have all the skills required for a specific role, but when they have the right personality with a solid base skill set, you can really drive people to excel and develop themselves in our business."
As a former golf pro working at golf courses, his days must surely be all long straight drives and birdies. Sadly, not so, James reflects.
"A lot of people say to me, ‘Oh, you work in golf, you must play golf every day’. I say, ‘Yeah, well, I wish I did!’ I probably played five or six rounds of golf last year, which is not enough by any means. But I’m very interested in self-development so, in my time off, I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Having the time to sit down and read can be a challenge, but sometimes when we’re driving in the car, it’s good to have an audiobook that helps you look at things in a different way, and certainly helps with focus and personal development."
Once a sports pro, always sports-focused. James hasn’t lost his interest in physical wellbeing.
"I enjoy the gym, cycling and generally keeping fit. During the COVID-19 lockdown period, I’ve installed my bike trainer in the spare bedroom and do a few kilometres every day, trying to keep my fitness level going. But a few holes of golf is still a great release for me."
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