Leaders on the links

Execs share insights into doing business on the greens.

In the information age, where competition is rampant, a strong business relationship is priceless. And countless execs view a round of golf as the ultimate rapport-building tool with clients and partners. Indeed, a day on the links can be a great way of building trust with associates. However, there are some tricks to the business golf trade that, if neglected, can hinder and perhaps derail a relationship. That’s why we contacted three of Canada’s most successful corporate leaders who know the value of a game of golf for tips on mixing the game with business. And while we had their attention, we got their views on some golfing hotspots as well as on some legends of the sport.

John Forzani

Chairman of the Board, Forzani Group Ltd.

Home course: Bearspaw Country Club, Calgary
Handicap: 10
Best score: 76

How I got started: Being that I’m in the sporting goods business, I’ve played for a least the last 25 years. I used to have guys, years ago when I was CEO and very active, that would send me sets of clubs, unasked for. They would say, ‘Here, try these out. Tell us what you think’. I’d try them and then after a game or two decide they weren’t for me and I would give them to somebody else in our office to try. And then when I played with the individual who sent me the set of clubs they’d say, ‘I sent you a set of clubs. Where are they?’ So today if I get anything I send it back.

The payoff of business golf: Golf is a very good method of interacting with our suppliers for us because if you’re riding in a golf cart with somebody you have their undivided attention for five or six hours. And if you throw lunch and maybe even dinner in, it can be an eight-hour venture. And obviously you discuss many things beyond business, but you really get to know somebody. I’ve found it a very useful tool. Much more useful than, say, going to the opera or to dinner. It’s much more interactive than that.

Tipsheet: Don’t cheat! People have to realize when you accept a game of golf you’re also displaying your character. I can remember playing golf with a supplier. The chap just took over this large company and as a get to know you thing we went to San Diego and golfed for three days. On the second hole of the very first round I happened to walk behind the hill looking for his errant shot. And when I walked back up over the hill I saw him drop it out of his pocket and I heard him say, ‘I found it!’ Now right off the get-go the radar goes up. You can’t be 100% honest in one area and 100% dishonest in another area. So you see a lot of things on the golf course that could give you a heads-up about a prospective business partner.

My favourite course: Because of the industry that I’m in, I’ve played most of the world’s greatest courses. I’d say it’s hard to beat the experience of a course called Bandon Dunes in Oregon. It’s right on the coast. It’s very much like golfing in Scotland. They stick to tradition. There are no carts. You have a caddie. So it’s a great test, and they really do a good job there. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say Scotland and Ireland in general. If you golf you have to go to those places. It’s really the birthplace of golf. The land and the layouts, it’s just to be experienced.

My favourite player: I like Phil Mickelson and Freddie Couples. I guess I like Phil because he takes the most chances. He’s very risk-oriented and it shows in his game. He is not always successful but he’s certainly not afraid to try. That’s 50% of the thing that I like about being an entrepreneur — you don’t like it when you don’t do well, but when you take a chance and you’re rewarded it’s a thrill.

Final word: I think you should be cautious about accepting a golf invitation if you can’t keep up. You can be a poor golfer but you really need to keep up. You really need to not add a half hour or 45 minutes to your host’s game. And I’m aware of that when I invite somebody. I do ask questions, either directly or indirectly, about whether or not the person has any experience at all, because there are some little nuances in golf that are just downright polite and you should know those. You can shoot 100 and still keep up. It’s when you hit a ball out of bounds or into some trees and you want to spend 15 minutes looking for it.

Ron Foxcroft

Founder and CEO, Fox 40 International Inc.
Hamilton, Ontario

Home course: Burlington Country Club, Burlington, Ontario
Handicap: 12
Best score: 71

How I got started: I started when I was 12 as a caddie for the general manager of a radio station in Hamilton. He tipped me so much that I was able to buy a used set of golf clubs that summer. I played one year left-handed because the only clubs that I could afford were left-handed. My best game that year was 93. When I first took up golf my pro turned to me and he said, ‘With that swing have you ever thought of taking up bowling?’

The payoff of business golf: You learn a lot of little things. I had a client who said his kid loves basketball. Two weeks later I was able to arrange for him to get a couple of tickets to a Raptors game. It was a great bonding experience for me. When you’re in the office there’s a barrier where you can’t cross that line. On the golf course the barrier came down. I really got to know my clients on the golf course.

Tipsheet: Take a lesson! It’s more enjoyable for you, your friends and your customers if you can break 100 and you’re not in a cow pasture all day hunting for balls. I suggest taking a half-dozen lessons before you get involved in business golf. I remember taking a client out one day and he hit seven balls into the pond on a par 3. That is not fun. Also, people with over 20 handicaps wanting to play from the back tees — that’s dumb. It’s not enjoyable for the other players. I think if you want to play from the back tees you should be at least a 10 handicap or better. But that’s ego. A lot of golfers want to hit the ball 250 yards, it doesn’t matter if it goes straight, and they want to hit off the back tees. That is not enjoyable.

My favourite course: My home course, Burlington Country Club, is my favourite course. And I’m a member of Craigburn in East Aurora, New York. It’s a links course on the old Goodyear family estate. Many of the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills play there. Former Bill Steve Tasker and I, we play regularly. He always wins. He’s a 5 handicap. Other than my own courses, I like Hamilton Golf and Country club where they play the Canadian Open. My favourite golf destination is Palm Springs, California.

My favourite golfer: Arnold Palmer. He was vibrant. He was electric. He caused people to become excited about golf. His swing was ugly and effective and my swing is ugly, so he gave me hope. In today’s game he would do great — with all of this technology that’s out there today, the new balls and new equipment… Arnie was ahead of his time. Now the greatest athlete in any sport today is Tiger Woods. The guy is unbelievable. I would have loved to have seen Arnie and Tiger play a match both in their prime. Tiger would win, though. Tiger’s got a better swing.

Final word: I never talked business on the course — always talked it beforehand when we had a little bite and after golf when we had a little refreshment. The person is out there for the same reason you’re out there — to get to know you. So I had a rule: we’d have lunch, talk business, get on the golf course and not talk business, have a refreshment after the game and talk more business. And it worked. Their hobbies, likes and dislikes, favourite vacation spots — you discuss all of the things you can’t talk about at the office.

Court Carruthers

President, Acklands-Grainger
Richmond Hill, Ontario

Home course: Rattlesnake Point, Milton, Ontario
Handicap: 10
Best score: 79

How I got started: It’s funny because I grew up with my dad golfing a lot. But I didn’t have much interest in it when I was young. And then probably eight or nine years ago I ended up starting to golf, really for business, because I was playing in various golf tournaments. And once I got started I got the bug and got more interested in it really over the last five or six years.

The payoff of business golf: I’m a big believer that golf is a great way of meeting new people, to get to spend time with people in a social setting, and really develop a strong relationship with them. I think it’s a time for relationship-building — for thanking people, be it your fellow team members, customers or suppliers. At the end of the day those strong relationships generally translate into success in business. That’s one element of being successful in business — getting along well with others and also letting folks know that you truly appreciate their business and what they do for you.

Tipsheet: I think the most important thing if someone’s looking to start golfing is to really get some basic lessons, because it’s a sport that’s almost impossible to teach yourself. And so it’s really worthwhile getting a great foundation of lessons and also understanding the etiquette of being on the golf course. I think one of the great benefits of golf is everyone can play together, regardless of skill level. So you can still have fun in a group, even if you’re just a beginner. But really having that base foundation makes it more fun. And understanding the etiquette ensures that you’ll be comfortable out on the golf course.

My favourite course: In North America, my favourite so far has been Bandon Dunes in Oregon. There are three 18s there and they’re just building a fourth right now. It’s built in sand dunes on the Oregon coast, all along the water, and it’s very much an Irish link-type of course. It presents lots of challenge in beautiful terrain. And then my other favourite would be Portmarnock, just outside of Dublin, Ireland. I just love the history of that golf course — it’s more than 100 years old. Just fabulous terrain and a great challenge — a great test of golf with some beautiful scenery. This will be my third year going there this summer.

My favourite player: My favourite tour player would be Vijay Singh, for a number of reasons. One is he’s very good at his craft. He’s someone who gets to that position through a lot of hard work. He’s very competitive. He’s one of the hardest-working people on tour, but at the same time seems to be someone everyone else on tour really enjoys being around. And he seems like a pretty informal, happy, nice person.

Final word: I think golf is really about relationship-building, socializing, and getting to know people. And so I think the big mistake people make is trying to conduct business in that type of environment. In my mind it’s really a social environment, and the time for business is after that or on a different day. So I think the one big mistake is trying to push a whole bunch of business topics or discussions out on the golf course. I think there’s a better time and place for that.