Facilities – The Country Club’s Steve Ballard

Among many unsung heroes at some private clubs are Directors of Facilities (DOF). Most members and golfers are familiar with the golf course superintendent and the yeoman’s job they do with golf course maintenance and conditions, but equally (if not more) important, especially at a large club like Brookline’s (MA) The Country Club (TCC), recent host to the 2022 US Open is the job of managing and maintaining the buildings and other facilities. At TCC, that responsibility for the past 31 years has fallen on the most capable shoulders of Steve Ballard. To learn more about this often overlooked role at clubs, I asked Steve some questions about his job.

Ballard grew up building things. As a high schooler, he and his dad built, from the ground up, a 2-unit house on the lot next door. After high school, he attended Wentworth Institute of Technology and then Northeastern University, studying Building Technology and Construction and Civil Engineering. He is a state licensed general contractor in Massachusetts. His assistant, Chris Caputo is also a licensed contractor with a degree in marketing and is being groomed to take over in the future.

First, I asked Ballard how he would characterize his role and how he compares himself to the golf course superintendent. He said: “Here at TCC we have 27-holes of Golf and on the facilities side manage 46 structures along with all the utilities. Over my 31 plus years as head of facilities more clubs are understanding the value of employing a knowledgeable facility professional to oversee the physical assets. So many mechanical systems today are complicated and require scheduled preventative maintenance along with other aspects of a building. Additionally, many HVAC systems installed more recently are complex in nature and must be monitored daily, if not, repair costs and excessive energy usage costs add up quickly. Our staff size since 2016 has been 6-trade staff, a facilities coordinator, asst. Director of Facilities and director of Facilities. In the coming year we will be adding an additional trade staff. In the last 5-years we have replaced an 1894 structure that had virtually no HVAC system and for the most part was a storage barn. The new structure, of the same size, is totally dedicated to member usage with robust MEP systems. In late summer of 2021, we reopened a renovated 1914 structure that only had general maintenance performed prior to the renovation. The renovation added additionally member space and amenities. In both buildings HVAC systems installed were space age more complex than those they replaced and require significantly more department time to both operate and maintain. With the addition of these two buildings a new Laundry / Storage structure was also built adding to the total square footage managed. The department operates 7-days a week, with the personal outlined above, for a minimum of 8-hours a day, the only day the department is not staffed is Christmas when no staff other than security is on property. To manage the requirements the department must run efficiently and with qualified staff. You must keep up with preventive maintenance, be proactive with repairs and not waste time and money on equipment that is beyond its projected useful life.

Ballard maintains a maintenance plan (much like many golf course superintendents do) and notes that his seasonal considerations are much different. While this plan hasn’t been “in writing”, he is working to develop a document (much like a golf course maintenance plan) for the future. He points out: “With the club being open 12 months, we transition through the four weather seasons with four facility seasons. The busiest being the spring and fall when we have the greatest amount facilities transitioning to an alternate use or opening and closing for the season. The department also maintains a benchmark on all physical assets monitoring excessive repairs and projecting end of life for replacement. Fully reviewing facilities at every change, whether it is closing for the season or transitioning for a new season, you need to analyze that facility for future requirements. Being proactive stops most of the surprises and maintains efficiency.” Surprisingly, at TCC, the busiest weekend of the year is the 3rd weekend in January which doesn’t leave much downtime. During that weekend the club hosts a major Curling competition, an annual indoor Tennis event and robust Food & Beverage activity as families are typically at home. The club also maintains an ice skating pond, cross country skiing and sledding onsite.

The facilities department also maintains a benchmark on all physical assets monitoring excessive repairs and projecting end of life for replacement, fully reviewing facilities at every change, whether it is closing for the season or transitioning for a new season. Ballard emphasizes that being proactive prevents surprises and enhances efficiency.

Of course, this year, TCC hosted the US Open so I asked Ballard about additional responsibilities related to such a major event. He indicated the following as particular points:

  • Large events of this nature are all consuming, requiring not only a preventative maintenance plan, accelerate it as best possible and cautiously analyze areas where you can prolong addressing required maintenance, with a plan on when you will address it.
  • Because TCC has a substantial quantity of buildings these large events utilize them in lieu of a tented structure. The buildings need to be retrofitted from normal operations and use to a new 1-week use that could be anything from a hospitality area to a media center. In every building a transformation occurs and then undone the week following. Working with the event, in about every building additional power and HVAC is always required and, in many buildings, a temporary floor along with extensive deco to transition the space to meet its designed intent.
  • What most don’t focus on is what I call the “hangover” this period starts the day after the tournament ends and goes on until the last building is reopened for normal use. The more extensive the set-up transition the longer to flip the building back to normal operations and member use.
  • During the flip back to normal operations you need to maintain a reopening schedule and understand the priorities. The facilities staff has only so many hours in a week and all the buildings cannot open at the same time. This schedule needs to be continuously communicated to the membership well before the event even takes place. Communicating after the event is too late.

Security for the US Open required coordination with the club’s security staff, IT team, the USGA and local law enforcement.

I asked about how Ballard manages deferred maintenance and he indicated that it’s necessary to put capital requests into two categories:

  • Required
  • Desired (Aspirational)

Establishing a budget for facilities maintenance is a challenge, and while many clubs simply allocate a percentage of revenue, this often falls short of funding needs. TCC employed a variety of methods over the years, including applying entrance fees, a depreciation fund using a portion of dues and finally commissioning a detailed asset reserve study and they are now better prepared through appropriate budgeting to address deferred maintenance in a timely manner. When Ballard was hired the club had commissioned a study the previous year to determine the tangible condition and end of life expectations of all structures. That is reviewed each year through physical inspection and analysis. He emphasizes that “it can’t be done from a computer.” He also emphasizes that it be realistic and that it not only asks what the problem is, but also what’s the best way to fix it in the interest of long term continued use and maintenance.

Ballard says at TCC over his tenure this has been the focal point of budgeting each year. “The Board of Governors, who have final say over the budget, have become more focused on addressing the required aspects before considering aspirational, unless there is a proforma in which undertaking an aspirational request generates revenue. Years ago, aspirational requests were considered a priority, today aspirational items really need to be justified. Each capital item is scrutinized as to why it made the proposed list, this occurs for both golf course items and facilities.” TCC maintains a Facilities Committee that evolved from the former Buildings and Maintenance Committee. Their first project was to get the buildings to a condition where normal maintenance was possible.

In differentiating between his responsibilities and those of Director of Agronomy Dave Johnson, Ballard draws the line this way:

  • The typical response is the Golf course superintendent handles all elements that grow are living. Facilities handles all elements that do not grow. A little too simplistic though outside of speaking to a member.
  • The areas where definition is required are the following, the responsibility may change over time for different factors, one being the change in the GM, the Grounds Superintendent, or the change in the Facility Manager. Ultimately the GM makes the final call of responsibility.
  • The major areas of fluctuation are as follows.
    • Asphalt Pavement / roadway repair, reconstruction
    • Drain line’s
    • Perimeter property fence

One thing I learned is that, like the CMAA or GCSAA, facilities managers also have an association. Several years ago, Ballard and 6 other DOF’s formed a group of club specific facilities managers and ultimately convinced the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) to establish an industry specific council, which now has about 75-80 members consisting of club facilities managers. They even offer a course in sustainability for club facilities.

Ballard says that he fields inquiries from other clubs regularly about establishing a facilities management position. He notes that many clubs fail when they hire the wrong person for less pay. Club GM’s are rarely familiar with structural and mechanical systems and may not be adept at coordinating projects efficiently. Either construction or engineering backgrounds are most helpful. Large clubs experience a variety of facilities maintenance issues well beyond the golf course conditioning and presentation most people think of. Guys like Steve Ballard make the experience reliably special and can save clubs money and preserve value in the long run.