How to run a golf course (when you don't know how to golf!)

  • Article by: KATY READ
  • Updated: April 17, 2013 - 6:44 PM

When their husbands died, these sisters-in-law had to learn how to run a golf course — and fast

 

They had never managed a business. Never used a spreadsheet, never hired and fired people, never dealt with intricate insurance policies. Heck, they didn’t even play golf. • But a few years ago, when their husbands died within months of each other, Kittie and Linda Fenlason suddenly found themselves owners and operators of Blackberry Ridge, a 216-acre golf course and event center in Sartell, Minn.

Their husbands, who were brothers, had been in charge of the business. The wives had never been much involved; Kittie had a teaching career, and Linda had worked in a variety of local shops. But now the sisters-in-law had to learn how to run a golf course — and fast.

“We decided we’d better get busy and try to make this thing survive,” Kittie said.

They succeeded. Despite tough times for the golf-course industry in general, Blackberry Ridge seems to be not just surviving, but flourishing.

Until about 12 years ago, Blackberry Ridge was a dairy farm. Brothers Donnie and Veryl Fenlason had grown up on the 560-acre spread just north of St. Cloud and farmed it together, living in neighboring houses with their families. But by the late 1990s, as the men grew older and started suffering health problems, the farm was getting harder to operate. A neighbor suggested that the land, with its open spaces and thicket of old trees, would make a fine golf course. None of the Fenlasons golfed, but the two families decided to try it.

“We were looking to make life easier,” Linda said. “Whoops!”

They had trees thinned, which “we thought was going to ruin our woods because it was so beautiful,” Linda said. “But actually it’s more beautiful this way, because it’s like a park.” They had granite blasted away. They added a bar and grill and large banquet facility, and created an adjoining 59-lot housing development (they finally sold the last lot in March).

Tragedy struck in 2009, when Donnie died of heart disease. Veryl died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 10 months later. And two women who barely knew a birdie from a bogey found themselves in charge.

The timing was hardly ideal. Between the economic downturn, years of overexuberant course development and growing competition for people’s leisure time, nationally the golf-course industry has been weathering rough times. In just the past two years, according to the National Golf Foundation, more than 300 courses around the country closed.

Selling Blackberry Ridge was not an option. In the current economy, “anyone who wants to purchase that sort of thing pays pennies on the dollar,” Kittie said. After paying back the loans they had taken out to develop the course, there’d be little left to live on.

So they hired a consultant, asked a lot of questions, developed a sturdy support group. Help came from a variety of sources: good friends, an organization of business owners who share advice, their local bank. “They get so excited when we have success,” Linda said.

Their religion has been a major source of strength. “Kittie and I both have a deep faith in God, that he will give us wisdom and strength — which he has,” Linda said.

Even now, they’re continually sprucing things up, beautifying the grounds, improving customer services. They’re currently revamping the bar and grill, adding new lighting, new booths and a new menu. They’ve created a new website. It all gets easier as they go along, “which is really amazing to me,” Linda said. “Every day, we realize how much we don’t know — and how much we’ve learned.”

“And how much faith we have to have to go forward,” Kittie added. “It’s important to build a team, and that’s what we endeavor to do.”

That team includes family members: Kittie’s son Wes is superintendent and daughter Jeanne is event captain. Linda’s son-in-law Allen Rothstein and grandson Mat are also part of a staff that swells to more than 50 employees in busy times. They’ve hired a new golf pro and a new executive chef. And last fall, when they needed to replace the general manager, Kittie and Linda took on the job themselves.

The event center, which accommodates up to 300, has already booked 50 weddings this year, along with business meetings and Christmas parties. They’re planning special activities to appeal to women and families, groups that many see as potential growth areas for the golf industry.

Finally, the sisters-in-law may even learn to golf. “My plan is to learn this summer,” Linda said. “Maybe we can market clinics as, Come and Learn With Linda.”

  • related content

  • Kittie (left) and Linda Fenlason: “We’re going to keep trying.”

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Houston 1 FINAL
Miami 1
Philadelphia 1 FINAL
Minnesota 7
St. Louis 3 FINAL
Detroit 4
Baltimore - WP: T. Wilson 10 FINAL
NY Yankees - LP: S. Baker 2
Boston 9 FINAL
Tampa Bay 6
Toronto 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh 8
Atlanta 5 FINAL
Toronto 3
Washington 2 FINAL
NY Mets 10
Chicago Cubs 5 FINAL
Cincinnati 9
San Diego 3 FINAL
Texas 2
San Francisco 9 FINAL
Seattle 8
Colorado 4 FINAL
Chicago Cubs 18
Cleveland 3 FINAL
Milwaukee 2
Oakland 10 FINAL
Chicago WSox 4
Los Angeles 5 FINAL
LA Angels 4
Kansas City 10 FINAL
Arizona 5
Atlanta 100 FINAL
Charlotte 115
New York 80 FINAL
Chicago 111
Golden State 108 FINAL
Milwaukee 95
Oklahoma City 89 FINAL
Utah 94
Denver 114 FINAL
Portland 120
Nashville 4 FINAL
Washington 3
Arizona 2 FINAL
Pittsburgh 3
San Jose 3 FINAL(SO)
Philadelphia 2
Anaheim 3 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
NY Rangers 2 FINAL
Boston 4
Tampa Bay 0 FINAL
Detroit 4
New Jersey 1 FINAL
Carolina 3
Florida 2 FINAL(OT)
Montreal 3
Ottawa 3 FINAL(OT)
Toronto 4
Los Angeles 1 FINAL
Minnesota 4
Columbus 4 FINAL
St. Louis 2
Buffalo 3 FINAL
Colorado 5
Dallas 3 3rd Prd
Vancouver 3
Arizona 78 FINAL
Wisconsin 85
Canisius 73 FINAL
NJIT 78
Notre Dame 66 FINAL
Kentucky 68
San Jose 1 FINAL
New England 2
Orlando City 2 FINAL
Montreal 2
Los Angeles 0 FINAL
D.C. 1
Sporting Kansas City 1 FINAL
New York City 0
Red Bull New York 2 FINAL
Columbus 1
Portland 1 FINAL
Vancouver FC 2
Colorado 0 FINAL
Houston 0
Seattle 0 FINAL
FC Dallas 0
Texas 54 FINAL
(1) Connecticut 105
Dayton 82 FINAL
(8) Louisville 66
(16) Duke 55 FINAL
(4) Maryland 65
Gonzaga 69 FINAL
(6) Tennessee 73
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close