After a detour into an engineering discipline confirmed that clubs were his true passion, Robert Sereci has combined sound principles with creative remodeling to earn Excellence in Club Management honors.
By Joe Barks – Club + Resort Business | November 2020
After he had already established himself as an accomplished club manager, Robert Sereci, CCM, paused his career to join his father, an expert in earthquake engineering, to launch a technology startup specializing in “structural health monitoring” for the measurement of buildings’ integrity.
Three years later, Sereci says, he “realized how vital club management was in fulfilling my purpose” and returned to the profession. He picked up right where he’d left off, eventually becoming the General Manager/Chief Operating Officer of Medinah (Ill.) Country Club in 2015. And his leadership in directing a dramatic repositioning and revival of that storied club in less than half a decade led to his recognition as the 2019 winner of the Excellence in Club Management Awards’ James H. Brewer Award.
That honor attested, once again, to how Sereci’s success in club management has also reflected his ability to apply a startup mindset and bring real innovation to the business. As Michael Scimo, Medinah CC’s ex-Officio President, said in presenting Sereci for the Brewer Award at the Excellence in Club Management Awards dinner, Sereci’s “unconventional leadership style” was critical in convincing the club’s Board and membership that “we can navigate complex issues and continue to boldly innovate to secure our future.”
That future had been defined just before Sereci took his position in 2015, through a “Medinah 2020” plan that established a five-year strategy for turning around a seven-year decline in membership that the club had experienced, even after hosting the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup and investing more than $12 million in golf course renovations. But as detailed in C+RB in August 2017 (“Medinah CC’s Surprising New Moves”) and August 2020 (“Reinforcing Clubs’ Brands”), the strategy only became reality, with over 350 new members added in five years, because of how Medinah, after Sereci arrived, began to operate much more like a startup operation than one steeped in a rich history that dates to when it was founded as a country retreat by Shriners from Chicago’s Medinah Temple in 1924.
“It’s often difficult to be entrepreneurial in clubs, because it’s an environment where the tolerance for failure has traditionally been small, so the fear of failure prevents experimentation,” Sereci says. “And when you have beautiful golf courses and facilities at places like Medinah, which has one of the most iconic clubhouses in the world, it’s easy to focus on the bricks and mortar and the grounds, and to not see the need for having an entrepreneurial mentality, which includes acceptance of failure and a constant focus on ways to reboot and innovate, no matter how much tradition may exist.”
UNEXPECTED, BUT NOT UNBEATABLE
One thing that “Medinah 2020” did not anticipate was a pandemic in what was supposed to be the triumphant, culminating year of the plan. This year, Sereci admits, has presented some new challenges for his management style. “As a people person, I disproportionately rely on relationships and in-person communications, so virtual meetings and having staff work remotely meant I had to recalibrate and adjust my way of motivating and inspiring,” he explains.
But the challenge of determining how to operate Medinah under the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, he adds, was no more daunting than many other personal and professional tasks he has taken on in a career that has involved working for nine clubs of varying types, sizes and financial situations in multiple continents. That experience of “starting from scratch nine times,” Sereci says, helped him recognize that the pandemic was really just another “Groundhog Day” event that called for the same startup mentality he has used to help begin the transformation at Medinah and elsewhere.
“The key, especially in clubs that have rigid and entrenched cultures and traditions, is not to try to bring about huge change all at once, but rather to take the approach of ‘benign innovation,’ by implementing smaller things that can make an immediate impact and help to gain buy-in and establish trust,” Sereci says. “That’s what we did initially at Medinah, with things like our chicken coop and vegetable garden and food truck.
“We took the same approach [in responding to the pandemic],” he adds. “The most important thing was to fi nd simple, out-ofthe- box ways to enhance the sense of community and member relationships that we’d established with all of the other changes we’ve made through the years, and to not be as concerned with how elaborate or ‘perfect’ they might be. That led us to do things like quickly building an on-site beer garden with picnic tables, and to bring in a giant, portable LED display that would add to how we could communicate and stay connected with the membership.”
Those additions (pictured above) and other simple but impactful, and appreciated, steps that the Medinah staff has taken have been key to helping the membership feel even more comfortable this year in using the club, which has seen a record number of golf rounds and strong numbers in other parts of its operation. At the same time, Sereci reports, they’ve helped to continue to add recognition of, and interest in, Medinah among potenti al new members, as an application pipeline and waiting list continues to build.
“[This year] has actually provided an incredible opportunity for clubs to focus even more on the value proposition they can off er,” Sereci says. “The normal activiti es available to the community that’s outside the club gates—sporting events, movies, plays—all disappeared. That left the door wide open for clubs that have properly focused on building their own communities and relationships. You can have the best-looking facility, but if you don’t have a [club] community, it doesn’t mean much.”