More than 30 years ago, Kemper Insurance ran a television ad campaign that used a cavalry as a symbol for the company, which insures businesses, homes, vehicles and lives. Now an offshoot of the company, KemperSports, has symbolically ridden into Lawrence to help reduce costs at the 95-year-old village-owned Lawrence Yacht & Country Club and help it run more efficiently.
The village and Kemper-Sports, a golf course and hospitality management company, agreed to a three-year contract in June, extending a three-month agreement that the village board approved in March, before a similar contract with BrightView Landscape Service expired on April 1.
KemperSports, a firm founded in 1978 by the board of Kemper Insurance and based in Northbrook, Ill., was one of four companies from which Lawrence received presentations last summer as the village planned to privatize the country club. KemperSports oversees 122 municipal golf properties across the U.S.
“This helps to manage the country club in the most profitable way, along with all the comforts [of a large company],” Lawrence Mayor Alex Edelman said. “They have the experience and the staff we cannot afford to hire.” That includes public relations, finance and billings and collection departments, along with a computerized system for tee times.
The club has an 18-hole, par 71, 6,363-yard golf course; a driving range; nine lighted Har-Tru tennis courts and two pickleball courts; a 135-slip marina; and a catering hall with kosher and non-kosher caterers.
“We have a track record of working with municipalities and having great relationships with the mayors,” said KemperSports Senior Vice President Frank Merkel. “We make sure we listen to all branches of the municipalities. We don’t take control. We listen and collaborate to make the right decisions for the best member-guest experience.”
Country clubs with golf courses have closed across Long Island in the past few years, and those that remain are finding it difficult to turn a profit. In the Five Towns, the 11-year-old Woodmere Club was sold in 2017, and earlier this year its new owners unveiled a plan to build 285 single-family homes on the property. The Seawane Country Club, in Hewlett Harbor, is selling 1.12 acres of land to pay down debt.
So how does KemperSports expect to battle what has been described as a lifestyle change, with fewer people playing golf and joining country clubs? “Making sure that our No. 1 asset, the golf course conditions, continue to improve for the players, and in conjunction with the tennis facility, maintain it at a high level,” Merkel said, adding that special events, such as Play for Pink, on July 11, which raised money for breast cancer awareness, and Guest Day, on July 25, which drew 240 residents and guests, are ways to attract new members.
To retain members new and old, Merkel noted an original KemperSports program. “It’s all about membership,” he said, “and our proprietary True Service teaches staff to be truly friendly and helpful by learning guests’ names and welcoming them from the get-go. Nationwide, it distinguishes us, and we pride ourselves on making members feel welcome, and that the club is an extension of your home.” Last week, the club’s general manager, Cory Menking, who was initially hired by the village and is now a Kemper employee, was in Chicago for True Service training.
Edelman said he believed Kemper’s volume buying power would help the Lawrence club cut costs. There were no hard numbers yet, Merkel said, but he added that Kemper could get better prices for fertilizer and other chemicals that golf superintendent Adam Thomas purchases and apply the savings to maintaining the golf course.
“I think things are new, and I’m giving them time to work things out,” said Village Trustee Syma Diamond, who serves as the village board’s liaison to the Parks Commission, which also has a role in helping to enhance club operations. “I understand they’re making the time for the tennis courts, and the golf course is in good shape.”
The village’s agreement with Kemper-Sports included a 90-day escape clause, but Edelman said he did not expect the village to exercise that option. “So far, with the work they’ve done for six months,” he said, “they’re honorable, good businesspeople, and we’re looking forward to a fruitful relationship for many years to come.”