Monte Ahuja loves to golf. But it wasn’t so long ago that he had difficulty joining a country club.
“Not because I couldn’t afford it, but the circumstances were such at that time that it was not easy to join a club,” says Ahuja, who was born in India. “It was frustrating because of the environment in the ’70s and ’80s. Some of the prestigious clubs in Cleveland had very restrictive admissions, even discriminative policies.
“But in a way, that was motivating to me because when that happened, I always said in my mind, ‘Someday I want to own my own golf course and I won’t have to worry about it.’ Now I don’t own one. I own three golf courses.”
Ahuja, who bought Barrington Golf Club in Aurora in 2011, recently added two more clubs to his ledger with the acquisition of Mayfield Sand Ridge Club, which consists of Mayfield Country Club in South Euclid and Sand Ridge Country Club in Chardon. While the full sales price was not disclosed, the purchase for the Mayfield property alone was $3.6 million, according to Cuyahoga County land records.
“It’s a fun business and a fun passion,” says Ahuja, who is executive chairman of Transtar Industries Inc. “Everybody asks if I’m going into the golf business and that’s not my intention. These are all within town, within 20 to 25 minutes of my house. I have a good management team with me that can do a lot of things with my direction, my vision and my investment. That’s what I intend to provide.”
We caught up with Ahuja to talk about his plans to remake his newly acquired golf properties and the role golf has played in his success as a dealmaker.
An intriguing opportunity
Ahuja was not actively looking to buy another country club when he learned that Mayfield Sand Ridge was for sale. The club was formed in 2006 by the merger of the classic Mayfield, which opened in 1908, and the modern Sand Ridge, which debuted in 1998.
“I ended up contacting Matt Creech, who is the club manager and a great pro, just to confirm that the club was potentially looking for investors,” Ahuja says. “Through him, I connected with the chairman of the board at the club and we met a couple days later and had a great conversation. I understood what the expectation was in terms of the club’s future. I didn’t feel it was out of line. So from an investment and expectation point of view, it was pretty aligned with what I would do.”
While Sand Ridge is “a very beautiful and challenging course” designed by Tom Fazio, Ahuja says, Mayfield is more historical, “a rolling golf course with great history.” His plan is to reinvigorate the best attributes of both clubs to give golfers a great place to play and have a world-class experience.
“These two golf courses are distinctly different, and yet are very high-end, very high-quality courses,” Ahuja says. “They were suffering from the same thing — financial strain and not being able to keep the membership up the way they had. There was a lack of investment in upkeep, upgrading and renovation. Being already in debt with the banks, they didn’t feel they could carry more debt and they didn’t feel there was much appetite in the membership to come with a big assessment. So where do you go?”
Risk is relative
One of Ahuja’s selling points as a prospective owner was his work at Barrington, a course designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus. The course had fallen into disrepair due to lack of proper upkeep and maintenance. In this case, the club was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
“I bought the bank papers,” Ahuja says. “Since the quality of the golf course and clubhouse was there, I knew I’d fix it quickly and I did. We not only fixed the physical aspects, but upgraded the quality of the service, the food and the people working there — the whole idea of how you manage a business. The results were fantastic. The members came back, along with new people and our membership roster became pretty strong, which made the investment worthwhile.”
Risk assessment is certainly part of the equation in any deal Ahuja looks at. In these deals, he says there wasn’t much to fear.
“The question of low risk and high risk is all relative,” Ahuja says. “From my point of view, I consider this low risk. I measure from the worst situation and ask myself, can I sustain it without having any major disasters? The answer is yes, I can afford the risk. As an entrepreneur and a businessman, it’s not a huge undertaking or a huge risk.”
The membership at Mayfield Sand Ridge has a high level of confidence in Ahuja to have a positive impact, with 98 percent voting in favor of his purchase.
“Typically, members have a difficult time giving up the ownership because they are the owners,” Ahuja says. “So giving up ownership at that level of confidence, I take it pretty seriously.”
Ahuja will set financial benchmarks for his ownership of Mayfield Sand Ridge, just as he did for Barrington. Mayfield Sand Ridge currently has 523 active members, says General Manager Randy Owoc, CCM. Ahuja says the club has added 15 to 20 new members in the last couple months and he hopes to add as many as 100 more members in the future.
“Right now, the focus is on improvements that will take investment and extra cost,” Ahuja says. “We want to follow up with better service, better quality and more members. We’re going to see in the next six months to a year how our work, our input and our investment changes the perception of the golf course. Then we can develop a more specific long-term plan. But I don’t consider it a high-risk investment. I’m willing to make the investment it will take to make this pay off."
Ahuja admits it’s been a tough stretch in recent years for golf and for country clubs in the region.
“The game of golf is not on an upswing,” he says. “It’s been in decline for several years for a number of different reasons. It started with the fact that it was no longer a deductible expense in the business world, where most of the members were from. It’s also very time consuming. Young kids don’t have the patience to be on the golf course for four, five or six hours. Because of the change, demand is less and the golf courses are still there.”
If the trend continues, it would be a blow to dealmakers like Ahuja, an 11 handicap who frequently uses golf as a way to close deals.
“A long time ago, there was a company owned by BF Goodrich in Michigan that I was trying to buy,” Ahuja says. “We were just not connecting and not getting to a mutual price. I invited the gentleman who had the power to make the deal to a golf course and we had a wonderful time. We connected well and right after, we were having dinner. With a handshake, we made the deal. I don’t think it would have happened without the golf game.
“You make a lot of good business connections at the golf course. There’s no other game where you’re walking or sitting next to your opponent or friend for four or five hours chatting together, playing together, betting together competitively and then having a cocktail or dinner. If you’re playing tennis, you have to be pretty competitive to enjoy the game and you’re not talking at all. But with golf, you’re talking and chatting and having fun and still competing.”
How to reach: The Mayfield Sand Ridge Club, www.mayfieldsandridge.com