Alabamas Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Is Great Golf And An Interesting Business Story
By Scott A.Sumner
There was much celebration happening the week of September 26, 2005 in Alabama. This beautiful southern state of the United States of America had three major openings of hotels and golf courses that signified the huge progress that has been made in the economy of this region. It was my pleasure to have been there to witness the events, play some spectacular golf and stay in the magnificent 5 star hotels. Larry Bowser is the General Manager of Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa which had their grand opening celebration on September 26. Previously to this weeks events was the opening of the tower, which includes a revolving fine dining restaurant and renovation of conference facilities. They all add up to a very special place to be.
The Judge Hole #1
"It has taken 20 some months since groundbreaking to complete the project. We have 200 rooms, all single loaded corridors which overlook our pool and have a balcony. They all have a four fixture bathrooms and are oversized luxurious rooms which cost $109 to $169 per night." smiled the proud Larry Bowser. This $60 million hotel is an economical development project in the Shoals area of Alabama intended to bring groups and conventions to the region with 80 to 100,000 new people expected to the area each year."
"We have two brand new signature Robert Trent Jones golf courses about 8 miles from the hotel, Fighting Joe and The Schoolmaster, both of which are over 8000 yards. The golf is a key draw as we are more of a destination style resort where people come and golf, fish and enjoy the outdoors. There is a tremendous amount of history in the area dating back to the civil war with many museums," states Bowser. "The music industry is very prevalent even to this day with Sam Phelps, the father of rock and roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin and many others from here." While we were at the hotel music superstar Justin Timberlake was in the area visiting his brother at the Marriott Shoals and Spa. "We want to showcase something that is unique to this area. There is a European style Spa in the hotel with several treatment rooms, something not offered with in several hundred miles. The 360 Grill is a fine dining restaurant that rotates 360 degrees in some 50 minutes and is open for dinner only," says Bowser. "We are exceeding our expected occupancy by over 10 points and the big surprise is the local community has been coming in and using the facilities so often."
Our next grand opening was the luxurious Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa. Dr. David G. Bronner is the CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama and the genius behind all of these Alabama developments. The 60 year old lawyer and academic has been at the helm of the fund for some 30 years, growing it from about $500 million to over $26 billion at present. We were able to have a sit down meeting with this down to earth business executive who has created one of Americas largest financial holdings.
Dr. David Bronner Talks About His Vision for Alabama
"The Grand Hotel was the only hotel seen as top quality before in Alabama. We know tourism is very important so we built Ross Bridge. It and the golf course is an economic tool to help bring in people, great people from all over the world," states Dr. Bronner. Dr. Bronner was Asst. Dean of a law school before this job and was in training to be a university president. He has a PHD in administration and was born in Iowa. "I spent my youth in Austin, MN 80 miles south of Minneapolis near the Mayo Clinic and Iowa border. We played golf growing up at Ramsey a little public course in Austin, Mn.," smiles Dr Bronner, a 7.7 handicap golfer.
"I try to make a point to golf on Saturday and Sunday. For these four hours I can put all this other stuff away. I play at Winn Lakes and at Prattville which is so unusual with a different course out of each door - 100 % different At the front is a true links course. The side is a southern pine tree course and the back a true water course." There are three Robert Trent Jones golf courses here, The Senator, Judge and Capitol Hill.
In 1973 when Dr Bronner took over the management of the Alabama pension it had a value of $500 million dollars which was 25% funded. Today the value is a little over $26 billion. "It was a disaster zone. I thought to myself I'm going to be the fall guy unless I change the state, the economics of the state," smiled Dr Bronner.
The Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa. Note their Porsche Cayenne vehicles!
"Starting the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was going to be my swan song. I'd worked so hard and gotten no where so I decided to do this because it tied in with the Shoal Creek incident. If they were going to run my ass out of the state at least I did the best I could. It was really out of frustration more than anything else, to change the image. We were going to build golf clubs that were better than any country club in the south and do it for tourism, to help recruit industry and to get retirees to come. It must have worked as the tourism spending in Alabama has grown from $1.8 billion to $7 billion."
"It gave me a neat leg up on industrial recruiting. It gives us something no one else has. We can get CEOs here for a day. If you come to my office you are not staying there very long but if I can get you on the golf course I get your attention for 8, 10 or 12 hours by the time we have dinner," states Dr. Bronner. "It gets them in a setting in which they feel comfortable where the cell phone is not ringing. Look at Singapore Aerospace for example. There are a lot of choices between Singapore and Mobile, Alabama. It is striking up a relationship. The Germans were looking at over 30 different states for their Mercedes plant. A company doesn't want to come to save you. They are coming to make money. You as a state provide the quality of life and want the company here. We want to do everything we can to make them successful. If you fail I fail."
Alabama has been successfull with Honda, Mercedes and Hyundai constructing major auto plants. The Air Bus parent wanted to place some engineers here and a 10,000 square feet run way made it easy to move an aircraft part from Tuloose, France to Mobile, Alabama. It helped attract the highly educated engineers to the area for Air Bus.
"My father ran a pool hall in Austin, Mn Ideas without money remain ideas he told me. You can have the best ideas in the world but you need the money to test it and try it out," states Dr. Bronner. "The image of top quality public golf was in Florida, California and then Arizona but there was nothing in the midwest. What do you want to do when it gets cold? You want to get out of there so you go from the Dakotas and Pennsylvania and come down. You got two choices when you are going to Florida- Alabama or Georgia. We have a better quality product which is a lot cheaper."
The Ross Bridge Golf Course cost $15 million and the luxurious Ross Bridge hotel $80 million. The course comes back to the hotel every 4 holes. The pro shop is on the first floor of the hotel and is the most elaborate you will ever see. "You go into a bigger idea. If I did it on a financial basis I probably wouldn't have done it. I trying to change the image of the state and recruit industry." notes Dr Bronner. "The trail produces about $250 million a year to the state. If I make 2 or 3 or 4% return on the trail, do I really care? Every point on the dow is a million on our stock market holdings. If it drops 100 points today I lost $100 million and that is just half my portfolio as we have lots of fixed income, bonds, mortgages and private placements. The golf thing is less than 1% of our holdings."
Holly showed us the famous southern hospitality and was a hit in our group!
"I see things like trash on the golf course. My father made me be the janitor at the pool hall growing up. It was a father son thing. He had a Cadillac version of a pool hall. He would work hard all week and on Sundays fix up the tables and watch Meet the Press." noted Bronner. "I am a risk taker. My risk reward is to change the image of the state - to make life better for 4.2 million people. The situation was pretty bleak. There are ways of classifying risk. I like to take out risk. Eg I can set up 100 newspapers and reach 12% of America, 14 to 15% with TV stations to promote the Alabama. There is a little method to the madness." Unique in Alabama is Dr. Bronner and his fund own a large portfolio of media outlets which provide advertising opportunities for the state and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Walter Kennedy is the General Manager Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel and Convention Centre at Capital Hill. The Presidential Cottage is a 10,000 square foot building with 5 bedrooms and 4 of the 5 are 1000 square feet in size. Downstairs you have a office area along your own copier, a full kitchen dining room and entertainment area. "We have a heliport out front which is used 6 and 8 times a year. For $5000 per night we will provide a chef to prepare all meals. We can have spa services. It is the most luxurious setting in Alabama," smiles Kennedy. "There are also two villas with 8 rooms each for 14 or 16 guys. Each building has its own common area with pool table, flat screen TV, full sized refrigerator, wet bar and barbeques. You get your own building and can stay up late and play lots of golf. The cost is about $2000 per night, off season $1200 and full season $2500. I love this property, the setting and we have a ton of things to offer. We take people by surprise. It was our good fortune to stay in the Presidential cottage and the feeling of luxury is everywhere."
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is a very special place to play golf. It offers superb quality and value at all its courses. As well you can stay in a 4 or 5 star hotel complete with spa at a very reasonable rate. As Dr. Bronner would say "We offer a better deal so people will come to Alabama." He's right on many levels!