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Belle Meade Country Club’s Governance: A Study in Culture, Strategy and Finesse

Belle Meade Country Club (BMCC) is a private, member-owned club in Nashville, Tenn., with robust recreational amenities and a renowned culinary reputation. Founded in 1901, the club moved to its current location in 1915 where it is a central and coveted element in its members’ lives. Belle Meade’s more than 1,200 members are steadfast in both their loyalty to the club and in preserving its rich history, beloved traditions and hallmark southern hospitality.

Preserving the Culture
Belle Meade’s reputation for elegance and graciousness reflects its membership and staff. Whether someone is wearing a Belle Meade uniform or dining with their family, they can be assured that they will be treated kindly, appreciatively and with warmth and respect. The abundance of civility and innate hospitality permeates every aspect of the club, and its leadership appreciates the role that this culture has in the club’s success.

Michael Seabrook, CCM, CCE, general manager since 2011, says the club’s success is due to a strong, well-structured governance model that works due to its mantra: “Belle Meade is a board-driven club.” In his tenure, he has yet to see a board member with a personal agenda or a board that was ineffective or in discord with one another. For board members, the club’s best interest comes first. This dynamic is achieved because the club’s nominating committee adheres to long-standing, stringent methodology.

The board is comprised of the president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and five board members. Each board member serves a three-year term. The president serves for a two-year term, the vice president and secretary vary between one and three-year terms and the treasurer is normally longer than three years. They hold monthly board meetings which include a 5:45 p.m. dinner service followed by committee chair reports. Once dessert is served, the committee chairs are excused, and an executive session follows where matters of the board are discussed, and the general manager gives his report. Membership vetting is the last item discussed with only the board in attendance.

An Exercise in Discretion
Belle Meade’s nominating committee, comprised of the club’s past five club presidents, performs due diligence in researching and vetting potential board members. This is a circumspect, board-driven process that employs the utmost discretion in examining and analyzing how the potential board member is viewed by the membership, how involved and invested they are in the club, and their specific skill sets that could contribute to the club’s mission.

There is no lobbying of any nature by members to get on the board and, furthermore, there is no succession plan. If a member is asked and agrees to serve on the board, there is no guarantee of any other board service past the initial position. Members and leadership are committed to respecting the process.

Seabrook reflects, “Because members don’t cycle through the chairs and are focused on their current term and the tasks at hand, this has worked really well at Belle Meade. A few years ago, an incoming president served on the board 10 years prior and had a successful and productive two-year term.”

Each January, the club onboards its new leadership over two weekends. These five-hour orientations are a deep dive into strategic planning, organizational charts, responsibilities, in-depth facility tours with all department heads and a detailed overview of operations and expenses. These orientations are paramount to the board members’ understanding and appreciation of the complexities and nuances of the club business. It is important for them to appreciate the professionalism with which each department approaches their aspect of the operations.

Implementing and Adapting the Club’s Strategic Vision
In 2015, Belle Meade’s president proposed a strategic assessment to officially document the club’s vision and actionable goals. With the aid of a consultant, they went through this arduous process and Seabrook and his team have been implementing the strategy and adhering to the schedule to meet the club’s goals. In 2020, the club will undergo the process again to ensure that the members’ goals and the operational and financial strategies are aligned for success.

The strategic vision has evolved and been revised multiple times. Garnering the support for big changes and allocating the funds to implement a renovation is a delicate dance. Belle Meade’s members, as aligned as they are in their love of the club, experienced this age-old club-specific scenario, and have come through with eyes wide open.

In 2011, the board approached the membership to approve an assessment that would pay for a master plan for major club renovation. The project lost by seven votes. Wisely, they updated the plans, amended the renovation and reevaluated the assessment. The vote passed, but there was some resultant membership attrition, which meant the budget needed bolstering. The leadership recognized that to remedy the financial deficit, the board had to increase its membership numbers. The club has never solicited for members, nor do they have a membership brochure or an incentive program. As is tradition, the board and the membership committee handled this issue with the utmost discretion resulting in increased membership numbers. The membership recently approved another major renovation including a new fitness center and fitness studio, “grab & go” restaurant, expanded ladies locker room and golf shop, a babysitting area, a youth area and two massage rooms. The approval rate for the $15 million project was 88 percent.

Over the years, Belle Mead’s club culture has rolled slowly from a traditional, old line southern club to a more family-friendly environment. The leadership recognized the benefits that a welcoming family environment could have on the club. They hired a youth activities director, introduced casual dining with kid-friendly menu items and a casual welcoming environment. They continue to invest in the golf, tennis and fitness programs and are extremely proud of the dining facilities, especially the family-friendly Deer Park Grill, which offers exceptional cuisine.

Last January, Seabrook on-boarded his current club president and then in the spring they traveled together to the National Club Association’s National Club Conference in Los Angeles. This time was invaluable to them as they engaged in an environment outside the club and explored and discussed club-specific issues with professionals from across the country with unique and valuable perspectives. “The value of our professional affiliation with NCA was obvious and the exposure and engagement with other clubs was enlightening and positive for both of us. I was proud of my professional peers, but I was also proud to have my club president making the most of this opportunity and speaking to other club managers and experts and genuinely seeing them as sounding boards. I think it definitely has positively impacted the club,” Seabrook said.

Seabrook knows what his club members and, particularly, his board require and desire. He would never use this word himself, of course, but his orchestration of strategy in a club steeped in such a beloved culture takes a measure of finesse to execute. He meets with his club president every week to discuss club happenings and the operation.

“Yes, I am responsible for the operations of the club. But I tell my club presidents, ‘I am responsible for making your tenure enjoyable, easy and as informed as possible. You will never have any surprises, will always be abreast of all of the business aspects of the club, and you will always have good data. I will be totally transparent with you and let you know if I think you need a different perspective.’”

The combination of culture, strategy and finesse are carrying Belle Meade into the future. 

Club Trends Fall 2018