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A perfect fit
Everyone wins when the grass grower and the wrench turner are a match made in golf course management heaven.
Talk about strange bedfellows.
The golf course superintendent grows the grass and the turf equipment technician turns the wrench, but getting along is the key to professional survival as well as the secret to success. As a result, the ties between the superintendent’s office and the maintenance shop have never been tighter — an evolution illustrated mainly by stunning golf course conditions worldwide that in turn reflect the rising status of the equipment technician within the maintenance management team.
“The status of the technician is definitely coming up,” says George Klein, who heads the prominent turf equipment service technician program at Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College. “In fact, many of those in the business I talk to feel the superintendent and the tech are really more on par with each other. They need to have an even relationship — one managing the golf course and one managing the equipment. If they aren’t on the same plane, they usually don’t function well together.”
Klein adds that more and more he senses a prevailing notion among superintendents that they will usually do whatever is necessary to keep a good equipment technician — a result, he further surmises, of the fact that an increasing demand for highly trained turf equipment specialists far outweighs the supply. (See “Tech programs not hitting on all cylinders,” on Page 51.)
“I’ll have about 10 tech students in school and requests from out in the field for 50,” says John Piersol, who directs one of the country’s leading golf course operations educational programs at Lake City (Fla.) Community College. Piersol also is an outspoken critic of the golf course industry’s lack of support for a dwindling number of equipment technician training programs in the U.S. compared to the substantial promotion, recruitment and funding given to a widespread number of turf/golf course management schools.
Thus, in an industry whose professionals are most often seen as nomadic, many superintendents have come to nurture lasting relationships with those who have the skills to tend to modern, high-tech turf maintenance equipment to accommodate equally exacting course conditioning practices. Such relationships clearly require mutual patience and understanding while traveling the proverbial two-way street leading to a common goal.
Seizing the opportunity
He was, he did and it pretty much is.
Simms had no college or tech school training, but nearly a dozen years of previous experience as a golf course mechanic and relatively long tenures, as well, at two other New Jersey courses — Basking Ridge Golf Club and Stanton Ridge Golf & Country Club. He was hired by a relative newcomer to Baltusrol himself, Mark Kuhns, CGCS, who had been at Oakmont Country Club and couldn’t persuade his longtime equipment tech there, Don Perrine, to make the move from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. Kuhns has long been a champion of the technician profession, especially since his election to the GCSAA board of directors in 2003 (he is currently secretary/treasurer and a candidate for vice president at next February’s annual meeting).
It wasn’t long before Simms was promoted to equipment manager in charge of all of the 36-hole facility’s turf equipment and fleet vehicles. He also found himself basically a member of the maintenance management team at a very discerning, demanding venue often in the eye of the world of golf.
Growing the job
To Kuhns, in the business for three decades and a 27-year member of GCSAA, that’s how it should be.
“Today’s equipment requires a trained specialist in care and maintenance, inventory, computerized technology ... and here, it has to not only run good, but also look good,” he says. “I’ve tried to elevate the technician’s position, and Todd has worked very hard to elevate himself. He’s very highly trained; he can find all the problems and turn all the wrenches.”Having Simms join GCSAA as an associate member five years ago is one of the keys to superintendent/technician relationships, Kuhns adds.
“I feel very strongly that if the equipment manager has a better understanding of the turf and what’s going on in my world, he’ll do a better job in his world,” he says.
Simms agrees that even with several years of experience prior to coming to Baltusrol, he now understands the agronomic side much more than ever before.
“It’s tough on me and tough on the equipment, but I understand why we topdress or core aerate and things like that,” he says. “It helps what we do in the shop to facilitate what they do out on the course.”
“Anytime television is involved and the course is there for all to see, it’s a pretty stressful time that could make or break any relationship. We’ve always come out as a stronger team,” Simms says.
By the same token, Kuhns knows the bond between superintendent and technician in general and with Simms in particular is vital to his own success.
“The industry needs to put more emphasis on equipment technicians,” Kuhns says. “We as superintendents build a relationship with them and when everyone else comes and goes in this business, the tech is still there, making us look good. Todd’s pretty special, but he’s also the lifeblood of my operation. I want to make sure he gets the best training and to some extent the best treatment, because he’s going to make me look good.”
Perfect place, perfect match
That’s where longtime Class A superintendent William T. Holroyd Jr. and Lake City CC graduate John Riopel have spent the last 10 years in professional harmony. At face value, it’s an unlikely match — the boss of a typical Southern-bound maintenance staff at a sleepy private club on the edge of the Sumter National Forest in northwest South Carolina and a young equipment tech who was Massachusetts born and bred. Some might call that Job-Related Stress 101.
“We’re both very tolerant people, I guess,” says Holroyd in his slight drawl with tongue in cheek. “But, seriously, John just has a good head for his type of work, plus his personality is such that he stays pretty calm most of the time, while I can get a little hyper sometimes.”
Says Riopel, “Will’s easygoing. He doesn’t bother me; he lets me do my job. Plus, my wife, Pam, and I have five children — four in school now — and he’s been real flexible with family matters. He’s just great to work for.”
OK, so opposites attract, but who’s the opposite of whom? Face value is indeed never in good focus. Here’s how it’s played out so far.
Adapt and overcome
Meanwhile, Holroyd, who has been at Musgrove Mill GC for more than two decades, needed a new tech. He’d had a Lake City graduate before and wanted someone with that type of training.
“That opened the door. We went straight to the source. John was one of the applicants, and everything just seemed to click,” the 27-year GCSAA member says.
Well, almost. Holroyd and Riopel both are strong in the belief that while the tech has to jibe with his superintendent, it’s really the tech and the maintenance staff who have to hit it off.
“I think there is a natural stage set for an adversarial relationship between the guys who run and/or tear up the equipment and the guy who has to fix it,” says Holroyd. “John seems to handle that pretty well. I think that’s a very important dynamic.”
But for Riopel to get to that point, he had to adapt to the territory. He not only had to overcome his fervor for the Red Sox and Patriots, but also his New England accent.
“It was a little edgy there for a while,” he says of the North vs. South effect in the maintenance shop. “Now we all get along. You have to know about the equipment, how it’s running, if something is broken or not right. I’ve got to know all that. The guys who work out on the golf course can really help out the technician.”
Sweet home Musgrove
“We have a little history of people sticking around for a good while here,” he says. “It’s a fairly laid-back atmosphere — a private club with not an awful lot of play, but where golf is everything.”
Riopel, who is a recent past president of the Turf Equipment Technicians Association of the Carolinas, agrees with that and more than most will ever know. Therein is the rest of the story for the former teenage nine-hole course mechanic who has come a long way.
It goes back to his first month on the job at Musgrove Mill, November, when Riopel got a call that his father was dying and needed him. “Do what you’ve got to do,” Holroyd said. His father died just two weeks later, and Riopel then asked to extend his leave until after the holidays. Holroyd said OK. Riopel tells the rest.
“When I got back to Musgrove near the end of the year, there were two paychecks waiting for me and a Christmas bonus. I wasn’t expecting to be paid, but Will said, ‘We felt you were good for it and deserved it.’ That’s the No. 1 reason I’ve been here 10 years. That showed me that I not only worked for a real good superintendent, but I also worked at a real good place.”
The two have worked together the past 15 years at Maple Meadows Golf Course, a 27-hole facility in the suburb of Wood Dale on Chicago’s west side. Vukmir, Maple Meadows’ superintendent and a Class A member of GCSAA, arrived in 1991 and hired the already well-known Danielewisz the following year.
The match was a settling effect for both, especially Danielewisz, who has been a “golf course mechanic,” as he calls himself, for nearly three decades. He had spent the first half of his career working at several golf courses and for at least a couple of superintendents twice in the process.
The industry’s itinerant nature was frustrating, but also an invaluable tool, if you will, in building Danielewisz’s vast experience.
“I learned what each and every one of those superintendents wanted,” he says of his peripatetic journey. “And, by the same token, I learned their maintenance practices and I learned to apply that to my maintenance of the equipment. It was a win-win situation.”
Live and let live
“The most important thing to me is that Wes has the knowledge to do the job,” says Vukmir, a 17-year GCSAA member. “He’s been in this business for a long time and there is probably nothing that he hasn’t seen. To be honest, I know how to grow grass. I don’t know a lot about equipment and don’t pretend to. That’s what Wes does, and it leaves me free to do what I need to do on the golf course.”
That’s been just fine with Danielewisz.
“Even though Mike was my direct supervisor, he didn’t really supervise me,” he says. “We worked together on budgets and equipment purchases and replacements. He wasn’t involved in the equipment maintenance. He knew I knew better how to do it and he let me do it.”
Masters of the Meadows
Of course, Vukmir and Danielewisz still work together, much as they always have, making it click at three courses instead of one.
“We haven’t had a lot of problems; we work together and communicate,” Vukmir says of the new setup. “It’s working out so far. They’re getting Wes some help, so it should get better.”
Says Danielewisz, “That’s really been the relationship — constant communication between the two of us and an understanding of each other’s job. Mike knows what I need to get it done in an expedient manner and I know what he expects of the machinery.”
The good life
“It’s becoming more intense ... we’re picking up coast to coast, we’ve got more than 150 members and many, many applicants waiting,” he says. “I wish I had more time.”
But, in the next breath, the veteran mechanic says, “I’m having the time of my life.”
And Vukmir, the nonsupervising super, adds, “Wes just makes my life a lot easier.”
Tech programs not
When the October 2002 issue of GCM featured the equipment technician profession and its struggle to meet increasing demands from the golf course industry to provide trained techs to take care of modern, highly sophisticated turf maintenance machinery, the onus settled squarely on the educational sector.
The technician schools at that time were few and far between and beset by low enrollment due mainly to public perception of the profession and an overall decline in those seeking golf course jobs. Today, five years hence, things haven’t improved much, if at all. Tech schools are fewer and farther between, and the supply of graduates meets only a fraction of the demand. The educators’ lament is the same, only urgently louder.
“We’d love to do more for the industry, but we can’t get tech students in the door,” says John Piersol, head of one of the country’s most comprehensive golf course operations educational programs at Lake City Community College in Lake City, Fla. Piersol doesn’t hesitate to blame the industry itself.
“The entire problem is a lack of career awareness, and we get no support from the superintendents profession in promoting that awareness and helping recruit tech students,” he says. “It seems like unless a superintendent needs an equipment technician, they have no interest in the program.”
Piersol says Lake City CC’s Turf Equipment Management Program averages about 10 students a term. He notes that other prominent tech programs, such as those at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in South Carolina, Penn State University and Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College, are facing enrollment problems as well. The industry has also lost two other highly regarded programs in recent years at Greenville (S.C.) Tech and Delhi (N.Y.) College because of a lack of students.
“It’s frustrating and it’s a shame,” says Piersol, who has actively put forth an idea in which GCSAA chapters could support tech schools by offering scholarships to prospective students with the stipulation that they return to work in their respective chapter’s area upon graduation. He says the response from superintendents and chapter leaders has been positive, but no one has taken action.
“I’ve hawked that idea until I’m blue in the face — almost to the point where I’ve given up. I can’t believe it,” he says.
Bill Raisch, a former superintendent who guided Greenville Tech’s Turf Equipment Technology Program until it was shut down two years ago, told GCM that GCSAA as a leading golf organization needs to assume a major role, despite its members’ indifference.
“There is a great need for technicians, which is why this problem is so hard to understand. I think the golf course superintendents association is going to have to support this, financially and otherwise. They’ve been behind the scenes too long,” says Raisch, who was a member of GCSAA for 13 years and is currently the irrigation technician at Greenville Country Club.
George Klein, who directs the 11-year-old turf equipment technician program at Walla Walla CC — the only major tech school in the western U.S. — agrees that a lack of career awareness is the technician profession’s biggest hurdle, and he offers a philosophical Catch-22 twist to the dilemma.
“The profession is so unique, there are so few schools and so few graduates that it’s like the chance of somebody getting through a program seems almost impossible,” he says. “So, it tends to appear that it’s such a challenge to someone who might be interested.”
The Walla Walla program graduates around 10 students a year and less than that in golf course-specific techs. That won’t cut it these days, and Klein says that two months ago the school launched recruiting efforts aimed at the region’s large Hispanic population, mostly seasonal and hand laborers who work in the valley’s vegetable fields and orchards. The move is especially targeting those seeking to finish GEDs and similar degrees. Beginning Oct. 29 and using translators if needed, the two-year integrated program will teach basic mechanical skills and small-engine equipment in the first term and then diesel engines, reel mowers and other specialty golf course equipment in the sec-
“We have to do something,” Klein says. “The general public hasn’t responded and the golf courses haven’t responded. We’re desperate to get students coming in the door. It’s either try something a little different or close the program.”
Piersol noted that some turf/golf course management schools like Lake City and Western Kentucky University that also have technician training programs require their turf students to take courses in their mechanics module.
“That nurtures relationship-building between superintendent and technician,” he says. “It fosters an understanding by the superintendent of what an equipment manager should be doing and respect for what they do, which can morph into an emphasis on how the industry as a whole must build respect for the equipment manager role.”