Corporate profile: Charlie Parker, the king of swing

`In the mid-Nineties, golf was a four-letter word,' says Charlie Parker, chief executive of Clubhaus. Now, the City is starting to swear by Britain and Europe's largest golf company. And the secret of his success? There's more to golf than golf
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IT'S RYDER Cup time again, and securing a slot to tee-off at the local course will be like booking a tennis court during Wimbledon. But Charlie Parker, 35-year-old boss of the UK's largest golfing company, has more than the ancient game on his mind. He's got what he rather quaintly terms "the ladies" to worry about.

Mr Parker, chief executive of Clubhaus, the largest pan-European golf company, is giving me a guided tour of the facilities at Castle Royle, the Clubhaus flagship course, on the fringes of the Maidenhead suburbs in Berkshire. Looking down on the course through the glass walls of Castle Royle's gym are about 30 women, walking, running, pushing and pulling.

It is 9.30am. "Shouldn't these people be at work?" I ask.

"It's something that I've often wondered, where all the people come from," says Mr Parker. "Maybe it's flexi-hours. We're almost full and the public schools haven't even gone back yet."

It must be said, Castle Royle's catchment area is atypical. The annual golf subs are pounds 10,000 and there is no shortage of wealthy businessmen from nearby Reading and Maidenhead for whom that is affordable. Castle Royle also offers something for their partners - a healthclub and aromatherapy centre. That's not exceptional - Clubhaus plans a healthclub at any course it can.

The successful move into healthclubs is responsible for Clubhaus at last finding favour in the City. Since the company wasestablished as a joint venture in 1991, it has headed in several directions. First, it avoided the UK, seeing better-value acquisition targets in continental Europe. At flotation in 1996, Clubhaus owned two courses in Germany, and one each in Belgium, France and the UK. In 42 months, 14 more have been acquired and another leased, all but three in the UK. Mr Parker has returned to the City to raise funds totalling pounds 43m through share placings. The shares have had a rollercoaster ride, hitting 107.75p and plumbing 55.5p last year.

And Clubhaus has been held back by its status as a small company. Frequently, Mr Parker would give presentations to fund managers who would immediately put the shares in their portfolio. Fairly soon, the fund manager would be replaced and his portfolio sold by a successor eager to begin with a clean sheet. Then Mr Parker would meet the new manager and Clubhaus would go back in the portfolio. So it went on.

Now Clubhaus is being perceived as a fast-growing leisure company. "In the mid-Nineties, golf was a four-letter word," says Mr Parker. "A lot of people have lost a lot of money in the business. To take an idea, which is all it was, with very little substance behind it, to the City and say, `Give us some money' was the biggest hurdle. We spent three-and-a-half years trying to prove we are not just talking rubbish."

In the first half of this year, the company's sales rose 35 per cent, to more than pounds 14m, a like-for-like increase of 24 per cent. Operating profits jumped 45 per cent to pounds 4.1m. There were 334,000 rounds of golf on its courses in the first six months of the year, a rise of 26 per cent on the similar period last year. But what most pleased the City was the more-than-doubling of healthclub memberships to 5,200.

The point of moving into health and fitness is not only to generate a larger and more reliable source of earnings from golf courses that would otherwise be relatively idle in the winter. The shift is is designed to encourage more women to tee-off. "Since we started we've always wanted to promote ladies' golf," says Mr Parker. "It's easy to say it, but it's a lot harder to actually do it." Golf is dragging itself into the 20th century. Even the bastion of old-school golf, Epsom's RAC Club, has allowed women to be full members. "The hallowed institutions are bowing to a big market," says Mr Parker.

He always takes care politely to refer to his female customers as "ladies". After all, they are members. "There are certain male golfers who would hate to think they would have to share the bar with a lady. Now I've nothing against that, and if that's what they want, there are other clubs out there which cater for them." Although Clubhaus's golfing membership is 85 per cent male, the proportion of new members who are female is increasing. They come for the healthclub, Mr Parker says, and there's a creche. "Give the ladies more reasons to come to the club, and you've got a better chance of attracting them onto the golf course. You've got to promote - though I hate to say it - the fashion shows and the coffee mornings." All the cappuccinos, lunches and membership fees are adding up to a decent business. Castle Royle opened only in June but the health club is full and just 300 golf memberships remain. This is Mr Parker's pride and joy, and it vindicates his strategy. But it has taken time.

Clubhaus was set up with IMG, the US sports and entertainment group, and Ex-Lands, a property company. Mr Parker, a frustrated accountant whose father is president of the Racehorse Owners' Association, had been on the lookout for an opportunity to combine his lifelong interest in sport with his business skills. He joined Ex-Lands in 1992, with responsibility for its side of the joint venture. He says he would not have joined a property business had it not had such sport business. That needn't have been a golf company. He is not a golf bore. "I've played golf for a long time," he says. "Very badly."

Mr Parker's disenchantment with accountancy came in 1989 when, just two hours into an accountancy exam, he realised the profession was not for him long-term. "I hated it, but I appreciate the tools accountancy has given me. I've always wanted to do something different and I liked the idea of business and sport. For a long time I'd thought the leisure industry, despite the ups and downs, would be exciting." After six months at Clubhaus, it was clear the company needed autonomy to raise its own money. Mr Parker says he ended up heading it because he was "the luckiest man there, or the unluckiest", and because he had experience of doing deals in the City. "And maybe I had clearer strategic thinking than anybody else, but it's very much a team effort."

David Lloyd, the leisure club entrepreneur, was on the Clubhaus board, so the notion that healthclubs could be profitable was not scandalous. The Clubhaus plan does not rely on entirely on women. Mr Parker is trying to broaden the appeal of membership of his courses, to attract people who who would be put off asking for fear of a haughty put-down by a stereotyped Sir Tufton-Bufton.

"The problem comes when a potential member turns up at a course and gets shouted at for parking in the wrong spot, or wearing the wrong clothes," says Mr Parker. "Our philosophy is different. It's about education. It's not about saying, `This is the way we do it'. We explain why we do it this way."

The membership structure provides a captive customer base. Once a member has joined, for the golf, the aromatherapy or the gym, Mr Parker sees opportunities to sell a product range from discount travel to financial services. The target on the immediate horizon is to take membership past the 50,000 mark. Next year, Clubhaus will promote its brand nationwide for the first time, rather than just at the local level.

Mr Parker is involved in several negotiations. Next is a possible tie- up with a bookmaker. "People always said I should have been a turf accountant, not a chartered one," he says with a grin (though it is perhaps questionable what "the ladies" would think of him offering members competitive golf bets).

Then there is further expansion overseas. The group has no presence in Portugal, though the country has some of the finest courses in Europe. Mr Parker wants to take Clubhaus's market capitalisation through the pounds 100m mark, which will attract a greater number of committed investors.

Although Clubhaus is gaining credibility with the City because it is accepted as a leisure rather than a pure golfing business, the leisure tag brings its own problems. When Clubhaus was spun off in February 1996, institutional investors breathed a sigh of relief. They now owned a pure property company, and promptly sold their newly-acquired Clubhaus shares.

This investor scepticism has left the European leisure industry awash with opportunities for those with entrepreneurial spirit, Mr Parker believes. "If you say, `I've got a great idea - I'm going to open an aromatherapy centre', Mr Bank Manager will start talking about economic downturn in April 2000. People are worried about the economic cycle impacting on the leisure business.

"In reality, everyone is spending more money on lifestyle activities. Twenty years ago the holiday would be the first to go, now it's the last. And healthclub membership is getting like that."

Golf has taken off amid the growing interest in leisure. Sky broadcasts PGA and US tour events. Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia have made a huge difference, Mr Parker says, with 15- to 19-year-olds now accounting for the majority of new British golfers. But if golf is taking off, what is to stop another company taking on Clubhaus? With 90 per cent of UK golf courses independently owned, surely it's only a matter of time before Clubhaus faces serious competition?

Not so, says Mr Parker. There are lots of courses out there, but few have planning permission for the sort of buildings he wants to build alongside them. And not all of those that do have sufficient people in easy driving distance to create a profitable membership base. The key to success in the industry to invest the right money at the right time, and, crucially, in the right location.

In any other business, it would be plain hard work, but Mr Parker says there is more to it. "It's fun - you can be part of something people enjoy. To see those people in there enjoying themselves I think is a tremendous result. That is something that drives me forward."

FACT FILE

Market Capitalisation: pounds 82.8m

Turnover in 1998: pounds 24.1m

Pre-tax profit: pounds 8.56m

Main business: Nineteen golf clubs across the UK, Germany, France and Spain, with 21,200 members. The group sells golf merchandise through its shops and The Collection, a mail-order catalogue. Courses also offer conference and banqueting facilities. The group also has health clubs, each including an aura treatments centre offering beauty, massage, aromatherapy and physiotherapy. Clubhaus also offers organised golf-related holidays to its European facilities

Key executives: Charlie Parker, managing director and finance director; Guy Buckley, chief operating officer; Robert Bourne, executive chairman.

Employees: 570

PAR FOR THE COURSE - IT'S THE CLUBHAUS STORY

1991: IMG and Ex-Lands set up Clubhaus, a joint venture aiming to capitalise on the growing European golf market

1994: IMG sells its stake to Ex-Lands

1995: Company acquires its first club, Dukes Dene in Surrey

1996: Comes to market valued at pounds 80m. Acquires courses in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Vichy and Brussels, and two in the UK. Raises pounds 7.4 million through a placing and open offer. Acquisition of the Fox Club, in London's Mayfair and Golf Fund, the owner and operator of golf clubs, in Warwick and Lichfield

1997: Acquisition of Castle Royle, Berkshire. Raises pounds 15.7m through a placing and open offer and aquires clubs in Bournemouth, Dorset, and Essex. Launch of Clubhaus Member's Card. Acquisition of the German Nippenburg Golf Club, owner of Schloss Nippenburg Golfclub in Stuttgart, home of the last three German Opens. Acquisition, funded by a pounds 6.3m placing, of Tytherington Ltd

1998: Announces plans for health and fitness developments at nine clubs. Raises pounds 21m through placing and open offer and new funds for health & fitness push. Acquires El Bosque Golf & Country Club, Valencia, Spain (left), and Tutzing Golf Club, Munich

1999: Secures pounds 90m financing package to continue expansion of the health and fitness clubs. Opens Castle Royle

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