Behind Closed Doors: CEOs Speak

What happens when you get a small group of high-profile Dallas CEOs together in a private meeting room? [OK, can the witty one-liners.] Talk that’s a little more frank than usual, and some fascinating insights into navigating one of the roughest economic climates in years. At least, that was the result when Accenture and D CEO‘s Wick Allison co-hosted an event focusing on corporate innovation at the Hilton Park Cities hotel. Among the attendees: Fluor Corp. Chairman Alan Boeckmann; UNT President Dr. Gretchen Bataille; and ClubCorp CEO Eric Affeldt (pictured on the right, with Accenture’s Shubber Ali). Jump to receive their wisdom.

Ali kicked off the intimate skull session by describing the “opportunities” available to innovative companies in a downturn. For example, while consumer spending will “tighten,” people are still going to need to buy the likes of cars and clothing, he said. Talented employees can be picked up from other companies on the cheap. “Dislocation” affords the chance to make some bargain acquisitions of other firms or units. And, while there’s strong pressure to cut costs, people understand that–and therefore will be expecting less.

I guess you call that seeing the silver lining.

Paul Raines, COO of GameStop, attested to Ali’s point about making acquisitions in this climate. Acquisitions are imperative in some markets, Raines said, so long as they’re “core” to your business. GameStop has made six or seven buys recently, en route to growing a whopping 32 percent last year.

Matthew Papenfus, a VP with Turner Construction, Tom Leppert’s old company, said Turner has been similarly active. Turner recently expanded in the Austin and San Antonio markets, and continues to look for “strategic” opportunities. The nation’s largest commercial-construction outfit, Turner views the downturn as “an opportunity to breathe,” Papenfus said–and to “mine the talent” that’s now available as other companies downsize.

It was ClubCorp’s Affeldt, though, who related some of the most difficult challenges–”jump-starting a successfully stagnant company” in a more-than-stagnant economy. Affeldt arrived in Dallas in 2007 with KSL Capital, a Colorado private-equity firm that paid about $1.5 billion for ClubCorp, a private-clubs/business clubs company founded more than half a century ago by Robert Dedman Sr.

Now, the new owners have set about updating the company’s exclusive golf clubs–referring to them as “sports resorts” rather than country clubs, trying to attract more female members, attempting to make golf less intimidating. “We’ve got to figure out new ways to serve a changing demographic,” Affeldt said.

But, change can be difficult. When he set out to personally visit ClubCorp’s multiple locations, Affeldt recalled, he surprised some of the company’s general managers. “Wait; you’re the CEO,” they told him. “You don’t talk to me!” He got similar flak when he affixed his e-mail address to a company publication. “You can’t do that,” people warned him. “Why not?” Affeldt asked. The answer: “Because people will e-mail you!”

This year, the CEO conceded, ClubCorp is not likely to grow much. So it’s set aside $1 million to “hire people like Accenture and others to help the business.” The big question they’ll tackle, Affeldt concluded–and he might have been speaking for the other CEOs in the room as well– is: “What should we be doing as we come out of this?”

One comment on “Behind Closed Doors: CEOs Speak

  1. hmmm…. as a former ClubCorp-er, it’s nice to see that Affeldt is leading the change within the company, throughout the clubs, to not be such an “Old School Boys Club.”