The Leadership Lattice: Joe Assell

The Leadership Lattice, an interview series designed to cultivate conversation on building strong leadership in the public and private sector, presents: Joe Assell, CEO and Co-founder of GolfTEC

GolfTEC has a reputation of being a great place to work. Can you tell me how you’ve created that?

We have a relatively small team at corporate and one of the ways we reward people for their hard work is by making it a great place to be- every day. We are a competitive office in the competitive business of golf. We use penalty flags so when you think that someone is out of line for any reason you are allowed to throw a yellow penalty flag at them. Then, if you don’t believe you deserve a yellow flag you can throw a red flag back at them and quite often you’ll see flags flying back and forth across our office. We have also divided the entire office into two teams and we have frequent competitions- anything from bowling to our recent holiday Toys for Tots drive. We have created a fun rivalry within the office and people really enjoy it. 

Tell me about the GolfTEC journey through the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’.

In the beginning, we were testing the concept. Will anybody come? Will people get better at golf? We had success quickly and the venture capital groups started calling but they wanted us to be more of a dot com company. This was 1997 or 1998 when everybody was going public and was going to be worth a billion dollars. We got sucked in and started developing internet technology- deviating from our core business. The dot com bubble burst and we were left with a company with out of line expenses – in fact, we were close to going out of business. That led us to our current partnership with Gart Capital Partners who infused the necessary capital to keep us going and turn things around. We then partnered with Golfsmith, the largest golf retailer in the world. Then, in 2003 we started offering franchises. We are now in 57 Golf Smiths around the United States and have 150 other locations that we’ve opened in the last 5 years. As a relatively young business we have gone through both the dot com implosion and the recent recession. We are really fortunate to have good employees, good franchise owners and great customers and clients that are keeping us moving forward.

How have you grown as a leader over these years?

In the beginning, I was the only employee and was leading myself. Now, we have 450 employees and the role has changed substantially. The biggest change for me has been evolving into a role of leading other leaders, developing the departments, clear lines of responsibility and communication. A key for me has been in making the correct hires. When you hire the right person, it’s easy to lead them and manage them. It’s really all about the talent that’s on your team.

How do you hire and what do you look for?

It’s all about getting to know the person. I’m not as concerned about the technical, black-and-white previous experience that they may have or a line on a resume. I’m most concerned about getting to know them as a person and their work ethic. We’re not a big, formal, organization. We’re still very flexible and entrepreneurial and I need someone who can fit into the team and culture, ride the ups and downs and really contribute the day they arrive. 

As you’ve grown the business you’ve utilized mentors to help you do that. Can you tell me about them and their impact on you?

When we started the business, I was 23 years old. I had a lot of good ideas and energy but didn’t have a lot of real experience. The first mentor I had was Clayton Cole, the head golf professional at Cherry Hills Country Club. We had dinner every Monday for three years straight. Clayton was a fantastic mentor and sounding board. Clayton is an extraordinary person. I think his biggest impact has been helping me with leadership- treat everyone- employees, vendors, partners and customers with integrity, respect and honesty.

A second mentor for me has been Tom Gart. Tom is chairman of Gart Capital Partners, our largest investor. Tom instilled discipline, financial organization and helped us with some of our bigger strategic thinking. Tom really has helped guide me for the last 10 years in managing the business.

What is your approach to leadership?

I view leadership in two different buckets. One is that I have to lead the business- vision, strategy, risk management, capital structure, in 1, 3 and 5 year increments. The second way I look at leadership is leading the people. I try to lead by example as much as anything. I don’t expect anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do. I also play a big motivational role in making sure everyone is positive, upbeat and excited about where we’re going and how they fit into the plan.

What were some leadership lessons for you early on?

As a start-up we had lots of challenges we didn’t anticipate. One of my early lessons was how well the team responded when we were direct and candid. The more we shared the better they responded. Communication, both the good and bad news, was very empowering for everyone.
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Categories: Company Perspectives, Management & Leadership