Superintendents broaden skill set at Syngenta Business Institute

In its 10th year, the program proves superintendents of all experience levels can continue to learn.


Syngenta Business Institute 2018
Members of the Syngenta Business Institutes Class of 2018 gather for a group photo on the grounds of the Graylyn Estate in Winston-Salem, N.C. Photos by Andrew Hartsock

Robert Alonzi Jr. essentially grew up on a golf course.

The son to one Certified Golf Course Superintendent and nephew to another, Alonzi is a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 26-year member of the association. He has been superintendent at storied Fenway Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., for 10 years.

It would be logical to assume that, when it comes to serving as a superintendent, Alonzi has it all figured out.

Yet there he was for three-plus days in early December, seated in a conference room inside the stately Graylyn Estate in Winston-Salem, N.C., scribbling notes, asking questions and role-playing his way through the Syngenta Business Institute. For each of the event’s 10 years, Syngenta and the Wake Forest University School of Business have teamed to produce an in-depth business development program tailored specifically to the golf course superintendent profession.

From Dec. 3 to 6, SBI provided 24 select superintendents lessons in financial management, negotiation, managing employees, and bridging gaps both generational and cultural.

“I liked all of the topics they were offering,” Alonzi says. “All of that interested me. I was hoping to be able to build on my skill set — and improve on my skill set. Based on that, they certainly met my expectations and far exceeded my expectations. They definitely do a great job with the program they’ve put in place.”

Though participants arrived with a range of experience, the SBI Class of 2018 was unusual in that the average tenure among its members was 21 years, a program high.

“You can always learn. Whether they’re three years into the role or 30 years, they’ll tell you they’ve attended or been invited to agronomic training, but they don’t get invited to attend leadership training,” says Stephanie Schwenke, Syngenta’s turf market manager. “Whether they’re new or experienced, this is the training they’re looking for.”

In Alonzi’s case, the sessions on managing across cultures and generations stood out. “That’s the stuff that really piqued my curiosity,” he says. “On the budgeting and financial-management side, that was a good refresher. There were a few things that really brought me up to speed. But leading across cultures and generations and creating an inspiring, high-performance work environment ... those were the ones I was most interested in going in.”

SBI 2018
Syngenta Business Institute participants huddle to discuss strategy during a small-group exercise on negotiations.

The pace of the event was appealing to Alonzi too. He figures he could have taken individual courses here and there, “But this was very focused. It’s three full days, and it’s very concentrated. If I was to try to piece all this together, it would take me a couple of years to get all of that in.”

Opposite Alonzi on the experience spectrum was Steve Juhring, superintendent at Greenbriar Oceanaire Golf and Country Club in Waretown, N.J., just a couple of hours from Alonzi’s course. Juhring, 30, has been a superintendent for four years and a GCSAA member for five, though he has been in the golf industry since he was 16. He has been at Greenbriar Oceanaire for two years.

“I think the thing that stood out to me was, they weren’t things directly related to turf,” Juhring says. “It was the subjects of talking about how to handle employees, leadership, negotiation — that was intriguing. Those were all kinds of subjects I hadn’t experienced before in a classroom. ... You learn things that I never really sat down to learn before. You used to just do your best to handle yourself as a manager and did what you hoped was right. The program opened your eyes to areas you could really improve yourself.

“It wasn’t typical golf course talk per se. It was a unique opportunity to just discuss and network about issues that we’re facing that don’t directly relate to the golf course itself. It’s more about the underlying issues.”

That the superintendents tackling those underlying issues were so varied was by design. They came from courses large and small, rural and urban, from north to south and coast to coast and points in between.

And there were as many relative rookies as veterans.

Schwenke says Syngenta seeks that kind of variety. Though the judging of application materials is relatively blind, the judges do have a sense for the applicants’ experience.

“It’s important to have diversity and a mix,” Schwenke says. “We need the more experienced guys here to mentor the younger ones, whether they know they’re doing it or not. We want this to be sustainable.”

Smack dab in the middle of the experience spectrum sat Brent Downs, superintendent at Otter Creek Golf Course in Columbus, Ind.

Downs, 37, has been in the golf course industry for 19 years. A superintendent for five years, he has been at Otter Creek since April. He says his greatest takeaways from the Syngenta Business Institute came in the realm of leadership and management.

Syngenta Business Institute curriculum

“A lot of the things we do are more based on motivating people,” Downs says. “I learned a lot about how to understand how other generations think, and other cultures, and how to apply that. And how to discipline. I would have fallen into the category of a zero-conflict manager. You can still be firm, still have discipline, but do it in a professional manner. Something I thought spoke volumes to me was, if you have understanding, you can get the kind of results you’re looking for.”

Downs says he learned plenty about what he didn’t know he didn’t know in the areas of financial management and negotiation.

“I’ve read several golf course profit-loss statements and thought I understood them well,” he says. “After class, I went back and saw some things and thought, ‘I can’t believe I missed that.’ And negotiation ... I thought I knew what I was doing there. I was pleasantly surprised how much I learned about that.”

At first, Downs says, the thought of long days, indoors, in a classroom setting seemed daunting. In the end, it was anything but.

“Those three days felt like they just flew by,” he says. “Am I glad I went? Absolutely. It actually exceeded my expectations — and my expectations were very high.”

For more information, visit the Syngenta Business Institute website.

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.

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