Dallas CEO David Pillsbury knows his way around greens and bunkers. His specialty now is acquiring golf courses.
Pillsbury runs Invited, which was purchased for $1.1 billion by private equity giant Apollo Global Management in 2017. Invited was previously known as ClubCorp.
“I worked for American Golf Corporation for 14 years, working my way up from manager trainee to Co-CEO — I had just about every role you can imagine,” Pillsbury told CEO Magazine. “I was General Manager of Nike Golf during a prolific time for the brand, and I had an 11-year-plus run at the PGA Tour before I was recruited by ClubCorp.”
“Needless to say, I was very familiar with the business by that point. I had many friends who worked there, and for many years I’d thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing someday to be a part of the ClubCorp team?’ I really loved what ClubCorp stood for and stands for today. So it was an opportunity of a lifetime to make the move to get back into the business that I loved and also to work for one of the great companies in the golf business,” he told the magazine.
Golf has evolved into a billion-dollar business. Some clubs, however, have been closing down amid a decline in demand, though the turmoil is leveling off, Golf Inc. magazine reported.
Pillsbury said the company has been focusing on member experience and product quality.
“We call it premiumization and segmentation,” he told CEO Magazine. “We’ve spent a lot of energy on that over the last four years, and it’s worked very, very well.”
Invited’s global portfolio has grown to 200 golf and country clubs, stadium clubs, and city clubs. The total membership comprises more than 430,000 individuals.
IBISWorld, an industry leader in financial reports, said that Invited’s estimated revenue was $987 million in 2018. It grew to around $1.7 billion in 2022, the Dallas Business Journal reported.
Another major change was the company’s rebranding from ClubCorp to Invited.
“While we recognize and honor the traditions and important elements of the history of the name ClubCorp, it was time to create a new brand that showcases what we’ve become and who we’ll be, moving forward,” Pillsbury told CEO Magazine. “Invited isn’t just a name; it’s everything we are. We want our members and guests to know that Invited is where they belong.”
As undercapitalized country clubs closed, Pillsbury saw new opportunities through his unique approach to golf course management and ownership.
“I am incredibly bullish, and I will tell you why,” Pillsbury told the Dallas Business Journal. “There are tremendous secular tailwinds for demand, and there are no new country clubs. You have a supply and demand imbalance, and it’s not going away,” Pillsbury said. “It’s, frankly, permanent.”
Pillsbury said Invited is looking to buy between three and five private clubs per year, noting that the company likes to find independently operated clubs with pros who would rather be playing than managing.
“We will assume your debt. We will write you a small check,” Pillsbury told the newspaper. “We will put [$6 million] or $7 million into the club. You get to do what you wanted to do when you joined.”
Invited sold its country club management operation to Scottsdale, Arizona-based club operator Troon earlier this year, he told the Dallas Business Journal. He said it would let the company focus more on ownership.
However, the competition between country clubs is not coming solely from other golf courses. Gaming is a significant new threat.
“Gaming has become the dominant form of entertainment for many, especially for younger members,” Pillsbury said. “We view the competition as the home. Our job is to try and get you out of the home more often and into the club. And that means the entire family.”
Pillsbury said members vote with their wallets and feet.
“You can’t make a member spend more money,” he told CEO Magazine. “They’ve got to like what they’re getting, or they’ll leave.”
It all reminds Pillsbury of Dedman’s motto, “The more you give, the more you live.”
“We’re not in the golf business, we’re in the human connection business,” Pillsbury told the magazine. “That’s what a club is.”