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Always Looking Forward - Barb Kelly: 30 Years at Chirnside Park

Wednesday 01, Jul 2020

With over 30 years of outstanding contribution to both the Chirnside Park County Club and to the golf club management industry, it’s time we salute Barbara Kelly! Frances Cordaro and Paul Vardy explain why.

Thirty years ago, a young woman began work as an office secretary at Chirnside Park Country Club in the far east of Melbourne on the edge of the picturesque Yarra Valley wine and dairy region. The mother of three children aged under eight had no experience with club administration of golf, tennis or bowls and little experience in hospitality. The appointment of Barbara Kelly was of significance on the club’s future.

By 1994, Barbara was effectively handed the role of inside supervisor running the clubhouse operations whilst the course superintendent was the outside supervisor. By the seventh year and having taken over the golf shop operations and developed the hospitality side of the business, Barb was appointed the General Manager of the club. The new role included accountability for the oversight of all areas including the golf course, tennis, bowls and wine club.

This is a story of a talented individual who forged a successful career in club management, and which led one of the country’s most successful golf course and club redevelopments.

The golf course at Chirnside Park was built in the mid 1960s as one of the first two housing estate courses in Australia. The club was formed in 1974 when a group of golfers borrowed money from the bank and bought the course from the developer. In the 28 years that followed, the fledgling club attracted membership consisting predominantly of young families.

“It was probably years ahead of its time,” Barb said. “It was a good layout, but it had poor drainage, was hilly and had neighbours on the right-hand side of 17 of the 18 fairways. The course was built to sell houses not golf.”

With golf coming down from its peak in the late 90s, membership and green fees struggled to meet the costs of maintaining the course and by 2001/02 debts were growing. In 2002, after much investigation, the club’s board was presented with a series of options to get the club out of its predicament. The only feasible long-term option, and the one chosen by the board, was to sell off the golf course and look for a more suitable site.

What followed were 10 years of planning with local and state politicians, solicitors, developers and golf course designers and updates to members.

Through sheer tenacity, long hours, some chance and careful risk management, and overcoming setbacks, Barb navigated her club through endless decisions that presented a compelling case for a redevelopment. All along the club’s aim was to create a course and club that the members would be proud of whilst not overspending and being sustainable to meeting the right level of the golf market.

Many hurdles presented the club including having the application to rezone the current golf course rejected and losing a council decision to access the originally proposed golf course site further along Victoria Road. There was heart ache when this happened as the rejection forced the initial developer’s contract to be cancelled. However, finding a new developer in CSR was the partnership the club needed to get the desired result. The application was again defeated when the local councillors succumbed to public pressure and abandoned application for rezoning of the Chirnside Park site.

Good news finally arrived when in 2009, the Victorian Premier, John Brumby, with a growing population and a shortage of available housing, announced that the project was to be called in and dealt with through the State Government planning process. But optimism waned as progress inevitably stalled. Needing a panel hearing to explain the proposal to release the club’s land for housing whilst acquiring and re-purposing an old quarry nearby for the golf course, Barb was getting restless. After repeated efforts to push for the panel hearing, Barb took matters into her own hands by directly approaching the Victorian Planning Minister, Justin Madden.

Waiting in the passages of state parliament, she approached the 6 foot 9” Madden (ex. Carlton FC ruckman) directly to raise the issue and ask for a commitment to hold the panel hearing. It was a success. The process was established and in late 2010 a two-week panel hearing was eventually held. The outcome was successful but left residual issues to be addressed. The state election in December 2010 led to a change of government and under a new planning minister, the proposal was sent back to the local council to negotiate issues related to house setbacks.

Through these difficult times, Barb had the backing of her board. As club president, Bruce Bower said in 2011 to members, “Make no mistake about it, love her or hate her, our club would not exist today if it had not been for the single handed devotion, skill and unremitting persistence that Barbara has given to our club.” And this, “Every success story has its hero, and do not doubt that Barbara is the hero of this one.”

“No one could expect the dedication and commitment Barbara has provided to this club over the past nine years.” Bower said. “She has argued with lawyers and barristers from some of the biggest law firms in the country; she has negotiated deals with corporate CEOs, she has sweet talked politicians whose skill is to out-talk everyone else; she has shown amazing intelligence in reading contracts and picking out the minutest detail that could possibly disadvantage her club and she has networked the last ounce out of every possible contact that she could make.”

In December 2011, a development agreement was settled with the developer CSR Building Products. It turned out to be a wonderful deal for the club with a great working relationship between the partners in the project. In the deal, the club would receive approximately $40m for the golf course land. The club spent $28m on the Gardiners Run facility, leaving $9m for renovations to Chirnside Park Country Club and the rest in retained earnings.

Course construction commenced in January 2012 and the original golf course site was played as 18 holes until August 2012 and then restricted to nine holes until the new course was ready.

In May 2014, the Gardiners Run golf course, clubhouse, maintenance facility and infrastructure was complete. The operating model was designed for efficiency. Staff now sell golf balls or hire clubs from the same long counter they use to pour drinks and take food orders.

On 11 acres at the original site, Chirnside Park Country Club has retained its clubhouse, two bowling greens and six tennis courts. During 2018-2020, with funds retained from the deal with CSR and the Gardiners Run construction, significant staged renovations took place to modernise the Chirnside Park car park, lighting, tennis courts, bowls greens, pavilion, bistro, gaming, sports bar and function rooms.

Most renovations were complete by the end of 2019. In March 2020, with its final element of the renovations finished, Chirnside Park was able to proudly open its new function rooms for its first weekend of functions. As Murphy’s Law would have it, it was the only weekend of functions. COVID-19 shut-downs ensued, and it has not opened for functions since. Despite this recent set-back, the future looks very bright for the club.

Beyond leading her club through major change, Barb was been a wonderful person for the industry and a close friend and advisor to many club managers. She was awarded the Clubs Victoria Manager of the Year in 2002, served as a former member of the Clubs Victoria board from 2005 for 10 years as councillor, treasurer, vice -president and president and remains as a founding member of Community Clubs Victoria where she is still on the board. Barb has been a GMV member since 1995, was a member of the GMA National Conference organising committee in 2001, 2011 and 2019, and has been a member of the GMV Executive since 2015. Barb was recognised by her peers when awarded the GMV Manager of the Year in 2017, the award’s inaugural year.

Whilst Barb has demonstrated her resilience and dedication over a long period, humbly she credits success to her ability to work with her board and keep focussed on always looking for what’s next in the club’s evolution. Despite her longevity at the one club, Barb counts herself lucky that there is never a dull moment as there has always been a new project on the horizon.

With over 30 years of outstanding contribution to both the Chirnside Park County Club and to the golf club management industry, it’s time we salute Barbara Kelly!

Well done Barb!