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Dec. 10, 2018
This paid piece is sponsored by GreatLIFE Golf & Fitness.
Tom Walsh Sr. easily flashes back to the day he stood near the fitness center at EmBe downtown and announced a plan to change the business model for golf and fitness.
“We were hoping we could hit 10,000 members and 6,000 memberships. Then we’d be doing very well,” he said, thinking back on Dec. 11, 2013.
Fast-forward five years at GreatLIFE Golf & Fitness, which transformed the Sioux Falls market by offering unlimited golf and fitness memberships, and the business has grown to more than 40,000 members and more than 19,000 memberships from Mitchell to Worthington, Minn.
“We are a mission-driven organization, and our mission drives all decisions and actions,” Walsh said. “Our mission at GreatLIFE is ‘to enrich the lives of families and individuals through golf, fitness and healthy lifestyles.’ Our primary goal is to be the best in member satisfaction, value and convenience for golf and fitness.”
GreatLIFE members can use 16 fitness centers, two dozen golf courses and multiple bowling centers, and access a wide variety of special offers from other corporate partners.
“Over 20 percent of the population of Sioux Falls belongs to GreatLIFE,” Walsh added. “And one of the really good things is the attrition rate is really low. We’re more than golf and fitness and bowling. We’re a lifestyle.”
Walsh was motivated to get into the business by a golf architect who helped him redesign Willow Run Golf Course after a business deal led him to have to buy it.
“He talked about this concept in Topeka called GreatLIFE, and I went down and took a banker and checked it out,” he said. “It looked like a good program that involved families and getting healthy and golf.”
That winter in Mexico, Walsh met Mike Malaska, award-winning golf instructor, and asked what he thought about combining golf and fitness.
“And he just exploded,” Walsh said. “That was what pushed me over the edge to do it. I certainly didn’t need another career at my age, but we’ve got four kids and nine grandkids, and if we don’t do something about obesity, it will be a tougher world for them. And our mission is all about getting people doing things together and building relationships and having fun.”
Walsh, Malaska and GreatLIFE founder Rick Farrant in Kansas came together, and Walsh started building a team in Sioux Falls.
One of his first contacts was Donn Hill, owner of Bakker Crossing Golf Course and now president of GreatLIFE.
“I didn’t know him at all. I’d never met him before,” Hill said. “He introduced himself, and we talked about the idea, and right away I was intrigued. And the second time we talked, I had already talked to our family and said we’re going to be in. I really bought into the concept of combining golf and fitness. Once I saw that this was going to be something affordable, I was just in right away and thought this is the way to go.”
Walsh then added Nick Ovenden as director of fitness, who came home to Sioux Falls from Minneapolis where he’d been in leadership for another fitness organization. Jason Sudenga, who had led golf operations at Bakker Crossing, became director of golf at GreatLIFE.
Walsh’s sister, Cindy, agreed immediately to serve as member director.
“She was on board even before we announced GreatLIFE and had been with me at Burger King for over 25 years,” Walsh said. “And we had the beginning of a darned good team.”
That team has now grown to more than 600 team members during golf season and more than 500 the rest of the year. It has been the best surprise of the venture, Walsh said.
“The quality of our people has been wonderful,” he said. “What we discovered is our team members who are involved in golf and fitness want more than a paycheck. They want to make a difference in people’s lives. And we as a group of directors aren’t bosses. We’re support staff, and our role is to develop our people personally and professionally. We have one simple rule: Think before you act, do what’s right and take care of one another.”
Walsh and the team moved fast in building out the model in Sioux Falls. In five years, he estimates investing $20 million in course improvements and clubhouse renovations, fitness center upgrades at Woodlake Athletic Club and elsewhere, and new construction such as the GreatLIFE Performance Center in southeast Sioux Falls.
“I never thought it would be this big,” Walsh said. “But we’re making a difference. People are having fun, and we’re one of the few models in golf that’s growing continuously.”
The growth of GreatLIFE has been “more than we thought it would be,” Hill agreed.
“There’s no doubt about it. I thought it was ambitious to get to 10,000, but it’s really a unique model. It’s a lifestyle. And most of our golf members did not have golf memberships before. It’s changed the market. It’s created new golfers. It’s not been about taking market share. It’s changed the market.”
It’s also led to the GreatLIFE Challenge, a stop on the Symetra Tour – the Road to the LPGA.
“We were able to bring professional golf to Sioux Falls for the first time ever on a professional basis,” Walsh said. “And the players who have come here are going on to terrific success on the LPGA.”
In five years, GreatLIFE could be much bigger.
“I think we will be a national concept,” Walsh said. “I think we’ll be a $250 million business within five years. We’ve got franchises in progress in Utah, Texas, Missouri, the Phoenix area, and we’re looking at some in California.”
Hill agreed the growth potential is significant.
“I could see us also becoming a model for public courses in small markets,” he said. “There are several cities around 15,000 to 20,000 that I think would be a good fit.”
GreatLIFE also is working with Great Shots, the new golf entertainment center being developed by Sanford Heath at its sports complex.
“And we’re looking at additional relationships with them,” Walsh said. “GreatLIFE members will get 50 percent off play, and we’re looking forward to what that will do to continue to grow the game of golf.”
As GreatLIFE grows, Sioux Falls will remain home and headquarters, he said.
With that comes an ongoing commitment to give back to the community.
“We’ve given $600,000 and thousands of volunteer hours to worthy organizations through our GreatLIFE Cares Foundation,” Walsh said. “It’s an important part of our mission that we give back and set an example for our members and our team. When you’ve been blessed with much, you ought to do much.”
In his monthly message to GreatLIFE members, Walsh urged them to have “an attitude of gratitude” this holiday season and throughout the year. It’s something he’s especially mindful of as GreatLIFE marks five years of unprecedented results – both as a business and in changing the lives of its members.
“It’s an honor and privilege to make a difference,” he said. “We live in a very blessed community. We have a lot of good. It’s just a great place to raise families and do business. We’re honored to be here.”
“I never thought it would be this big. But we’re making a difference.” Five years after launching in Sioux Falls, GreatLIFE is preparing to get even bigger.