Interview - John Pemberton, chief executive, BIGGA

With the downturn in full swing, a head for figures is a definite boon.

John Pemberton, chief executive, BIGGA - photo: BIGGA
John Pemberton, chief executive, BIGGA - photo: BIGGA

And as British & International Golf Greenkeepers' Association (BIGGA) chief executive John Pemberton knows only too well, the coming months will be pivotal for many in the sector.

"We've already seen some golf courses close and a lot are sailing close to the wind," he warns. "Sadly, there will be casualties and some golf clubs are saying they are going to have to cut back on staffing levels."

With Harrogate Week set to begin in just a few days, many in the industry will be looking to BIGGA for support and optimism. The exhibition has this year reduced from its regular five halls to four, due mainly to the decision by big companies including John Deere, Ransomes Jacobsen and Toro to cut down to showing every two years.

However, Pemberton says, "expectations are still very high".

"The vast majority of businesses are watching the pennies, not just in our industry," says Pemberton, a trained accountant who is no stranger to the vicissitudes of the UK economy.

"All sectors are experiencing a downturn and we are probably in for a difficult two to three years. But the beauty of Harrogate Week is that it is a good opportunity to network and that is what most people are there for."

Despite having joined BIGGA with virtually no experience of the golf sector apart from the occasional social round, keen sportsman Pemberton was soon won over. He now plays regularly at Fulford Golf Club in York, as well as sitting on the board of the Greenkeepers Training Committee.

"It was a real occupational hazard of coming to work at BIGGA," he laughs. "But, in the early days, one of the major constraints was the cost and the time. That is one of the problems surrounding golf, because the big age gap in players comes down to money and time."

For Pemberton, one of the biggest challenges for the sector is that there are simply too many golf courses to sustain the number of players.

"The number of golf courses has increased at a faster rate than the number of golf players so there is an over-supply of facilities.

"Also, as people's approach to golf changes (towards pay and play) some clubs are struggling. People look at the cost and how many times they have played and it doesn't add up."

But Pemberton believes the future of golf is still strong, particularly in the pay-and-play market, and that greenkeepers equipped with excellent skills will not find it hard to find work as demand for high-quality courses rises.

Harrogate Week will be a chance for BIGGA members to examine changes to the organisation at its AGM.

There are two main proposals that will be put forward. The first is to change the constitution to allow for proxy voting. "At the moment, any changes to the constitution have to be passed by two-thirds of members at a public meeting and that doesn't allow for postal or proxy voting," explains Pemberton.

In addition, BIGGA is proposing to change its status from unincorporated to being a company limited by guarantee. Pemberton says that change would allow for BIGGA to enter into contracts in its own name, rather than through individuals acting as trustees.

"At law, BIGGA doesn't currently have an identity and this will put the organisation on a much more business-like footing," he explains.

It will affect contracts such as the association's lease on its headquarters, which is currently held by two individuals rather than by BIGGA itself.

Following a breakdown of discussions with the Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG) last year over a possible merger, BIGGA is currently looking at the feasibility of allowing groundsmen to become full members. A web consultation with members has so far shown around two-thirds are in support of the idea, with the rest either against it or wanting further information.

The BIGGA board is expected to call an extraordinary general meeting in the spring to look at the proposal.

"We are not looking to wage war on the IoG," he says. "But we have no plans to re-open talks with the IoG - we feel really all we want to do is open the membership up to give groundsmen an equal opportunity to join.

"We just want to offer more choice. Looking at it in a mercenary way, everything in business is about numbers."

1968: Trains at chartered accountancy firm Garbutt & Elliott in York
1970: Works for local authority
1973: Accountant for WD Mark & Sons hide-and-skin firm in York
1988: Company secretary for an iron foundry in Wakefield
1990: Works as company accountant for a wholesale distributor
1993: Joins BIGGA as accountant
2003: Appointed acting executive director of BIGGA
2004: Becomes chief executive of BIGGA

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