Tom Abts, Beloved King Of Deer Run
By R.J. Smiley
A candid chat with Tom Abts, General Manager of Deer Run Golf Course in Victoria.
For the past 27 years Tom has purified the “Deer Run Brand.” Tom has received numerous local and national awards as a course manager, a golf pro, and as a golf marketer. Although others have attempted to copy his business model Deer Run stands alone at the summit of the Twin Cities golf market.
To say that Tom Abts marches to the beat of his own drummer would be an understatement. He is truly one of the most extraordinary individuals in an executive management position in America business. He does things his way for his reasons. He started his career at Deer Run 30 years ago as head golf professional. Only three years passed before he was promoted to GM.
Everything at Deer Run is done for a purpose. No matter when you drive into Deer Run it seems that the parking lot is full. But more than that, your unconscious mind feels a sense of order. The parking lot is laid out perfectly. The golf carts are spotless and in perfect, military rows. The grounds are perfectly groomed. As you walk into the front door of the converted farmhouse to clubhouse, a smiling face standing behind a lectern says, “Welcome to Deer Run, how may I help you?” The small, but beautifully arranged merchandise area is stocked with a variety of merchandise, all sporting a subtle Deer Run logo. In the grill, customers find a welcoming area serving FREE ice tea and lemonade. The driving range is unique – rather than having to dump a bucket of balls onto a mat, the balls pop-up one at a time. Almost like having a caddie place them on a tee for you. The starters are extremely friendly and explain the specific details of the golf course for that day.
Tom Abts is not a dictator who rules with an iron fist. He is a leader who leads by example. He continuously observes every facet of his business and understands each and every detail. When you are invited into his upstairs office in the peak of the farmhouse rafters, you somehow feel special. Shaped more like a hallway than an office, Abts sits at the far end and waves you up to his desk to have a seat. The conversation feels intimate, as Tom talks with an animated style, using arms and various props to make his point.
Is Deer Run the best golf course in the Twin Cities? No. But it is the most efficient golf course business in Minnesota.
Tee Times: Tom, after all these years, why do you work so hard?
Tom Abts: Because this place is my passion! This golf course, my great staff and the customers who play here totally consume me. Everyday I obsess on what motivates people. Why do they play golf? Why do they come to Deer Run? And how can we provide what people are really looking for – even if they don’t consciously realize it.
TT: I noticed that your Deer Run ads are always a full-page ad showing a castle not a golf course, with no contact information. Will you explain?
TA: For us, marketing is about branding – not about deals or minute information. We have a distinct atmosphere and want to portray it through our ads. Marketing also needs to be for our loyal customers – not just new customers. They need to get a kick out of our ads and not feel taken for granted.
TT: How do you develop the brand loyalty that is obvious throughout your staff?
TA: I look for people who “Get it.” We don’t have a bunch of rules around Deer Run. I don’t need to tell people they should be here on time or be properly dressed. My people are naturally friendly, respectful, and have a good work ethic. It’s all about walking the talk.
TT: With all the discounting in golf, how do you maintain your price point?
TA: We believe we are a good value that doesn’t need to be discounted. If we’re only selling price and not the experience – then we aren’t doing a good job. People will pay a fair price for what they want.
Tom desires to bring golf back to the roots of the game. “I want to make a fun competition between individuals like it was when shepherds first started playing. They used their shepherd’s crooks to hit rocks as they walked the wasteland along the coast with their dogs and their sheep. Imagine those shepherds saying, ‘I bet you a drink of your whisky that I can hit this round stone to the top of that mound with fewer hits than you can.’ The game was on. No rules just play it where it is. Hit it, find it, and hit it again. That is the only rule that golf should have.”
So the next time you want to enjoy a day on the golf course, make it at Deer Run where the entire staff wants you to have “Fun at the Run.”