A New Kind of Golf Course in America – Mike Keiser Interview (2017)
A New Kind of Golf Course in America – Mike Keiser Interview (2017)

Good morning. Jim Murphy from Grow Forward. I’m here in Local Foods – beautiful space
on – just north of North Avenue, east of Elston. I’m talking with my good friend Mike Keiser. Mike is an entrepreneur, businessman, golf
developer, philanthropist, father of many and husband of one. So Mike, great to have you here. Great to be here, Jim. Let’s just start with the early days. What did you do before college? Where did you grow up? I grew up in the country. My backyard was a 500 acre polo pasture. So we would go out when we were seven, eight
years old, and we would hop on these polo ponies and see who could stay on the horse
the longest. It was sort of an idyllic place, at least
in the summer to grow up south of Buffalo, New York South of Buffalo. In East Aurora, New York. The summers were great, the winters had the
advantage of – I could guarantee, I was guaranteed two weeks off every year because we are in
the snow belt of North America. So every winter there would be no school for
an average two weeks. So that’s not far from Cornell University, No, it’s probably three hours from Cornell. So, and what about college? Sun of a gun, I got into Amherst Amherst college
and chose it because none of my classmates were going there and I thought it would be
a nice experience to go to Amherst, Massachusetts. It was a great experience there. It was, turns out, probably the only school
– division 3 school – that I could get on the golf team. They had sort of an academic place and every
class had one very good golfer and a bunch of alsorans, I was one of the alsorans and
I played number six on the Amherst College golf team for three straight years. Never could’ve done that at any other school. And you graduated at the top of your class,
I assume? I graduated dead even. I was in the 50th percentile of my class and
that was quite an accomplishment because there are a lot of bring brains at Amherst College. Still are. How did you come to find Chicago? How’d that happen? One of my roommates at Amherst was Phil Friedman,
from Highland Park, Illinois. And when we decided, when we were skiing in
Vail, Colorado post-college, before he returned to law school and I went to business school,
we decided to start a greeting card company. And we had a choice of going to New York City,
which we knew well, Buffalo, where I’m from, or Chicago and decided Chicago was the center
of the country, it had a vibrant publishing and printing industry here, and it turned
out to be a great choice because we’re in the middle of the country and the perfect
place to distribute greeting cards. And when did you start that? Started that in 1971, the same year Earth
Day started. And the principle behind it was… People were crazy for ecology, that was when
ecology became a word that people used. So we were printing greeting cards on 100%
recycled paper and we thought that would capture the retail imagination of the country. It didn’t. It turns out almost no one buys cards based
on its recycled content. They buy cards because of its verbal content. It took us about three years to learn that. So, starting that company with Phil, and some
other things you’ve done since, require a little bit of vision. Little bit of luck, a little bit of vision. We all know luck plays a role in a lot of
things, but you have to have vision to even get set up to have luck, and the vision thing
is kind of connected to entrepreneurialism. And being able to see a vision and make the
moves to actually make it happen. Talk to me a little about that. Do you have a vision thing? Do you think you can see those kind of things
out there in the future and how have you learned how to make them happen? Two things. When our initial vision was print anything
on 100% recycled paper, and American consumers would buy it. That was wrong. But if the content on 100% recycled paper
was good to very good, that is clever or beautiful and well-written, that became the vision that
we fulfilled. The initial was too simple, just that the
paper would make all the difference. The second piece is, we knew nothing about
greeting card content, and we knew that we knew nothing and had the good sense to try
a lot of things and in the course of trying a lot of, really, testing a lot of artists,
we got lucky and found a genius in year five. We started the company in 1971. We met Sandra Boynton, our genius, in year
five and we both had the good intuition of saying, as soon as we met her and saw her
work, she is a genius. Let’s work with her exclusively. Meaning she would be with only us. I just got back from Nova Scotia with Sandra,
she’s gone on to – we’ve sold hundreds of hundreds of millions of her cards and after
we sold the company in 2005, Sandra started doing children’s books with song content
and has sold 150 million books, earning her 65 million dollars in royalties. That was our genius. She’s still working. We met her when she was a senior at Yale. So our initial vision was amended with her
brilliant work and my conclusion is, if you can find a genius in whatever you’re doing,
you will get a lot farther than if you don’t have a genius. But you with a lot of artists. Yeah we had hundreds of artists. She was the single best. She would do half of our volume, year in and
year out. So, if we were to talk about golf in America,
what would your top five courses be in America. They would be National Golf Links, Pebble
Beach, Pine Valley, Oakmont #4, probably Cypress Point #5. And what about your top five outside the United
States? Dornick, in the Highlands. The old course in St. Andrews, that’s two
from Scotland. Ballybunion, amazing. Royal Country Down, also in northern Ireland,
and also in Portrush which is close by. Talk about the Dunes Club and walking and
what your vision was there. Late 80s, as I recall? Mid 80s. Mid 80s. So at that time I had three kids and would
steal away to Pine Valley as often as I could. Pine Valley’s in Philadelphia, I was living
in Chicago. And I would wedge in two or three one day
trips to Philadelphia and Pine Valley as I learned every time I played it, all the ways
it is fabulous. And after probably 4 or 5 years, 2 to 3 trips
to Pine Valley, I was stopped on the road in New Buffalo on a one winter day by Al,
the real estate broker, and said “have you heard what’s happening to that land across
the street?” No, Al, I hadn’t. “They’re going to turn it into a townhome
development. They’re going to ruin the whole place. You, Mike, could buy it.” He did this in about three minutes, just in
the way I said it. I said, “Really? Well, it’s too expensive.” He said, “No, you could buy it for $250,000. If you made a cash offer, maybe less.” So we made a cash offer of less, I don’t
remember the exact number, and it was accepted immediately because the townhome developer
had a bunch of contingencies on his offer and mine was just I’ll buy it as is. So now I own this 60 acre site and gave really
no thought to doing anything with it. But my sons and I – my kids and I would play
wilderness golf. You know, hit it as closest to that tree,
closest to that dune. And after two or three years after that it
struck me that the Dunes Club the same characteristics, the same undulations as Pine Valley. That it might be big enough to do something,
six holes nine holes. And I got t0 know Dick Nugent, a golf course
architect, and said, “yeah, if you buy two more parcels we’ll have enough for nine
holes.” And I said, “Dick, that’s good, do you
think – would you know anything about Pine Valley because I’d like to do an homage
to Pine Valley.” And Dick had never been to Pine Valley. I took him there for two days. I played golf, he walked with me. And we started, shortly thereafter, built
the Dunes Club which feels a lot like Pine Valley, he did a great job. And I didn’t have to track off to Pine Valley
anymore, I could play in my backyard with other members. So ten years after that, you – was that about
when you discovered the property in Oregon? I discovered the property in Oregon about,
yes, five years later, in 1990, 1989, in that realm. Tell us about that project. I had so much fun and the whole – you would
too, Jim, because you were thinking about building golf courses at the same time I was,
and it was just nothing but fun. So as I was finishing up the Dunes Club and
as I started to get interested parties to become members, we have 100 members, I thought
to myself, I’ve got to do this again, this is so much fun. And what I learned in doing it, like Pine
Valley, is it has to be on sand – if you build a golf course, find a sand site. I didn’t know where to find sand in the
midwest, I assumed that the easiest sand to find was on one of the coasts. ANd I eventually ended up in Northern Oregon,
southern – sorry, Northern California, southern Oregon as a site when a real estate broker
called me out of the blue and said “I hear you’ve been looking for a site on the ocean. I have a 1200 acre site. I know nothing about golf, Mr. Keiser, but
I thought I’d just try it out. So I went out there the next week and it was
as good a site for golf as Ballybunion, as those – the Irish courses I mentioned. It was big dunes, covered in gorse and Scottish
broom, big beautiful dunes. It had been waiting to have a golf course
course put on it for eons. And now there’s five courses? Or four? There are five courses with two more envisioned. So one of the things about your clubs, and
Banyon was probably the first experience in this, is the Irish Scottish model of more
public play and maybe even the caddies are members of the club, unlike our American model
where clubs tend to be elite. What took you there? How does that work for you? How did you work that through? Basically, Dornick and many of the other Irish
courses became my models. You know from your many trips over there that
the private clubs there are very welcoming to golf tourists like us and you know that
the experience you mentioned so often, that the caddies available are members and we often
end up becoming friends with them. That’s a great model. So the model was Dornick, Ballybunion, with
caddies. Talk to me a little bit about, before I change
subjects, talk to me about how you’ve just – talk to me about Dream Golf. The book. What was the inspiration of that? Who wrote it? Tell me a little bit about it. Steve Goodwin wrote it. He’s a novelist. The publisher was the most important person. Peter Workman, now dead, owned Workman publishing
company, which also published the books of Sandra Boynton, interestingly. Peter is an avid and lousy golfer, as most
of us are, most of us avid golfers aren’t very good. Peter wasn’t good but he loved golf, loved
Banyon, and shortly after playing the first time he said, “Mike, why don’t I do a
book on it?” And I said, “fine, as long as I get to approve
the author and as long as it’s not about me, as long as it’s about the whole team and
the whole group then I’m open to that.” So Steve Goodwin did, I think, a very good
job describing the whole fun process of finding the land and engaging scores of people in
building Banyon Dunes. Do you have a theory or philosophy about responsibilities
of individuals to serve and give back in a community? You’ve done a lot of that yourself, do you
have something you can tell us about in terms of how you process that and think about that? The school I went to in Buffalo, the Nichols
school, preached for those who have been given a lot of ability, much more is expected back. That’s not exactly the adage, but to whom
much is given, much is expected. And they would, at Nichols, at Nichols school,
would hammer us with that every opening day and throughout the year. I remember my friend Jack Walsh’s dad would
give that speech and three or four times and we would look up to Jack Walsh Sr. and he
said, “if you guys are all smart and lucky, so we expect a lot from you.” So when you take that concept and when you
think about the educational opportunity that you and I have had, have been fortunate to
have, what does that do for you when you think about educational opportunity for young people
in Chicago? I wish they were getting that message, number
one. I don’t know that they do. I think it’s pretty much do well in school,
get into college, and they – I think – don’t tie that in with what you’re gonna do when
you get out of school. We were sort of – at Nichols – we expected
to be engaged in the community and help the community, and I hope that message gets out,
gets to, the young people. Now you spent time, I think you were head
of the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. Talk about that a little bit. Great place in Chicago. I joined the board 25 years ago because of
pressure from my good friend Connie Coolidge, who was on the board. And I found out really after I joined the
board that it was the best rehab – physical rehab – house in the world, and I really liked
the RAC was the only institution in Chicago that could claim to be, year in and year out,
the best in the world. So I’ve always been proud of their outcomes,
we just finished building a 550 million dollar hospital and named it after Shirley Ryan who
with her husband Pat gave the last big gift that enabled this new hospital to be built. Fantastic. It will mean that our number of patients will
grow form 175 – we basically are too small for the demand. we have a waiting list to get in which is
not good. And the new building will take 350 patients. And there will probably be a waiting list
to get in even. Let’s switch back to golf for a little bit. Let’s talk about your thoughts on caddying. It’s part of the game. Lot of young women and men carrying bags around. Do you think the caddies learn more from the
members or the guys who are carrying their bags for or do you think the guys playing
learn more from the kids carrying the bags. I think it’s a nice mutual thing. The caddies we’ve attracted up in Wisconsin
are good examples of this. My favorite is Theo, who is a talented orator,
philosopher, very curious, so he learns a lot from us but I’d say it’s a mutual
thing, if you take someone as gifted as him, we learn as much from him as he from us. And it’s quite probable that caddies for
the summer learn at least as much about life as they do in the school year. Right. I know you agree with that. I do agree with that. How many caddies do you employ out in Banyon? It has grown to five courses as you said and
we employ 350 caddies. Wow. I think it’s the biggest caddy operation in
the country. And that all comes about because we are walking
only, something that all the other experts in golf said, “the last thing you want to
do is remove carts from golf” and we basically said, “we disagree, we want to make walking
the centerpiece of Banyon Dunes” and 85% of our guests – I’m sorry- all of our guests
with a few exceptions with disabilities walk and 85% of them use caddies. Fantastic. I know that you serve on the board at the
Field Museum and conservation is a big part of what you do. You know we’ve talked about education, a
bit about conservation. You know up in Wisconsin you’re working
on a project. Wisconsin was the home of Alda Leopold, and
you know in rereading the county almanac and going through it again, it’s been 15 years
for me since I read it, you know he was just a fountain of quotes. He just had so many quotes that you could
just pull out and say, take a little nugget out of that and say that was really good. I just want to read you a quote, I’ve actually
got a couple of quotes but I just want you to give me your thoughts on what it means
to you in terms of education, your project in Wisconsin, your conservatism in general. but he said, “the problem then is how to
bring about a striving for harmony with the land among whom education and culture have
become almost synonymous with landlessness.” Think about that, I mean, the people when
they come up to see your place, are they experiencing something for the first time? Definitely, yes. They are visually overwhelmed by natural beauty
of the land that we’ve restored from what it had been, which for the last 150 years
that area of Wisconsin as you know was one big red pine plantation. Pines planted six feet apart, in rows, harvested
every 60 years. it was one big, probably half a million acres
of red pine plantation. What people notice when they drive in, as
you have, is with no red pine plantation would they restore sand barren landscape, you’re
visually overwhelmed by the size of these sand dunes that have been revealed because
we cut all the red pine trees down. The vision of the seeing what it could be
when it was trees, and a lot of them, so we’re talking about sand valley golf club, in Rome,
Wisconsin, Mike’s latest project, where we had the pleasure of visiting prior to any
change when it was in the form of the – You saw the before and then the after. How hard was it or difficult was it for you
to see that what has become from what it was when you went there the first time? It wasn’t as hard as some people thing because
there were some pockets in this 15000 acres that I ended up buying. there were pockets where you could see 100
feet by 100 feet swaths of treeless sand dunes. So it was fairly easy to see and I think when
you visited with me the first time you couldn’t really see anything when it was all forested
with these red pines but there were these little lookouts, blowouts, where you could
see the raw sand in the dune shapes and we got it. So when you did your first course you had
really really really smart people at Banyan dunes telling you don’t do this Mike, this
is the dumbest thing you could ever do. Did that happen in Sand Valley or did everyone
get a lot smarter? Well by then Banyan Dunes had become a success
so doomsayers – and that was everyone I asked, probably including you, thought that Banyan
Dunes made little sense. And the fact that it succeeded struck us all
as just astonishing. Banyan Dunes is 10 hours from San Francisco
so it’s approximate to nothing. The Wisconsin site is four hours from Chicago,
but reasonably close to Milwaukee and Madison. And on the driveway to Northern Wisconsin,
to where which a lot of people drive in the summer. So I think everyone thought, the sand dunes
are the same, there’s no ocean, its a lot closer to the metropolitan areas and had a
better chance. still remote, but not as remote as Banyan
Dunes. So there’s another famous Wisconsin land
architect land restorationist from Chicago called by the name of Jan Jenson. He did the clearing in Ellison Bay Wisconsin
and did a lot of the parks here in Chicago, tell us about his connection to your project
there in Sand Valley. His connection started with you telling me
I had to get in touch with Jen Jenson. Which I did, and he began working for us as
a naturalist and as a landscape consultant and he’s been great. I was amazed when I mentioned this at a meeting
with the Field Museum that I had just – because they said do you know someone who knows what
he’s doing in terms of this restoration and I said why yes, my friend Jim Murphy has
suggested I call and hire – which I’ve done – Jens Jenson and the whole group said, “JENS
JENSON? He is the great grandson of the famous Jens
Jenson who was the first landscape architect in America. He defined landscape architecture. And young Jens, as you know, knows what he’s
doing and has an Aldo Leopold-like gentle touch. So unlike the golf course architects, his
project is more all the land that’s not the golf course, is that correct? Yes, which is as you pointed out the majority
of the land is going to be non-golf. It will be a naturally restored sand-barren
landscape. Some of which you’ve see now, I mean we’re
in our first year of golf, if you go out ten years I project that we’ll have 20 to 50
thousand acres restored. So how’s the first reception been in your
first season for the public up in Sand Valley? Crazy good. Yeah? Yeah, lot of players coming up? Lot of players. We’ve been sold out a couple days. The big time in golf people play most golf
in July, August, September. We are delighted with the results they’ve
had in May, we’ve had far better than budget. June is working out the same. so its being extremely well received by people
like you. And the clubhouse, is that open? The clubhouse just opened two days ago. And what’s the plan in terms of number of
courses? You’re building a second course? My two sons, Michael and Chris, are in charge
of much of that and Michael is a voracious builder and would like to build six, seven,
eight. I’ve counseled him that we want to take
it one at a time. And we’re finishing the second course right
now. It’s unusual to open a place with two courses. Sand Valley, the first course opened this
year. Next July, David Kids Mammoth Dunes opens
and we’ll see what the reception is for both of them and that will determine whether
we build a third course, we certainly have sites for it. Just a matter of demand. And Sand Valley is also a walking course? Yes, same as Banyan Dunes. Walking with caddies both young and the retirees. We sent out a public notice, who wants to
caddy at Sand Valley about a month ago? 200 people showed up. And it was 2/3rds high school kids which we
thought would happen but not to that extend and the other 1/3rd were teachers or retired. Very nice mix. Very nice people from whom we will learn a
lot. So 25 years from now are they going to say
Mike Kaiser was a great businessman? Was he a great golf course developer? Was he a great philanthropist? Just a good
father or husband? What do you think they’re gonna say? I think it’ll go to golf because 25 years
out no one will remember the other things but once you build a golf course that’s
popular its here to stay, so it’s what I’d like to be remembered for. I built golf courses that were fun to play. And ever since World War II we’ve been building
golf courses in America designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus that basically would
withstand the qualities of good golf. And we’ve stopped building golf courses
that were fun like all of the golf courses in Scotland and Ireland are built to have
fun. It seems that you can play one of your golf
courses and start with the same ball and finish with the same ball when you’re done. That’s bit of amusing to have golfers come
off most of the course at Bandon Dunes and say, “I started with this ball and I finished
with this ball!” If you were to play Firestone that probably
wouldn’t happen or Muirfield Village. Definitely not. No. Muirfield you can lose three on a hole. Yup. Hit good shots too. So that’s the course we’ve been building
for fifty years. Muirfield Village. Well this has been a lot of fun, really want
to thank you for coming in, spending time at Local Foods. I love this store. Yeah we’re really happy with it. People are coming in and enjoying it and enjoying
the experience and trying to connect more with their food and understanding what they’re eating
better and understand nutrition and taste qualities of local foods. It’s nice to be able to bring people in
here, talk about it, talk about things that are connected, or not exactly, but your conservation
work is important. It’s very important work. It’s all about people trying to get to know
the land better, understand that food doesn’t come from a grocery store, that food comes
from somewhere else, and land restoration in Wisconsin is a big deal, it’s a great state,
I think that you’ve really raised the bar in Wisconsin and I think a lot of the residents
there really appreciate it. I think it’ll grow in its following. Thanks, Jim. Great. Thank you.

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