Listen to Mike Keiser’s Interview

Jim: Good morning. Jim Murphy here with 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.

Mike: Great to be here, Jim.

Jim: Let’s just start with the early days. What did you do before college? Where did you grow up?

Mike: 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.

Jim: South of Buffalo.

Mike: 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.

Jim: So that’s not far from Cornell University,

Mike: No, it’s probably three hours from Cornell.

Jim: So, and what about college?

Mike: 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.

Jim: And you graduated at the top of your class, I assume?

Mike: 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.

Jim: How did you come to find Chicago? How’d that happen?

Mike: 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.

Jim: And when did you start that?

Mike: Started that in 1971, the same year Earth Day started.

Jim: And the principle behind it was…

Mike: 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.

Jim: 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?

Mike: 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.

Jim: But you with a lot of artists.

Mike: Yeah we had hundreds of artists. She was the single best. She would do half of our volume, year in and year out.

Jim: So, if we were to talk about golf in America, what would your top five courses be in America.

Mike: They would be National Golf Links, Pebble Beach, Pine Valley, Oakmont #4, probably Cypress Point #5.

Jim: And what about your top five outside the United States?

Mike: 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.

Jim: Talk about the Dunes Club and walking and what your vision was there. Late 80s, as I recall?

Mike: Mid 80s.

Jim: Mid 80s.

Mike: 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 offer, 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.

Jim: So ten years after that, you – was that about when you discovered the property in Oregon?

Mike: I discovered the property in Oregon about, yes, five years later, in 1990, 1989, in that realm.

Jim: Tell us about that project.

Mike: 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 for someone to pug a golf course on it for eons.

Jim: And now there’s five courses? There’s four?

Mike: There are five courses with two more envisioned.

Jim: 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?

Mike: 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.

Jim: That’s a great model.

Mike: So the model was Dornick, Ballybunion, with caddies.

Jim: 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.

Mike: 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.

Jim: 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?

Mike: 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 would say, “if you guys are all smart and lucky, so we expect a lot from you.”

Jim: 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?

Mike: 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.

Jim: Now you spent time, I think you were head of the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. Talk about that a little bit.

Mike: 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.

Jim: Fantastic.

Mike: It will mean that our number of patients will grow from 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.

Jim: Let’s switch back to golf for a little bit. Let’s talk about your thoughts on caddying. 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.

Mike: 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.

Jim: Right.

Mike: I know you agree with that.

Jim: I do agree with that. How many caddies do you employ out in Banyon?

Mike: It has grown to five courses as you said and we employ 350 caddies.

Jim: Wow.

Mike: 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.

Jim: 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?

Mike: 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.

Jim: 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 –

Mike: You saw the before and then the after.

Jim: 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?

Mike: 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.

Jim: 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?

Mike: 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.

Jim: 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.

Mike: 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.

Jim: So unlike the golf course architects, his project is more all the land that’s not the golf course, is that correct?

Mike: 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.

Jim: So how’s the first reception been in your first season for the public up in Sand Valley?

Mike: Crazy good.

Jim: Yeah?

Mike: Yeah, lot of players.

Jim: Lot of players coming up?

Mike: 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.

Jim: And the clubhouse, is that open?

Mike: The clubhouse just opened two days ago.

Jim: And what’s the plan in terms of number of courses? You’re building a second course?

Mike: 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.

Jim: And Sand Valley is also a walking course?

Mike: Yes, same as Banyan Dunes. 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 2/3rd 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.

Jim: 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?

Mike: 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 2 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.

Jim: 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.

Mike: 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.

Jim: No. Muirfield you can lose three on a hole.

Mike: Yup.

Jim: Hit good shots too.

Mike: So that’s the course we’ve been building for fifty years. Muirfield Village.

Jim: Well this has been a lot of fun, really want to thank you for coming in, spending time at Local Foods.

Mike: I love this store.

Jim: Yeah we’re really happy with it. People are coming in and enjoying it and enjoying the experience and connecting more with their food and understanding what they’re eating better and 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.

Mike: I think it’ll grow in its following. Thanks, Jim.

Jim: Great. Thank you.

Setting a Course for Success

Mike Keiser isn’t one to brag, so I’ll do it for him. With eleven golf courses under his belt, Fortune says he’s a main contender in the golf business. In fact, he never intended to become a career golf mogul, nor to end up in Chicago. His golfing ambitions pretty much ended with his graduation from Amherst College where he played on their Division III collegiate golf team. After graduating from Amherst, he moved here with his old roommate to start a greeting card company. Such a stereotypical origin story, right? Listen to the interview to learn more about his path to success.

Video Segments

Growing Up

Much like the disconnect between golf course developers and local communities, Keiser observes a similar phenomenon among Chicago youth today. He was raised with an expectation of giving back to the community he grew up in, even as a child.


Greeting Cards to Golf Courses

Mike Keiser shares his journey of how he started fresh out of college with the idea of starting a greeting cards business and how he ended up building eleven countrywide golf courses. He shares his journey of how he transitioned from the greeting card business into becoming the golf mogul he has become.

Translating Your Vision

In this clip, Mike Keiser shares his tips for entrepreneurs based on his decades of experience in a variety of industries.

Watch for his business tips on:
1. Translating vision
2. Finding your genius
3. Learning from mistakes
4. Understanding customer motivation (especially when it’s completely different from what you expected!)


Giving Back

We need to emphasize the importance of individuals sharing their intelligence and success to better their hometowns rather than succeeding in spite of our origins.

The Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Tribune meets with Mike Keiser to interview him about his successes of all eleven of the golf courses that he has built. Mike tells the story of how he built his golf courses with the intentions of making them environmentally friendly and economically friendly as well.


Top 5 American Golf Courses

When asked what his top five favorite courses include, there’s a clear trend in his responses. You would think this golf aficionado would have no trouble with this question, but one aspect of it had him stumped.

“Honey, I Built a Golf Course!”

Mike Keiser describes how he was able to purchase land in New Buffalo, MI and how he began planning to build a golf course that emulates his favorite course in Philadelphia. He discusses the use of the land before he built the course and how he got the inspiration to build the course from a friend.

This segment is part of the follwing blog post

A Course Set For Success: Mike Keiser On Golf & Growing Up

Golf courses are a contentious subject among environmentalists and locals around the world. In a time where America’s wealth gap continues to widen, golf, to many, represents luxury and exclusivity […]