Pebble Beach Teeing Off With the Right Employees

May 1, 1997
People are the most important asset, making HR the most important function — no matter what the business. Find out the unique challenges faced by his HR leader — and some strategies for handling universal HR issues

 Most of us only dream of an ideal job in an ideal setting. If we can get one of the two, we consider ourselves lucky. As human resources director at Pebble Beach Co. in Northern California, Susan Merfeld has found both. She enjoys applying her people skills at the renowned golf resort area.

What is your HR background?
I’ve always been in the resort industries. I was previously with Northstar Resort at Tahoe in Lake Tahoe, California as its director of HR. Northstar is a year-round destination resort on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. But my formal education is in elementary education; I studied to be a kindergarten teacher. When my husband took a part-time job as the editor of a local paper in Tahoe, we moved to that area. But teaching positions at that time were scarce. First I landed a job at Northstar as a payroll clerk. As the company added staff, I joined HR and have been in the field ever since.

How did you end up with this particular job?
I’ve been with the company for eight years. How it came about is that my husband was on a golfing vacation with his buddies at Pebble Beach. He saw a job posting and told me about it when he got home. I wasn’t looking for a job then, but I made one phone call, and one thing led to another.

I first joined the company as its employee relations manager. Then I was given the opportunity to be promoted to employment manager, then human resources manager and most recently, as director of HR.

What are the biggest challenges of your industry?
Presently, for me, it’s hiring and selection—although harnessing technology is a close second. Overall, we’re very fortunate because our turnover is very low for the industry—around 18 percent. I would like to see it get even lower. My philosophy is that right hiring is the key to a company’s success. It’s important to hire individuals with the passion and energy to be in the hospitality, resort industry. Pebble Beach Co.’s jobs are pretty diverse in that we have employees in our two hotels, retail stores, restaurants, ecology department and forestry areas.

How is human resources viewed in your organization?
When I first joined the company, the department was very much a record keeper. HRplanned the company picnics. The department has reached, thank goodness, to the point of reporting directly to the president, John Chadwell. He has given a lot of support to employee training and development. He was a former Disney Co. executive and strongly believes in training. So advocating training and development is a battle I didn’t have to fight. In fact, Pebble Beach Co. was fortunate to receive an Employment Training Program (ETP) grant from the state of California. It’s a generous program that supports and funds training for private employers. The company received a grant of more than a half-million dollars. It allowed HR to open Pebble Beach University (PBU) and focus on skills training and competencies, and develop future jobs.

Can you tell me more about PBU?
The university provides an opportunity for managers and hourly employees to receive training. All managers, for example, go through a core leadership program. They’re given a chance to select electives that enhance their skills, developing them for future opportunities. Hourly employees also can take a variety of classes on topics such as company culture, values and traditions, team-building, conflict resolution and computer training. This training component is one in which we’re still growing.

In fact, our company has a training manager and, at times, we use outside consultants. But the organization has so much in-house expertise, HR taps that talent as well.

What’s unique about HR at Pebble Beach Co.?
What’s unique is being part of a team that’s recognized worldwide. Also, the oceanside surroundings we work in are incredible. I have other HR professionals who come here and say, "You’re getting paid for doing this job?" But I really believe in our people-management formula: That in order to hire the best, you have to train, communicate and take care of your employees.

Our managers have very high expectations of our employees. HR and other managers have to reward them for their hard efforts. So we have a rewards program called Whatever It Takes (WIT). Our company uses our seven values as the criteria: constant improvement, guest service, fulfilled employees, teamwork, taking care of the environment, being a good neighbor and building financial value.

Employees have a voice in the recognition process and can nominate each other, based on deeds that embody these company values. Teams and individuals can be nominated. The program was introduced six months ago and is a major success. Our old recognition program was basically ‘employee of the month.’

One front-desk clerk received a WIT award for helping a guest buy some candy for her child. The employee, who had already changed out of her uniform, ran downstairs to the employees’ vending machine and bought candy with her own money and gave it to the child. Well, the guest told that story to the front-desk employee because she had never experienced such customer service.

In addition, HR awarded the WIT to one of our teams that implemented a major computer software conversion for the company.

What’s in store for the future?
The main company goal is to build more financial value by maintaining the company’s competitive edge—not resting on our laurels. Our executive committee, which comprises Chadwell and our division vice presidents, is working on a three-year plan. The company also has a Vision 21 Team that’s been in place the last 18 months. We’re planning a new 24-room spa at The Lodge, and we’re in the permit process for a fifth golf course.

The demand for golf has far exceeded the organization’s inventory. So we’re working with the county, the coastal commission and local entities for developing this other golf course.

Is your customer base changing?
Yes. Spanish Bay, which is the most recent hotel (nine years old), was built to attract group business. And today, more than 60 percent of its business is for conferences and meetings. Some global companies, such as Volvo, will pay for space at the hotel for a month.The Lodge attracts smaller groups, such as executive recruiters or CEO groups. The resort has been attracting people from all over the country and more internationally.

Is Tiger Woods a frequent player at Pebble Beach?
Yes. He played in the AT&T Pro-Am tournament earlier this year and paired with Kevin Costner. There were record crowds and people were following him everywhere. He has stayed here at our resorts. At 21, he’s got quite a future ahead of him. I feel a little sorry for him, though, because he has to deal with the pressure of fans. But what a gentleman.

Workforce, May 1997, Vol. 76, No. 5, pp. 93-94.