SYLACAUGA, Ala. – David Pursell has never been shy about shaking up his family’s business.
When his family was still in the fertilizer business, he hatched the idea to build a golf course with a variety of grasses – different strains of bermuda, zoysia, bent, even for a time, seashore paspalum on land that’s about 250 miles from the nearest ocean.
“I called it the Epcot of golf,” Pursell said of the course, called FarmLinks.
Rather than send salesmen out to golf courses, Pursell Technologies invited superintendents to Sylacauga to demonstrate how its Polyon product line worked on the various turfs.
Then a funny thing happened: FarmLinks, which opened in 2003, turned out to be pretty good. It sits at No. 2 on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Alabama – not an insignificant accomplishment in a state that has lavished tens of millions of dollars on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Pursell Technologies was sold in 2006, but FarmLinks still serves as a research and demonstration site. Most weeks you can still find a dozen or more superintendents there; over the past decade, more than 10,000 superintendents have visited Sylacauga through FarmLinks’ partnerships with companies such as Toro, BASF and Club Car.
Now Pursell, CEO of FarmLinks LLC, is ready to undertake an even more radical shake-up of the business. He wants to make FarmLinks the cornerstone of a resort hideaway that rivals some of the country’s great boutique properties. This year he hired a new general manager, Keith Izydore, who has extensive experience at such resorts, including Blackberry Farm, a hugely decorated Tennessee resort that Pursell would like to emulate. (Blackberry Farm doesn’t have a golf course, but its lodging and food services are regarded as among the best in the country.)
Pursell reasons that because FarmLinks is an hour from Birmingham and Montgomery, and 2 1/2 hours from Atlanta, it is positioned to compete for regional business and leisure travelers.
“If we can make this place well known enough for things other than golf, we feel like we can make a pretty good run on it,” he said.
As was the case with FarmLinks, Pursell knows this is a gamble, but for different reasons. Construction on FarmLinks was in it initial stages in 2001, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit, forcing the company to re-evaluate the project before pressing forward.
This time around, the concern is an economy constantly teetering on the brink of another recession and a political class pushing policies that punish, rather than promote, business investment.
As things now stand, Pursell is contemplating spending $15 million, maybe more, to add at least 60 more rooms – bringing the total to 100 – and build a restaurant, bar and spa near the 18th hole. He also wants to round out the amenities on the 3,500-acre property with a sporting-clay range and possibly another nine holes of golf.
If that sounds like the plan of a man who is confident about the future, well, think again.
“The question is, is there going to be an affluent society to be able to take advantage of this?” Pursell wondered aloud earlier this week. “If you go risk millions of dollars and create jobs and then you get demonized and they say you’re not paying enough in taxes and stuff, it’s kind of like, ‘Why?’ ”
The day before I saw Pursell, The Wall Street Journal had run a story about businesses slashing capital expenditures. When I mentioned that story to Pursell, he just shrugged. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he said.
But Pursell is going to take the risk, knowing full well that policies coming out of Washington almost inevitably will create more hurdles along the way.
“If we’re going to make it, we need to make it,” Pursell said.
In other words, he needs to create something so special that it can’t help but be successful. Stay tuned. It will be interesting to see how the next chapter plays out at FarmLinks.