2002: Business - Treetops Resort acquired

By NORMAN SINCLAIR

Gaylord, Mich.

Rick Smith, master teacher and golf course architect, has added another title to his growing vitae: resort owner.

Completing an 18-month endeavor, the renowned instructor – who coaches PGA Tour player Phil Mickelson among others – has organized an investor group of prominent businessmen and signed a deal to acquire Treetops Resort from the family of auto industry titan Harry Melling, who died three years ago.

The new ownership, which includes former chief executives Harold “Red” Pohling and Robert Eaton of Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., respectively, takes control of the popular Midwest resort featuring 81 holes and a 250-room hotel and conference center. The Melling family also will retain a stake in ownership.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Smith, 44, said the close relationship he shared with Melling and with his family, as well as Smith’s 17-year involvement with the resort, inspired him to acquire the property and carry on its owner’s legacy. Treetops serves as the home of Smith’s instruction business.

“Looking back after all these years, Treetops has collectively the best golf I’ve seen in the country,” Smith said. “There is so much potential here to be the best resort in the Midwest.”

From the late 1980s when he took over what once was a run-down small ski resort on the outskirts of Gaylord, Melling – an auto industry supplier and NASCAR team owner, who also lived here – spent nearly all of his time and millions of dollars transforming the 4,000-acre facility into a modern year-round resort with first-class golf.

And it is the golf that drives this resort. The original course, the Robert Trent Jones Sr. Masterpiece, is one of Jones’ last major on-site projects. Smith persuaded Tom Fazio to come to Michigan to do the second course, the Premier.

After watching those courses develop, Smith designed his highly acclaimed Signature course. He has since added another 18-hole design, The Tradition, and a mountain-side, 18-hole par-3 course, Threetops – the site of last week’s ESPN-produced, $1 million Skins shootout with Mickelson, Arnold Palmer, Fred Couples and Lee Trevino.

Though Smith will continue to work with his stable of Tour players, including Lee Janzen and Rocco Mediate, and direct his golf academies, he said he will devote more time to resort operations.

The Chesapeake, a hotel hospitality group from Maryland, has been hired to manage lodging operations. Improving the hotel business will be the first priority, Smith said.

PGA professional Scott Head has been promoted to vice president of golf operations, replacing Smith. With 550 prime-season employees, Treetops is Otsego County’s largest employer.

In addition to Pohling and Eaton, other members of the ownership group include: former CEO Bob Lanigan of Owens Illinois, and John Bates, chief executive of Heidtman Steel, both of whom are based in Toledo, Ohio – Smith’s former home. Al Wisne, whose family operates several of Michigan’s top restaurants, and land planner/developer Bob Sierra, also have equity in Treetops.

– Norman Sinclair is a reporter for The Detroit News.

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