Chief Executive Officer Ben Doherty and Chief Technology Officer Tony Craig, principals of Dallas-based ClubsCorp, talk with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about the company’s online networks for business professionals, how they match entrepreneurs with investors and why they decided to take the company public.
When Ben Doherty exited as an executive from a 30-year career in the property and casualty insurance industry, Dallas financier Jim Ling persuaded him to start utilizing his natural ability as a storyteller. “He said he knew a brand-new publicly traded company whose story needed to get out and asked me if I would tell their story to Wall Street. So, I started telling the story about a company that was in a growth curve and that had a famous chairman and president. I was doing what I thought was best—telling a story—and before I knew it I had a little clientele of about six companies that I never dreamed of. Things proceeded along. I was having a good time, and then we had 9/11 and everybody stopped having a good time. It changed our way of life.”
After 9/11, Doherty’s investor relations career evolved into participating in small private investor clubs and business networking. First came Supper Club, a handful of highly accredited men and women who met four times a year on the East Coast to hear about opportunities. That evolved into another club that evolved into the Fat Cat Club. “I was a member there, and we all enjoyed getting together,” Doherty says. “Time went on and the club was about to, shall we say, wither away because there seemed to be no energy whatsoever. I decided to rejuvenate it and take control. They had a big staff and quarterly meetings that dues would support, and I carved it back to hardly any staff and increased their events.” Former Supper Club and Fat Cat Club members continued to attend meetings and Doherty kept adding new venues until the program eventually morphed into an angel investor group. “Turtle Creek Club is really the evolution of everything that I have done in the past.”
Enter Tony Craig. After spending 25 years of his career in the rent-to-own business, Craig launched a company called Measuring Up, which measures customer satisfaction and provides business owners with the tools they need to ensure they are “measuring up” to their stakeholders’ expectations. Craig recently expanded Measuring Up into a host of other business support systems, including building and design of private social networking tools for businesses. “I had an opportunity to take my company out on a road show with the Turtle Creek Club, and Ben and I got to talking and he said, ‘You know, Tony, I really like this. Could you do something like this for us?’ That began the relationship of what we are building now with ClubsCorp and private social media,” Craig explains.
In 2012, Doherty and Craig launched ClubsCorp, the “next generation” of business networking that features online networks for business professionals from entrepreneurs to accredited investors. ClubsCorp members get connected to each other online and through local chapters throughout the United States. Fat Cat Club is an affiliate of ClubsCorp. “ClubsCorp is like Facebook but with a purpose … Twitter but with more than 140 characters,” Craig explains. “It gives members the ability to do all those sorts of things in an interactive website where they actually participate. The best way to sum it up is to think of it as a community without borders.”
“I am blessed to know one of the geniuses in both Internet and brick and mortar marketing,” adds Doherty. “It takes a real skill to develop the marketing of rent-to-own at the level that Tony Craig has with his associations. He brought all that skillfulness to ClubsCorp and literally handed me a sales package that almost markets itself. He said if we build it, they probably will come—and they did.”
Opportunist: What is ClubsCorp’s mission?
Ben Doherty: We are the magnetic body that attracts investors and entrepreneurs to various gatherings, whether live or on the Internet. I may be in Dallas, for example, and Tony may be in Marion, Ohio, and the entrepreneurs may well be in Houston. We would have what is known currently as a webinar, but truly it is an Internet visit where members can sign on and enjoy the interview just as though they were sitting in Morton’s in West Palm Beach. Members can see a picture of Tony and the entrepreneurs and the presenter and myself, and they can ask questions.
Opportunist: Tell us how the site works.
Tony Craig: There is nothing about our site that makes you think Wow, this is wonderful new technology. The reality is that it’s not. The secret sauce, however, is the harnessing of all these technologies into a true application that makes sense for a number of different audiences at the same time. That’s really what Ben has created with the Fat Cat Club, Turtle Creek Club and now ClubsCorp. In creating this world that allows investors and entrepreneurs to come together in a non-adversary, friendly and open engagement type of situation that we have and then to be able to leverage the technology to make it happen anywhere at any time, well, that is the secret sauce. We have taken the complex and reduced it to something we can all understand. We never could have arrived at this point with a technology that wasn’t understandable.
Opportunist: Is the information private or can anyone see it?
Tony Craig: Everything is protected and behind the wall that you have to sign up for. That’s what is exciting to me. You can create a professional profile and get right in there. The biggest development in terms of what we are doing with the online community is the development of the city chapters and giving business networking a new online home.
Opportunist: What is the benefit of online business networking?
Ben Doherty: Business networking has been around forever. People would get together and discuss ideas or opportunities at a local club or café, but with ClubsCorp they can get together online and post questions and information and, best of all, they can do it at whatever time they wish—whether it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon or 3 o’clock in the morning—as opposed to once a month at 11 o’clock at a local restaurant.
Once men and women, entrepreneurs and investors get the message they will come online with great enthusiasm. We are headed into further development of our chapter base represented actually by two classes of membership. One is a Company membership, which we require of every presenting member. And, of course, the other is Individual membership open to individual men and women. Members must register and declare the state of investor, entrepreneur, professional, or business resource person and complete their business profile before they receive invitations in the open network, the ability post, blog and communicate. We truly are like Facebook with a purpose.
Opportunist: Which areas of the country are you targeting for new chapters?
Ben Doherty: By having the ability to add city chapters to our network, which is initially about 15 active, we have now expanded to 30 chapters. Our newest chapters are in Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Soon to come will be the three Cs of Ohio: Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. We hope to have those cities on the charts by the end of the year. In Florida, we want to add Naples, and Orlando, which is already one of our city chapters, and Tampa.
Tony Craig: This is the biggest opportunity for us because as we develop this we can make presentations to dozens of cities simultaneously. Having been in the entrepreneurial world, this is probably the most exciting part for me. Being able to tell my story in 25 cities across the United States in a live environment and take questions and respond to people who are asking them in San Diego or San Antonio—that is huge. It gives us an opportunity to propel small businesses forward in an economy that is doing everything it can to strangle business.
Opportunist: How many members does ClubsCorp currently have?
Ben Doherty: We have almost 100 Company members and about 980 Individual members currently registered and I believe that number will continue to steadily grow in both classes of members by the end of the year.
Opportunist: Will you continue to hold in-person meetings around the country and internationally?
Ben Doherty: Yes. Our live meetings will continue because there is no substitute for an entrepreneur standing up in front of potential investors and introducing himself and talking about his company and what he does and what he wants. We always want to provide that personal, live touch and get to know members better and build a stronger club relationship.
Opportunist: Does ClubsCorp charge a membership fee?
Ben Doherty: I discontinued dues when I took over Fat Cat Club. And, through the years as we were moving around the country and bringing entrepreneurs and members together, we have never reinstated a Club dues structure. We have received support and attendance in spite of no annual dues. We provide a complimentary luncheon format or a breakfast and luncheon format in the case of one-day events. The truth as I see it, is that you and I and all of us find more value in something in which we are invested—whether it’s an investment of time, money or with your heart so to speak. Going public is an occasion where our members have an opportunity to become invested beyond their time and heart. By allowing member ownership I believe we will see great support and greater attendance and greater business opportunities. Everything has a bit of value attached to it, and in this case I think this is the final component for our business model and its infrastructure.
Tony Craig: I would definitely agree with Ben. If people have a little bit of skin in the game they tend to play the game harder. If you take that attitude of ownership that investors and entrepreneurs already have built into their DNA and apply it to ClubsCorp, I believe it will take us to the next level. As far as dues are concerned … I believe that when you charge dues it almost creates a situation where groups begin to think small as opposed to thinking big. We are going to think big because America is a big place. There is a huge opportunity for business creation. ClubsCorp has the people, the platform and the passion to help others to succeed. The people are representative of our members. The platform is what I have created and the passion is Ben. This is his brainchild and when he described it I said I could build it online.
Opportunist: Please tell us more about yourself Tony.
Tony Craig: I guess you could say my story starts when I went off to college at the University of Cincinnati. I entered both the business school and the College-Conservatory of Music to study business and the performing arts, but when I realized I wasn’t going to make a whole lot of money in the performing arts I rotated into business. After college, I went to work for Banc One of Ohio in the check processing department. We interacted with two other banks in Ohio that were clearinghouse banks in the Federal Reserve system, and we operated a program to ensure that everything balanced out and we also designed a parallel system that would run simultaneously and ensure that what we were doing was accurate on our side as well. I met my wife at Banc One, but she didn’t want to move to the big city of Columbus, [Laughs] so we moved into North Central Ohio. That is where I fell into the rent-to-own business, which is where I spent the next 25 years of my life—lastly being director of communications with Rent-Way. Rent-Way was eventually sold to a larger competitor, and we chose to stay in Erie, Pa., where we launched Measuring Up.
Opportunist: What do you hope to achieve by the end of the year?
Ben Doherty: We have been working with one of our members to provide a travel club membership to the members that wish it. Members will never pay retail again after becoming a member of the ClubsCorp Travel Club. It will be a basic service offered on the site. We will have a drop-down tab that will allow a member to click on that link or that site and develop his own travel plans at a really deep discount. That is something that we have been discussing and it is ready to roll out whenever our chief technology officer says it’s ready.
Opportunist: Why did you decide to take the company public?
Ben Doherty: It really thrills me because it allows us to actually measure what we have done over the last several years by offering ClubsCorp shares to our members for purchase. ClubsCorp has created a Nevada corporation that will eventually register its shares for public ownership. We are moving through and just finishing up our founders round, then on to a second round called the ‘Members round.’ Both classes of Members can buy shares to own a piece of the rock, if you will, and participate in the growth and success of ClubsCorp. The shares we expect will be available for purchase by the first of September and we will have the ability for members to go to a special place on the site and obtain all the documentation needed in order to subscribe for their participation. We have never charged dues over the years and never intended to. This is not dues; it’s simply an equity ownership opportunity to the extent the Members want to get involved in what we think will be a successful growing business community. We believe it’s time for our members to come on board and be a part of the Club and actually have an equity stake in the company.
Tony Craig: Selling some shares and raising some money gives us the opportunity to continually develop our platform. As we grow city chapters and participate in crowdfunding we can beam that message, so to speak, in all these communities. It takes a little money to pay for all this technology. There are two basic ways for a company to raise money: sell products or sell shares. There’s not really a product for us to sell in that manner that would generate the kind of revenues that we want to generate. When Facebook went public it was about to fade away as the latest and greatest cool fad, but with an infusion of capital from the IPO it essentially became the Internet. People now equate Facebook with the Internet. That is huge. We would like to take ClubsCorp and equate it with getting investors and entrepreneurs together for the creation of business, and of course, jobs.
Ben Doherty: Several years ago when Tony began to design and create the platform we all knew crowdfunding was on the horizon. No one knew how it would affect what we do. We have a clearer picture of this now. The fact is, if ClubsCorp had not set this up we would not be a qualified portal for crowdfunding today. We have had invitations to participate and we will offer a special membership level that will allow those members to participate in crowdfunding as we arrive at that level of activity.
Opportunist: Do you believe the American Dream is still attainable?
Tony Craig: I would venture to say that the American Dream is more alive than ever and we have an opportunity to tap into that and create some real excitement. It doesn’t matter what you hear from the government, our economy is squeezing people to the point where they are more often than not doing without. People are rising up and saying they don’t want to do without anymore. They want a lifestyle they are comfortable with and can leave to their children. People like that have dreams and the ability to start businesses and get an audience with people who can write a check to help fund those businesses.
Opportunist: Do you believe companies such as ClubsCorp can help small businesses prosper and eventually turn the economy around?
Tony Craig: We have a terrible dichotomy today with the economy almost squeezing out the middle class, but the middle class is what makes America great. After a recent trip to Florida, my son remarked that the Sunshine State reminds him a lot of Europe because there’s low class and high class and not a whole lot in between. I’m not saying that Florida is Europe—yet—but my son did describe the situation very accurately. And, it’s not just in Florida; it’s widespread. There are lots of people in the lower end of the spectrum and lots of people at the higher end but not a whole lot in the middle. However, we need those people in the middle so they can have the American Dream. During my 25 years in the rent-to-own business—and there are a number of articles to back this up, including a piece in Time magazine—I noticed that our society is moving from an ownership mentality to a leasing mentality. That’s OK to a certain extent, but you cannot do that with your business. You can do that with the material things you have and leasing a car as opposed to owning a car can be a good thing, but if you own a business you have to behave like the owner. You’re not leasing a business with an opt-out option. You’ve got to take command of it and take responsibility. We try to help people who have these ideas—people who would otherwise not have the opportunity or the ability to get their ideas in front of people. Without opportunities such as those we are providing, we are in danger of possibly losing the middle class.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow her on twitter at @les7989.
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