Though he was born in Washington, D.C., where his father, Steve, served as a public-relations specialist for Kemper Insurance, Josh Lesnik is as Chicago as they come, having lived in and around the Windy City for most of his life. Now 54, he has known triumph and despair with his Cubs and savored the great run of the Bulls when Michael Jordan was leading them to their NBA titles in the 1990s. Ask him to name his dream golf foursome and Lesnik not only lists the players he’d like (musicians Jerry Garcia and Bob Marley and Golden Age course architect Seth Raynor) but also the four Chicago icons whom he would ask to join the group in other capacities, with longtime Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray and actor/comedian Chris Farley driving the beverage cart, John Belushi fixing drinks at the 19th hole and former Bulls head coach Phil Jackson caddying.
Lesnik’s life is also deeply rooted in the royal and ancient game. Now the executive vice president for golf at Kemper Sports, a Chicago-based concern co-founded by his father in 1983, he has been working in the sport for most of his adult life. Lesnik’s first gig of note was as the initial general manager of Bandon Dunes, when he was just 29 years old. And after helping Mike Keiser establish that property, Lesnik assisted the one-time greeting card magnate in creating other acclaimed layouts and the destinations they became part of, among them Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails and Old Macdonald in Oregon as well as Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes in Wisconsin. He also helped the Mosaic company with the development and opening of the Red, Blue and Black courses at Streamsong in Florida. In addition, Lesnik was the one who brought Keiser to the Cabot Links project on Cape Breton – and whom Keiser sent on his behalf for a first look at the spectacular sandy-soil property that became Sand Valley.
No one save Keiser himself has been so directly engaged in the development of so many top-100 courses.
Lesnik is not one to crow about any of his work experiences. But he has no trouble talking about “how cool it was to be involved in different ways with the creation of all those different courses” and how much he learned about business working so closely for so many years with Keiser. His father, too, whose firm has managed at one time or another all those esteemed properties. And this past January, the company’s new financial partners purchased the entire Streamsong resort for $160 million, with Kemper staying on to run it.
And Lesnik’s involvement in the game extends to other areas. He sits on the Boards of Governors of the Western Golf Association/Evans Scholars Foundation as well as the First Tee of Greater Chicago and Canal Shores. He is also on the regional affairs committee of the USGA and a course rater for Golfweek magazine.
In the latest installment of the 19th Hole, Lesnik talks with John Steinbreder about learning to play the game with his dad at a nine-hole muni called Vernon Hills that was the first facility Kemper Sports ever managed for a client, and how the job he took at that company at age 16 largely entailed cleaning bathrooms, bussing tables and picking the practice range. Now a father of two adult sons (Jake and Henry) and a 12-year-old hockey-playing daughter (Bebe), Lesnik also discusses his passion for music in general and the Grateful Dead in particular, the very positive trends he sees in golf today and the things he likes most about the game:
My parents were living in Washington, D.C., when I was born in 1968. My sister, Blaine, had been born three years earlier, and my father, who had been a journalist and lobbyist, was working for Kemper Insurance as its vice president of PR. Then, the company moved its headquarters from downtown Chicago to a suburb called Long Grove. One day, people in the real estate division went to James S. Kemper Jr., the chairman and CEO, and asked what they should do with all the land they had around the office. Mr. Kemper’s idea was to build a golf course. And he asked my dad, who was not a golfer at the time, to be in charge of the project. So, my dad moved us all back to Chicagoland and in 1979 opened Kemper Lakes. Ten years later, the course hosted a PGA Championship, which was won by Payne Stewart.
What made Kemper Lakes different was it being the first truly upscale daily-fee course. My dad put a lot of emphasis on service and making sure it was of the highest level. Same with food and beverage. Those were its big points of differentiation.
Not long after Kemper Lakes opened, officials from the town of Vernon Hills called my father and asked if he would help them with a nine-hole course they wanted to build. He agreed to do so. Forty years later, Kemper Sports is still managing the property.
Kemper Sports came to be in 1983, with Mr. Kemper and my dad being 50-50 partners in the beginning. Mr. Kemper, who passed away in 2002, sold his interest in the business to my dad long ago. Today, the company manages more than 140 golf courses, private clubs, sports venues and destination resorts. It has a very diverse portfolio of courses, including munis like Vernon Hills and Chambers Bay to destinations like Bandon. Kemper Sports also manages more golf properties among the top 100 U.S. public and resort courses as rated by Golf, Golf Digest and Golfweek than any other management company.
My dad and I picked up golf together. He was 40, and I was 13, and we’d play at Vernon Hills. We’d also take lessons together. I enjoyed it but was never super competitive as a kid. I didn’t play golf in high school or college. At least on a team. I played just for fun. I was more of a basketball player when I was younger. That is what I really liked.
I majored in radio and TV at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where we teed it up on a muni called Waveland. I held a bunch of different jobs after graduation. I worked for a Continental Basketball Association team in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, called the Skyforce. Back home in Chicago as a bartender. After that, I had a sales position at S&S Automotive. Then, my father approached me about a job in new business development at Kemper Sports. My role was to find new management contracts for the company. I had to take a pay cut, but I liked that I was going to be working with my dad. And of course, I was going to be working in golf.
I was so fortunate to be able to be so heavily involved with Bandon, Cabot Links, Sand Valley and Streamsong. And I was able to do that in large part due to our CEO of the past 15 years, Steve Skinner, who in some ways has been like a big brother to me.
My first deal was for us to develop, build, own and manage a course called Falcon Ridge in Lenexa, Kansas. It opened in the fall of 1997 and was the second upscale daily-fee course in the Kansas City market. It was in a good location and initially did well. But then about 15 other daily-fee courses opened. This was during the “build a course a day” era, and the golf market flooded. With so much competition, we had to become even better at marketing and servicing customers.
In a lot of places, golf became somewhat of a commodity, with customers just about telling us what they’d pay to play. We as a company were growing, and we had very good operations people in the field. But we did not have many who were schooled in marketing. We hadn’t really needed them before. So, I also became the marketing manager. And I started going to Roosevelt University in Chicago at night, where I eventually earned a master’s degree in marketing communications.
Mike Keiser was actually a silent investor with us in Falcon Ridge. He had already done the Dunes Club and wanted to get more into golf. Along the way, he had found the land for Bandon and began searching for an outside management company to run the property. We were one of those to make a presentation, and I sat in on that and watched my dad interact with Mike. They knew each other, and as hard as it was to believe that something as outrageous as Mike’s idea for Bandon Dunes might work, there was also the attraction of working for him. And in the end, Mike selected Kemper.
Not long after that, in September 1997, I received a call from Mike asking me to accompany him on a trip to Bandon. Nervously, I ran over to my dad’s office and asked him what he thought. He said I should definitely go. So, I flew out with Mike, and as we were driving in our rental car to the resort site, he asked me to become the general manager.
The next thing I knew, I was in a construction meeting that included David Kidd, who was going to be the course architect. Then, I was walking the property with Mike and looking across the dunes and down at the Pacific Ocean. And when I got to the spot on the course that today is where the 16th green and 17th tee meet, I said to myself: How can I not be a part of this? By the time we got back to the plane, I knew this is what I wanted to do.
I moved out to Bandon in May 1998. It was crazy all we were doing. Hiring people. Getting software ready. Telling golfers about what this was going to be. We were going to start taking tee times on New Year’s Day 1999. But a few weeks before that, the Oregonian in Portland published a very glowing article about Bandon. The phones started ringing the next day, and they haven’t stopped since. I still remember sitting in a mobile trailer with Bob Gaspar, who was nicknamed “Shoe” because he looked just like jockey Willie Shoemaker and was the first person we hired who was not on the construction or maintenance crew, taking tee time reservations over the phone. The course officially opened on May 2, 1999, the same day that my second son, Henry, was due to be born. Fortunately, he waited for us, until the 17th, so we were able to get through the first couple of weeks.
Initially, Mike asked me to make a two-year commitment, and that’s about how long I stayed out there. But I was involved in various ways with the other courses that opened at Bandon. And all these years later, Kemper Sports continues to manage them.
I was so fortunate to be able to be so heavily involved with Bandon, Cabot Links, Sand Valley and Streamsong. And I was able to do that in large part due to our CEO of the past 15 years, Steve Skinner, who in some ways has been like a big brother to me, and who has done so much to grow and lead our company with my dad, who was and still is chairman of the board, while I was working so much with those other properties.
Back to Mike, I have long been amazed by how well he works with artists. He did that in the greeting card business, and now in golf. He also has this ability to measure the success of each course, just as he did with each greeting card, and also to solicit feedback from everyone around him. He has a way of getting people to do their best work for him and is able to read a situation or a relationship and make fast and good decisions. He never gets angry. He never gets defensive. He just casually and artfully leads with incredible business and golf acumen.
What trends do I like in golf these days? Start with the ways that time and money are being spent on reviving community courses and helping youth development and involvement in golf.
Mike also expects you to work as hard as he does. Which is very hard. But he also knows how to make it fun.
And Mike and my father have worked so well together. In many ways it has been a great marriage, combining my dad’s desire for the highest level of service and hospitality and marketing with Mike’s vision, discipline, drive and love of links golf.
What trends do I like in golf these days? Start with the ways that time and money are being spent on reviving community courses and helping youth development and involvement in golf. Look at what Augusta National just announced they are doing in that city. And John Ashworth with Goat Hill Park in Oceanside, California. We are trying to do something similar with Canal Shores on the North Shore of Chicago and give kids a place to learn and play the game, so they grow up to be golfers as they also learn the life lessons that come out of the golf experience. Canal Shores will also have a WGA caddie academy and be the home of the First Tee of Greater Chicago. Our mission is to turn the most economically challenged First Tee kids into golfers and caddies and help them get Evans Scholarships.
I also like that the trend toward building minimalist, dunesy, sand-based destination courses is continuing. And the quality of golf keeps growing, as wonderful new layouts keep getting built, both public and private. Like Rodeo Dunes, which Mike Keiser’s sons, Michael and Chris, are creating outside of Denver. The thoughtful restorations that have been undertaken at so many Golden Age courses have also been great, whether at Winged Foot or Merion, Maidstone or Shoreacres.
In addition, I am happy to see a proliferation of clubs without real estate such as the Outpost Club and the New Club give golfers a new and different – and also very old-school – way to enjoy the game. And the growth of short courses such as the Preserve at Bandon, the Sandbox at Sand Valley and soon the Chain at Streamsong, is a very good development.
My favorite day in golf? A two-person scramble at Canal Shores with my daughter and I against my two sons, after which we hop the El at the station right next to the golf shop and head to Wrigley for a game.
As for music, my sister was a big influence. She’d sometimes let me listen to her albums when we were younger, and I remember “American Beauty” by the Grateful Dead having a particularly strong impact. My parents were a factor as well, and they took my sister and I when we were 16 and 13, respectively, to a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert. We as a family really reminisced about that recently when David Crosby passed. And when I was at boarding school, at Lake Forest Academy, I remember a teacher taking some of us to go see the Dead play at UIC Pavilion in 1987. After that, I really started going to live shows.
My favorite day in golf? A two-person scramble at Canal Shores with my daughter and I against my two sons, after which we hop the El at the station right next to the golf shop and head to Wrigley for a game. Bandon Dunes, surrounded by family and friends, is my happy place. My favorite accomplishment as a golfer? I love that I won the father/son tournament at Shoreacres with my dad in 2014, and then with my oldest son seven years later.
And my favorite part of my career in golf so far? Working with my dad, of course, as well as Steve Skinner and all my colleagues at Kemper Sports. Also, working so closely with Mike and having that great experience at Bandon and seeing it grow into such an incredible golf destination. And the great friendships I’ve enjoyed having with so many people in the game.
As for the most rewarding part of my career, it is having the ability to give back to the game through great organizations like the Evans Scholars Foundation, First Tee and Canal Shores.
I was so fortunate to be born into the golf business and really just fell in love with the game. I’m definitely enjoying the ride.
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