Staying the Course with John Reese (McIntire '73), CEO of Nicklaus Companies

August 7, 2019

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John Reese

August is National Golf Month, a time when seasoned golfers are encouraged to introduce new players to the joys of the game. To commemorate the Scottish-born sport, we spoke with alumnus John Reese, who has spent a decade overseeing the company of one of golf’s most important and successful figures, Jack Nicklaus.

Reese has enjoyed a storied career that he traces back to McIntire. After graduating from UVA, he pursued an M.B.A. at the University of Massachusetts and was hired by IBM to sell mainframe computers in New England, before he relocated to New York to work in a variety of capacities for the computing giant.

Years later, he founded his own company, Fisher Reese & Associates, where he developed and managed large real estate assets across the United States for 20 years. After a short-lived retirement, in 2009, he became CEO of Nicklaus Companies, where he continues to manage the firm’s major lines of business. His responsibilities extend to branding, marketing, golf course design, and more for the company that represents the achievements of the 18-time major tournament champion and the sport Nicklaus loves.

We recently asked Reese how he came to work with Nicklaus, how his perspective on golf has changed since taking on the role as CEO, and how McIntire prepared him for a multifaceted career that’s still going strong.

Let’s talk about your how you got to where you are now—what drew you to Nicklaus Companies?
I became Director of Planning for IBM at a pretty young age. One of the groups that reported to me was our real estate division, which rented property and owned buildings all over the country worth billions of dollars. And I looked at what they were doing and thought, “These guys are making millions! I’m working hard, I’ve got a little IBM stock, and they’re telling me I’m going to do great, but gee, real estate is a good thing!”

Sometime later, a colleague introduced me to the real estate business. I ended up collaborating with him, working as a partner, and then running the company a few years later. For 20 years, we had shopping centers and office buildings. It was very lucrative, I learned a lot, and in 2005, we sold all of our real estate because the offers were just so stupidly high. And so we got out of it, and I thought, “Well, I’ll retire for the rest of my life now.”

One of my partners, Bill Staudt, served on the board of Howard Milstein’s companies. Howard is very well-known in real estate and banking and also owned part of Jack Nicklaus’s company. After about my fourth round of golf in one week—a year since selling off the real estate—I was dying to do something else. Bill called me and mentioned Jack Nicklaus needed some help and wanted me to talk to him. I was a golfer, and Jack was my hero. Jack’s business was largely built around doing golf courses and big real estate deals, but everything was floundering because it was 2008.

I told my wife I would go down to Florida for about a month to help them figure out what they needed to do with the company, and then I’d be back. I met with Jack, and he asked me to stay to help execute the plan.

We were about a year and a half into it, and we had reduced size and increased profitability. Then Howard Milstein said, “I’d like you to do this for five years.”

I told him I wasn’t going to do it for five years. He insisted and made me a very good deal. [Laughs] I convinced my wife to move to Florida from Greenwich, CT, and we travel around the world with Jack to 40 different countries. It’s been wonderful.

This thing has ended up being 10 years. I’m 67 years old. I want to spend time with my grandkids. I told Howard, and he said, “Okay, we’re going to start all of that two years from now.” [Laughs] I told him that wasn’t exactly what I was thinking! But Jack’s almost 80, so we need to make sure all of our marketing, branding, and licensing businesses continue to grow because Jack’s designing fewer golf courses. 

In overseeing the many business lines your company produces, how do you stay focused and help the company grow the game of golf in a manner befitting Jack Nicklaus’s high standards?
We have an excellent management team. Today, our business is in Vietnam, China, Thailand, and Korea. The sales team ends up doing most of it, but I’ll take a trip or two each year to Asia for eight or nine days to see seven or eight places. By doing that, I’m able to touch base on the key deals. Our business is to design the golf courses but also to provide construction management when needed.

Jack will make two or three of his own designs and make the trips with the company G-V jet. He visits the sites, spends three days on every deal we make, and helps market it. Early on, I told Jack that his design business is wonderful—because he likes it—but I also told him, “You’ve got to be there to do it.”

We’ve gotten into all kinds of businesses now with products, licenses, and endorsements. We have a Rolex endorsement that brings in $1 million a year and requires Jack to meet with them at Wimbledon and at Augusta—a very small amount of his time and a lot of money. So we have a guy who just handles Rolex, working with them and our brand to do things together.

We have a much bigger structure than I would think most athletes have. We have a company with 100-110 people, with some 60+ people in Palm Beach and then another 30-40 around the world managing the brand.

In what ways has being CEO for a company entrenched in golf changed your perspective or appreciation of the sport?
Really, everything I’ve learned about golf I learned from spending time with Jack. Also from meeting Tim Finchem, who ran the PGA Tour; Billy Payne, who was the Augusta National Chairman; and Pete Bevacqua who was the CEO of PGA of America. They all adore Jack and look for his opinion on the game. The nice thing is that I’ve been sort of dragged along, and now I understand the stuff and have the ability to input my ideas into some of what’s going on with golf—including some things Jack has been a big believer of: It takes too long, it’s too expensive, and it’s too hard.

In other countries like Vietnam and China, it’s booming. In the United States, we have about 30 million golfers, and it’s staying about the same. Jack’s concept is to take away those things that have caused the game to stop growing. Make the game easier. Make it faster. Do different things with it, like have a bigger golf hole.

Jack is also one of the founders of The First Tee, which goes into cities and rural areas to get kids into golf. It’s been an unbelievably good program and something that we all spend time to support. The nice thing is that the kids who start getting into golf are dealing with adults. The people teaching them are 18-25, and the people running events are in their 30s and 40s, and these kids get connected with people who are excited about golf and about helping them—and their attitudes change.

The other thing to note is that the PGA Tour gives much more money than any other sport, with over half of the proceeds from literally every tournament going to charities in the area. There are so many people who have become volunteers who are guys like me or who have retired who get on to the board of a tournament to help drive attendance and the TV ratings. Then you take the money, and you give it to area people in need.

What experiences from your UVA McIntire days stick with you? What knowledge from the Commerce School do you believe supported you along your career path?
The Commerce School was great for me because I spent the first two years playing baseball, being in a fraternity, and learning to live on my own. I was all over the place. But the McIntire School made me want to get into the business world. I liked the Marketing classes and really liked the Finance classes I had. Those were my focus and what I was interested in. It was a great education.

I’ve talked to a lot of friends in real estate who went to Virginia, and we say the same thing: Those four years changed our lives. And those two years were particularly good for me in terms of learning subjects that I felt I could do well in.

There are some general things you learn going to Virginia. You need to do things the right way: You can’t lie, cheat, steal—the basic tenets of the Honor Code—but it’s how you conduct yourself. McIntire was a very practical experience. If your company doesn’t have enough money, and you don’t have a good idea, and you’re not the best in your market, you’re not going to make it. It’s been helpful for me. My life at IBM was learning how to operate in a big company and what marketing really was. I had a good start, since I had a big leg up on everybody who started at the same time I did. Some of them came from business schools, but none of those schools compared to McIntire.