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Merchandiser of the Year – Private Goes to Gabe Exiner of Crystal Tree Country Club

By Tim Cronin

Gabe Exiner credits his wife for pushing him into the golf business.

At 24, he was in a job he didn’t particularly love when she persuaded him to follow his dream.

“It was an unorthodox entrance,” Exiner admits. But starting as the third assistant professional at Crystal Tree Country Club in Orland Park, then returning to the club as the head professional after as assistant stint at Edgewood Valley and a two-year head posting at Eagle Brook – where people still talk about the day he made two aces within three holes – he returned to Crystal Tree in January of 2007 and has been a fixture in the 900-square foot shop since.

Much has changed since he ventured into the business. But much has stayed the same, as well.

“The biggest change in the business has been the amount of time you have to spend behind a desk,” Exiner said. “On your computer, between e-mail, social media, reports, it’s become more of a business and less of what you’d think of a typical country club golf pro job, where you’re on the lesson tee and out with people. The challenge is to make the membership understand what you’re doing out there, finding that balance and making sure they’re getting that face-time they want to have with you too.

“Those (play with member) jobs are becoming less and less.”

Exiner called customer service No. 1, and that means ordering anything and everything for them on those minutes in front of the computer.

“Knowing your audience,” he calls it.

“Special orders from the membership side is the real secret,” Exiner said. “Making them, first of all, aware that special ordering is possible. It boggles my mind sometimes that a member will come up and say, ‘Oh, you can order that?’ Yes, we can! But always offering, always making them aware over and over, whether it’s through e-mail promotion or just people coming through the shop that we can special order.”

That’s one way to fight online sales.

“You try to inspire that loyalty, first of all,” he said. “It’s the relationships you build with them, particularly over time. And as you bring in a new member, you really let them know that, first, you’ll beat the prices on anything, particularly apparel, with our Mill River plan. Equipment wise, we’ll beat the price on anything that didn’t fall off a truck.

“In-stock sales is less than 50 percent of our total sales. Just knowing that they find something they like and might want it in every color, or a set of those for their home in Florida as well.”

Exiner is the first to admit he doesn’t know everything that his members may want.

“We take suggestions seriously,” he said. “There have been times we’ve brought in a line of clothing based on the recommendation from one member. Obviously, you’ve got to think it’ll be accepted by more than one person, but you keep your ears open. Someone says, ‘I saw this at another shop, at another club, and I really loved it,’ you take that stuff seriously. It’s a lead.”

Exiner believes what he calls “the special things” he does put his nomination over the top after being a runner-up for three of the last four years. That includes Impact Branding, a corporate logo division that supplies soft goods at competitive prices.

“We offer the whole nine yards, and we don’t have the overhead,” Exiner said.

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