Roger Kerry - keeping golf evergreen at Branston Golf and Country Club
PUBLISHED: 14:31 06 July 2015 | UPDATED: 14:31 06 July 2015
Roger Kerry has a confession to make - he's never actually been that good at golf. The South Derbyshire businessman celebrated his 75th birthday with a lavish party at the plush facilities at Branston Golf and Country Club, which he has developed into one of the best in the region - but he admits that he fell into the business rather than it ever being a driving ambition.
In his introduction to the booklet commemorating the club’s silver jubilee, back in 2000, he sums it up: ‘Having been a third rate player, it was never my ambitions to own a golf club. However, it has been exhilarating to see Branston develop from portakabins to its current status.’
Another 15 years on and the club is even more established as a gym and fitness centre, conference and banqueting facilities are constantly in demand and there’s a driving range as well the scrupulously maintained 18-hole course.
But Roger’s golf game hasn’t got any better.
He says: ‘I have played since I was 14 but always very badly. I have never been better than a 25 handicap. I enjoy it but I’m terrible.’
The reason that Branston has been such a success, where other courses have struggled to be financially viable, is Roger’s knack of spotting a gap in the market and making sure he fills it. He did it in the restaurant business before he turned to golf, bringing the idea of the ‘carvery’ from London to the Dog and Partridge in Tutbury, spotting a growing trend at the very start.
It was the same in golf, where he saw the days of the male-domination at clubs waning, despite the rearguard action being fought by the die hards to maintain it, and he wanted a facility that would appeal to both sexes and all ages. So while other golf clubs were still keeping women off the front lawn, Branston was welcoming ladies on an equal footing, anticipating where the future was going.
Derbyshire Life caught up with Roger at his home in Newton Solney, where he enjoys panoramic views of the Trent and Dove rivers in this quiet corner of South Derbyshire. The golf club he is so proud of is just a bit further along the Trent but this time on the Staffordshire banks of the river.
Branston Golf and Country Club is now an established part of the community but it has taken a fair deal of business acumen to bring it this far, with Roger learning some of those skills from his father Frank, a self-made man who also had the gift of spotting future trends and exploiting them.
Roger was born in Warwickshire but moved to the area when he was seven, going on to attend Burton Grammar School. After completing his education, he joined his father’s greeting card business Fine Art Developments.
Roger says: ‘He was the first specialist in the business. Back in those days if you went to buy a card they would pull out an old shoe box from under the counter and you would get a handful of options. It was that primitive.
‘I joined my father in 1956 and he had already become the largest greetings card distributer in the UK. He started producing cards for fund-raising groups, helping organisations like the Scouts and church groups generate income, and that just blossomed.’
The charity card side of the business eventually became known as Webb-Ivory and had 20 years of uninterrupted growth.
‘When I joined my father he had 33 employees and when I left it was 4,500,’ said Roger. ‘My father was a very inspirational character and a great salesman.’
Despite the success of the business, Roger moved into restaurants in the early 1980s.
‘I decided to venture out,’ he says. ‘I bought the Dog and Partridge (a historic coaching inn at Tutbury) which at the time was a really run down Bass pub. It was in a bad way, everything you touched crumbled. But I knew what could be done with it and I had it for 27 years. It became the first carvery in the area and we had a French restaurant there for a time.’
A few years later Roger added The Riverside in Burton and The Mackworth in Derby to his pub/restaurant portfolio.
‘We invested in and refurbished The Mackworth and trebled the business,’ he says.
At the end of the 1980s, the golf club came up for sale and Roger bought it 25 years ago, initially simply because it backed onto The Riverside.
He said: ‘I thought it would be good for attracting weekend golfers to the hotel. But I soon realised that it was in a dire strait. The clubhouse was some broken down portakbins and in truth I didn’t know what to do with it. The manager’s office blew away in a gale. It had these old septic tanks and the aroma coming across in the summer was quite something.
‘It had originally been owned by the local authority, who let it out to some farmer who had done what he could with it. Then it was owned by an engineering company but when we took over the course was pretty awful and needed a lot of money spending on it.
‘I think because I wasn’t a really keen golfer I was able to approach it with an open mind. I had travelled a lot in America in my job with Fine Art Developments and had seen the typical country club over there which was open to whole families. Typically, many old golf courses in this country are male dominated, maybe 10 per cent women. I wanted to be just the opposite of that. So we planned fitness facilities, things for kids and had one membership, for men and women.
‘It’s the same really as what has happened in country pubs where the husband would go for a couple of drinks while the wife got the dinner. Times have changed. Now a lot of women earn more money than their husbands – why should they do the cooking?
‘The days of the old club golfer setting off for six hours while the wife did all the work are also over. Lifestyles have changed and fortunately we were there to accommodate that. We were the first family health and fitness club in the area. Now, 55 per cent of our membership is female and we have a creche open seven days a week. When you walk in the clubhouse, the first thing you will come across is a hair and beauty salon.
‘If you go along you will see people coming in from breakfast until 11pm at night. It’s a nice place to meet and socialise.’
The club now employs the full-time equivalent of 90 people and has a driving range that helps create a stepping stone for getting into the game. There are four golf teachers and Branston has won awards for having the most junior players of any club in the UK and for the quality of its fitness facilities.
‘No venue can stand still,’ says Roger. ‘You have to think ahead and predict what the future trends are going to be.’
Roger may not be a great golfer but he’s a good skier – he’s been doing it or 64 years – and he walks a lot, often with his dogs.
‘I have done the coast to coast walk and the South West Coast Path - which is 630 miles,’ he says. ‘I’m also part of a group that walks in Austria every year for ten days.
‘I also still do play the course when I can. But not often enough to be good at it. A friend once said to me “I have never seen an owner of a golf course play as badly as you”. I always tell him that I look after the members.
‘Our MD Ben Laing is a golfer and understands the game. One of the first things he did was get a top notch course manager in. It has had a great affect on of the quality of the greens.
‘The golf industry has not been growing recently, if anything it has declined slightly. So for us to have progressed shows we must be doing something right.
‘But I still think the future is on the health side. There is huge scope as a nation to do more as we need to be fitter. We are helping people to achieve that but in a friendly way. Our gym is modern and run by very well qualified people but we do it in a very approachable manner. There’s a social aspect to everything we do.
‘We are keen on our golfers but we never let the golf dominate.’
Branston Golf Club timeline
- Branston Golf Club occupies what was once the grounds of Drakelow Hall, home of the celebrated South Derbyshire railway engineer Sir Nigel Gresley. He established the grounds to his residence across the river from his home which some years later became the fairway to the 18th hole.
- Later the land was used for grazing cattle before eventually being owned by East Staffordshire District Council.
- George Hamshaw was the first owner of the course, after spotting an advert in the national press.
- Work began on the course in 1974 although it proved too wet to open and wasn’t used until spring 1975.
- In 1977, after a change of ownership, the greens were redesigned and re-laid to improve the course but drainage remained an issue. Water up to three feet deep covered 60 per cent of the course two or three times a year. Once sand and silt four inches deep were deposited on the greens.
- Branston Golf Club began in a 6ft x 8ft shed, the first building erected on the site on the makeshift car park. The course fee of £1 was often put through the letter box and the first pro used his car boot as a mobile stockroom.
- The first clubhouse was a series of portakbins on stilts.
- In 1975 full membership was £45 but you could use the practice ground for just 50p.
- In 1981 East Staffs councillors padlocked and chained the entrance after they believed that rent had not been paid, which turned out to be an oversight.
- In 1990 the course was sold to Burton Inns under the leadership of chairman Roger Kerry. He opened a plush modern clubhouse in October 1994, including a fitness section.
- A pavilion catering for weddings and conferences followed and the modern facilities that have made Branston an all-year round destination have taken shape.
- Go to branstonclub.co.uk