Most business leaders will talk all day about how their employees are like their family. But Desmond Tay, General Manager of the Singapore Island Country Club, takes it to the next level. After all, he declares, “I’ll always be the first to stand up for my staff.”

The Club is one of Singapore’s finest, offering golf courses and luxury relaxation for more than 50 years now. It holds a special place in the history of country clubs, not only as Singapore’s oldest, but also as the first non-racial country club in the world. Its pedigree is therefore clearly visible, and with multimillion-dollar development after multimillion-dollar development in the pipeline, the Club’s distinguished status hardly looks set to fade.

At the core of the Club’s quality, says Desmond, are its employees. Without its staff, the Club would not be able to offer its members the high level of service they have come to expect. “Over the past few years we have achieved a very stable staff force,” says Desmond. “They are happy, they are well taken care of, and in return, they are able to provide a more sincere, more committed service to all members. In turn, members appreciate the services of all our staff.”

Desmond Tay General Manager of The Singapore Island Country Club
Desmond Tay, General Manager of The Singapore Island Country Club

Desmond’s philosophy is to take care of his employees, so that they will take care of members. “I want to provide comfort to all our members, so that they feel they’re at a home away from home. Club business is about providing a lifestyle, and they need to enjoy their lifestyle in this club. Their enjoyment is our priority. That is why I’ve been here for five and a half years. I still enjoy seeing this realised.”

Desmond has long been in the hospitality industry for exactly this reason – people. It is not just the guests, either; the general manager also values the interactions and camaraderie with staff as much as he does with the Club’s members. In fact, this love of socialising is what drew him specifically to the Club, after having spent years in numerous roles across the hotel industry. For him, working at a country club provides a greater focus on the social aspect.

“In hotels, it’s always about business,” he says. “All you’re interested in is making more money. But working in clubs, it’s totally different. Money and business aren’t the number one priorities. Rather, it’s the members’ satisfaction, the level of service and the lifestyle of the members. The day-to-day routine is more the priority, which is a different perspective compared to the hotel industry.”

To maintain this atmosphere of care and comfort for the Club’s members, Desmond has ensured that his team is comprised of only the right people – those who are passionate about people and hospitality. Once someone has become part of the team at the Club, they can look forward to continual support from Desmond and the rest of management.

“Money and business aren’t the number one priorities. Rather, it’s the members’ satisfaction.”

“We always have gatherings and get-togethers to keep in touch,” says Desmond. “Otherwise, we’d only see each other once a year at the end-of-year party. Staff get together about once a month.

“Whether you’re a part of the junior staff or a senior manager, we always have special events and activities to bring the team together, have bonding sessions and get to know each other better.”

Desmond even allows his team to take part in the activities and sports on offer around the Club. For example, each Monday, staff can enjoy a round of golf on the Club’s own grounds, with different activities organised for the team’s enjoyment. At the same time, casual chats over coffee are held, so that Desmond and other managers can directly engage with those working at the coal face. This ambition to become a preferred employer of choice is no doubt why the Club has retained some of its loyal staff for decades; many members have even grown up with staff.

Even with the Club’s core team of loyal, passionate employees, there is a necessity to retrain and reskill them, ensuring the team is up-to-date with changing technology. The Club also needs to bring in outside workers, relying on their expertise and competence to help maintain the surrounding nature reserve, as well as the golf courses themselves. “We require other parties to provide us with a lot of additional labour,” Desmond explains. “We have 70% in-house and 30% outsourced workers. These are partners that come in handy by supporting us and improving our conditions.

Desmond Tay General Manager of The Singapore Island Country Club

“We also have our own experts and professionals, like our Director of Agronomy/Golf Course Maintenance who is an expert in grass and clubs. We have our own in-house advisors who look after the landscape, but of course you need a very large team for that. Our own internal workers have been retrained. A lot of them have been with us for 30, 40 or 50 years.”

Maintaining a well-trained, happy and loyal team is integral to the future of the Club – Desmond has big plans, including redevelopment and expansion. Since the Singapore government has mandated a reduction in golf courses, from 20 in 2015 to 13 by 2030, Desmond is hoping to increase the Club courses’ capacity, to accommodate the inevitable uptick in demand.

The immediate future will see a S$120 million development project across the Club, nearly half of which will be spent on the 27-hole golf course. The priority is, naturally, ensuring the project is cost-effective, while also meeting the necessary conditions for renewal of the land lease. Meanwhile, the Clubhouse will also enjoy a hefty investment to attract younger members – those with different lifestyle needs. Over the long-term, Desmond is expecting to see a return on investment in the form of rising membership value.

“The Club is moving in the right direction to maintain our premium status,” he says. “With all the redevelopment plans and the evolution of the management staff over the past three years, we have been at the top and now we’re heading in a very good direction. Members can look forward to a better club.

“We will adjust as needed to make sure that we are always in the premium position, that there is always a need and a demand, that members will be coming back. Therefore, the constant upgrade of facilities is a top priority for everyone in the industry. A lot of clubs don’t have the financial resources to be able to follow the latest trends or maintain the best conditions. But over the life of our club, we have continued to make sure it is always kept at the status of a premium club.”

“The club is moving in the right direction to maintain our premium status.”

But Desmond is not just dedicated to improving the state of the Club; his own abilities as a team leader have always been grown and developed by other talented leaders around him. For example, he once worked at Orchard Hotel under General Manager Desmond Pugson, now the Managing Director of Banyan Tree, who showed him what a leader is supposed to be. Some of the core ideals he learned included training and open communication, and he admired the other Desmond enough that to this day, he follows those lessons.

“I’m always open, and I invite our members and our staff to give us feedback on how we can improve,” he says. “I improve a lot from all this feedback. Staff themselves are the most direct source of information on areas for improvement. For example, staff will offer feedback for their respective areas, since they’re the ones who know their job well. My staff will come up and openly address any criticisms of management. Whether it’s appreciation or criticism, I take both positively, as a chance for me to do better.”

These days, Desmond continues to draw on expertise from across the hospitality industry, to help improve it as a whole. To this end, the Club works with industry partners like the Asian Golf Industry Federation and the Singapore Golf Association. Outside of the industry, a productive relationship must be maintained with government groups like the National Parks Board and the Public Utilities Board, to ensure the natural environment is properly looked after. The Club even maintains connections to international organisations, such as the Club Management Association of America.

On an individual level, Desmond continues to receive inspiration and knowledge from others in the industry, as he, in turn, shares his own. “I always attend some of the industry summits and conferences in Singapore, which are very limited,” he says. “But I often attend global conferences as well, where I have the chance to meet up with a lot of teams and network with other industry leaders. We exchange ideas and share information on how to better manage our jobs. I always enjoy the chance to speak to other leaders in this industry.”