Two people of humble origins and the Biltmore Forest Country Club

Special to, June 1, 2018

Commentary by John McNabb

Author’s note: The following is my opinion based on personal experience and comments from others.

ASHEVILLE, NC — I had breakfast with Sheila Fender in Biltmore Village this morning. After 45 years of loyal service and enduring love for Biltmore Forest Country Club she was summarily fired and in a shameful display escorted off the property. That occurred on the evening of May 31.

The Biltmore Forest Country Club. / John McNabb

Sheila told me at breakfast that she recalls working for seven golf professionals, 21 club presidents and 10 general managers. She took pride in a spotless career of service and performance up until the current golf professional John Rector was hired along with club general manager Calvin Bolling. From that point, her on-the-job treatment began to change for the worse. She estimates that she had missed only five days of work in 45 years! Now I understand she was told she could never set foot on the club’s property again. What an incredibly sad and awful way to end a life’s work, love for the club and career.

But, first, some background. The club was established by the Vanderbilt family and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville and dedicated on July 4, 1922. Members have included golf legend and Augusta National founder Bobby Jones, the Rev. Billy Graham and famed sports writer Grantland Rice.

Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing, John D. Rockefeller, William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Queen Juliana of Holland, and New York Gov. Al Smith are but a few of the notables drawn to the club in an era when the wealthy and prominent were inclined to travel with their families to such venues.

The Vanderbilt’s prided themselves on treating their estate employees and club employees with utmost care and respect.

My wife Darlene and I joined the club in March 2013. We both got to know Sheila quickly. We recall that she was like a wonderful ambassador and so welcoming to all. Darlene and I have traveled the world over and have been members or guests at great clubs. We both agree that we have never seen anyone who could match Sheila Fender’s warm welcome and conviviality.

But within five years we had become so disenchanted that we resigned from the club of our own volition and as members in good standing. I just couldn’t stand the harassment, mediocre food and “small ball” governance and management.

My harassment by management began right after we had sold our farm in central Texas and moved full time to Biltmore Forest in July/August of 2017. I have detailed notes of dates and times concerning actions of harassment directed at me by club management. This harassment comes from the top, I believe. The management’s treatment of me and its bullying and harassment of Ms. Fender are not isolated but only a symptom of systemic nastiness directed at certain older employees and club members, even a former club president!

We both adore and enjoy so many of the club’s staff and are blessed to count many great friends who are club members. But the story I will tell is a story of a once fine regional country club with a wonderful history starting with the benevolent and caring Vanderbilt family who started the club in 1922. Early on the club was a haven for national and international figures. None of the above characterizes the current club, in my view.

Sheila Fender with U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows at the club. / John McNabb

Sheila told me at our breakfast that the first six golf professionals with whom she worked were all great men. At breakfast she appeared to be sleep-deprived, emotional and mentally beaten down. Certainly not that happy lady who greeted Darlene and me to the club five years ago. She related that morning how she had been bullied and harassed. Her termination was both hurtful and humiliating. She said that “they are trying to destroy me” and that her firing was like a “death.” She occasionally wept during breakfast as she fielded calls from different states from nonresident club members who offered words of encouragement and regret. She didn’t answer three other calls.

As she was leaving the breakfast she said that she was driving straight to Charlotte for her granddaughter’s high school graduation. I was concerned that she was stressed and sleep deprived. She said that she wouldn’t let her family know that she had been fired so as to not put a damper on the celebration.

There are some club members who have “been there, done that” in the vernacular of which I am accustomed. I suppose that I am in that category having owned, managed or provided board service to public and private companies worldwide. An exception was in Russia where I turned down the presidency of an oil and gas company with 100 percent of its assets located in Russia and owned by a very wealthy and private West Coast family. This situation should never have deteriorated to the point that folks started to “lawyer up.” The situation with Ms. Fender should have been professionally and quickly handled many, many months ago. But the club’s board and management apparently didn’t know how to resolve this. It would appear to this observer that they simply wanted to get rid of Sheila Fender.

I have heard this board disparaged as “minor leaguers” and “small ball” folks. It appears to me that they prefer to operate in the cover of darkness. But let’s take a closer look at Biltmore Forest Country Club. I believe that it is chartered as a not-for-profit entity, but it has shareholders. I am not certain how that works. My wife and I formed a not-for-profit 501c3 charitable foundation which was initially chartered as a public entity but we have since re-chartered it as a private foundation since we typically don’t fund-raise but simply self-fund the foundation.

When I left membership in the club, I believe that there were 12 members of the club’s board of governors. I also believe that there was one woman on the board and that the rest were men. I also believe that the board membership is not ethnically diverse. I am not certain but when we resigned I believe the club membership had no ethnic diversity. On the other hand, my not-for-profit board is ethnically diverse, has four men and three women with the board members residing in four different states. And the three officers of our foundation include two women and one man.

America is moving to full inclusiveness, but my opinion is that my former club is stuck somewhere in the early 20th century relative to inclusiveness and yet it enjoys preferential tax treatment. I simply can’t imagine that there aren’t any talented female club members that could help improve the club’s governance. I know for a fact that there are many qualified and capable female club members but obviously the club isn’t interested in board inclusiveness. This is solely my opinion after studying and teaching best practices governance for many years.

John T. McNabb at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Fortunately, I only know a few of the club’s board members but what I don’t understand is how the club’s board operates seemingly in a vacuum without an understanding of a primary governance tenet — “The Duty of Care”.  Among the members of the current board, I understand, are a currently sitting federal judge, a member of the Augusta National Golf Club and former president of the USGA who is now the club president. The club vice president is a Bank of America Merrill Lynch stock broker who is a life-long Biltmore Forest resident and also a board member. Also on the board is a former U.S. Navy admiral who formerly served as a public utility president. And the former club president who is still a board member is a child psychiatrist practicing in Asheville. This makes it even more difficult to understand the actions of the club’s board.

I live in the “Light” and can’t and don’t operate in the comfort of the “Dark”. I focused my whole career on best practices governance and ethnic and gender inclusiveness. My body of work in that regard is totally open for review. And our charitable foundation focuses on educating and nurturing at risk children of all ethnicities.

I am of the opinion that the club is characterized by privilege, exclusivity, poor governance and mismanagement. Many old-time club members lament just how much the club has changed for the worse. And Sheila Fender’s story is the prototype of the current direction of Biltmore Forest Country Club. I have been a member of an array of clubs where fellow members included American presidents and vice presidents, a secretary of state, congressional leaders and cabinet members plus Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 executives. Regardless of the status and rank of those folks, I never saw any hubris and absolutely no drama. Very different from Biltmore Forest today.

Growing up, we weren’t country club material. I grew up right in front of railroad tracks and learned to paint our small home due to the soot emanating from the steam engines back in the day. Scattered around were coal mines and oil and gas facilities. There was not much education in my family. My four grandparents had a total of seven years of schooling. I worked my way through undergraduate and graduate degrees. The first thanks to football and the second thanks to the GI Bill. Between my two combat flying tours in Vietnam, I mowed lawns to earn extra money while on home leave. I never had much money. So am I privileged? Of course not. I grew up similar to Ms. Fender and probably most of the club’s employees.

In my opinion the culture of an organization emanates from the top. The “tone at the top” at the club appears to be toxic with a culture of acting with impunity towards both members and staff. I take great umbrage with folks who act in an elitist manner and who harass and bully folks who aren’t as fortunate in their lives. It is my opinion that Sheila Fender is a lovely lady who is a great mom and whose livelihood was taken from her by a small cabal known as the Biltmore Forest Country Club Board of Governors.

John T. McNabb is vice chairman of the American Leadership Council, co-founder of the Trump Leadership Council and former chairman and CEO of Willbros Group.