MY VERO: Steve Mulvey’s amazing Quail Valley success story

Listen to Steve Mulvey talk about the Quail Valley Golf & River Club’s secret to success – both the golf and social/tennis memberships have swelled to wait-list levels – and it all sounds so simple:

  • Build a spectacular, championship- caliber golf course unlike any in this part of Florida.
  • Offer five-star service, delightful hospitality and exceptional amenities, including outstanding food and facilities.
  • Create an active, event-driven social environment that encourages fun and friendships, even a sense of community.

“I have one standard: I want the best,” said Mulvey, Quail Valley’s CEO, who has built, owned or operated 17 clubs, including stately Hudson National in Westchester County, NY.

“If I’m going to put my name and face on something, it’s going to meet very high goals. I’m not going to do anything that’s not first-class.”

It’s Mulvey’s steadfast commitment to excellence – shared by his partner, General Manager Kevin Given, and fully embraced by the club’s staff – combined with a relentless drive to make a special place even better that enabled Quail Valley to withstand the jolt of the recent recession.

Quail Valley, in fact, has emerged from the nation’s economic downturn – which hit Florida especially hard and prompted Mulvey to reduce the membership bonds from $165,000 to $75,000 for golf and from $40,000 to $30,000 for social/tennis – financially stronger than most clubs of its ilk.

“We might be the most financially sound club in Florida,” Mulvey said, “and the only golf club in the state with a wait list.”

For those who’ve never been there: Quail Valley is a two-campus complex that currently consists of a standalone, 400-acre Golf Club – located northwest of Vero Beach on 69th Street and built around a 26,000-square-foot, Shinnecock Hills-like clubhouse – and an in-town River Club that includes a 42-slip marina, seven lighted Har-Tru tennis courts, fitness and spa facilities, 25-meter swimming pool, tiki bar, clubhouse restaurant and pub, and an eight-suite lodge, all nestled on 10 acres along the west side of State Road A1A.

Eight miles separate the two campuses.

The club has 315 golf members (with two names on a wait list), 500 social/tennis members (with 90 names on a wait list) and 60 junior members (with five names on a wait list). Junior members are social/tennis members under age 45.

Golf members, who have use of all of the club’s facilities, pay annual dues of $11,300. Social/tennis members, who have use of all facilities except the golf club, pay annual dues of $4,000.

Social/tennis members, however, may play golf from May 15 through Oct. 15.

Given said Quail Valley plans to add at least another 100 social/tennis members with the addition of the club’s third campus on the 1.02-acre, waterfront site of the old Lobster Shanty, which already has been bulldozed.

Quail Valley purchased the Royal Palm Pointe property in November for roughly $3.5 million, and construction was scheduled begin this week on a 15-suite luxury hotel and 9,000-square-foot, 200-seat restaurant, both of which will serve only members and their guests.

“My dream when I came back to Vero,” Mulvey said, “was to make a statement.”

And he has.

He has made a statement that undoubtedly would’ve made proud his maternal great-grandfather, Stephen McKeever, a construction contractor who paired with his brother, Edward, to buy 50 percent of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers for $500,000 in 1912, helped build famed Ebbets Field and served as the baseball team’s president from 1925 until his death in 1938.

Mulvey’s family retained at least a one-third share in the Dodgers until selling out to Walter O’Malley in 1975.

It was those ties to the Dodgers, however, that first brought Mulvey to Vero Beach, where the team conducted spring training from 1948 through 2008.

“I was born in ’52 and came here every year until my family sold its share of the team, so Vero has been a big part of my life,” said Mulvey, 62, whose godfather was Dodgers great Gil Hodges and who has World Series rings from the team’s six championships. “I love it here. And for the past 18 years, it’s been my home.”

Mulvey still owns a home in Rye, NY., but he spends most of his time here while his wife, Kathy, continues to be what he called the “ultimate snowbird,” returning each spring to the New York suburbs, where she is the Westchester Country Club’s reigning, 11-time ladies champion.

“She’s the accomplished golfer in the family,” Mulvey said. “She’s a 1-handicap and has won 31 club championships, going back to when she was single and including a couple here. She plays every day.

“I play once or twice a year,” he added. “I used to be a 5-handicap, but that’s when I played more and my game was a lot better. Now, I’ve got a bad back and bad wrist, so I don’t spend much time on the golf course.

“I build them. She plays them.”

He’s fine with that.

Building clubs, particularly golf clubs, is his passion. He’s proven to be very good at it. And Quail Valley might be his best work.

The golf course’s dramatic elevations, which provide a Carolina-type feel to the place, are not found in this part of Florida; and while some topnotch layouts feature island greens, Quail Valley offers an island hole – the 570-yard No. 10.

The golf clubhouse, which sits 60 feet above the gated entry to the property, welcomes members and their guests with a warm, comfortable, hunting-lodge decor.

There’s also a practice facility that includes a 35-acre range, learning center and six par-3 holes.

“We get a lot of accolades,” Mulvey said. “Close to 70 percent of our members belong to multiple clubs, locally. We’ve got 238 from John’s Island, and the golf course is a big draw or us.”

But not the only draw.

Quail Valley is also unique in that, once the new hotel and restaurant open next year, it will become the first club of its kind with three campuses.

A water taxi will be available to shuttle members and their guests back and forth between the River Club and the new facilities at Royal Palm Pointe.

“We’re always looking at ways to make the club better,” Given said. “We’re expanding our facilities and we’ll add more members, but our challenge going forward is going to be managing the growth and figuring out what is too big. One of the things people like about the club is its size and scale.”

Yet Mulvey hasn’t ruled out further expansion – if the demand is there and the right opportunities are presented.

At some point, maybe sooner than later, seven courts might not be enough to accommodate the club’s increasing number of tennis-playing members.

Also, Mulvey said he would be open to adding a beach club, though he said it will be difficult to find a suitable patch of oceanfront property.

“I’m always looking for another piece of property,” Mulvey said, adding that he considered the recently sold Surf Club Hotel but the price was too high. “If I can find another piece on the beach, I’d love to buy it.”

He said he tried to buy the old St. Edward’s Lower School property, with the intent of building a tennis facility, but there were too many complications to the deal.

As for the possibility the existing tennis complex could become overcrowded, Mulvey said, “We’re out of space here, but we’ll definitely address that issue if it becomes a problem,” adding that speculation about installing an underground-hydration system for the courts was premature.

“There are certainly things I could fix over there in the interim that would make it better,” he said, “but I don’t think that (underground hydration) is something we want to do.”

As always, the decision will belong to him and Given.

Quail Valley has no membership committees. Suggestions, compliments and complaints are welcomed and addressed, but all decisions about the club’s operations are made by the men who run it.

“Kevin and I are the committee,” Mulvey said, “and we’ll make the decisions we believe are best for the club.”

They don’t always agree, Given said.

Sometimes, they’ll get angry with each other. But it doesn’t last.

“A lot of members will tell you Steve and I have opposite personalities, and we do come from different backgrounds,” Given said. “He’s more about the construction and finance side, while I come from more of the marketing and organizational side. “But we balance each other very well,” he added, “and we make a strong team.”

“He loves Vero, he’s very involved in the community and he works 90 hours a week,” Mulvey said. “He works harder than I do.”

The Quail Valley Golf Club opened Jan. 21, 2002, but, from the outset, Mulvey’s plan was to add an in-town social club, preferably a beach club. He had a contract to buy property on Ocean Drive in the Central Beach area but backed out when he was unable to get the permitting he needed and realized parking would be a problem.

It was during those negotiations that he learned the Riomar Bay Yacht Club was for sale. Seeing the beach deal was doomed, he shifted his focus to a river club, negotiated an agreeable price and bought it.

“We bought the place in ’03, spent nine months knocking down everything that was here and then rebuilt the club the way we wanted it,” Mulvey said.

“We opened the River Club in ’04 and, as things turned out, this gave us more opportunities than we would’ve had at the beach club.

“Coming here gave us the ability to start a tennis program and have the pool and fitness center,” he added. “We also added the tiki bar, which has been a huge success. It’s a great spot and the members love it. It’s become a very popular social gathering place, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

“And that’s what we want – to see people having fun.”

Mulvey said he regularly receives compliments from members pleased with the club and impressed by how well it is run. He’s also thrilled when members bring guests who enjoy their Quail Valley experience so much that they want to become members.

“I get no bigger kick than having somebody have so much pride in this club that they bring other people in,” Mulvey said. “This is a small town; everybody knows everybody. So when one of our members brings someone over, he’s putting his reputation on the line, too.

“We want our members to take pride in this club,” he added. “That’s how this thing has grown. It’s all word of mouth. We’ve done zero advertising, except for some of our Charity Cup events.”

Mulvey and Given also want their staff to take pride in the place. The club employs 235 people and has a payroll in excess of $4 million annually.

Another 35 employees will be added when the new hotel and restaurant open.

More than 70 percent of the staff has worked at the club since it opened.

“This is a club of choice, but it’s also an employer of choice,” Mulvey said. “We’ve set the bar very high, but we have minimal turnover. Our motto is: It’s ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”

To serve them better, he said, the purchase of the picturesque Royal Palm Pointe property was necessary.

Quail Valley was unable to accommodate 500 room-night requests for its lodge this winter and, rather than inconvenience its members, turned away $1 million in banquet and wedding business.

“We would not close down our restaurant and leave our members without a place to dine here,” Mulvey said, adding that the club did more than $4 million in food and beverage business last year. “So we considered expanding the dining facility and lodge by adding a second floor, but, with only 10 acres, we ran into parking constraints.

“That’s when Kevin mentioned the Lobster Shanty,” he continued. “He just mentioned it in passing and we really didn’t talk about it much, but a week later, I decided to call the guy, just out of the blue, and told him what I wanted to do. The property wasn’t even on the market.”

As it turned out, the owner was building a new restaurant in New Jersey and needed an influx of cash.

Mulvey made an offer. The owner accepted.

The property became part of Quail Valley.

“It was either great timing or dumb luck, but we were able to get what we wanted,” Mulvey said. “It’s going to be a really, really nice addition to the club when it’s done.”

And then?

Mulvey said he has a few thoughts on what he might want to do next – one in particular – but he wasn’t ready to say anything publicly.

“There are some other things we’re looking at,” he said. “We’re not finished doing whatever we’re going to do. If opportunities to improve the club present themselves, I’m certainly not out of money.”

If you’re a Quail Valley member, you’ve got to like the way that sounds.

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