A Helping Hand: Harbor Club owner, John Matney, talks success and stewardship
Written by Andrea Gable, Photographed by Terry Allen
John Matney is a busy man. He bounces between Harbor Club, the residential golf community in Greensboro he has owned for 23 years, and his home in Bristol, Virginia, where he built a successful career in the coal industry. He comes to the lake as often as he can, but it’s usually just for short stints – a few days normally consumed by planning meetings, reports, and, if he’s lucky, a round of golf.
But upon meeting the busy “coal man,” you’d never know he’s on his way to the next appointment. His vibrant manner, easy smile, and deep, mountain drawl lulls you into thinking he has all the time in the world. And the truth is, he does have a lot more of it since his son, Brandon, moved into the driver’s seat as the general manager of Harbor Club three years ago.
Brandon has to excuse himself often to field incoming calls from homeowners, the ground crew, the pro shop, event planners at The Stables, or staff from The Boathouse, Harbor Club’s new marina and restaurant. Each time, he offers an apologetic half-smile while pointing to the buzzing, black phone in his hand.
Harbor Club has grown drastically since his father bought the development in 1992 along with his business partner, Clyde Stacy. Then, there were around 60 homes. Today, there are close to 500. Brandon, who bought out Stacy’s shares along with his brother, Justin, a little more than ten years ago, has worked to drive a new long-term plan and capital improvements over the past few years. These include a purchase of 600 additional acres, acquiring and renovating the The Boathouse, and revamping the golf course – a move that helped boost Harbor Club into the #4 slot in Golfweek’s “Best Courses You Can Play in Georgia.”
“Brandon has pushed me to do a lot of things in the last three years that I may have waited on,” says Matney. “As we get older, we tend to get more conservative – a little more risk averse – so having that balance of youth and ambition tempered with experience has been good for Harbor Club.”
Matney relied heavily on this experience during the economic meltdown that threw many residential communities across the nation into a tailspin. One of the biggest things he had learned from years in the coal industry was the cyclical nature of the business – one not foreign to real estate. Some years would be good, he says, others not so much. “You had to manage your properties and company in a way that would work through the lean times,” he says. This worked mainly through diversifying, allowing him to rely on other businesses to help power through rough patches. The fact that Harbor Club was debt-free was also instrumental. Matney and Stacy set out in 1992 without the help of a lot of third-party financing. “We wanted homeowners to be comfortable and see that we were putting an investment in the property,” he says.
Being debt-free and diversified kept Harbor Club solvent and sustained its growth – a lesson he has worked to instill in his ambitious son. “We all have dreams to grow our business, but at the same time, we must be good stewards and not over-leverage ourselves,” says the older, more conservative Matney. Gradual growth and long-range planning, he says, is what keeps things stable in a cyclical market. Brandon has taken note, climbing out the recession with 90 new properties sold since April 2014.
This renewed energy is intoxicating for Matney, who can’t wait to take me on tour of the new developments popping up around the property. We jump in a golf cart and he cancels his next meeting.
As he points out things along the way, I can’t tell if he’s more excited to talk about the development that will be his legacy at the lake, or his family. At almost every stop, it seems, there’s a story about both. At the lakeside villas, he turns to the golf cart behind us and bellows, “Brandon, do you remember those old jet skis y’all had and would ride them them ‘til the sun went down?”
Back at the golf course, he tells me about the days when baseball legend Mickey Mantle lived there and would let nine-year-old Justin putt for him during charity golf tournaments. Now, Justin travels the world winning races with his Bristol-based company RPM Offroad.
The model homes are all sold now, he says, but they’re building more. His wife, Becky, is in the process of picking out paint colors. They just celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary, he adds, beaming. Becky has two sons, Ben and Josh, who have a business together in Tennessee, bringing their total to four sons.
“The boys loved coming to the lake more than they did Disney World,” he says. They learned to play golf, to drive a boat, and to enjoy life, even after Brandon and Justin’s mother, Lonia, passed away in 1994. As the boys grew into teenagers, they began working at Harbor Club during summers and college breaks. Brandon started out as a cart attendant on the golf course. Now, 20 or so years later, he’s in charge, even though he jokes about the 300 to 400 bosses above him, holding up his cell phone to remind me of the homeowner who just called.
“He’s having fun,” his dad assures. “He works very hard and is not looking for anything to be given to him. I may have given him an opportunity, but believe me, he earns it every day.”
It strikes me that this successful coal man and proud father just might have stumbled upon a balance between business and family, despite the old adage about mixing the two. That balance may depend on a third factor; being a good neighbor. With their name so infused within Harbor Club, the Matneys are well aware of the imperatives pressed upon someone who lives where they work.
“I think it goes without saying, especially in small communities, that you’re only as good as your reputation,” says Matney. “My wife puts it best: Your name is to be treasured above all. When everyone knows everyone, you have a responsibility to be a trusted neighbor, to be ready to help one another. You deliver what you promise and you strive to be diligent, honest, and respectful.”
This ideology was nourished from his own upbringing in Grundy, Virginia, a small coal-mining town built around a river and a railroad track, between giant sloping mountains on each side. His father was a self-taught surveyor and his mother worked mostly as a teacher. They lived in a modest apartment and there were times when his family didn’t have a car. But they got along just fine. Friends and neighbors in Grundy were supportive and helped each other – not unlike the small town community Matney now owns.
When he and Stacy purchased the property, he says the community was already firmly rooted. Neighbors spent time together, playing golf, walking, boating, or hosting dinner parties. The thing he heard over and over about Harbor Club is how welcoming the community is to new residents and members. “I can’t speak for other communities, but here, it’s not about status or class, it’s about getting to know people and making them feel at home,” he says. “You can’t, as a developer, plan for that or orchestrate that. You can promote it, though, and we encourage that all the time.”
He has stressed the importance of this sense of community in each of the staff members at Harbor Club, especially its general manager. He reminds Brandon often that, “anyone who is truly successful has had a helping hand along the way. It’s each individual’s responsibility to extend their own helping hand when the need arises.”
He remembers an important time early in his career where he found himself in need of a helping hand, a gesture that has shaped his philosophy in both business and in life. “The first time I really realized how much other people out there can play a big role in your success was back around 1975 when our first company was way behind on payments,” he recalls. Matney and Stacy had not long struck out on their own coal mining endeavor with a couple of fellow mine workers. They had no money, he says, and just three pieces of equipment – an auger, a dozer, and a loader. The first years were tough, and soon it was down to just Matney and Stacy, hanging in there and working steadily, but quickly running out of fuel and explosives. They sat down with their suppliers and laid everything on the table. “We were very forthright,” he says. “We said we’re having trouble catching up, but plan on making this work. We just need a helping hand. Graciously, they extended one and we did business with them for the next 30 years.”
Fortunately, they were sitting on some of the best metallurgical coal in the world, used in the steel-making process. It wasn’t long before this helping hand propelled them to a point where they were able to acquire a larger, Fortune 500 company, Rapoca Energy Company in Bristol, Virginia.
This lesson in kindness has informed Matney’s view both in business and in life, and he has worked to instill the lesson in those around him and emulate his own experience, not just with words, but through action. He started back in Grundy with that same business saved by an act of generosity. Matney and Stacy set up a children’s Christmas fund, providing food, clothing, and toys under the tree to those in need. Most of the funds were raised during a golf benefit. The tournament and other efforts raised more than $1 million for the fund over the span of 30 years.
Matney says he has a soft spot for charities that help children. “Wherever you may go, there are people less fortunate than you,” he says. “I was one of those folks in some sense and we had people help and assist each other in all different ways.”
He has carried this philanthropic drive from Virginia to Georgia, bragging on Harbor Club’s many contributions that extend beyond its gates almost as much as he brags on his four sons.
Last year, Harbor Club was involved in more than 40 charitable or civic campaigns – hosting charity golf tournaments for local non-profits, opening the course to area high schools for practice, or holding dinners and concerts for various groups, like the Pete Nance Boys & Girls Club of Greene County that is getting ready for its “Moonlight & Motown” fundraiser at the Harbor Club Stables in October.
“It think it’s obvious by now that we believe in the community and in the area,” he says. “We were never here to make short-term profits. We’re now 23 years into the community, making investments inside and out. One of the big things my family, my businesses, and this community have taught me is that if everyone works together, we can accomplish really big things.”
Matney says he’s proud of what they’ve accomplished so far. He wants his family to, of course, be successful in their various pursuits, but he also wants them to be remembered as good stewards of their communities, wherever that may be – neighbors who were always there to lend a helping hand.