John Danforth and his daughter in his driving range office

UW-Green Bay senior takes a swing at ownership of Hidden Valley Driving Range

UW-Green Bay senior John Danforth was just 16 when he began to formulate a plan for his future. After a discussion with a golf course superintendent, and the lure of a career that includes both sports and the outdoors, Danforth began investigating a career in the golf industry.

With just a semester to go before graduating with a Business Administration degree at UW-Green Bay (December of 2016), the 24-year-old Danforth is already the owner of his own business — Hidden Valley Driving Range in Oneida (near Green Bay). His story isn’t one about a straight shot to the business ownership, but one of education, awareness and persistence.

“A golf course superintendent explained how he spends most of his days outside and he feels he hasn’t worked a day since he started,” Danforth said. “From that point forward the golf industry started to grow on me. In early 2009, his senior year of high school, he took a position as groundskeeper for Thornberry Creek Golf Course.

“I ended up liking the concept of turf management and being outside all day,” he said. “The work wasn’t strenuous and the overall vibe from the workplace environment was pretty relaxed. At that point I hadn’t quite decided whether to pursue the Professional Golf Management/PGA program or turf management.”

After being turned down by some of the ultra-competitive academic golf programs in the country, Danforth enrolled at the Golf Academy of America for an associates degree, and within months found himself at school and living in San Diego. He graduated and in the spring of 2011 enrolled at UW-River Falls in its horticulture program. But the birth of his daughter Nyah prompted a move back to Oneida. He pursued a business administration degree at UW-Green Bay and a golf internship at Whistling Straits for the 2015 PGA championship. But he didn’t find the motivation he was looking for. In fact, he discovered a new reality in the industry.

“Two months into the internship, I decided I had reached the end of my tolerance,” he says. “I had spun my wheels far too long… I spoke with an individual who had worked his entire adulthood with a relentless desire and drive to be a superintendent and he was in his early 40’s and only an assistant. That was perhaps what tipped the scale for me. The superintendent at Whistling Straits mentioned that none of his interns from the 2010 PGA championship were superintendents yet. His comments were without a doubt the final straw for me.”

Danforth asked himself the same questions, he believes, as many other young professionals are asking at this stage of their lives… “When do I gain financial independence and growth? When do I move out of my mom and dad’s house? I decided that I was no longer going to play by society’s rules. I was not going to tirelessly work for other people and hope that when I turned 40 I can finally attain the financial strength to live the life that I want. I put myself in a position where it is up to me to determine when that happens. That is what fueled my decision to buy my own business.”

Purchasing the driving range, he says, was an idea that slowly gained traction.

“I would drive past and think, ‘I might be able to run that place a little better.’” Wisely, Danforth engaged help from Green Bay SCORE — an organization that provides small business advice, workshops, tools and mentoring — where he was paired with the mentor who helped him write and revise a business plan and visit lenders.

“My interest continued to grow and eventually I met with the previous owner and over the course of four months we were able to come up with a deal and finalize the sale. It wasn’t a heavy financial endeavor. I think I could have bought a really nice diesel truck for the same price I bought this business. It seemed appropriate for a senior in college and I felt I could handle it until I graduate in December 2016.”

“My immediate goal for the driving range is to make it good because that is what it was built to be, and that’s what customers should know it as.”

His background in turf and golf course management and his steely determination to make the range a success has played into noticeable improvements on the course. And, he has a great helper. Daughter Nyah is his “Property Shift Manager,” Danforth jokes. “She runs the place when she’s here, which is most days.” She is also one of his greatest motivators.

“She holds my feet to fire in terms of her future and the future of our family,” Danforth explains. “It’s important to me that she has stability in her life. It’s no secret that financial stability makes it easier to own a home, have good healthcare, provide an education, and focus more on family. I don’t want to work 10-12 hours a day forever. I’m hoping that my business and any other business venture that I have will be at the point where it is on cruise control and growing on its own. I’m willing to put in the work to get there if it means somewhere down the balance of my life can tip more toward my family. I’m sure there’s good amount of people nodding their head who are reaching for the same goal.”

Danforth said his UWGB education has helped him gain perspective as he works through the ups and downs of business ownership.

“The UWGB Business Administration program helped change my way of problem solving,” he said. “It translated to my business ownership pretty well. I don’t look at a problem and think that I’m about to spend thousands of dollars for a solution. I roll up my sleeves, make a few phone calls, gather some people who can help find a solution and finish what needs to be done. The single most important thing I have learned through my education is that I do not know all the answers and I cannot do it alone. One of the most humbling questions that I continue to ask to this day is, ‘can you help me?’ The one academic stumble I had was a result of me not asking for help and thinking I could do it alone. My business will fail if I don’t ask for help and I know that I cannot do this alone.”

The short-term goal for his business is to find a way for it to be sustainable all year long, not just seasonally.

“I’m exploring adding services that are golf-related in order for this place to grow. I constantly ask myself, ‘What can I do next that will work?’ I threw a school bus out on the range in order for people to have a large target to hit. That has been the best investment so far. I see a lot of potential for the range. I know what hoops I have to jump through in order to secure capital from a lender. I will more than likely spend the next six months creating a second business plan that will give Hidden Valley a year-round appeal.

“All I can say for that project and my future as a business owner is… stay tuned.”

Story by Sue Bodilly, photos by Dan Moore, Office of Marketing and University Communication