fb-pixel

Golf club investor leaves his business partner in the rough

Willowbend honored Red Sox legend Roger Clemens in 2017 for his charitable work. David Southworth (far left) is selling his stake in the company that owns Willowbend to his his partner, Joe Deitch.
Willowbend honored Red Sox legend Roger Clemens in 2017 for his charitable work. David Southworth (far left) is selling his stake in the company that owns Willowbend to his his partner, Joe Deitch.handout

David Southworth and Joe Deitch forged a friendship 25 years ago and have been business partners since 2006, owning tony country club communities such as Willowbend in Mashpee, Renaissance in Haverhill, and a Bahamian island getaway, the Abaco Club.

But the duo are calling it quits. Deitch is taking over his partner’s stake in the company, Southworth Development, even though Southworth wasn’t looking to sell — at least at first.

At Willowbend — whose members include boldfaced names Robert Kraft and Jonathan Kraft of the Patriots, former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, and club founder Paul Fireman of Reebok fame — the divorce is stirring worries that the place they love won’t be the same without David Southworth paying attention to every detail.

Advertisement



This storyline is a familiar one: A longtime relationship blows up — inevitably over some mix of money, power, and ego — lawyers and PR consultants are hired, and pretty soon each side is blaming and badmouthing the other. Millionaires slinging mud makes for good copy, a welcome diversion from the business reporter’s often bland diet of earnings, layoffs, takeovers, stock moves, etcetera, and ad nauseam.

This time around, I didn’t hear the tabloid trash-talking tale I had expected. But I did come away with a deep appreciation for how Southworth has handled a painful situation.

Neither Southworth nor Deitch had a bad word to say about the other, insisting that the split is amicable and that they remain friends. I don’t buy it, but I can’t say for sure that Southworth got a raw deal, as two people who know him have insisted to me.

These people believe Southworth, the high-touch, customer-facing partner, is leaving the company he started in 2005 under pressure, as Deitch, the money guy, seeks to streamline operations, instill financial discipline, and increase the return on his investment.

Advertisement



Southworth has maintained an admirable Zen outlook on how he ended up on the outside.

“There is a time in people’s lives to move on, and now is my time,” he said in an interview. “I am not unhappy with the deal.”

No one issue prompted him to sell to Deitch, Southworth said. It was the accumulation of “many little decisions” that he disagreed with.

“I just like our playbook,” Southworth, 62, said of his approach to running country clubs, a business he has been in since 1991 when Fireman hired him to help launch Willowbend.

His sanguine attitude may reflect a desire to keep the peace for the sake of his son Tommy, who has worked on and off at the company since finishing college and was recently promoted to president and chief operating officer. Tommy is working closely with Deitch’s son Matt to improve profitability and what’s known as the “customer experience,” as well as appeal to a younger, more digitally savvy generation of prospective club members and property buyers.

Tommy and Matt, who is a principal, are friends who met in fifth grade. That’s how the fathers got to know each other.

“I made [David] an offer and he accepted,” said Deitch, 70, who got rich as the founder of Commonwealth Financial Network, a broker-dealer and investment advisory firm. He had initially remained behind the scenes since investing in Southworth Development in 2006. “I think he was itching to do his own thing,” Deitch said of his longtime partner’s decision to start a new development company.

Advertisement



Deitch said he has gotten more involved in the business in the past couple of years. “It has grown, become more complicated,” he said.

Terms of the divorce remain private, but as part of his exit, Southworth wanted to buy Willowbend. Deitch didn’t want to give it up.

“There is and always will be a special place in my heart for Willowbend,” Southworth said. “I lived here every summer since 1992. My kids were raised here in the summers. I will continue to live here in the summer.”

Southworth is widely credited with reviving Willowbend after his company bought it from Fireman in 2012. He was a familiar sight on the grounds, attended many of the weddings and other events held there, and was the “heart and soul of the company,” according to one person.

“When Southworth came back [in 2012] it was like a breath of fresh air. He put money into the place, the restaurant got better, the fitness center got better,” said Tom DeVesto, founder of Braintree-based Como Audio and a Willowbend member for a quarter century.

“I am concerned about Willowbend,” added Peter Lynch, the retired CEO of Winn-Dixie supermarkets and a former president of Star Market. “It’s the uncertainty. My bottom line is that David has done a very good job. It’s about trust.”

In a business where a lot of promises are made and many are broken, members and residents of Southworth communities trust David Southworth to keep his word.

Advertisement



Now it’s up to Deitch and the two sons to deliver the level of customer satisfaction that made Southworth so respected.