February 10, 2104
Crain’s Chicago Business
Earning his greens fees
Chris Charnas earned his first paycheck from golf working as a
12-year-old caddy on the North Shore. Now, instead of hunting for golf balls in
the rough, he earns a bigger paycheck finding investors who buy golf courses.
Mr. Charnas runs Links Capital Advisors Inc., an Evanston-based golf
course brokerage. Since founding the company in 2008, he has brokered more than
$250 million in sales throughout the United States, including a $9.1 million
deal last year for the Snowmass Club near Aspen, Colo. It was the largest
single 18-hole course sale in the past five years, according to Mr. Charnas.
But the golf course market, which was plagued by overbuilding during
the real estate boom, has yet to recover fully from the bust. Mr. Charnas, for
instance, recently sold a golf course in northwest suburban Cary out of
“The golf course industry is still not in good health at this
point,” he said. “The number of golfers has dropped; the number of rounds is
After earning a bachelor's degree in history from Tufts University
and a master's in real estate appraisal and investment theory from the
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mr. Charnas worked an industrial broker in the
Chicago area for Cushman & Wakefield Inc. He got into the golf business in
1995, when Chicago's Crown family hired him to help buy and develop golf
“I had been caddy as a kid and I always liked playing,” said Mr.
Charnas, 48, who lives in Northfield. “I was an industrial broker, and I didn't
want to do that forever. I had a friend who worked for the Crowns as an
acquisitions guy. I was able to convince them to hire me based on the deals I
had done as an industrial broker.”
After building Crown Golf Properties' portfolio to 23 courses from
17, he returned to Cushman & Wakefield to start a golf group there in 2000.
Mr. Charnas, who has twice been named to Golf Inc. magazine's list
of top brokers, has run a one-man shop since founding Links Capital six years
ago. He plans to hire his first employee as he launches Marina Capital
Advisors, a broker specializing in Midwest marinas.
In Cary, Mr. Charnas arranged the sale of Chalet Hills Golf Club for
$1.55 million in December. The buyer was Chinese investor Leli Zhou, confirmed
Ted Wagner, the broker who represented Mr. Zhou.
Past financial struggles at the 196-acre property reflected of the overall
state of the golf industry, Mr. Charnas said. Chicago-based BMO Harris Bank
filed a foreclosure suit against the previous owners in 2011, and it was in
receivership for more than two years before a sale was completed.
In a recent interview, Mr. Charnas discussed the golf course market,
his business and why he rarely gets to take a busman's holiday. Here are edited
excerpts from that interview:
Crain's: What were the challenges of forming your own firm???Mr.
Charnas: Now, 2008 wasn't the best time to start a company. The business
climate was pretty bad, and the golf course industry was in the middle of a
decline. The golf course industry is still not in good health at this point.
The number of golfers has dropped, the number of rounds is down nationally.
From the 1990s to 2005 there was a huge building boom. That was, unfortunately,
met by a decrease in demand. What we've seen is a decrease in valuation because
of that.??What led to that development boom???The biggest drive was
homebuilders adding golf courses to sell homes. With the housing bust, that
mostly stopped. Communities would be built with 250 homes, and they assumed
that all 250 families would join the club, and the club would be perfectly
healthy. They'd build it farther out, in the hinterlands. What happened was, 50
people joined. You can't survive as a private club with 50 members. We've seen
those developments struggle financially and eventually get sold for pennies on
the dollar.??There are exceptions, as you saw with the Snowmass sale in
Colorado.??The location had a lot do to with it. It had a lot of revenue,
and there's a premium that goes with being in the Aspen-Snowmass area. There's
a lot of land, but it's tough to get permits to build any more golf courses in
that area. If you wanted to own that, you had to pay a premium.??What was
your biggest deal???Kemper Lakes (Golf Club in Kildeer) sold for $18
million in 2002. Selling a course that had a PGA Championship (in 1989) was
certainly the signature deal of my career.??You must get the chance to play
a lot of courses. What's your handicap???My 16-year-old and my 12-year-old.
Too much travel soccer for me to play much golf. Part of the problem the golf
industry is having is, guys in their 40s used to play every weekend. Now
they're watching their children's soccer games or coaching their kids, and they
don't have time to play.??What do you shoot for a round???Low to
mid-90s. Not quite a hack, but not good.