Second Time’s A Southern Charm: Californian Joe Guerra Returns South as New Owner of Fripp Island

   As seen in Golf Business July/August 2023   

By Steve Eubanks, Contributor, Golf Business

He could have stayed home. Business was good. Homelife was better. But that was not in his nature – not in any of their natures, those men and women whose names adorn libraries and universities; who put their pride and fortunes in play to build something sturdy of their own; who forge destinies out of the dirt under their feet and the sweat rolling shamelessly off of their brows.

According to Southern California-native Joe Guerra, “The biggest challenge is a personal one. You want to stay as relevant as you can. You’re just wired that way as an entrepreneur.”

Guerra has been in the golf business for decades. Formerly the CEO of American Golf, he moved East in the early 2000s. Starting with the acquisition of nine golf courses from the Roquemore family in suburban Atlanta and expanding throughout the region and into Texas, Guerra and a team of talented managers created Sequoia Golf, one of the fastest-growing golf companies in the world.

A decade ago, Guerra sold those courses to ClubCorp (now Invited) and moved back home where he bought the Toro distributorships of Northern and Southern California.

“We’ve worked hard at growing our business,” Guerra said. “We ended up combining a couple of distributorships so that we now control all the Toro distribution channels from Alaska to Baja. We call it the Pacific Crest Trail of Golf. But golf only accounts for 50% of our business. Sports fields and grounds professionals use our Toro products – the L.A. Coliseum, the Rose Bowl, the Mariners, the Sea Hawks, they’re all clients. We provide them with turf maintenance equipment.”

It’s an enormous business and an incredible success story. Guerra took over what should have been a gold mine, but the Toro distributorships were underperforming. With the help of some of his old Sequoia colleagues, he turned it around, added territory and clients, and now is known throughout the industry for his fair dealing and commitment to his customers.

But there was still something missing.

“I guess I felt like that business was not utilizing 100% of my talent and skill set,” Guerra said. “Plus, I really missed hospitality. I started in hospitality. I started my work life with the Hilton Hotel company when I was 18 years old out of high school. I started as an apprentice and became an operations manager.  For some reason, that part of my career wasn’t important to me until the last 20 years of my life when I started reflecting on who I am and what built my psyche and made me happy.

“Going back to that time, and then to my time at American Golf and then building Sequoia Golf, those periods were so gratifying that I just felt like I could do it one more time.”

That “one more time” is Fripp Island Resort, a 3,000-acre barrier island, 18 miles east of Beaufort, South Carolina. Last July, Guerra got a call from his brother Ken, who owns a home on Fripp.

“You need to get here fast,” Ken said.

Joe was en route to a 4th of July getaway, but rerouting his trip, found his way to Fripp down the narrow road, surrounded by marshland, on July 2 of 2022. There he met with the Wardle family, who owned the island after taking it back from two different developers for whom they had provided financing.

“It chose me,” Guerra said. “The Wardles were acquaintances. Actually, this is very similar to when we bought the Atlanta courses from the Roquemores. My partner is Adam Fuller, based in Atlanta, who built the Express Oil business. We were IPO buddies and hoped we could do something together, mainly forged out of common values and beliefs. Our cultures were so similar. He was influenced by Chick Fil A that trained most of his people.

“He’s just a solid guy and an avid golfer. We both love and cherish golf. So, when this came up, we thought we should make it happen. And I’m so glad that I did it. In my life I haven’t worked as hard as I have these last 12 months. But it’s been extraordinary.”

Last July 3, with the island full of residents and guests for the holiday, Guerra had dinner with Doug Wardle who asked the most important question, “What do you think?”

“Well, Doug, what do you think?” Guerra replied.

It wasn’t a negotiation. The Wardles set the price and kept the suitors low key. Guerra accepted the offer immediately.

“It’s much bigger than the golf business with the accommodations and the marina, the seven restaurants, the pools and the excursion business,” Guerra said. “I like to think of it as a combination of the Tiki Room, the Jungle Cruise, Tom Sawyer’s Island and maybe Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s not Tomorrow Land. It’s not Kiawah. It’s not Sea Island. It’s a sanctuary and a retreat, more of a total resort.

“We bought a horse farm, about 65 acres called Camelot Farms, about seven miles away. And we’re bringing in additional commercial business from the area.

“You’re not going to call Uber Eats out there, so we have a responsibility to provide some of those services. Beaufort is 25 minutes away and it’s a beautiful drive. It’s what Charleston was 40 years ago. It has that texture that people from around the country want for their family. Fripp is a bit of a haul, but people understand that they have to pack in. But we have all kinds of fresh food and other things if you want to stay in.”

The distance from the mainland, and the fact that it’s the easternmost of the South Carolina barrier islands, has always made Fripp different. The place is named after a pirate, Captain Johannes Fripp, who struck a deal with King Charles of England in the 1600s to protect Beaufort from marauders and ne’er-do-wells. Now the place has 36 holes of golf, a 75-slip marina, pools, beaches, restaurants, shops and between 6- and 8,000 visitors a week in season.

“We understand that Fripp Island isn’t for everybody,” Guerra said. “But we’re blessed in that we’re perfectly positioned. We’re an affordable alternative to some of the highest priced destination resorts around the country. The value proposition is very high.

“I don’t know of another resort in the country that hosts the amenities we have at the price we have that is gated and guarded. That’s a big plus. The safety factor is huge here. You come into the island, you put your car away, you get into a golf cart, and that’s your mode of transportation for the next seven days.

“The lifestyle is so different. We’re also a wildlife sanctuary, which gives it a very unique feel. The other thing that makes it special and low-key is that we don’t have a hotel. Our rentals are from our fabulous owners who put their homes in that inventory. Most of our owners come in the off-season and then rent their homes in season to help fund their retirements or other things. It’s our responsibility to assist in that regard and we take it very seriously. But you don’t get that commercial feel out at Fripp. Not even a boutique hotel would fit.

“The golf courses aren’t that busy now because there are so many other options. You wake up in the morning and have to decide if you want to go horseback riding or sport fishing, take the boat out or go play golf. So the courses are underutilized, and we see a lot of potential there.”

The most famous resident in recent years was author Pat Conroy, who spent the last decades of his life on Fripp until his death in 2016. Now, the new owner is the most popular man in town.

“We have no interest in selling it,” Guerra said. “We do not have any institutional capital in this deal. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a family business. And we’re enjoying that part of the business. I understand institutional capital and private equity coming into the golf industry – it’s made a lot of people wealthy – but it puts a lot of pressure on the membership and the management.

We’re not doing that. We’re going to enjoy building the resort out over the next 10 years and, hopefully, leave it to the next generation of our families to operate and enjoy.”

This article was featured in the July/August edition of Golf Business magazine. 


🎙 Golf Business Podcast Episodes