As Willowbend turns 25, the club looks toward the future.By Allen Askov
It all started with a kid from Shoe Town, Brockton, Massachusetts. Paul Fireman, who loved golf and caddied for pocket money, went on to found Reebok, one of the giants of the athletic shoe industry. But that didn’t mean that every door was open to him. When Fireman and his wife, Phyllis, applied to join a private club on Cape Cod in the 1980s, they received the cold shoulder. Fireman, who is Jewish, figured he knew why. So he created his own club, Willowbend in Mashpee, which opened in 1992, and this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
One of his first hires was David Southworth, a Cornell graduate with extensive hospitality and real estate development experience. Together, as friends and business partners, they made sure that anachronistic practices such as blackballing prospective members based on religion, racial profile or gender would never happen at Willowbend.
Willowbend was a trend-setter from the start. It hired its executive chef from New York’s famous Le Cirque, the hottest restaurant in the country at the time. It allowed members to wear blue jeans in the grille room, banned smoking from indoor spaces, and required softspikes —things few other clubs were even thinking about back then.
With 27 holes of golf, extensive tennis and fitness facilities, a swimming pool, and a full calendar of fun social events, Willowbend quickly became popular. It drew even more notice by annually hosting the Willowbend Children’s Charity Pro-Am, one of New England’s largest charity golf events. The Pro-Ams featured top names from the world of sports and entertainment, including Gary Player, Tom Watson, Greg Norman and John Daly. In 1993, the club hosted the first of four Champions Tour events in the Cape’s only tennis stadium, drawing such legends as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors.
Before a decade passed, the club had attracted more than 480 members and sold over 200 housing lots that were turned into summer homes nestled along the manicured fairways and working cranberry bogs. Willowbend became the model for the other resorts and clubs that Fireman and Southworth created, including Liberty National overlooking the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor.
Major changes arrived in 2005 for Willowbend Development. “Paul wanted to retire from the development business and focus just on Willowbend and Liberty National,” Southworth says. “I still had a lot more I wanted to create, so we divided up the business.”
Southworth opened Southworth Development in 2005 and since then has developed many more properties, bringing his career residential resort development total to more than $2 billion. With Joe Deitch — founder of Commonwealth Financial, the nation’s largest privately owned, independent broker-dealer firm and chairman of Southworth Development since 2006 —the company went on to create a roster of premier properties such as Renaissance on Boston’s North Shore, Meredith Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire and Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland, along with two standouts it acquired from Ritz-Carlton — Creighton Farms outside Washington, D.C. and The Abaco Club in The Bahamas. All but Meredith Bay include outstanding golf courses, with Machrihanish Dunes being named the world’s “greenest” course.
In 2012, the Fireman family offered Southworth and Deitch the opportunity to purchase Willowbend. Southworth had always maintained a summer home there, and after seven years away, he was back to where his career took root.
“Willowbend holds a special place in my heart because this was the first community I had a chance to develop,” he says. “My kids were raised here, so it’s obviously very special. I literally know every corner of the property.”
And he knew exactly what he wanted to do there, from instituting new membership pricing policies to creating a poolside café. Later, he tailored the real estate choices in the Willowbend Village neighborhood to cater to the current market.
Today, Willowbend is a club that continues to innovate and look to the future, while at the same time coming together to celebrate its friends — legends like Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Orr, just two of the luminaries among the club’s annual honorees.
“Behind every door is an opportunity,” Southworth says. “We try in all our clubs and communities to focus on community and quality, whether it’s the quality of the homes, the golf course and other amenities or the food and service standards. People deserve to get good value and to be a part of a vibrant, welcoming community where people genuinely care about each other.”
Adds Deitch, “At Willowbend and all the Southworth Development properties, we’re in the happiness business. We strive to do the big things right and the little things right, and to foster a sense of community that goes well beyond the amenities and facilities. People love that. And so do we.”
As the company has flourished, so have the benefits to club members, including the opportunity to enjoy reciprocal privileges at all the other sister properties. The Southworth Cup, an annual event that’s open to members of every Southworth club and community, is just one example of the ways in which members are encouraged to have fun together.
“The cross-pollination is good for everyone,” Southworth says. “The events are great fun. Hosting them and inviting members to share each other’s clubs nourishes the community and breeds excellence. Our residents and club members appreciate all the thought that we put into what we do, and we really enjoy doing it.”
It’s a strategy that has worked for 25 years.