Ben Cowan-Dewar: Developing A Legacy
Fergus Bisset spoke with Cabot CEO Ben Cowan-Dewar about his swift rise to fame as one of the world’s pre-eminent golf developers.
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Ben Cowan-Dewar has the look of a man who’s enjoying his life. Sipping on a beer in the library of a swanky hotel on Saint Lucia, he is telling me about his new golfing venture on the island – Point Hardy Golf Club – a Coore & Crenshaw design. It’s the latest in a series of projects that have established his company, Cabot, as one of the pre-eminent golf development firms on the planet. He’s only 43-years-old but he now has properties in Canada, Scotland, the Caribbean and the USA. He has every right to be quietly confident. But above all that success, Cowan-Dewar is quite simply a very nice man who is exactly where he wants to be.
“I think the greatest joy in life and in business is to do what you love with people you love doing it with. There is no substitute for that,” he says. “I think success follows that. It’s easier to follow your passion, to work all the hours, if you’re loving it and you want to do it for those around you.”
Cowan-Dewar has enjoyed tremendous success in the golf industry in a short space of time. But his career path started early.
From a young age, there were clear hints that Cowan-Dewar’s future lay in the world of golf course development. As a young kid, living on the family farm in Ontario, he started to see the potential for golf holes across the property and was soon building greens and tees. He travelled and golfed extensively as a young man, playing many of the world’s great courses. By the time he got to the University of Toronto he had strong ambitions to work in golf.
“I was an entrepreneur probably before I knew what an entrepreneur was,” he says. “At university, I started a golf travel business, initially running tours to Scotland and Ireland.”
That was a successful little enterprise, but Cowan-Dewar quickly began to see further prospects.
“It was the start of the internet,” he says. “We saw an opportunity to help these international courses, and facilities with their digital marketing. If you were a golf resort in, say, the Caribbean, it was hard to connect to a client in Canada. The only option was print and mail, so we had a great opening there.”
For many of these famous international venues, great imagery was another missing element.
“I had the World Atlas of Golf, a book I loved from the age of about nine, and that had a few photos but that was basically it. So those were the only photos you’d see of Seminole or of Royal Melbourne. And so, all these places were mystical,” he says. “We were saying, by being able to showcase how beautiful your place is on the internet, you’re going to enjoy success. And we had some huge short-term wins selling golf course photo tours on CD Rom.”
Those successes gave Cowan-Dewar a sense of the global market and inspired him to go further and look towards his ultimate ambition – the creation of his own golf course. Founding Cabot with Mike Keiser, of Bandon Dunes fame, he set about that task on a stretch of stunning coastline on the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The result was Cabot Links, which opened in 2011. Four years later, Cabot Cliffs opened just a couple of miles away. Both courses are now recognised as among the best in Canada.
With the success on Cape Breton, Cowan-Dewar saw a principal that could be replicated - that spectacular settings result in spectacular golf courses.
“I have never seen a great golf course on a really banal site,” he says. “So it was, ‘ok, you’re trying to seek out the best land you can.’ In many cases that meant getting on a plane to travel and explore.”
The Canadian has travelled the world looking at golf sites and is constantly learning about where the best opportunities lie.
“I’ve looked at sites in Africa, South America and Asia. There are some places you get to and think, well this would be amazing but it’s so non-commercial as to not have a business model,” he says. “But we can find these magical places like here on Saint Lucia, I’ll keep focusing on that.”
One opportunity Cowan Dewar spotted was at Castle Stuart in Scotland (now Cabot Highlands.) Cabot has acquired the renowned facility on the Moray Firth and has plans for further development there, including a new course being designed by Tom Doak.
“At Castle Stuart, I saw a tremendous opportunity. Not just to build a second course, to build lodges to provide great food. But also because of the proximity to Nairn, to Tain, Golspie, Brora, Dornoch, Skibo – You have this amazing nucleus,” he says. “To be part of that offering is something special.”
Cowan-Dewar is extremely knowledgeable on all aspects of the game. Working with Doak at Castle Stuart and with Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore on the project at Point Hardy in Saint Lucia, Cowan-Dewar recognsies that the great sites need great architects to make them truly shine.
“I’ve had the pleasure to work with some of the really great architects of our time,” says Cowan-Dewar. “And there are certain sites you know just fit with certain designers. When I saw this land at Point Hardy, I only had two names in my mind – Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. I couldn’t see anybody else doing the job and I’m thrilled they agreed to it. What they have created here is something special.”
Cowan-Dewar is clearly a driven and highly ambitious man, but his aim is not solely making money. He is creating a legacy and he wants each of his properties to be unique. To sit comfortably across the land and terrain they occupy and to reflect the place they belong to.
“It’s easy to copy a formula and reproduce it in different locations,” he says. “But we won’t serve Nova Scotia lobster in the mountains of British Colombia. Whether Saint Lucia, Scotland or Florida, these places were amazing before we ever stepped onto them. It’s our job to let that shine through.”
The vision for Cabot is not wild expansion, only taking advantage of opportunities. If no further opportunities present themselves, Cowan-Dewar is content.
“If this at 43 were my life’s work, even if just Saint Lucia was my life’s work, I’d be delighted,” he says. “If we can find more Saint Lucias then we won’t say no. But we’re not going to try putting a square peg in a round hole.”
It comes back to his point about success coming naturally if you follow your passions though, and it seems clear that Cowan-Dewar is doing just that. Cabot is not simply chasing big profits. The company is creating special golfing destinations, using the best architects in the business in some very special places. It may not be formulaic, but it’s certainly a very good formula.
Fergus is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin (also of Golf Monthly)... Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?
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