A few weeks ago, Mark Boler joined Leon Milns for #AdamAsks’ first in-person (and socially-distanced!) chat since lockdown began. Mark was the founder and CEO of The Mere Golf Resort and Spa in Knutsford, taking over from his father and completely transforming the business from a country club into a luxury resort, with a championship golf course and over 80 luxury guest rooms.
Mark and Leon discussed Mark’s journey from working for his father to overseeing the transformation of the country club into a full resort, and the effect that overseeing such a large project had on his mental and physical health, which ultimately led to him heading to rehab.
“I’ve never looked back.”
Mark’s parents divorced when he was only a few months old, and it wasn’t until he was 11 that he reunited with his father, moving back to the Knutsford area, learning to play golf, and getting to know The Mere as it was then from the ground up.
Mark’s father bought The Mere Country Club in 1984 with hospitality legend Max Brown, someone who Mark saw as a second father. Mark’s youth spent growing up in the country club gave him a deep love for it, which is eventually what led him to secure a £15m investment in order to transform the country club into a luxury resort.
In April 1994, Max sadly passed away and Mark took over the running of the country club. “What a hell of a learning curve I had,” Mark reminisces, going on to tell how at the time, he was a trainee manager at the Great Universal Stores when his father asked him to take over the management of The Mere. “It was a great opportunity, I’m glad I did it. I’ve never looked back since.”
“The first three years running The Mere was rough,” he goes on to explain. “I’d never run a business like that before.” He understood the ‘people’ side of the business, but the catering, hospitality, and leisure aspects were new to him, and it made him uncomfortable knowing that the people he was managing knew a lot more than he did.
Luckily, he had a group of supportive people around him to point him in the right direction and help him through the tougher times whilst he was learning the business from top to bottom.
“I’ve had some great times at Mere. Probably too many great times…”
Mark is a very social person and thoroughly enjoyed the social and entertaining aspects of running The Mere, but this often meant that he mixed fun with business a bit too much sometimes. “But that was my make-up. That was just me.”
When he took over running the business, it wasn’t making any money. “It was more of a playground for my Dad and Max. But that’s why it’s the wonderful place that it is, and why it’s successful to this day. Because Max and Dad put their stamp on making The Mere a great place to go.” As he began steering the business towards profitability, he knew that he wanted to keep The Mere a fun place to be.
After securing £15m in investments, The Mere opened its leisure club in 2011 and the hotel followed in 2012. It had been losing money during the construction work however, and Mark began feeling the pressure to do well and bring the business back into the black. He began putting his own money into the resort to keep the banks at bay, even selling his house. He needn’t have worried, however, as within a year of this business was booming.
“It was the best thing I’ve done in my life. Ever.”
Unfortunately, the pressure in his early years running The Mere led to Mark turning to drinking to cope. “When it starts… you don’t see it. You don’t notice it. You think that being in hospitality and leisure means that you have to drink. You don’t have to at all. But I chose to.”
Mark acknowledges that this was because, deep down, he had a large amount of anxieties and problems on his mind. This led to him picking up drinking as a coping mechanism, and drinking was his way to relax and have fun after dealing with the stresses of work.
His drinking began affecting his life at home, and after returning from a trip to Hong Kong in 2015 he had reached breaking point. “I won’t talk about any stories, but I came back from there… broken. Both mentally and physically.”
He goes on to explain that at first, he was blaming his behaviour on other things – never on the alcohol, or how much he had drank. During a family holiday later that year, his wife gave him an ultimatum: Sort it out, or leave the family.
Originally, Mark agreed to go to rehab to ‘pacify’ his wife. Now he looks back on that time and tells Leon, “It was the best thing I’ve done in my life, ever. Better than selling Mere, better than building Mere, better than all the businesses… it is by far the best thing that I have ever done.”
Mark explains that his recovery is an ongoing journey, and some days are still tough, but he looks towards each new day with hope and joy. “I’ve changed. And I’ve changed because I needed to. Life is more than just sitting in a bar, having a drink, and doing that over and over. There’s more to life, and I’ve done more in the past few years than I had done in the previous 15.”
Mark acknowledges that his recovery will be ongoing for the rest of his life. “I’ll always be a recoveree. I’ll never be ‘recovered’. I can’t pick up one drink, and I never will be able to. Every day it is a choice not to pick up a drink, but I do it because it makes me a better person.”
He also began looking after his mental and physical wellbeing again, finding that he really enjoyed going to the gym, learning about nutrition, and surrounding himself with positive people. His family and friends keep him motivated.
“I’ve got a lot to learn still. I’ve made some mistakes in the past. Maybe I’ve been a good boss, maybe I’ve been a bad boss. Maybe I’ve been too kind to people. But today? Today I just try and do as best as I can as a person, and to try not to be a bad person.”
Mark has also tried to help others in their own journey to sobriety, by being supportive and answering any questions that he gets asked honestly.
A Good Journey
Mark sold The Mere in 2018, after becoming the longest person to manage the estate it in its history. The sale was bittersweet, after it had been a part of his life for so long. He made the decision to sell almost two years to the day since he became sober.
People had been ‘knocking on the door’ for some time when it came to a possible sale. “It had turned into this sustainable business and had become something more than just a trophy for someone to own.” After making the decision to sell in October 2017, Mark approached one of the men who had showed an interest in the business earlier on. By January 31st 2018, the business sale had been completed.
“When it happened, it was all highs and lows, but it was a good journey.”