Transforming Leadership: Joe Vrankin, '88, Balanced His Life and Became a Better CEO
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

Puttshack CEO Joe Vrankin, '88, transformed his life and found balance as a key to success. (Photo credit: Puttshack)

In the often isolating and high-pressure environment of CEOs, Joe Vrankin, ‘88, openly shares his journey to find balance, transforming his life and leadership.
At the helm of Puttshack, a rapidly growing tech-infused indoor miniature golf venue, Vrankin’s success is a story of self-discovery, overcoming the pitfalls of overworking, stress and misplaced priorities that senior leaders frequently face.

“I lost my life balance in my career, I became a workaholic and I almost lost everything that is important to me—my wife and my family—because I was so focused on my career and work,” said Vrankin. 

With his wife, Patty, ‘87, by his side, Vrankin reassessed what was truly important, and, with time and persistence, he rebalanced his personal and professional life.

“I am now a better leader, husband, father and friend,” Vrankin said. “I was able to truly self-reflect and say, ‘I need to make some changes to who I am.’”

Vrankin made many changes throughout his personal journey. The most significant unfolded from asking himself tough questions and being honest with himself.

“I began to understand and embrace genuine humility,” Vrankin said. “I worked through my character traits and asked myself, ‘Was this truly who I wanted to be? Was I truly empathetic? A good listener? Did I empower others to be successful, or was I just trying to push my way on them to make me feel better?’ I think changing all those things from a leadership standpoint helped tremendously and empowered those around me to highlight all their skills, which is a huge part of what has made Puttshack successful today.”

Early on, Puttshack leadership asked their own set of questions, defining their brand culture and what they stood for. The result is Puttshack’s core values, which they refer to as their “BLOC.” The acronym stands for: 

Bring Your ‘A’ Game
Lead the Way
Own the Fun
Care Deeply


It’s no coincidence that Vrankin’s transformed leadership characteristics seamlessly integrate with Puttshack’s BLOC. He joined Puttshack just after its London-based test location was in operation and has been involved since then. 

Having earlier served as Topgolf’s CEO for five years, Vrankin was invited by Topgolf inventors and twin brothers Steven and Dave Jolliffe to visit their newest social entertainment and dining concept, Puttshack. Vrankin flew to London in November of 2018, and after 60 seconds of walking through the door, he was sold on the concept and knew he wanted to be a part of building it. Two months later, he joined Puttshack as its CEO.

“As soon as I walked into the West London test location and I saw what was going on, the energy and people having fun, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, they did it again!’” Vrankin shared.

With the credibility he had built from his years as Topgolf’s CEO, Vrankin made it clear to the founders that Puttshack could pioneer a different approach to building a social entertainment and dining concept.

“I knew Puttshack would work, so we didn’t need to spend years confirming that by following the traditional model of launch, test, tweak three to four times, raise just enough capital as necessary, and then after seven to eight years begin raising the capital to grow,” Vrankin explained. “We took a very different approach—and a meaningful risk—to grow substantially at an early stage, saving several years. We have grown smarter and faster than anyone in our space has done before.”

Joe Vrankin is ready to sink a hole-in-one at Puttshack where he serves as CEO. (Photo credit: Puttshack)

The formula for fulfillment and success comes down to the people, shared Vrankin. Of the six people in Puttshack’s C-suite, Vrankin has worked with four of them at other times in his career. He credits the remarkable leadership team for why the company has grown to 18 locations (14 in the United States and four in the United Kingdom), with 12 opening in the last 20 months (a rate of opening a new location less than every 60 days).

With 26 locations in various stages in the pipeline, Vrankin is excited to have more guests experience Puttshack.

“I want more people to experience that overwhelming ‘WOW’ sensation that I see from our guests,” Vrankin said. “People have never seen, or expected, an indoor space with miniature golf as the activity to look this good. They are surprised by the design, technology, energy, food, and ambiance of Puttshack, not to mention our whole guest experience.” 

Vrankin said he goes to work energized and motivated, balances his time between the most urgent and the most important things, and encourages risks and failure. He works hard to ensure he is an approachable CEO and genuinely cares about his associates, the executive team and Puttshack guests. 

“It’s not just lip service,” Vrankin commented. “My own personal journey has given me the space to care about the people I work with and care about them as a whole person.”

Although “blessed having spent time with some incredible leaders” who influenced Vrankin in one way or another, the strongest influence, the one who knows Vrankin as a whole person, is Patty.

“Being the wife of a CEO is very challenging,” Vrankin remarked. “There is nobody who knows me, my strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, my character, and my character traits better than her. She has been the person most centered to help me to see the things that I may not have otherwise been able to see.”

Vrankin said Patty plays an integral role in his mental health fitness and that he has come to appreciate the importance of both his physical and mental well-being.

“Mental health is generally an underappreciated and underserved area and has many stigmas around it,” he stated. “I have spent a lot of time talking to newer CEOs, imparting wisdom from my mistakes. The CEO position can be lonely. You work so hard to get there and feel like you should know everything, but you don’t, and that’s when imposter syndrome sets in. Even the best leaders don’t know everything, but surrounding yourself with smart people and genuinely listening will help you embrace everything you don’t know and can’t know.”

Vrankin met Patty at NIU, where he enjoyed football games (including NIU’s first Bowl Game in 1983, when the Huskies beat Cal State Fullerton in the California Bowl), a top-ranked accountancy program, and created life-long friendships.

“NIU absolutely prepared me for success in my first role in public accounting at Grant Thornton,” Vrankin commented. “I was taught a strong work ethic and passed the CPA exam quickly.”

Vrankin went on to earn his M.B.A. at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, work at a publishing company where he started up a division that published over 150 children’s non-fiction books, and then served as chief operating officer for the Arena Football League (AFL). After eight years at the AFL, Vrankin began his CEO career at Topgolf.

A member of the NIU College of Business (COB) Dean’s Advisory Board, Vrankin stays engaged with his alma mater and has returned to give guest lectures in various COB classes. Having always dreamed of building a business, Vrankin now shares with students the lessons he has learned and offers practical advice to follow their dreams.

Vrankin’s dream remains steady.

“I’d love to see Puttshacks around the country and other parts of the world, and when my time is over, I want to walk away and feel proud about what we built and the people who were part of it.”