Foremost Golf has recently celebrated its 30th birthday with some of the best trading figures it has achieved for years. Here founder member and current CEO Paul Hedges looks back at how the group has developed and forward to how he sees the game developing in the years ahead
Can you begin by giving us a potted history of how Foremost Golf got started 30 years ago?
Back in the early 1980s a group of professionals from Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire got together to form a buying group. We’d worked out that we could leverage better deals if we bought in bulk from the manufacturers so that’s what we started to do. After a couple of years we realised we needed a more formal structure and that’s how Foremost Golf came into being. It started out with 26 members operating out of a single room office in Burnham Beeches but now has almost 1,000 members all across the British Isles.
Would it be fair to say that it isn’t just the size of the group that has changed over the years?
Certainly. We started out purely as a buying group but as the game has changed and the needs of our members have expanded we have diversified into a lot of different areas. We are still proud of our expertise in retailing but we have learned how to market ourselves much better and to harness the power of the internet in order to build our business. I think one of the main reasons for Foremost’s success over the years is that we have been prepared to utilise all the new tools available to us to help to support our members. That has enabled us to set trends rather than follow them and it has helped our members to stay ahead of the competition.
What level of support do you offer your members nowadays?
It would be no exaggeration to say we now offer our members support in every key area of their business lives. We have a dedicated Central Administration team which helps members with their accounts and with putting together their personalised websites and newsletters. We also have expert Business Development Consultants who travel around the country helping members to market their services and engage better with their members. We have also branched out to offer support to golf clubs via our Golf Club Buying Group. It would be fair to say even some industry insiders are surprised when they learn about the level of support we offer our members and at the heart of it is the way we have harnessed the power of the internet to give our members their own individual identity through their personalised websites, newsletters and social media channels. It’s all very different to what it was 30 years ago.
How has the internet influenced the way Foremost operates?
About ten years ago some of us saw the internet as a massive threat. We thought that on-line retailers might seriously damage the on course business, but it hasn’t happened that way. Indeed, it is the High Street retailer whose business was based on price and choice that has struggled. I’m a great believer in the phrase necessity is the mother of invention, so instead of steering clear of the internet we have embraced it and learned how we can utilise the digital world to our best advantage. There is no doubt the Internet has had a detrimental effect on margins but it also offered us an effective way to communicate our unique value proposition to a wider audience. I would argue that with the right focus today’s PGA professionals have an advantage over the High Street and on-line retailers. Our unique business model with three different sources of income – from retailing, teaching and club services, combined with our low overheads allow us to deliver fantastic value to golfers and clubs – whereas the High Street and on-line retailers are totally dependent on retail sales at a time when the market is sluggish and margins are under threat more than ever before. They are stuck in what I’d describe as the Tesco Syndrome. Many have very expensive sites. They have high overheads but are being forced into cost cutting in order to keep their rivals at bay. They are often chasing turnover which in a challenging market is not a very comfortable position to be in.
How would you describe the state of the golf market as we near the end of 2014?
I think there are two ways of looking at that. Overall the market remains pretty difficult but that doesn’t mean to say there aren’t opportunities out there. Here at Foremost I’d say we are bucking the national trend and this was confirmed by recent independent sales data from Datatech which showed Foremost members were out-performing both their off-course and on-course rivals in nine out of ten of the main retail categories. That data also showed our members using the Elite Marketing Programme (EMP) were the biggest winners which doesn’t surprise me because they are the ones who have been prepared to go that extra yard and invest in the support and expertise needed to give them an edge over their rivals.
How would you describe the overall health of the game at the moment?
I am just back from a very successful Ryder Cup which attracted crowds of 40,000 a day and a TV audience measured in millions so it is tempting to think everything in the garden is rosy. However that isn’t true as everyone in the business knows. Clubs are still losing members and participation in the sport is still falling. We badly need to retain the interest of the individuals who watch the Ryder Cup every two years but who to date have shown no real interest in playing more than an occasional game themselves. The good news is golf will always appeal to a particular demographic group but we need to widen it so that it also appeals to other more diverse groups in society.
What do we need to do to achieve that?
I think the first thing that needs to happen is for the authorities to work more closely together towards that common end. The recent R&A vote to include women members is encouraging but sadly it seems that some organisations seem to be driven by their own political gains rather than the sports best interest. Our clubs need to be more modern and more inclusive and the onus is on them to provide a platform which is more family orientated and appeals to a broader cross-section of society. A few years back we established a Foremost Golf Club Buying Group which was set up primarily to help our members clubs operate more efficiently but which can also be utilised to offer advice on a wider range of topics including how to broaden their appeal among the local populace. We have recently appointed Material Matters to drive this forward and we will continue to invest money and resource to help achieve that goal. The problem is that far too many golf clubs don’t make it easy for would be golfers to start playing or lapsed golfers to return to the game. We need to change that perception and also to persuade clubs to offer a wider and more user-friendly range of membership categories. For most people time is more precious than it has ever been before so we need to find ways to speed up play and part of that comes down to providing courses which are challenging for accomplished golfers but remain manageable for the recreational player. There is a lot that can be done but it worries me that to date it is only a relatively small group of the more progressive clubs which seem to have embraced the challenge.
Given the difficulties it faces do you think golf will be a dramatically different game in 20 years when Foremost celebrates its 50th anniversary?
No I don’t. I sincerely hope it will be more inclusive and user-friendly but I suspect and hope the actual game as we know it won’t have changed that much. I have read the reports which suggest it needs a complete makeover but in 20 years I don’t think we will have ten inch holes, three flags on each green or be kicking balls around courses. Golf is a wonderful game with many excellent attributes. It needs a little evolution and not a revolution. It needs to understand the pressures of limited time that people in today’s modern society have and provide courses and clubs that fit their needs. Foremost and its professionals will be at the forefront of ensuring that as many people as possible get the maximum enjoyment from their golf and if we achieve that then the future is bright. Foremost, Good For Golf.