This year PING celebrates its 40th year of operations in Europe at their Gainsborough HQ in Lincolnshire. GBN has taken the opportunity to sit down with European Managing Director John Clark to get his views on a number of important topics related to the golf business.
Geoff Russell: Ping was established over 50 years ago by Karsten Solheim, a mechanical design engineer for General Electric, who designed the first Ping Redwood 1-A putter in his spare time in his garage in Redwood, California. Can we start by talking a bit about the earliest days of the company?
John Clark: Karsten started to play golf later in life and wanted to improve his putting. He was an engineer by trade so he set out to design a putter using engineering principles and that is how the Redwood 1-A was born. Right from the start, Ping has been a very product-led and innovation-led company and that was down to Karsten. He wanted to build golf clubs that allowed golfers to enjoy the game and that remains a fundamental philosophy of Ping today. It was true in Karsten’s day and it’s just as true 50 years later now that his son, John Solheim, is Chairman and CEO of the company. I’m sure it will continue to be true in the future when the next generation of the Solheim family take charge.
Do you think that a reputation for innovation is the key to the enduring success of the company?
There’s no doubt about it. Unashamedly, we are a product-led company. Each new family of clubs we bring out has to perform better than the previous one because if it doesn’t, John Solheim wouldn’t allow it to see the light of day. We would never make performance claims about our clubs that we couldn’t fully justify. Over the years Ping has brought design and manufacturing innovations to the market and many of these are now standard in the industry. Ongoing consumer loyalty requires a company to continually meet and exceed expectations. You can never take loyalty for granted, you have to keep earning it product after product. There are good examples in the golf industry of brands becoming marketing-led and making overstated claims. They may have some short term success but eventually, they are found out by the consumer.
To what else would you attribute Ping’s enduring success?
Our number one priority is the long-term protection of the Ping brand. We would never allow short-term, unrealistic sales objectives to put our reputation at risk. This means we are very consistent in how we deal with customers, consumers and employees – we want long-term relationships with each of them. Doing business is an ever-increasing challenge but if we can maintain and develop respectful relationships we can keep the Ping brand at the top. To a publicly-quoted company this may sound soft, but at Ping, we believe that if we take care of the quality of what we do, the quantity will come.
How did Ping Europe get started?
In the beginning Karsten used a distributor in the UK but they also sold other clubs and Karsten felt that his clubs weren’t getting the attention they deserved so he decided to set up his own company and in 1973 Karsten UK was incorporated (now Ping Europe Limited). Roy Freeman was the Managing Director right through until the end of 1996 when I took over. The most common question I get asked is why Ping is based in Gainsborough and the simple answer is that’s where Roy lived. Now we employ over 200 people, most of whom live locally. The knowledge of those people is incredibly important to us. We’re very happy to be in Gainsborough.
You have recently completed a very impressive re-development of the European HQ at Gainsborough, what benefits does the new structure give you moving forward?
This was necessary and is a direct result of both the sustained growth we have achieved over many years and our plans for further growth in the future. We were aware we were heading for shortages of both operational and office space. We now have additional capacity for future business expansion and a new office development that our employees deserve. This will ensure we keep our service levels ahead of our competitors. Visually, the whole facility is now what you would expect from the Ping brand. The design and build team did a great job.
In this day and age it’s very rare for a company as old as Ping Europe only to have two Managing Directors. Do you see that as another of the company’s strengths?
Stability is an asset for a business provided it is matched by a drive that takes the business forward and allows it to compete successfully and grow. When we are recruiting we are looking for people who we believe are a good match for the Ping culture and who we will be able to have a long term relationship with. In an ideal world, we would like long term relationships with all our staff because from that you gain invaluable knowledge, experience and expertise. We have built a very solid foundation for the company on which we can plan for further growth.
You say that Ping is a family run business; do you see this as an advantage or disadvantage?
I am asked this question a lot and for me, it is nothing to do with being family owned or publicly owned. Publicly owned companies often have short-term targets they must hit to keep shareholders happy. Some family businesses also have an aggressive style. The Solheim family are primarily concerned with the long-term strength of the brand. There is no right or wrong way, each company has to do business based on the values of its owners. Being owned by the Solheim family is a great advantage because they insist that we focus on the long-term and the quality of everything we do.
How would you describe the state of the golf market at the moment?
The market right now is definitely fragile but the dynamic is different throughout Europe. We try to sustain marketing investment and when times are tough, I believe the quality brands will rise to the top. Over the last few years, even when the market has been tough, we have been able to grow and to increase our market share. Hopefully this year, with the new G25 family and Scottsdale TR putters, we will be in a great position to do the same again. As long as we continue to make clubs that make the game easier, people will buy them, I’m sure of that.
Do you see potential growth for Ping in Europe in the next few years?
Absolutely. There are still individual markets and product segments where we are targeting growth. I would back our engineers above any others to bring industry-leading product performance to the market and this will ensure we remain very competitive. A growing market would also help!
How do you see the retail landscape changing in the next few years with regards to green grass, high street and online?
In recent years Datatech has reported a steady move from on-course sales of golf clubs to the off-course locations but this movement has been very slow. I don’t expect any significant change to this trend. The market will remain competitive as all segments strive for high quality service, especially for custom-fitted golf clubs. It is hard to think of any industry where the share of the bigger companies is not getting bigger.
Growth in online sales is inevitable but certain golf products lend themselves more easily to this than others. The consumer understands the benefits from being custom-fitted and so sales of high end golf clubs will be less impacted by online. We believe all consumers should be face-to-face, dynamically custom-fitted before they purchase Ping clubs.
Are golf professionals geared up to cope with the threat from the high street and online retailers?
The simple answer to this is yes, and increasingly so. Organisations such as The PGA, Foremost and TGI are doing tremendous jobs educating their members how to be professional at everything they do, and especially retailing. In a competitive market a business cannot survive unless it offers the highest levels of product knowledge and service to its customers. For its part, Ping continues to run product and fitting training seminars throughout the year and in the last 3 years we have had in excess of 2,000 customers visit Gainsborough and go through our training programmes.
How important has custom fitting been in building a loyal customer base?
Ping has always striven to be the leader in custom fitting and that goal is the same now as it was 30 or 40, years ago. We have a fundamental belief that every golfer should be face-to-face dynamically custom fitted. Karsten wanted to make clubs that were better than those that were out there in the market. He wanted Ping to be the market leader and custom fitting was one of those vehicles that allowed us to be different and set new standards. We have always placed a priority on innovation and on improving the performance of our clubs but, when you add in the fact that we’re the leaders in custom fitting, it provides our customers with a very powerful combination and something that has clearly been important to our success over the years.
Do you think that the Ping engineers can continue to invent clubs that are demonstratively better than their predecessors?
Absolutely. I would back Ping engineers to do that every time. Whenever you put a wall in front of an engineer, a really good engineer is going to find a way round, through, over or under it and Ping engineers have continued to do that. For Ping, the most important thing is to continue to improve the performance of our clubs. That is what we strive for. I might be biased, but I think we do it very well. We have the best engineers in the industry.
Ping are still primarily a golf hardware business. However, many of your competitors offer a much wider range of products. (balls, shoes, DMD’s). Do you see Ping offering a wider range of products in the future?
It would be inappropriate for me to comment specifically about future Ping commercial strategy. I am a big believer in never ruling anything in or out!
You have a number of very high profile players in your Tour staff, how important is this to Ping and who should we be looking out for in the future?
Ping makes industry-leading performance products and to endorse this reputation it is important the brand has a strong presence on the professional tours around the world. In Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood, Bubba Watson and Hunter Mahan we have 4 players in the top 25 of the world rankings. Importantly, each of these players has been with Ping for many years. The same can be said for Azahara Munoz, IK Kim and Angela Stanford in the ladies world rankings. We also have Caroline Masson, doing well in Europe and the US, and we hope she will make the Solheim Cup team, especially on her home soil in 2015.
Bringing young players all the way through the system is something we like to do. We have a number of exciting young players coming through our ranks. In Europe watch out for Tom Lewis and Andy Sullivan and on the US Tour the strength of our younger players is already very evident this season. Michael Thompson, Billy Horschel and Derek Ernst are already winners and Harris English, Luke Guthrie, David Lingmerth and Daniel Summerhays are all playing very well too. Also, there is the resurgent Angel Cabrera who almost won his second Masters Green Jacket. We certainly can’t forget him after all he’s achieved over the years.
Supporting the various Tours around the world must be a very expensive exercise, how do you measure the worth of the exposure to the company?
One structured way is to monitor your brand minutes of exposure on each of the tours and value that compared to the equivalent cost of advertising. However, the real measurement test is over time and the brand’s ability to consistently grow sales and market share. Our business continues to grow around the world so our Tour department is certainly playing its part.
As you mentioned, The Solheim Cup is going to Germany in 2015; do you see much opportunity for Ping to capitalise on this given your close relationship with the event?
Germany will be a great location for this event. The market is ready for a world golfing event and they don’t get much bigger than The Solheim Cup. Their market has a large proportion of lady golfers and I am sure it will be sold out to capacity. St. Leon-Rot is a great venue and they and the LET are very determined to stage the best Solheim Cup ever and Ping will be in a great position to grow its brand awareness in Germany. I can‘t wait.
John Clark, thank you very much