Global Edition


7.15am 1st July 2022 - Interviews

GBN talks to Gary Favell, the chief executive of American Golf, about the company’s move into driving range and golf course ownership, the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic, and the future of golf retail in the UK

You joined American Golf in 2018, shortly after the company was rescued from administration. What tempted you to take on what, at the time, must have looked like a tricky business to manage?

Gary Favell: When Endless acquired the business, they approached me to take the role of CEO. Having worked with them before I knew they had a great track record of investing to drive growth. Joining American Golf was an opportunity to widen the appeal of a sport which had yet to rise to its full potential. Even just four years ago, when I came into the business, golf wasn’t seen as inclusive. I saw an opportunity to make the game accessible and enjoyable to everyone regardless of gender, age, disability or background.  

Before AG, you had been running Bathstore in the UK for six years. Had you always wanted to work in golf? And what skills do you think you were able to bring from managing a bathroom business to running a golf equipment retail operation?

Having grown other retail operations into profit meant many of the skills were transferable. Much of my focus is on spotting opportunities and putting the right team in place to take advantage of those. It’s exciting turning businesses around, seeing people become enthused as it grows. It’s not that I always wanted to work in golf – although I’m lucky in that I do love the sport – it’s more that I was excited about the growth opportunity here.  

How many stores does American Golf now run and how many full-time employees do you have? Of those, how many are PGA qualified?

We have 93 stores across the UK and Republic of Ireland, as well as six of our own golf ranges – Cheshire’s High Legh Park Golf Club, Lancashire’s Rossendale Golf Complex, Hemingford Abbots in Cambridgeshire, Wythall Driving Range in Birmingham, Golf Kingdom in Chadwell Heath and Bexley’s Barnehurst Golf Club. 
Our umbrella company, International Leisure Group’s (ILG), total employee count is over 1,000, with job roles spanning retail, e-commerce, golf tuition, greenkeeping and food and beverage for our Il Corso restaurant concept. We’re also proud to have 42 fully qualified PGA professionals.

American Golf’s new flagship store in New Malden, Surrey

What were the specific challenges you faced in those first few months into the job, including, of course, the impact of the pandemic?

The first few months are always about getting under the skin of the industry. Because I had a clear vision and could see the potential of what we were about to do, my biggest challenge was dealing with my own impatience. 
The pandemic hit all retail hard. The golf industry was hit by course closures, store closures, various national and regional lockdowns, and then product shortages. 

How difficult was it to navigate the business through this period and what are the on-going challenges facing American Golf, and the golf retail landscape in general?

During the pandemic we focused on being agile, shifting the focus to our e-commerce business and empowering people to keep playing and honing their skills at home. Online sales during this time exceeded our expectations and not just products, gift cards have done incredibly well during the last two years. 
It’s fortuitous that golf is played outdoors in green spaces as it was one of the first sports to open back up. That said, there have been the typical retail challenges, such as rent negotiations and the ongoing roll out of our new tech-led store experiences.

Sales from AG’s 93 retail stores has been double that of online sales over the last 18 months

What percentage of AG sales were from online channels compared to in-store purchases in 2021, and how do you see the balance of the two channels developing or changing over the next few years? 

Our bricks and mortar sales have out-stripped e-commerce sales 2-to-1 over the last 18 months. Online is still performing above expectation, but golfers still want advice and tips on how to improve their game, which they can get from our pros in store.
Our strong physical retail presence across the UK and Republic of Ireland, coupled with an investment in in-store technology such as TopTracer bays and in our flagship Trafford store, the UK’s first digitally-controlled ‘Zen Green Stage’, means we’re accessible to the majority and offering some of the best performance training technology in the industry, so I think the popularity of physical golf retail will continue, while people will always need the convenience of e-commerce. 

AG invested heavily in opening several flagship stores 2021. How successful have these stores been and what plans do you have for future flagship roll outs? 

Refurbishing existing sites last year was one of the best investments we made as a business. It reinvigorated the loyalty of existing customers, as well as engaging new people with the game and with American Golf and all we have to offer. Site acquisition is a significant part of ILG’s growth strategy, and we plan to open a further 30 sites over the next five years.

AG has continued to invest in buying new facilities

American Golf bought its first standalone facility at High Legh Golf Club last year and has since added four more sites, including Hemingford Abbots GC, Rossendale Golf Centre, Barnehurst Golf Club and Golf Kingdom earlier this year. What is the overall strategy behind these purchases and is this a model that we are likely to see rolled out to more venues going forward?

We know that since the pandemic, golf has seen a huge resurgence – from those who played already, to people who had never picked up a club before. We’re particularly excited about the increase in women and young people taking up the sport. Golf has evolved beyond the typical 18-hole game and so we’ve identified an opportunity for facilities which include shorter course options and varying entry points so there’s something for the whole family. 
Our investment in Barnehurst Golf Club is proving particularly welcome by the local community. It’s our first municipal site where we’re creating a community hub that local residents can enjoy. Plans include an Il Corso Sports Bar and Lounge, our Italian-American restaurant concept; a 15-bay refurbished driving range with Toptracer technology and a state-of-the-art retail space with our bespoke CustomFit service. As well as accommodating existing players, we’re making the sport accessible to everyone in the local community and we definitely want to do more of that.

AG has invested heavily in technology at its ranges, as well as in making them family-friendly and inclusive

Do you see offering family-friendly facilities as the way forward for a modern golf facility, or do you risk alienating some of golf’s core audience who might find adventure golf and pirate-themed putting courses a bit of a turn off?

The addition of family-friendly facilities is exactly that, an addition. The professional 18-hole courses still exist and while seasoned golfers play on those, the rest of the family can enjoy their own aspect of the sport, whether that’s adventure golf or practicing on the driving range – and then there are relaxing environments with quality food and drink to unwind and enjoy time together afterwards. Opening courses up can only be the way forwards.

American Golf has close partnerships with several leading equipment, apparel and footwear brands, including Benross, Rife, Fazer, Golfino and Stromberg. Is this an area of the business that you are looking to expand going forward? 

American Golf itself doesn’t own the brands, however our sister business, ILB (International Leisure Brands), allows us to have some exclusivity with recognised golf brands, meaning we can react to the market and introduce collaborative collections.
Additionally, we recently introduced a ladies’ range into every one of our 95 stores because we knew there’d been a huge upsurge in female players, we listened to what they wanted and then acted. We can be agile, creating seasonal apparel and footwear people are happy to wear, both on and off the course, while keeping prices accessible.

You’ve broken new ground by partnering with the R&A to produce a range of licensed apparel for the Open Championship for the next five years. How significant is this for the business, and what other potential partnerships might we see going forward? 

This is another way we’re making golf more accessible. Our Stromberg The Open range is high quality, yet affordable. Being associated with the most recognisable golf event in the world will catch the attention of non-golfers who are gaining curiosity about the sport. We’ll continue exploring collaborations where there’s a genuine benefit. 

AG’s Trafford Golf Centre store has a Zen Green Stage

How important a role is technology playing in AG’s strategy of bringing in new and younger players into the game, whether it be it through ball-tracking and swing analysis, gamification and VR and AR-style golf experiences?

Creating a technologically-led retail experience is a huge part of our store refurbishment strategy and one we’re heavily investing in. We’re creating a digital experience like no other. The Zen Green Stage in our Trafford store is the only one in the country outside of the Sky Sports TV studio and all our refurbished stores will have TopTracer bays as well as GCQuad technology which is used by the world’s top golfers. There are plans to make the in-store purchase process more digitally orientated too.
We also have an active social media and influencer programme where we engage with the younger audience through their preferred channels, including Instagram and Tik-Tok. I’m learning a lot!

American Golf has partnered with Kate and Justin Rose to roll out The Justin Rose Academy

AG has given commercial support to a wide range of golf events and individuals, including the Rose Ladies Series and through its sponsorship of golfers with disabilities. How important is it for the company to give back to the game at both grass roots and elite level?

Investing at both grass roots and elite level is essential to protect the future of the sport and is one of the reasons we recently opened the Justin Rose Academy. Whether you’ve been playing golf all your life and want to improve your game, or whether you haven’t yet picked up a club but fancy giving golf a go, the Justin Rose Academy has something to offer everyone. 
It’s equally important for us to support tournaments and initiatives which share our values of being inclusive, which is why we continue to forge partnerships with England Deaf Golf, ISPS Handa World Invitational and Rose Ladies Series, as well as supporting players with disabilities, such as number one disability golfer, Brendan Lawlor.

Golf has enjoyed a huge boom globally, and specifically across the UK over the last two years, some of it related directly and indirectly to the pandemic, but how confident are you that the number of golfers will remain buoyant moving forward and how resilient do you feel AG is as a business should golf face a decline over the next five to 10 years?

Golf continues to appeal to a core player; however, we are seeing an increase in new audiences that are discovering and enjoying the sport for the first time. As long as the industry continues to make golf accessible and inclusive then people will continue to play. In addition to supporting elite players, our aim is to bring golf closer to communities and to become a hub for anyone to enjoy the game – whether you’re a beginner golfer or a young family. 
International Leisure Group has a robust set of businesses, including American Golf, Online Golf, the Il Corso restaurant concept, our European e-commerce operation, Golfino, as well as our main e-commerce business, which means we’re well equipped to deal with any fluctuations in consumer demand. We can weight our resources into the physical or the digital aspects, or the or coaching parts of our companies.

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