2003: Business - Persimmon persistence keeps Louisville in play
By Mike Mazur
There was a time not long ago when Elmore Just, a clubmaker known in close circles as the “high priest of persimmon,” sat back and watched as his Louisville Golf Club Co. cranked out more than 800 clubs per day with two factories and 150 clubmakers working around the clock.
But those days are gone.
Today, production has dropped to 200 persimmon-based clubs per week. The company has abandoned one of its factories. It employs just nine clubmakers. No longer does it operate day and night. And Just died two years ago.
One thing, however, has remained: Louisville’s commitment to persimmon, which Just often called “nature’s gift to the game of golf.”
Even in a market dominated by modern technology, the company continues to innovate and survive, and in early 2003, is touting a line of handcrafted True Center persimmon-inserted putters and Niblick persimmon fairway woods.
“We’ll never go titanium,” says Josh Fischer, Louisville’s vice president of marketing. “We still believe that persimmon has dampening qualities and other characteristics that you just can’t get with metal clubs. The workability and feel a player gets through persimmon is unlike anything else.”
This message was an easier sell during the company’s heyday. Persimmon was the industry’s standard material then, and Louisville, which was founded in 1974, was known for excelling in its production.
In its early days, the company either manufactured clubs or provided components as an anonymous supplier for the premier equipment brands of that era, including Wilson, Spalding, Ram, Tommy Armour and Ben Hogan.
Sales peaked at about $5 million annually during the mid-1980s, but as persimmon began to give way to steel and titanium, the company lost some of its major accounts. By the early ’90s, its business model was collapsing.
“There were some pretty dark times for a while there,” says Mike Just, Elmore’s younger brother who became president in 2001.
By downsizing operations and shifting its focus to direct consumer sales, however, Louisville managed the improbable: It emerged as a survivor from a technological revolution that should have rendered it obsolete.
Forsaking conventional retail channels for the most part, the company opted instead to develop a mail-order catalog business and targeted sales of its finely crafted components to independent clubmakers. The result? More than 50 percent of sales now are attributable to individual consumers and another 25 percent are generated by clubmakers. The balance comes from pro shop sales and customized orders for corporate clients and special events.
That formula has helped make privately held Louisville a profitable niche player for five of the past six years. It hopes to rebound from a tough 2002 by regaining profitability this year, and it expects to generate sales of $1.3 million.
Though limited, some of that business will come from retailers.
“A lot of times people buy them as gifts, because they’re unique and they’re certainly beautiful,” says Ken Morton Jr., director of retail at Haggin Oaks Golf Super Shop in Sacramento, Calif.
Others say they sell Louisville products not just for their beauty, but for their performance features.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of advantage with metal in fairway woods,” says Don Williams, a teaching pro at Sapphire Lakes Golf Club in Sapphire, N.C.
Indeed, company officials insist their fairway woods don’t give much to modern technology.
“Our new customers are constantly amazed at the effectiveness of our clubs,” Fischer says. “It’s almost like they’re conditioned to thinking persimmon is hard to hit. The fact is, it’s not.”
Reversing that perception remains Louisville’s biggest obstacle to selling clubs such as the Niblick (suggested retail $205, steel shaft; $235, graphite) and True Center putters ($115-$125).
“It’s constantly a challenge,” says Fischer, who laments the fact that there exists an entire generation of golfers who have never hit a wood club. “But we’re going to stick to the same old story we’ve always told. And who knows, maybe persimmon will make a comeback one day.”