2004: Winn seeks firmer grip on OEM market

By Mike Mazur

When Ben Huang founded Winn Inc. in 1977, he chose a name that reflected his passion for winning. And since entering the golf grip business eight years ago, his company has had success in at least one area: gaining converts.

Winn has attracted a following, most notably in the “aftermarket,” or replacement business, where golfers have shucked their worn grips in favor of Winn’s soft, polymer-based, or synthetic, products.

Now, the Huntington Beach, Calif., company wants a bigger slice of the business that really matters: contracts to supply original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs. Competitors and critics, however, say that won’t be an easy task. They say that Winn’s unconventional cushioned grips have yet to be embraced by elite golfers, and that the company will face fierce resistance from established players such as Golf Pride and Lamkin.

But Winn has made inroads with equipment makers. And some observers say, the company’s technology, coupled with its quick supply time and track record in the tennis industry, could lead to further advances with OEMs.

“If they work with us, we can help them design a much better club system from the beginning,” says Huang, a former rocket scientist who served as a consultant to NASA in the 1960s.

One well-placed industry source pegs Winn’s annual golf grip sales in the range of $25 million to $30 million, less than half the size of market leader Golf Pride. And though Winn trails Golf Pride and Lamkin in OEM business, Winn’s aftermarket sales are roughly $17 million – second only to Golf Pride, and this source says “the gap is not very large.”

The reason for the aftermarket success is simple: Consumers who need to regrip clubs are paying a premium for the company’s products. Winn grips on average cost $4 to $4.50, twice the retail price of typical rubber grips, according to Darron Mauldin, director of clubmaking at Golfsmith International, which counts Winn among its top 10 suppliers.

This was Huang’s hope all along – that success in the aftermarket would fuel OEM business, and mirror the model Winn used successfully in tennis.

While never a recognized brand name on the hardcourt, Winn was one of the companies credited for the conversion of tennis grips from genuine leather to synthetic material during the late 1980s. Today, it is one of about five companies that manufacture and supply grips to tennis OEMs, says John Lyons, marketing director of accessories at Wilson Tennis. Lyons says synthetic grips have evolved to the point where “probably only 5 percent of rackets are made with leather grips.”

But Winn’s success with club makers thus far has been limited largely to putters, and it remains to be seen whether its grips can expand beyond this category and become a true industry staple.

“They’ve come up with a product that’s innovative and different than the traditional rubber market,” says Victor Afable, business manager for Royal Grip. “The polyurethane wrap just offers a whole different feel than rubber. The obstacle they’re really facing with the polyurethane wrap is that it has a tendency to wear quicker and get a little slicker than a rubber grip. That’s hurt their ability to get tour players to use it.”

Winn is combating that perception this year with the V17 AVS model, which the company says is firmer and tackier than its traditional grips.

Winn, which employs high-profile teacher Butch Harmon as a spokesman, also launched an advertising campaign on The Golf Channel and was the focus of a 30-minute “What’s in the Bag” advertorial filmed from the company’s manufacturing plants in China.

At least one competitor, however, says Winn’s effort to impress manufacturers and consumers is more hype than reality.

“Winn is a tremendous marketing machine,” says Jim Ulrich, director of marketing at Golf Pride. “In fact, I probably give them more credit for being a marketing machine than an innovator. . . People say, ‘We think Winn is overtaking you.’ But when you know the numbers as we do, the numbers belie the marketing effort of Winn, which is out of proportion with where they really are in the market.”

Nevertheless, there is no denying Winn has taken share from its competitors.

Winn’s grips, for instance, are standard in Cleveland Golf’s Never Compromise putters and two lines of Cleveland women’s clubs. Chad Kicker, Cleveland’s product manager for Never Compromise, estimates that 20 percent of the company’s grip business is allocated to Winn, with Golf Pride and Lamkin splitting the difference equally.

Kicker says Winn has gained business because of its innovative coloring schemes and “probably the fastest turnaround time on samples in the business.” He adds that Winn’s production lead time is about half that of competitors.

At Dunlop Golf, Bob Sameski, vice president of sales and business planning, says, “Probably two years ago, we did little or nothing with Winn. Now, I think we’re in the upper OEM tier for them.”

Sameski estimates that of Dunlop’s 3.5 million clubs produced in 2003, 500,000 were equipped standard with Winn grips, including all of the company’s flagship LoCo product line and Redneck putters.

Other manufacturers have gravitated toward Winn, particularly for putter grips, since it began targeting OEM business in 1999. Winn grips are standard on TaylorMade’s Rossa putters. And last summer, Winn became standard equipment on Ping’s G2i putters, largely because of Winn’s handling of a substantial, last-minute deal.

Says John K. Solheim, Ping’s vice president of engineering: “The fact that they could turn around that many grips in that fast a time period. . . That impressed us quite a bit.”

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