Jesse Ortiz gushes about his latest line of clubs like a proud new parent. “Just look,” he says, pulling the head of a driver close to his bosom at this year’s PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Though reared by Ortiz, creator of the popular Orlimar metalwoods in the late 1990s, it is the new club’s other namesake inscribed on the soleplate that registers best with most golfers – Bobby Jones.
Since 1989, the Jones name has been associated with high-end apparel. But a new separate entity, Bobby Jones Golf, is trying to parlay the name in an equipment market that has experienced painful consolidation in recent years. In such an environment, it may be as difficult for a new brand to find prominence as it was for Jones to win the Grand Slam in 1930.
But Walter Rosenthal, the company’s 64-year-old chairman, CEO, and Ortiz’s partner, is undeterred and wants to carve out a place as a $25 million-$30 million company.
“We don’t want to attempt to do $150 million-$200 million in the U.S. and go toe to toe with Callaway, Cobra, and TaylorMade,” he says. “We know that 95 percent of golfers are going to buy those brands, and God bless them. We’d be happy to have 5 percent of the metalwood market.”
If the partnership works, it would mark the resurrection of Ortiz’s career and the rare, if not unprecedented, extension of an apparel brand into the hardgoods category. However, the Bobby Jones, Rosenthal and Ortiz pairing already has failed once; their first attempt in mid-2004 – as
a super-premium brand marked by its flagship, $700 lambskin-gripped driver – never took root. And its new strategy to gain more attention this go-around places Bobby Jones in the driver category’s most common price range, which means it could get lost in the crowd.
Ortiz, 53, who watched Orlimar crash and burn after its meteoric rise, says he’s learned a lesson or two about enduring in the marketplace. He and Rosenthal insist that, this time, they have a better plan.
Their goal began with a quest to reestablish
the Bobby Jones name as a prominent equipment brand. Bobby Jones (specifically Robert T. Jones Jr.) was the flagship club brand for Spalding from 1933 to 1973. The line was dormant until Ely Callaway,
a third cousin of Jones, licensed the name for his start-up company of hickory-shafted clubs in 1985. When the Big Bertha took off in 1992, however, the Jones mark was subordinated. So following Callaway’s death in 2001, Jonesheirs Inc. terminated its relationship with the equipment giant.
“We wanted the name on more clubs than just putters,” says Dr. Bobby Jones IV, grandson of the legendary golfer.
That opened the door for Rosenthal, who coveted a chance to combine business with his passion for golf. His pitch to gain rights to the Jones name was modeled after the co-branded success of Titleist and designer Scotty Cameron. That led to the recruitment of Ortiz and a proposal that caught the
attention of the Jones family.
“We needed someone to design the clubs who understood the importance of tradition and also knew technology,” Jones IV says.
The family extended to Rosenthal global rights to equipment and accessories for 50 years, conditional upon reaching certain thresholds, and an option to renew for another 50 years. (The rights exclude apparel and certain related products such as watches, fragrances and leather goods, which are domains controlled by Hartmarx, the Chicago-based maker of the Bobby Jones sportswear collection. Hartmarx and the Jones family are joint-venture partners in licensing the Jones name.)
Indeed, it was Hartmarx who championed the equipment group’s first move: Develop the first, U.S. super-premium brand, akin to Japan’s Maruman or Honma, which command as much as $1,000 for their drivers.
The strategy was designed to attract the same affluent customers who already purchase Bobby Jones apparel. The original driver came with all the bells and whistles a golf enthusiast could want – lambskin grips, a sheepskin headcover and a top-of-the-line Fujikura shaft.
But club pros didn’t want to make the financial commitment to stock the product, and the
In late 2004, the company reintroduced a more price-sensitive club to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Bobby Jones’s Grand Slam. The fancy grips came off, the shaft was downgraded, but the technology of the clubhead remained. “Same engine,” Rosenthal says. “Now it’s an inexpensive Ferrari.”
The 440cc driver has a Russian Titanium face and is priced competitively with other top brands at $299. Thanks to industry plaudits, there’s a two-month back-order for the driver.
Now, Ortiz is focused on what he does best – creating clubs to help the average golfer. For his Players Collection line of fairway woods, which were introduced in spring 2005, he repositioned more than 25 grams of weight to the soleplate area. The low weight distribution is similar to the characteristics of a graphite composite head, but the all-steel construction provides superior sound, feel and feedback, Ortiz says.
The clubs, designed for slower swingers, are targeted at middle-aged men. And appropriately, marketing attention is focused on the Champions Tour. “That’s where they know Jesse, and it’s closer to our demographic,” Rosenthal says. Raymond Floyd, John Jacobs and Jay Sigel are among the pros using the equipment.
Rosenthal says he expects 2006 sales to come in “well south of $10 million.”
Such modest forecasts suit Ortiz just fine. Born into the business, he learned to make clubs from his father, Luis, who started Orlimar in a former horse stable in 1960. Johnny Miller, Ken Venturi, and Chi Chi Rodriguez played his persimmon woods. But it was the 1997 launch of a metal fairway wood designed by Jesse, the TriMetal, that lifted the company to dizzying heights.
From slightly more than $1 million in sales that year, Orlimar did $70 million in 1998.
The introduction of the TriMetal Plus in 1999 pushed sales past $100 million.
But Orlimar grew too fast, Ortiz concedes. The company lost control of distribution channels, and its clubs lost their distinction when Orlimar flooded the market with too many similar models. Ortiz left the cash-strapped company in 2003, soon after the failure of a public stock offering, leaving behind the brand his family built. (Orlimar since has been acquired by King Par Golf.)
This time Ortiz vows to limit distribution, focusing primarily on green-grass shops.
The company, however, has struck one prominent off-course deal: In November, it selected The Golfers Warehouse as its preferred online partner. TGW featured the company’s clubs in its Christmas catalog, and the Bobby Jones’ ad campaign on The Golf Channel directs customers to tgw.com.
But with a limited marketing budget, minimal Tour presence and only 17 independent sales representatives covering the country, Bobby Jones will rely heavily on word of mouth to gain traction
in the marketplace.
Carl’s Golfland has carried the clubs since last summer. But Pete Line, vice president of the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., retailer, says the Jones’ line hasn’t established an identity yet.
“The product performs pretty well, but until they can build brand recognition and get more consumers to try the product, the jury is still out,” Line says.
“It’s hard to get word of mouth without play on Tour,” says Ken Morton Sr., director of golf at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento, Calif. “There aren’t people walking in and asking for it by name.” Nevertheless, many of his customers are testing it and walking out club in hand, Morton adds.
Competition is stiff, many shops have too much inventory and shelf space is at a premium. Is there room even for another niche player?
“I think I can do it again,” Ortiz answers.
But he waves a long finger and adds one caveat. “Just not at the same scale.
“Bigger isn’t better. Better is better.”