By John Steinbreder
Mark King is 43 years old, but he looks – and sometimes acts – quite a bit younger. A trim man who wears his close-cropped hair in a modish, brushed- forward style, he has enough energy to illuminate an all-night driving range. He is an inveterate backslapper, quick with the quip, friendly with strangers.
It can be a disarming persona, considering his stature in the golf industry.
King has just begun his first year as chief executive officer of TaylorMade-Adidas Golf. He runs a $650 million business that is one of the largest and most important in the game.
This is equally disarming to those in the industry who know King only as the consummate salesman, the guy who once joined a colleague in heaving furniture off a hotel balcony during a TaylorMade sales meeting.
“I don’t think Mark is very comfortable with his new business card because he doesn’t really see himself as a corporate guy in that sense,” says Greg Hopkins, the CEO of Cleveland Golf who worked with King as a TaylorMade sales rep. “He’s first and foremost a salesman. But I don’t have any doubt that he will do well as CEO, and neither does he. Mark knows the game and the industry, and he has excellent people around him. He is also smart, personable and prepared.”
Aside from a brief but volatile romance with TaylorMade arch-rival Callaway Golf that thrust him into an unwanted spotlight in 1999, King prefers to go about his business in a quiet, Midwestern way. You won’t find him representing TaylorMade at the annual Golf 20/20 summit, where industry bigwigs gather to discuss the weighty issue of “growing the game,” nor is he conspicuous under the giant oak tree at Augusta National, where golf’s elite congregate during the Masters.
“That’s just the way I am,” King says matter-of-factly. “Basically, I’m a simple guy. I love my family and my job. I love golf and the Packers. I jog 20 to 25 miles a week. And I try to stay connected with who I am.”
King’s office at TaylorMade headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif., is adorned with his hometown Green Bay Packers memorabilia and pictures of his two daughters, Alison, 11, and Lauren, 8. He still lives in the middle-class town of Vista, which is where he settled when he came to work for TaylorMade more than two decades ago. Ascending the corporate ladder, he has moved into a nicer house but has not succumbed to the allure of more prestigious Southern California zip codes.
He has eaten breakfast in the same restaurant in Vista for 20 years, a local dive called Allen’s Alley Cafe. And he plays golf (to a +2 handicap) at the same club he joined in 1985, resisting yet another move uptown.
King has a tight circle of friends at work, described within TaylorMade as “the gang of eight,” and he remains close with several Green Bay pals. But he rarely socializes outside that group.
“Hey, I recently married a woman I went to high school with,” King notes.
This self-described homebody confirms his friend Hopkins’ observation that he’s not always at ease with his title.
“I try not to take the things I do too seriously, and being CEO is definitely something serious,” King says.
Jim Stutts was King’s predecessor at TaylorMade. Not only did Stutts lure King back “home” from Callaway to be TaylorMade’s president, but he also prepped King for his current position. And he insists King is the right man for the job.
“I know Mark and have come to admire his sales and leadership skills,” says Stutts, who stayed on as chairman of TaylorMade-Adidas after taking over as head of the Asia Pacific region for the Adidas athletic brand. “He can adapt to any position or task, feels very passionate about this company and is a relentless competitor who knows how to build consensus and make a tough call.”
Stutts dismisses questions about whether King has the tools to lead one of golf’s premier equipment brands.
“Remember, Mark has been doing a lot more than just leading our sales and marketing efforts as president the past 31⁄2 years,” says Stutts. (TaylorMade revenue has risen from $330 million in 1999 to more than $550 million, not including the acquistion of Maxfli, which adds another $100 million to the pot). “He has been getting very involved in all aspects of the business. Consequently, he knows the job he has to do.”
Stutts pauses before bringing up another point.
“You know, Ely Callaway was a great salesman, and he did pretty well as a CEO,” he says. “Same with Wally Uihlein at Acushnet. So I don’t know why anyone would worry about Mark making that transition as well.”
It was apparent to Eddie Langert that King would prosper in sales – and golf – after they met nearly 30 years ago.
“I had a store in Green Bay, and one day I saw Mark drooling over these clubs,” Langert recalls. “He was only 16, the son of a local high school teacher and a very good junior golfer. So I put them in a bag and said he could come out after school and work them off. That’s how Mark started for me, and he did everything from picking up range balls to selling merchandise. He did it all well, but he was especially good with the customers.”
King went to Northern Illinois University on a golf scholarship. He returned to Green Bay after two years and went back to work for Langert before finishing up at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, where he majored in business administration and played on the golf team. After graduation, King again turned to Langert, who by then was head of sales and marketing for TaylorMade. Next stop was Southern California to begin working that territory as a TaylorMade sales rep.y.
“Mark always had an intuitive way with people that served him well,” says Blake McHenry, senior vice president of global human resources for TaylorMade, who was general manager of the Las Vegas Discount chain when he first met King. “He became our favorite rep because he talked to everyone in the store, he believed in his product and was compelled by his job. Mark also had great attention to detail, and he would do whatever it took to get things right for his customers. He called us every day, sometimes two or three times a day, to make sure we had what we needed.”
Thanks to such single-minded concern for his customers, King excelled at his job.
“He was always looking at how best he could make money for them,” says Hopkins. “He was able to get everyone in the store caring about the products. And he cared for them as human beings. He’d take them out for meals, he’d ask about their families.”
Some of his customers recall being entertained at gentlemen’s clubs for what were referred to as nights at the “ballet.”
“It was not something I particularly enjoyed, but some of my best customers liked to go to those places, and I was willing to accommodate them,” King says.
Not everyone agrees, however, that King’s near obsession with making the sale always produces the best results. His critics in the industry have accused him – and by extension, TaylorMade – of being willing to do almost anything to move product. The most serious transgression, they say, is deep discounting that has destabilized the entire equipment category.
“It is often like a wild roller coaster ride with those guys,” says one off-course retailer who, because he does so much business with King and TaylorMade, asked to remain anonymous. “They are very inconsistent with their programs, and when they get greedy, they start driving product through, no matter what the price, just so they can make their numbers.”
McHenry says such criticisms are unfounded. “Mark developed these partnerships with customers, and when there has been pressure from ownership to deliver certain results, he utilized those partnerships to deliver those results,” McHenry says. . “What’s a little unfair about the characterization is that at the end of the day, Mark was only interested in doing what is best for his customers, his company and his brands.”
King addresses the subject simply by saying: “I think one of my strengths is that I am a good employee, and when the company asks me to do something necessary for it to succeed, I do it. I am loyal to my company as well as to my customer.”
King’s loyalty was tested, however, during George Montgomery’s tenure as president and CEO of TaylorMade in the late 1990s.
“George and I had our differences, and I thought it would be interesting to see what else was out there,” King says.
In April 1999,, he left TaylorMade to become head of sales at the fledging Callaway Golf Ball Co., run by his old friend and former boss, Chuck Yash.
“I had been at TaylorMade for 16 years, Callaway was three times our size and king of the hill,” says King. “I had loved working for Chuck (who was president at TaylorMade from 1992-96) and thought the golf ball project sounded challenging.”
But King realized almost from the start that something wasn’t right.
“Mostly it was an issue of culture,” King says. “The companies are so different. Callaway was bigger and a little more serious, and I didn’t feel I fit in.”
He resigned from Callaway after a mere 18 months to return to Taylor-Made as president under Stutts, who had just come aboard as CEO. King’s departure from Callaway initiated a nasty legal battle over alleged breach of contract, a serious rupture in King’s relationship with Yash (which has not been repaired) and some armchair psychiatry attributing King’s change of business heart to the breakup of his marriage and the beginning of a relationship with Mary Jo , the Green Bay woman who last year became his second wife.
After four months, the lawsuit was settled out of court. Meanwhile, King dove into his work at TaylorMade.
He seems more than a little relieved to be back at his old haunt, and to be running a company for which he has worked for most of his adult life. But he is not inclined to lay out some grand corporate vision, saying only that his primary goal “is to continue to operate the company as best as I can and deliver the results that the parent company requires.” King says the best way to attack the golf industry is with a variety of brands, which he already has with TaylorMade, Adidas and Maxfli, and the current setup is not likely to be altered.
As for the work that lies ahead, King says he appreciates the challenges and knows it will be difficult – perhaps impossible – to maintain the impressive growth rates of the last three years, especially if the golf industry continues to stagnate. As CEO, King must remove his salesman glasses and focus beyond the top line.
“Mark has always been very hands-on, maybe to the point at times where he didn’t have the strongest people around him because he was the one who was always solving the problems,” Stutts acknowledges. “It is tough for most executives to let some decision-making and responsibility go when they become CEO, and that is one area in which he has struggled some in the past. But it is also where I have seen the greatest maturation since he has been back here.”
Maturation is an issue to those who remember King as something of a roister in the old days, a person who enjoyed a game of pool almost as much as a round of golf. Indeed, TaylorMade’s CEO is the guy who once helped a colleague, Sean Toulon (current vice president of global product and brand creation for TaylorMade), toss their room furniture off a hotel balcony during a sales conference.
King’s behavior, of course, has toned down as his responsibilities have grown over the years – to the point where he rarely drinks alcohol and finds himself in bed most nights at 8 o’clock. Yet he remains what Eddie Langert calls “a little kid, popping around with all that energy,” and he frequently projects an impish image of fun and good times.
Which shouldn’t, his supporters caution, be misinterpreted. Mark King is back where he belongs. And from his perspective as CEO, the fun and good times have only just begun.