2004: Perfect Pitchman - Hybrid club business keeps Kessler in spotlight

Orlando, Fla.

It has been more than two years since the

popular, gravel-voiced Kessler was booted from The Golf Channel. One day, he was the highly visible host of “Golf Talk Live” and “Academy Live.”

The next, he was persona non golfa.

Through all the huffing and puffing, it became clear that Kessler had enemies. Some co-workers perceived him as arrogant. Others thought he carried too much currency; he not only was the voice of The Golf Channel, but also the face.

Kessler’s star began to fade after he criticized Arnold Palmer, co-founder of The Golf Channel, for advocating the use of a nonconforming club (Callaway Golf’s ERC II) in recreational play. Following an internal tug of war at The Golf Channel, Kessler was pushed flat onto his well-known face into a journalistic mudhole.

The Golf Channel decided to pay him his full contract salary in 2002 without using him for any duty whatsoever. He appeared only in reruns. The payments stopped in July of that year when Kessler officially resigned from The Golf Channel to become Mr. Perfect Club.

What golf fans eventually began to see, instead of Kessler hosting “Golf Talk Live” or any other show, was a lengthy infomercial and an aggressive series of shorter ads for The Perfect Club. All of them featured the most credible person Kessler knew – well, himself – and many viewers made the assumption he was making a nice living as spokesman for the company.

He was, but there is more to the story. In addition to his position as chattering head, he also is the

company’s founder, president and chief club tester.

Who says it isn’t a Perfect World?

“The mail we get is incredible,” Kessler says. “All kinds of people tell us how we’ve changed their lives. A guy wrote in and said, ‘Here’s my credit card number. I’ll buy anything you make.’

“I said to my partner (Canadian Chris Goodwin), ‘Let’s make The Perfect Toaster and send it to him.’ We have created some very strong brand loyalty out there.”

The Perfect Club debuted on July 18, 2002. It was touted as a replacement for a 3-iron, 4-iron or 7-wood. It is unchanged today: With 21 degrees of loft and a clubhead made of stainless steel, it resembles a wood head. After that, all similarities end. The Perfect Club has a shorter shaft and heavier head than conventional fairway woods; it has an offset hosel.

“For most golfers, it’s the best of all worlds,” says noted golf club designer Tom Wishon of Tom Wishon Golf Technology in Durango, Colo. “It’s short for accuracy, it has plenty of loft to get the ball in the air, and it’s offset to combat the pull slice, push slice or pure slice. With the offset, golfers have that extra split second to close the face. This combination of features allow them to have a fairly benign golf club for a lot of people to hit.”

Coupling the infomercial with television ads and print ads, Kessler aimed a floodlight not only at the product, but also at his voice and face. It was a union made in commercial heaven: The Perfect Announcer and The Perfect Club.

The result: About 170,000 original models have been sold. Add to that more than 30,000 units of The Perfect Plus (18 degrees loft) and The Perfect Accuracy (24 degrees), and total sales top 200,000.

The company says the average sales price has been $150, meaning that golfers have spent more than $30 million in their pursuit of Perfection. Originally the retail price was $199 for The Perfect Club with a graphite shaft and $159 for a club with a steel shaft. Those retail prices have been dropped to $125 and $100, respectively.

The Perfect Club started life in 2002 as a direct-sell item. It was purchased via the Internet and phone and not available in golf stores. “The basic idea,” Kessler said, “is to break even on all your television and advertising expenses, and then drive people to the stores to ask for your product.”

At the beginning of 2003, Kessler says, The Perfect Club had a network of about 200 dealers. By the end of 2003, the number of dealers had mushroomed to more than 2,000. Outlets such as Golfsmith and Dick’s Sporting Goods were ordering the club by the thousands.

Listen to Pam Kaminstein, a chief buyer for eclectic retailer Brookstone, which has more than 250 retail outlets and a catalog and Web site business: “Our mission is to sell unique, functional products that make our customers’ lives easier. Our traditional customer doesn’t come into the store looking for a golf club. The purchase has to be impulsive. We tested The Perfect Club, and the response was

immediate and very positive. So we rolled it out in March (2004) at all of our locations, and sales are beginning to spike dramatically. Everybody thinks of Brookstone as a men’s store, but we had a blip with the women’s model (of The Perfect Club) at Mother’s Day.”

Women are using the club, and so are left-handers, and so are Canadians.

“If we can get it into people’s hands, they all buy it,” said Greg Turnoviski, the Canadian distributor for The Perfect Club. “I would say we’re close to 100 percent. . . . And left-handed golfers are very excited about it. There aren’t that many left-handers in the United States, but our overall sell-through for left-handed golfers in Canada is 15 to 20 percent. In Quebec and Newfoundland, it’s as high as 40 percent.”

Kessler, it would seem, has a club for everyone. He claims more and more low-handicap golfers are using The Perfect Club.

“Be honest: Who can hit a long iron, anyway?” Kessler asks.

Michael Lynch, president of In The Hole Golf in Jackson, Wyo., is impressed by the low number of returns of The Perfect Club.

“One or 2 percent at most,” Lynch says, “and then we get calls from people looking for used clubs or demos, so (the returned clubs) go right back out.”

According to Kessler, The Perfect Club Co. made no profit in six months of business in 2002. Expenses ran neck-and-neck with revenue, although Kessler vowed to change this. He personally took over day-to-day management in 2003. At the end of the year, there was a “tidy profit.” Moreover, Kessler was able to pay back 40 percent of the start-up money that had been provided by a handful of investors.

Kessler put little of his own money into the company. Goodwin, his business partner, found the investors.

“In January 2003, I decided to manage the affairs of the company as well as be the front man,” Kessler says. “I actually was eager to do it because it was so different. I took it on with a great deal of curiosity and enthusiasm. We decreased our expenses pretty extensively, while maintaining our income.”

Kessler reduced the cost of the product (the club, once assembled in the United States, is now assembled in China) and he hired a new, less-expensive company for media buys. He also found a different firm to run the company’s Web site, consolidated its sales force and switched to a bank that charged smaller fees for credit card purchases.

Kessler wasn’t always involved in golf. From 1978 to 1994, he worked in the securities industry. Because so many people complimented him on his golden voice, he enrolled in voice-over classes. This changed his life, and ultimately he became the voice of HBO Sports and then The Golf Channel. In December 2001, Kessler received a call from an old friend, Jonathan Barnett at Bear Stearns & Co. Inc., a New York-based brokerage firm and investment bank.

“I’ve got a prototype of a golf club that will knock your socks off,” Barnett told Kessler.

This prototype became The Perfect Club. It also became the subject of debate within the golf industry.

The club that came to Kessler looked very similar to an existing design called the Middleclub, which had been introduced in 2000. The Middleclub was produced and sold by Imagine Golf, a company started by David Hueber, former president of the Ben Hogan Golf Co.

Hueber, who hired touring pro Bill Kratzert and football quarterback Joe Theismann as his spokesmen, said he spent about $500,000 in infomercial expenses and produced almost $1 million in revenue before his funding dried up in 2001.

Imagine Golf has remained in business, and in April, was granted a U.S. utility patent pertaining to several aspects of the Middleclub design. Hueber said he’s focused on several new products from Imagine Golf and declined to comment on any possible legal action against the Perfect Club.

From address position, the offset Middleclub and Kessler’s prototype looked virtually identical. The prototype, it turns out, was provided by Harold Hutchins, who had been chief financial officer for Imagine Golf.

Hutchins, defending himself, says “substantial changes” were made to the club, and Kessler points out that the hosel design and soleplate of The Perfect Club are the result of endless prototypes.

“We kept experimenting and altering and fiddling until we got it right. The Perfect Club is the product of all the hard work we put into it,” said Kessler, who says he knew of the Middleclub and realized the ads for the club had stopped running.

Whereas The Perfect Club has three models with three different lofts, the Middleclub has five models with five different lofts.

Middleclub shafts come from UST (graphite) and True Temper (steel). The Perfect Club uses the same two shaft suppliers. However, those who have hit both clubs say each possesses a distinctive sound and feel. The Perfect Club has a stainless steel head, while the Middleclub is made of a cobalt, chromium and nickel alloy.

With The Perfect Driver and The Perfect Spoon (3-wood) on the horizon, Kessler says he is optimistic about sustaining the success of his company.

He works at it. He works hard at maintaining his public profile and that of The Perfect Club.

“Not a day goes by,” he says, “that somebody doesn’t stop me and ask about what I’m doing. It’s very flattering.”

And not a day goes by – on the golf course, anyway – that somebody doesn’t take a peek into his golf bag. What they see is an assortment of Perfect this, Perfect that, retail Perfect and prototype Perfect.

Those lucky enough to play golf with Kessler invariably get a gift at the end of the round. With a showman’s flair for the dramatic, he hands them The Perfect Club directly from his bag, offers a wink, and says “Have a Perfect day.”

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