2004: Business - Bold style drives cap maker Ahead

New Bedford, Mass.

Most of the talk about Retief Goosen’s U.S. Open victory at Shinnecock Hills centered on the quality of his final-round putting and the cool way he held off Phil Mickelson.

But up at the Massachusetts headquarters of Ahead, the chatter was all about the South African’s shirts and hat, the exposure the company received and the good fortune founder Ken Shwartz had in signing Goosen to a three-year endorsement contract this past winter, making him the first endorser of Ahead Authentics branded apparel.

To many industry watchers, that bit of prescience is just one more reason why Ahead, which is expected to post revenues between $30 million and $40 million this fiscal year, has prospered. In a category often viewed as a commodity, Ahead has separated itself from competitors with distinctive products and an audacious style.

“It’s an innovative operation, and the attitude toward new ideas and products there has often been, ‘Why not?’” says Vicki Bernstein, vice president of retail operations for Redstone Golf Management. “People are not afraid to move.”

The idea for the 9-year-old company came after Shwartz toured the pro shop of a tony country club following a round of golf.

“They had some great things to buy, but all any of it had was a little club logo,” recalls Shwartz, 48, an Oregon State geography major who once worked as a county planner in the Beaver State. “It was all so conservative that I started thinking golf was in desperate need of some alternative graphics.”

This was familiar territory for Shwartz. The Massachusetts native had returned home in 1982 to work for a company in which his father was part owner, Universal Industries, which specialized in licensed sports and entertainment products. Shwartz became president of Universal in 1988, but left in 1993, a year after it was acquired by Tultex Corp. Soon he was scheming to get back into the business.

Shwartz started Ahead in his home and formulated a strategy on the belief that golf hats needed to be more creative and colorful. He put together a staff of six, and they unveiled Ahead’s initial line, consisting only of hats, at the 1996 PGA Merchandise Show in a 10-foot-by-10-foot booth.

Two things distinguished those products.

“First, we used some alternative designs and a lot of different looks and colors we thought would catch a golfer’s eye,” Shwartz says. “Also, none of the hats had club logos, and instead we employeddifferent name-drop designs, incorporating the name of the clubs in a way in which a different name could be dropped into each design.

“Secondly, we made sure every sample in our booth had the Ahead logo on the back of the hat,” he says. “We wanted to sell more than just a commodity and make sure we created a brand as well.”

Some buyers did not like having hats with the Ahead logo, and Shwartz believes he lost plenty of business at that first show as a result. “But we stuck to it and were able to build our business, and our brand, in fairly short order,” he says.

Consumers were willing to pay a premium for Ahead’s graphics and quality, and retailers liked the energy Shwartz’s upstart crew breathed into the business.“When we were looking at apparel vendors some years ago, it was not unusual for companies to provide six to eight logo designs,” says Craig Thomas, senior merchandising manager for the PGA. “But Ahead sent 200 different ones for consideration.”

Ahead came to market at a time when the hat business was fragmented and a bit bland – ideal conditions for a brash newcomer with fresh ideas.

To be sure, Ahead took market share away from competitors. But many believe it grew largely by expanding the market and giving consumers a compelling reason to buy hats.

Four years ago, for example, Ahead introduced the Aheaderizer, a computerized stitching machine that enables retailers to personalize hats in five minutes. Roughly 1,000 pro shops have an Aheaderizer, which is ideal for clubs that host outings, and according to Shwartz, typically boost sales 30 percent.

Ahead leases the stitching machines for a one-time fee to pro shops, ranging from $500 for a used Aheaderizer to $800 for a new one. They are only to be used on Ahead hats, and the typical charge to consumers is $5 per hat.

Ahead didn’t stop there. Two years ago, the company unveiled its first apparel line, then rolled out its Kate Lord Collection – a line of women’s hats and apparel named after art director Chuck Lord’s wife. It also created a metal accessory line, and this past winter Shwartz introduced the Aheadinscriber, an engraving device retailers can use to customize ball markers, bag tags and clubs.

These days Ahead employs 360 and occupies a 100,000-square-foot facility in a New Bedford office park. Its 35 sales representatives service nearly 7,000 accounts, the vast majority of which are green-grass, and hats now make up 65 percent of the business, with apparel (25 percent), metal works (5 percent) and Kate Lord (5 percent) making up the rest.

Its PGA Merchandise Show booth last year was 110 feet by 50 feet – one of the largest and busiest on the show floor.

“Sure I am happy with what we have done,” Shwartz says. “But I think there is lots more we can accomplish.”

He mentions the corporate and international markets as areas with tremendous growth potential, and then he pauses.

“We dream to be a leader in every category we enter,” Shwartz adds. “And while I feel we are certainly that in headwear, I want to work our way to that position in the other ones.”

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