2004: Family’s fire burns bright at Vulcan

By Mike Mazur

For nearly 60 years, the Hansberger family business has revolved around golf equipment. Gary Hansberger is determined to keep that tradition alive at Vulcan Golf.

Building upon the foundation that earned his father and uncles industry acclaim, and tapping his own knowledge of club design and custom fitting, Hansberger is trying to expand Vulcan from a neighborhood business in St. Charles, Ill., into one with national aspirations.

A new line of products, coupled with an advertising and image makeover, give Hansberger hope that Vulcan will one day rival the stature of Ram Golf, the company his father Al co-founded shortly after World War II.

“My dad had a dramatic influence on my life,” says Hansberger, 52. “Having been in the business so long, he always had a way of lending great comments and wisdom. He’s probably forgotten more about the business than I’ll ever know.”

Along with brothers Lyle and Jim, Al Hansberger founded Sportsman’s Golf in 1946. The company became Ram in 1963, and at one point during its heyday, no less than six Hansbergers were involved in the business. Gary was one of them, joining the company full time in 1980, and working primarily in club design and research and development.

“That was the thing I really enjoyed,” says Hansberger, who played a key role in the creation of Ram irons, including the Laser, Accubar and Tour Grind models.

“They were innovators in the golf industry as far as I’m concerned,” says Regi Starzyk, head professional at Pine Tree Golf Club in Boynton Beach, Fla. “And Gary was responsible for a lot of that design work at Ram.”

When the brothers split Ram into separate ball and club companies in 1993, Hansberger decided it was an opportune time to start his own business and launched Vulcan. He named the company after the mythological Roman god of fire and forging.

“I was in my early 40s at the time and had visions for what I wanted to accomplish in the golf club business,” he says.

For eight years, Hansberger operated Vulcan as a custom builder that made clubs, one set at a time, for customers who placed orders through pro shops around Chicago. But it became clear to Hansberger that he needed more business to keep Vulcan viable.

In 2001, the company began branching out gradually to the Southeast and Midwest, specifically targeting off-course retailers that used swing simulators. Such forward-thinking shops, Hansberger reasoned, would be attracted to Vulcan’s clubs, which offer a high degree of customization.

“It was a novel idea and it worked,” says Gary Diehl, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. The strategy helped Vulcan grow its off-course account base to 250 stores. In addition, it has 400 green-grass accounts.

Such grass-roots growth was followed by Vulcan’s first true attempt to brand itself. In September, with the help of advertising agency Edward G. Dorn, Vulcan created the slogan: “Play with fire.” The company also unveiled the Caldera Z440 driver, which comes standard with a proprietary Aldila V-Tech shaft, but also is available in 10 additional shaft options from manufacturers such as Fujikura, Penley and UST. The company also was quick to capitalize on the growing popularity of hybrid clubs and introduced its own versions: Hybrid Z3 irons and Hybrid Z3 Woodys, which can be purchased individually or as sets.

The new offerings and marketing campaign are geared toward high-handicap players, but retailers say the clubs can be bent and customized to such a degree that they would meet the exacting specifications of far more demanding golfers. And better yet, they say, Vulcan products remain reasonably priced. For example, suggested retail for a Woody set, 3-PW with steel shafts, is $419.

“The quality exceeds the pricing,” says Jon Williams, owner of two Pro Golf Discount shops in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Added Wayne Haddad, owner of a Pro Golf Discount shop in Henderson, Nev.: “Some folks have trouble getting over the non-traditional appearance (of the Woodys), but they’re so impressed at their performance. I’ve even sold quite a few sets to men in their 30s.”

In 2003, Vulcan’s sales increased to $5.5 million, more than double its 2001 mark of $2.5 million. For 2004, the company is targeting sales of $6 million, and more importantly, aiming to become profitable. To help achieve these goals, Vulcan has added a sales force of 12 independent contractors to its 16 employees, six of whom originally came from Ram.

One name on the payroll is quite familiar:

23-year-old Adam Hansberger, Gary’s oldest son, who is carrying on the family’s club-making tradition.

“I sense that Adam is very involved in what’s going on,” says Hansberger. “He enjoys it. I think he’ll be around for a while.”

Which gives Gary Hansberger hope that Vulcan can continue what Ram began so many years ago.

“You’d like to say this is some kind of legacy we’ve left in this business, and that we built a brand that holds a measurable amount of respect.” he says. “That would be kind of fun.”

– “On the fringe” is an occasional feature on small businesses.

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