2004: Yes! bids for elusive sales Groove

Francis Ricci, chief executive of Yes! Golf, holds a lofty vision for his little business.

Encouraged by grass-roots support for his company’s C-Groove putters and the exposure they have gained on tour, Ricci dreams of making Yes! Golf the next Odyssey, which ascended from obscurity to market dominance. The C-Groove already has a U.S. Open victory to its credit, and most recently, Stuart Appleby used a Tracy II model to win the Mercedes Championships in January.

But his company’s foray into the U.S. arena provides a close-up look at the mounting obstacles that confront equipment entrepreneurs. Lack of capital, little chance to secure endorsements from PGA Tour players, and cautious retailers who only want to carry major brands are just some of the challenges that typically persuade new entries to scrap their business plans.

But some, including Yes! Golf, persist, determined to find alternate routes to success.

“All I can say is it’s happened before,” says Ricci, a 60-year-old former CPA and financial advisor. “But when you don’t have the brand, you have to almost prove to every single person that the putter is better.”

To some degree, the company has been able to make a persuasive case for its putters in Europe and Asia. Thanks to C-Groove designer and prominent European instructor, Harold Swash, Yes! Golf has managed to place its putters in the hands of several professionals on the Japan and PGA European Tours. The main selling point: The groove-faced putter reduces initial skidding, promoting a truer roll more quickly, according to the company. (Suggested retail ranges from $149-$169).

Such tour usage has translated into sales. During the past 18 months, approximately 85 percent of Yes! Golf sales were generated by three distributors based in Japan, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

Now, the company is trying to find a way to transfer its overseas success to the United States. Though 15 percent of Yes! Golf revenues are

attributable to direct U.S. sales, the company has virtually no domestic retail distribution. During the past three years, however, it has engaged in what Ricci calls a sales and marketing “pilot study” in a handful of green-grass shops near its Denver

headquarters.

The initiative hasn’t been substantial enough to make Yes! Golf profitable, but it has reaped positive results and, Ricci says, provides an indication of the company’s potential.

“It’s been one of our top sellers the last couple years,” says John Ogden, assistant golf professional at Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood, Colo. site of the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open.

A new Denver-based Golf USA shop also is carrying the C-Groove line, and while the retailer is just eight months old, owner Lynnette Woodbury notes that 89 of 199 putters she’s sold have been C-Grooves.

“They pretty much sell themselves,” says Woodbury, who carries many major brands.

Ricci concedes making a bigger splash in the U.S. market requires visibility on the PGA Tour. But that is no easy task for start-ups.

Determined to shield its players from hordes of marketers, the Tour has restricted access to

tournament grounds and practice areas where

companies usually pitch their equipment. Now, only manufacturers with exempt players under contract are allowed to work the range.

Yes! Golf managed to gain Tour credentials for 2004 by winning the support of a single, top-25 ranked player, who agreed to a contract in exchange for a supply of putters ­– not financial compensation. (Ricci declined to identify the player because he has an endorsement deal with another club company that has rights to market his name and image.)

With continued access, Yes! Golf hopes to recruit more Tour converts and duplicate 2001, when Retief Goosen used a C-Groove putter during his U.S. Open victory. The company’s sales topped out at $564,000 that year. Ricci says Appleby’s win earlier this year further validates C-Groove putters. And he hopes the victory will attract investors and funds to build a much-needed sales and marketing foundation.

Until then, all it can really do is fuel Ricci’s dream.

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

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