Q&A: Cobra Puma Golf president Bob Philion

Cobra Puma Golf president Bob Philion.

Cobra Puma Golf president Bob Philion.

Cobra Puma Golf president Bob Philion, widely regarded as one of the rising young stars in the golf industry at age 41, spoke recently with Golfweek from the company’s headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif.

Q: It has been three years now since Puma bought Cobra. How has Puma influenced Cobra in that time?

I think it has given us the muscle to compete in the golf space. Puma brought the resources to build the infrastructure and essentially the foundation for Cobra Puma Golf. Here’s an example: Before, we had 12 sales reps in the U.S., and now we have 45 with Cobra Puma Golf. We were able to get coverage across the U.S. We were able to build the company here from what was an acquired R&D team at Cobra of 25 people to its current number of more than 140. It has really given us the chance to get focused on the golf specialty business and compete.

Q: Who is your audience, and how diverse is it?

It’s pretty broad. The big picture is all about enjoying golf. We are helping consumers enjoy the game more. That starts with game improvement. There are lots of other ways we’re talking about the joy of golf. From a Cobra perspective, anyone who is playing golf is part of our target audience. There’s been a shift in Cobra Golf since the acquisition. We are able to introduce Cobra to a younger male audience, for example, where in the past it had its strong points in seniors and ladies. We’ve been able to shift that demographic considerably over the last three years with our products and our messaging. I think our market is pretty wide.

Q: Looking at your touring-professional staff, you run the gamut from 18-year-old Lexi Thompson to 48-year-old Jesper Parnevik. Was that by design?

Absolutely. We’ve got Lexi, Rickie Fowler, Jonas Blixt, Ian Poulter and now we’ve added Jesper. We’re trying to make sure that we’ve got a spread of our talent that resonates with different consumer groups. We don’t want to be too young; we don’t want to alienate an older crowd. We want to be balanced.

Q: How does Parnevik fit the company’s image?

He fits us to a tee. We think he cuts through the clutter. We’re trying to get the right assets that resonate to our consumers. We think he broadens our demographic.

Q: Did you foresee the Rickie Fowler phenomenon?

We knew there was something unique and different about him. We hoped he would blossom into the player he is. I think it’s hard to measure how big that can become over time. His win (in the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship) made a big difference in his fan base, and we’re selling a lot of products because of him.

Q: Does the Cobra golfer wear Puma apparel?

We think some do. It’s not something we’re trying to force or mandate in any particular way. We bring the two brands together where it makes sense: demo days, any advertising that involves our players.

Q: Does Puma have something to do with all these vibrant colors in Cobra golf equipment?

No question. I think one of the key synergies that Puma has brought to Cobra Puma Golf has been a design, color, fabrication and trend analysis. The use of different color palettes is one of those things we have the ability to pull for Cobra.

Q: Can you characterize your growth strategy?

Three things stand out since we started the company three years ago: 1. Establishing our position in the “Enjoy Golf” movement; 2. the team we have been able to build is second-to-none; not the biggest, but one of the most dynamic and one of the smartest, for sure; 3. I am very pleased with our pipeline in blue-sky thinking; we’ve mapped out a game plan of new technologies and introductions. I think it’s a really interesting time in golf equipment. I say sometimes that it’s a knife fight, but I like our knife.

Q: You’ve grown pretty dramatically.

Yes, we’ve more than doubled our business since the acquisition in an industry that hasn’t grown. I think that’s because, as golf has faced some headwinds, people are looking for change; they are looking for freshness and a new attitude. We think that we offer that. People know we’re looking to the future and we’re willing to do things a little bit differently.

Q: What is your general analysis of the golf industry?

Golf has gotten back to the consumer in the last few years. I think it’s headed in a pretty good direction for the future because more and more people are starting to think a little bit more like us: game enjoyment, fun, pace of play, inclusiveness, how do you bring more people onto the courses. When we starting using the F-word (fun) three years ago, nobody else was using it. Now lots of people are using it. It’s not just us shouting about it. People are looking for ways to improve the sport.

Q: You have been one of the leaders in adjustable golf clubs (drivers, fairway woods, hybrids). How important is proper fitting for golfers looking for new equipment?

This is becoming a massive part of our business. It’s critical. Our research is still showing that, post purchase (of adjustable clubs), the adjustments aren’t happening that often. But MyFly (adjustable loft) technology this year for us has been a great asset for us. We can fit them better. Many, many golfers don’t use enough loft. Through MyFly and SmartPad (assuring a square face at address), we have been able to keep things really simple.

Q: Simplicity seems to be one of your watchwords.

There is no need to make adjustability difficult for the consumer. We hear a lot of talk about technology and What’s right for me? out there. We’re trying to make it really simple. It doesn’t have to be confusing. With MyFly and SmartPad, a golfer has to worry about just one thing: loft adjustment, and the numbers are right there in a little window (on the hosel). It (loft adjustability) also has allowed us to introduce color in a retail-friendly way, because retailers don’t have to stock all those loft SKUs. It has allowed us to come to market with four men’s and three women’s colors.

Q: Was placing more emphasis on Baffler a natural move for you?

Yes. It is such a great franchise. And Tom Crow (founder of Cobra and father of the Baffler) is still active with the company. Baffler was his baby. Whenever he comes into town, he works with our R&D team, for sure. When I think about game enjoyment, it harkens back to that first club. Baffler was all about getting the ball out of trouble and up in the air. We thought it was a great name stuck in hybrids only. So this year we were able to extend it to the hybrid-iron package, and next year we will extend that even further. We think it’s a great product which speaks to our tag line, which is “Golf Made Easy.” It’s easy to hit, it covers a wide spectrum of demographics, and it works.

Q: Do you want to be known as an A to Z golf company?

We’re taking what was great about Cobra where it were positioned within Acushnet (the previous owner), and expanding that. Already we’ve expanded into a couple of different areas: wedges and limited editions. We are trying to increase the desirability and the cachet around the brand. Last August, we introduced the Ferrari golf collection. That was a $2,000 driver, something the industry had not seen. We were out of stock on that driver in no time. That (Ferrari) is a long-time commitment for us. It started with the Puma brand, because Puma and Ferrari are partners.

Q: How about your AMP Cell Rickie Fowler driver for kids?

We added that, as well. As the kid grows, we offer them an upgraded shaft. They register the club and then they get one free upgrade. Retailers are loving it. It is literally Rickie’s AMP Cell (albeit shorter and lighter).

Q: How powerful is Puma?

It is a 3.2 billion euro (annual sales) company. Everyone knows it. The recognition globally is off the charts.

Q: How important to you is the size of Cobra?

We are not trying to be the biggest in golf. We are trying to be the most desirable. That’s really important. We’re not counting drivers, balls and shoes. Our drive is not just for size. The push is not, Can you sell more this quarter? It is, What are you doing for the brand? and this is resonating with consumers.

Q: Are you operating on a retail timetable?

The cadence is a lot faster than it used to be – how fast information is spread to consumers, and how much people want the latest and greatest. In regard to our future business, all the orders we can foresee in the future are up 37 percent. All our categories are growing. Footwear is leading the charge. We’re 80 percent up on the footwear side in terms of our futures. We were 20 percent up (in golf footwear) in the first quarter.

Q: Can you give us some clue about what we will see in the future from your R&D group? You’re already mentioned additional clubs with the name Baffler.

I will put our R&D team up against anybody. I’m probably most excited about taking some shackles off and our blue-sky thinking. Some outsiders would say this is a marketing game. I’m not ready to say that. Can we add people to the game of golf? We’re certainly doing our part, making it more fun and more inclusive. If people say they want to play, then we have to put a product in front of them – some component of golf that can fit a modern lifestyle, which is not the easiest thing to do. But we’re doing it. Let’s just say this: I am very, very excited about our future products and how they will be received.

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