Q&A: John Solheim, chairman & CEO of Ping
PHOENIX, Ariz. – Few people have attended the PGA Merchandise Show as many times as Ping’s John Solheim. I always make a point of scheduling an appointment with him to gain his insight, perspective, and listen to his state of the industry. But this year marked a rare absence.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to be there,” Solheim said to me recently. “I participated in the (PGA Tour’s) Sony Hawaiian Open Pro-Am the week before. It is a family tradition. My dad started playing it in 1968. He went every year after that until I replaced him in the late '90s. It's an annual start to the year and If I'm not going, another Solheim is.
“We actually won the draw and got to play with defending champion Johnson Wagner. (The reason I canceled on the PGA Show is) I had a sciatica problem that I’ve never had before. It started tightening up when I got home.”
So we did a rain check at his office, not long ago at Ping company headquarters. Let’s just say, it was well worth the wait.
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It’s a Solheim Cup year. What does that event mean for you, your family, the company?
Solheim: It’s huge for us. It’s been a great thing that we do. We want to stay involved for a long, long time. My dad realized early on that ladies golf wasn’t nearly supported as men’s golf. When we started the Solheim Cup, we were co-sponsoring four LPGA events. That was a lot of fun and did a lot to keep ladies golf going.
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Do you see a spike in business during Solheim Cup years?
Solheim: It doesn’t make a lot of business sense, but it is tradition and something we want to continue. If you’re looking at bottom line, it’s not. When our (original) 10-event contract was over my goal was for them to expand it and let more people in on sponsorship so it can grow into what it is capable of becoming. We have a contract with two more events and I want to set it up basically with a rolling contract so we’re always three events out.
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How has Ping fared during the past year?
Solheim: The growth we’ve had and the business we’re doing is not like the economy. It’s challenging times. When the overall business is shrinking in size and to not be shrinking with it and actually be growing is not an easy task.
We’ve always been strong in Europe and we’re staying strong there. In the U.S., we can do better and we’re working to do better (Note: per Golf Datatech in 2012 Ping gained market share in the U.S. in irons, drivers, hybrids, metal woods overall, and bags in both dollar and units share, and putters in dollar share.) My son, John K., is over in Japan and that market is growing. So is Korea, too. We’re more prepared for growth this year than we’ve ever been.
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TaylorMade-Adidas Golf’s Mark King was very outspoken in regards to the USGA at the PGA Show. What’s your take?
Solheim: I've always tried to work with the USGA. Some of my letters are pretty firm and let them know where they are weak. I suggested the concept of three balls for golfers. The goal I had was to do that within the USGA. They question having a longer ball. I don't because it is going to help juniors, ladies, and seniors most of all. When you are starting to lose your game, if you can give them an extra 10-15 yards of distance, that can do a lot.
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It seems like the proposed anchoring ban will also hurt senior golfers. Are you concerned for the senior golfer?
Solheim: I'm totally against the anchoring ban. I think it's a total mistake. It will be a deterrent to a lot of people that have a yip problem. I'm not a long putter. I like the shorter putters, but I did lengthen my putter. I used to be 33 1/2 inches and all of a sudden I was feeling it a bit in my back so I went back to 35 inches and it made a big difference.
In high jumping everyone tried to jump one way and then along came the Fosbury Flop. The guy figured that out. Same muscles, same everything. Does anchoring give you an advantage? They're not saying it does. They're saying it doesn't look right. My guess is the early golfers -- they only had a few clubs -- and I bet some of them anchored that club.
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What have you done during the comment period?
Solheim: We've written some letters and we're not finished yet. I think you need a good rule-making body but they need to focus more than on just the Tour player. They need to focus on the masses that are out there to enjoy the game and give them a way to enjoy it a little more.
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What's your stance on bifurcation?
Solheim: I'd like to see it all within the rules. We've applied for a patent (for the three ball concept). It can be the same as the slope system for rating the course: Use it for balls, use it for clubs, use it for whatever. If you're holding a competition you can say it's not permittable in this event. With three balls, it takes it out of the USGA's hands. I don't think they'd like that.
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What feedback have you received?
Solheim: The only response I heard was from (Acushnet chief) Wally Uihlein, who said, manufacturers shouldn't be making suggestions. We don't make balls right now -- today -- so I downplay the club part. What I'm worried about is that guy who’s getting out of golf because he's getting frustrated. How can we help him enjoy the game more?
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At one time you did make balls. Would you ever consider getting into that business again?
Solheim: We'll consider it at some time. We'll do it a lot differently than we did it before. It will be well planned out, if we do. There's nothing burning right now.
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How do you think the industry initiatives to grow the game are doing?
Solheim: Some of them are working. It’s a tough time right now with the economic downturn and golf is hurting now because of that. Still, we don’t get enough youth in. As baby boomers start phasing out there is going to be a hole. We need to get the junior coming into it. It’s so important to us. I’m constantly trying to figure out how we can get golf to grow. It’s something we all have to work on, but we won’t know if it’s enough until it is too late.
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What’s the biggest challenge Ping as a company faces in the future?
Solheim: The biggest challenge is always how do we improve the club. I'm more excited today than I was 20 years ago for what we have in the works coming out.
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Any chance you’ll ever find a lost sketch book and we’ll have one more set of clubs designed by Karsten?
Solheim: His sketch book was more back in the machine shop. One of our employees, Mark Herrell, he used to live across the street when I was growing up. He could lay a bead of weld a couple thousands of an inches at a time. Karsten would give him a club and say, ‘I want you to build it up this way.’ Karsten would touch it up with a grinder and then go out and hit it. He experimented an awful lot this way. Today, we're a lot more accurate. Prototypes are machined so they are exactly what they are. My dad did things with his hands is what I'm trying to say. He got things done.
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It’s been more than five years since I wrote a story about your family succession plan. Where does that stand today?
Solheim: I have ideas in my mind. That's where they are going to stay. I have problems with lame ducks. I don't want to be a lame duck. I frustrate my kids a little bit, but that's okay. They'll get their chance. I want to be able to watch their successes, too. That's going to be fun.