John Clark joined Ping in 1994 in an IT and admin role. Today he is the managing director of Ping Europe Ltd, and a senior vice-president of Ping Inc USA. Here he tells Glyn Pritchard about the company’s values, the development of the Ping apparel brand and its approach to the UK retail channel.
Karsten Solheim, founder of Ping, got into golf at the late age of 42 and wanted to improve his putting. As an engineer Solheim designed and made his own 1-A putter with perimeter weighting to give more accuracy to off-centre strikes. The rest as they say is history.
Clark says that Ping is still an engineering based company. “We are very much a product led business. The engineers are tasked with continual product improvement and John Solheim (the current chairman and CEO) will not bring anything to market that doesn’t show measurable improvement over previous models, offering real gains for our consumers. We try to maintain our product lifecycles so they respect the investments made by our customers and consumers.”
The corporate culture places a strong emphasis on long term objectives over short term goals says Clark. “It’s very important to the Solheim family that we focus on long term, sustainable growth while also protecting the brand’s values. We also try to forge long term relationships with our retail partners based on fair commercial dealing and mutual respect.” Of course, Ping can take a long-term view because it is still wholly owned by the Solheim family, so it doesn’t have to respond to shareholder demands for strong quarterly sales figures to generate a rising share price.
It seems to be a policy that is paying off because the company has had great success with its G30 driver since its launch in July last year. Clark claims, “The G30 driver has been the best-selling driver in the market since it launched and we’re delighted with that.” He rejects the idea that Ping clubs are only for better players and not improvers. “I hear that sometimes and it’s simply not true. The whole basis on which Karsten founded the company was to make clubs that are more forgiving, easier to play and for players at every level of the game.”
With the introduction in July of the GMax and i irons, Ping now has five families of irons, with GMax aimed squarely at the game improvement market through to the S55 range for better players requiring feel and workability. “We produce clubs suitable for players in all sections of the market and that includes women golfers with our Rhapsody irons”, says Clark.
The company has always been a strong supporter of women’s golf, going right back to Karsten Solheim’s early days with the company. “That commitment continues today with the Solheim Cup which Karsten founded in 1990. We feel it’s important for our brand values that we support ladies golf”, Clark confirms.
Another area which Clark considers has benefited from an injection of Ping brand values is apparel. Until November 2013, Ping branded apparel was managed by a licensee but then was brought in-house, as Clark explains. “They did a very good job for us, but culturally we’re more comfortable having full control so we made the change. That way it’s part of our DNA and we can develop the synergy in brand values between equipment and apparel. We want Ping to be a golfing brand, not just known for hardware.”
To achieve this Clark says Ping apparel has been re-positioned to reflect the same design philosophy as the hardware. “It focuses on being very technical, functional and performance led. We want to produce clothing that is authentic, innovative and engineered for the golfer. Most of the team working on the brand at the licensee joined Ping and are still based in Cheadle, Greater Manchester. Fiona Reilly is Ping’s global apparel creative director and Giles Birkhead joined the company as European apparel sales director.”
Clark believes apparel has significant sales potential. “We want to expand the number of our retail outlets for apparel and we have a mix of agents and direct sales staff to do that. Building the brand for the long-term is our primary objective. Growth in apparel represents a fantastic opportunity for us and we want to do it right which means doing it the Ping way. So far we are extremely happy with the progress and the reaction we have had from our customers.”
In terms of routes to market Clark says Ping will follow a mixed policy of on-course and off-course retailers. “Our early roots were with on-course retailers and we are still very comfortable supplying small retailers, but cannot ignore the off-course channel because it now represents about half of all sales of golf products and we have to be connected to the consumer.” For hardware Clark states that Ping has about 1,500 active UK accounts. The aim is to grow the apparel retail base significantly from where it is now.
To help the process a new showroom has been fitted out to provide a showcase for all the company’s products at Ping’s headquarters in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. “It brings together our hardware and apparel so that our retailers can see both and understand the synergy between them. It allows us to present apparel and hardware merchandising displays so it will be a great base from which we can talk to our customers.”
Ping makes a significant investment in tour player endorsement, including stars such as Bubba Watson and Lee Westwood, and Clark considers this to be very important. “The success of Ping hardware is based on technical performance so high-level player endorsement is vital because it adds validity to our product performance statements. It is an important part of our marketing message that these great players use Ping equipment.”
Looking forward Clark sees the company growing based on the founding values of Karsten Solheim and the ongoing leadership of John Solheim. “We will continue to grow the business based on technical innovation and policies that protect and enhance the Ping brand. It’s a consistent way of doing business based on a passion for the product and everything we do. We never stop thinking about golf.”
Ping clubs fit for purpose
In the UK Ping has around 1,200 custom fit centres. “Custom fitting is our biggest single investment in the brand”, says Clark. “It’s certainly not just a short-term fad, it has stood the test of time and more and more customers want clubs custom fitted. It’s one of our strengths and lies at the heart of our equipment business.”
Ping’s Gainsborough factory supplies customers throughout Europe, the Middle East and South Africa. All clubs are made to order and famously, Ping colour codes irons by hand to indicate the customer’s preferred lie. Twelve colour codes are currently used with a variance from 4.5 degrees upright to 3.75 degrees flat.
While laser measurements are used to produce exact tolerances, a lot of the finishing is done by human eye and hand with an obvious pride in the skill and experience this requires. At the end of the process every club is etched with its own unique serial number, so Ping knows precisely where and when it was made.