New Age Retainers

At the Leaderboard Golf Centre in Reading, there is more to the business than at first meets the eye, as the responsibilities of this pro shop and driving range also extend four miles down the road, to Reading Golf Club. Robin Barwick spoke to Graham Green, general manager of the Leaderboard Golf Centre, to find out more
Graham Greene

Graham Green

How have retail sales gone so far for the Leaderboard Group as a whole in 2013?

Given half a chance by some good weather this summer, the pro shops have a good customer base in place to pick up sales. The Golf Centre picks up business when local club memberships are strong, which is not the case this year, and casual golfers have been slow to turn out this year.

The good thing to report from 2013 so far is that our margins have been a lot better, so although sales have been down, our end profit is holding its own. We have achieved those margins by keeping our stock holding a lot tighter and by buying a lot smarter.

After shocking weather in 2012, by the end of the year we were discounting stock willy-nilly, trying to clear out, so as we came into December our margin was being depleted all the time. This year we set out a lot tighter, which has given us the freedom to sell items at the prices we want too, without excess stock to clear, and to take advantage of good deals when they come up.

Does Leaderboard own its pro shops and employ pro staff, as opposed to taking on retained pros?

That’s right. The Leaderboard Group owns five pro shops outright, and then runs a sixth, which is owned by Reading Golf Club. All retail staff are employed, and we work closely with Foremost Golf to get goods terms. A decade ago we would put in huge orders to secure the best terms with hardware suppliers, but you just can’t operate like that anymore. Today we need to be able drip-feed our stock, and Foremost enables us to have a system through which we get the best terms available but without any up-front commitment.

Is there a flagship shop within the Leaderboard Group?

Leaderboard Golf Centre pro shop 1

The Golf Centre is by far the largest shop within the group, and we offer custom-fitting for around a dozen hardware brands. Custom-fitting works really well for us, because we offer a high level of service to core golfers who want their equipment fitted properly, as well as offering entry level equipment. We use the FlightScope radar, so with 12 brands to choose from, golfers can come here and have a completely unbiased fitting and we can give golfers the exact equipment solution they are looking for. That is the beauty of the Golf Centre, as opposed to many pro shops, which might offer custom-fitting for just one or two brands.

How many staff does the Golf Centre employ?

At the Golf Centre we employ half a dozen, five of which are fully qualified pros, some of who just coach, and we also have an assistant pro, so hopefully the level of service our customers receive is quite consistent and of a premium level in terms of knowledge and advice, and this is how we try to set ourselves apart from other retailers.

Where does Leaderboard stand in terms of e-commerce?

As time goes on it looks increasingly important to have an online presence of some description. We are putting our own Leaderboard product reviews on YouTube, and on our own website, and we have a click-through option to the Foremost online retail site, and Leaderboard receives a share of the profit from every sale. It is important to have an online presence, yet as a business it is difficult to commit the level of resources required to compete with the big boys of online retailing in golf.

You can see why golfers would order a couple of dozen golf balls online, but when it comes to making an informed decision over a new driver or a set of irons, or a pair of shoes, these are products that a lot of golfers want to see, feel and try out before they buy, and our philosophy is that we can offer the service to ensure golfers get the exact product they need, and if you can do that then you can still win a customer for life.

How does Leaderboard’s arrangement with Reading Golf Club work?

Reading Golf Club has a tiny pro shop, and if the club were to bring in a club pro in the traditional way, that pro would really struggle to offer any kind of hardware, whereas we can run the pro shop as a satellite store from the Golf Centre. We can find out what brands the membership is interested in, we can alter the stock frequently, and we can organise demo days at the club easily as we have existing relationships with the all the main brands. The pro at the club also has the option to bring members up to the Golf Centre where they can receive the full custom-fitting experience. That is why the concept is an attractive proposition to the Reading membership, as they can enjoy the best of both worlds – having their own pro at the club, yet also having the freedom of choice from the Golf Centre, and good retail prices too. We provide that solution to Reading GC at a nominal fee.

Does Reading GC have its own pro?

Yes, we provide the club with its own PGA pro who is employed by us, and we also provide a full-time shop manager. To the member, the pro shop looks like any other, except that we offer the golfers an awful lot more than an independent professional.

We are now helping the club to become even more cost effective, by bringing the golf operations out of the office and into the pro shop and running competitions and handicaps. There can be a lot of downtime in pro shops, particularly over the winter, so we are giving the club more time to look at membership issues without being bogged down with competitions and handicaps.

There are pros in the UK who are getting paid a decent retainer but who do not deliver the best level of service all-round at a lot of clubs. On paper our proposition seems radical, but as far as the club membership is concerned, the operation runs like a traditional pro shop.

The system benefits everyone involved: the club doesn’t pay a retainer and saves on operational costs, the pro has a secure job through Leaderboard, and the membership gets a better service from its pro shop. For me, it is a pro shop model that is a no brainer, but golf clubs are very traditional, and it is hard for them to break with established models. Looking at the long term future in the golf trade, this model should be a lot more sustainable.

How long has Leaderboard been running the pro shop at Reading GC?

Leaderboard Golf Centre pro shop 2

When we heard Reading’s pro was leaving in 2009, we approached them with the idea. There were a few Reading members who were against it at first, but within a year of the arrangement beginning, they came in and agreed the pro shop was operating better than ever, and that it was the best solution for the club.

Is the Leaderboard Group looking to expand its network of pro shops?

When we created the model, we knew that having one pro shop on board would work well, but that once we get two, three or four shops on board, then the system comes into its own. We hope to bring more clubs on board as time goes on, and as pressures increase on clubs they will be looking to see what other models are available to them.

We have approached a couple other courses; Goring and Streatley Golf Club, and Calcot Park, but it is hard to get such decisions put through a club committee, and it is hard for clubs to be brave enough to break with tradition. Our concept is a business enhancer and I am sure we will take on more clubs in the future. Every club that comes aboard makes our whole business that much stronger, which is to the benefit of all the shops involved.

Do you think the days are numbered for the retained club professional?

I would not say that, but pros need to make a transition and get their foot in the door of the club office, and probably take on more responsibility at the golf club in order to make a retainer work. When clubs look at their figures, some are able to continue paying a retainer and it makes no difference to them, but for the majority of golf courses, the pro is going to have to offer more to clubs to secure a retainer.

If a pro can take on golf operations from the club office, then the office can focus on building and maintaining club membership and on the business in general, and then the pro becomes an invaluable employee of the club, over and above teaching and selling goods.