Carl Bianco has been head Pro at Woking Golf Club, one of the most prestigious courses in the south east, for 17 years. He spoke to GOLF RETAILING about how he entered the golf industry and why a new relationship with a shoe company is paying dividends.
Woking Golf Club was established in 1893 by those in the legal trade from London who wanted somewhere to go and play golf away from the heart of the rapidly sprawling Victorian city. The club still has a strong link to those in the legal profession, with many members being high court judges, barristers and solicitors. The club’s pro, Carl Bianco, wasn’t in the legal industry before he became a head pro but he was in an equally important and respected field – the armed forces.
“I have been at Woking for 17 years as head pro – before I was senior assistant at West Essex golf club in north London. Previous to that I was in the RAF for seven years where I was a supply and logistics officer and I served during the Gulf War,” explains Bianco. “I came out of the RAF in 1993 and started my PGA training in 1994. The initial plan was to come out of the RAF and move to London and get a good paying job in the City but when I left in 1993 it was in the middle of a really bad recession and things weren’t happening. I stumbled across an old friend of mine at a driving range when I went to hit some balls and I ended up doing my training with him and working there for next to nothing after being a flight lieutenant in the RAF so it was quite strange! I learned my trade there then went to West Essex before becoming head pro at Woking.”
From talking to Bianco it is clear that he greatly enjoys his job and has real – and understandable pride – about where he works. The course is actually famous architecturally; the fourth hole was the first example of inland strategic bunkering and was done by two members in 1907 who literally put a bunker in the middle of a fairway. At the time the rules were that a bunker had to be 15 paces off the playing surface so, as you can imagine, it caused quite a stir. The head pro says he strives to be the best that he can and part of this is in offering members only the best-quality hardware and apparel in the pro shop, which is around 650 square feet in size.
“We tend to only stock premium products as we have a fairly affluent membership and also we only want to stock things that myself and the assistants believe in,” he confirms. “We don’t always go for the highest margin earners but the ones that, hand on heart, we know will perform as they should.” One of the companys that Bianco is now working with to good effect is Skechers, the American shoe company which was founded in 1992.
“This is my first year with Skechers and it is going really well – there is a lot of positive feedback and we haven’t had a single return yet, which is unusual for shoes. I’m quite particular about shoes and what I stock in the shop as I don’t want things coming back after 11 months when they are still in their year’s warranty,” he says. It was a natural fit really as the company themselves have made it easy to trade with them by not having a minimum spend and having helpful sales reps – for example they gave me and the assistants a pair of Skechers shoes each so we could be seen out in them. When you are only ordering 20 pairs of shoes it really is quite impressive and makes you think that they are in it for the long term and obviously they are a big company so there is real backing behind the product.”
Bianco says that it really helps that Skechers are a brand that most people have heard of, even if they have never bought one of their products before, as persuading customers to purchase a completely unknown brand is often a hard sell. Whether it be hardware, tops or shoes brand awareness is key. This is especially important when the retail price is around the hundred pounds mark and so it is considerable outlay for some people.
“I thought when I saw Skechers golf shoes – and being aware of their reputation outside of golf – that we had a serious player here. We were waiting for a shoe that could rival the ECCO brand for comfort but at a lower price point. The first time I saw Skechers I thought that they were good but that there wasn’t enough depth in the range for me, but then by the second year there were plenty of shoes which I knew would fit my membership so it was an easy decision. The colour scheme is good, they aren’t too racy so fit in well with our membership and the older members that we have.”
The golf shoe market has evolved considerably over the last decade with the rise of spikless shoes changing the market considerably and Bianco confirms that these types of shoes now make up approximately half of the shop’s shoe sales. The days of golf shoes of old – brogue fronted kilty shoes – has disappeared and now increasing amounts of consumers want shoes which are multipurpose, that they can wear in the office, down the course and in the pub later. This can lead to increased shoe sales for the pro, as when members are going away they will often look to buy an extra pair of shoes that they can take with them.
Bianco believes that one of the issues that golf pros often have when it comes to shoes is overstocking, with many having far too many shoes in their shop compared to how many they sell on average in a month and a year. However, one way that the head pro from Woking has addressed this is by only stocking European sizes. “Only stocking European sizes reduces every size run from 11 to seven and people are increasingly knowledgeable about European sizes now. Instead of stocking everything in half sizes you now do 41, 42, 43, 44 and 45 and it means we have far less shoes in stock – this has really helped and it has never led to me missing out on a sale,” he says. “I would also advise pros to pick companies that work with you. A member will wait two days to get a pair of shoes that fits really well so you only need to be stocking enough shoes to be able to satisfy the impulse purchase or for someone who has forgotten their shoes. This makes it a much more sensible business proposition.”