After serving in the Royal Air Force for seven years, Carl Bianco turned to professional golf as a late starter, but has spent the past 20 years making up for lost time in the golf trade. The Woking Golf Club professional spoke to Robin Barwick
What is your career history in 50 words?
I left school with an RAF scholarship for officer training, and did seven years on a short-service commission, which included serving in the first Gulf War. I left the air force when I was 25 when it was right in the middle of a recession in 1993. I bumped into an old friend behind the counter at Wavendon Golf Centre in Milton Keynes and before I knew it I was working alongside him, and so I sort of fell into it.
I started as a PGA assistant at the age of 25 and after two years at Wavendon I spent a short spell at Aspley Guise Golf Club and then at West Essex. Once I qualified I spent a year teaching at Golf Club Stromberg in Germany, and I joined Woking in 1999 as head pro.
What was your involvement in the Gulf War?
I was a logistics officer, and I took a small team out to four of the ‘air heads’ – like air force bases – in the Gulf to install computer links back to the UK, supporting the squadrons of Tornados. It was a bit scary even though we were not on the front line. There was not a lot of front-line fighting in the first Gulf War, but there were a lot of SCUD bombs flying around, and so we were frequently in and out of our chemical warfare suits.
What is Woking’s unique selling point?
Woking is a heathland course steeped in tradition and history, and the course has hardly changed at all since it opened in 1893. It is the oldest heathland course in Surrey. The greens have been laid down since then and they are known for being completely unique. A century ago the greens were four times the size of normal greens, and even today they are still considered to be big, and they are hideously undulating.
Has your pro shop been recently re-fitted?
Yes. It stated when Paul Sanders from Millerbrown held a seminar at the TGI business conference last year, after which he made a few visits to the club. We carried out a survey of where people travelled in the shop and worked out that only four percent of people were going past the halfway point in the shop, because the till was only halfway down. I had an inkling that people were not making it past the till, but I had no idea it was such a serious number. We have nice stock here and a reputation for good product displays, but Paul pointed out that we may as well have had posters on the wall past the halfway point, as no-one was going there.
We have re-carpeted, re-decorated and partially re-fit, with the intention of making the route the customer takes through the shop a bit longer, and to maximise our retail space.
We have moved the counter to the back of the shop, and where one of the walls is completely taken up with windows, we have a clever fittings system with the light still coming in through frosted panels. We have a new counter and new gondolas in the shop, and from a capacity of 16 hanging rails, we now have 32 in the same space.
The changes have meant that every customer now has to travel to the furthest point from the door to get to the counter and the fridge. This increases their shop journey by 10 yards and takes them past the entire shop stock. We have separated the impulse, non-impulse and assisted sales items and located them strategically in the shop to maximise the sales opportunities.
We are very pleased with how the shop refit has gone, and already the members and visitors are commenting on the upgrade. I think it is important that a club pro is seen to invest in their business, and shows customers they are trying to provide the best service to the club.
How was business in 2013?
Business was up on 2012 substantially. When the recession hit quite hard I decided to listen to some advice I had been given some years ago, which was to invest more in stock. It was quite brave, but the theory is that when people have less disposable income, the only sales you are going to make are impulse sales. Customers might sit at home thinking they can’t afford to spend much money, so their pre-planned purchases drop, but in fact, if the pro shop has the stock, and it takes their fancy, customers might not be able to resist and they still make purchases.
If I say to a customer I can order a product and have it in next week, they have the chance to say, “Don’t worry, leave it”. So we stocked more heavily, especially in clothing, which lends itself better to impulse sales than hardware, particularly these days, as we tend to fit all equipment. There is more toing and froing in the fitting process, and it often takes several weeks to close a sale after a fitting. With clothing, we have a fitting room in the shop and so a sale can be complete in 10 minutes.
Which brands get your till ringing?
We do a lot with Oscar Jacobson because it fits our clientele quite well – offering quality that can be worn on and off the course. Also, I bought in when brands such as adidas – which we don’t normally stock – were offering 40 percent off just a few weeks after their collection was supposed to have closed. So through the year I was able to buy in stock that was making me a good margin, even if it went onto the sale rail.
We couldn’t make late orders with the hotter running lines as the brands had sold out, but if you were prepared to pick through a catalogue you could find stock lines that could work in your shop. We had stock that was selling at double margin at full prices, or still at normal margin on the sale rail. We bought well at the beginning of the season, took advantage of good offers mid-season, and managed to stay cash rich.
So there has been less emphasis on pre-book ordering?
Long gone are the days when I would pre-book loads of stock – I have totally changed my buying habits. I now often enter a season with very little pre-booked stock. In the current climate, you can wait until the season has started and still get the same pre-book terms from suppliers – they generally bite your hand off. I don’t know how long that will last. You have to hold your ground, be brave, and then hopefully find you can still get what stock you want, and when you want it, instead of making £3,000 pre-books.
Suppliers have had it their way for quite a few years, but most pros operate with seasonal income. If a pro can enter a season with some funds then you can react to anything appealing that comes along. If you go into a season knowing you owe £30,000 on pre-books over the next few months it leaves you very inflexible, and it can be a major problem when you have the spring weather we have had over the past couple of years.
Did you find the summer made up for the slow start in 2013?
A good friend of mine says it is like selling airline tickets; once the day is gone and the plane has flown, you can’t sell any more tickets. You can’t make up the business, and it is the same in pro shops. If you lose January, February and March, you are left with a nine-month season and that’s it. Even if you have nine good months you can’t make up for 12. A pro shop business can only be as good as the weather, no matter what, but if you work really hard you can generally have a decent year.
Overall we did well last season, helped by the fact that our course stays open more than most, being a good heathland course, and it makes a big difference if you have steady footfall.
What is your hardware offering?
Mizuno is my hottest hardware brand, and I have remained very loyal to them over the past 15 years. They make gorgeous clubs. Last winter I invested in a Foresight GC2 launch monitor and a Mizuno custom-fit cart, because before then I would take all our customers to the fitting centre at Burhill. Every year I try to invest something into the business; last winter it was the launch monitor, which has made a massive difference, and this winter it has been the shop fitting. The GC2 is very portable, so we just take it down to our covered range when we have fittings.
Mizuno is great for us on irons, and they have a strong range of woods coming up this year too. TaylorMade has been huge for us, and we stock Nike as well.
Custom-fitting is less seasonal than other categories, especially as we have covered bays, and with some of the better players who like to get their clubs sorted out in the close-season. I can’t tell you the last time we sold a set of irons off the rack; very occasionally to a beginner, but we like to give the 25-handicappers the same service as we would to a scratch golfer, so we don’t tend to sell off the rack at all.
Did you make it to the Harrogate show in 2013?
Yes, and I thought the show was better than it has been in previous years. There are some serious omissions in suppliers though, so I hope that does not carry on, such as Ecco, which is a major brand for us. To be honest, I have not bought a single thing at the show for many years. It works well to ask suppliers to come and see you on your patch, and if a supplier says to me that the window for buying is going to close, that’s fine, because strangely, those windows tend to get extended into the New Year. As pros we are definitely more in the driving seat these days.