Leslie Hepsworth, President of UK and Ireland for Srixon Sports Europe, speaks about Bridgestone leaving the UK market, adding more distance to balls and why custom fitting is essential.
What’s your background?
My father was a golf pro as was I – I qualified at 21, then became an amateur player and then ultimately ended up on the other side of the counter. I worked for Wilson as a rep in 1988, then TaylorMade and then from there went to Adams Golf and then Srixon in December 2003. I started off as sales director and we had a smaller outlet; at that time we only had around one per cent ball share. I knew though how much the company had behind it with the Sumitomo Group in Japan (which owns Srixon) and that if we could structure the business correctly and start to bring the right products to market we could grow, which is what we did.
What do you do on a day to day basis?
It is a public company, so there are complications that come with that and the shareholders. Working for a Japanese company can be quite comprehensively complicated because they want a lot of data and reports, but I’ve been good at managing that to ensure that 50-70 per cent of my time is being involved in managing the daily business, so running our custom fit department, R&D and all product launches. It’s important, because whenever anybody like me ends up just sitting in their office and doesn’t see customers or what the competition is doing you make mistakes.
What are some of your main goals?
The biggest task over the last few years has been trying to establish ourselves in categories that we were weaker in. We will soon get to ten years as the number one two-piece ball and that is because all of our focus in the early days was on top-end golf balls which I completely changed and put our emphasis onto two-piece products because I knew there was a gap in the marketplace and we had the EGG core. We knew we had a unique product so the most important thing was to get people to understand that by trying the product; we have a 90 per cent retention for two-piece golf ball sales.
What did you think about Bridgestone leaving the UK ball market?
The brand who I most feared was Bridgestone, because they are a tyre company who understand and make their own rubber. Them coming out of the market in the UK was fantastic news for us and really did surprise me. It is obviously a tough market, and when we grew the brand I don’t think the competition was as strong as it is now, but I think it is an enormous issue for Bridgestone to not be in this market, which is around half of Europe’s ball business.
How have golf balls evolved and what does the future hold for them?
There are many controls on golf ball technology through the governing bodies and R&A. Five years ago we set ourselves a task of making, within the rules, a golf ball with an advantage gain of 15 yards. It shows you how difficult it is to make something legal that we have got to about half way with that, so I still feel there is a little bit more distance to be added to golf balls, but the real change is whether anybody will be able to compete with us in terms of the cores in our balls. I think we have owned that two-piece market and the ten year anniversary will support that; you aren’t ten years at number one if you don’t make good products.
Are most amateur players using the wrong golf ball?
We realised a few years ago that the average amateur player is playing with the wrong ball. We see education as being an important part in continuing to explain to everyone that they must consider what ball they are playing with and what they are trying to achieve. There is still the situation where you can put your hand into an amateur’s bag and pull out a multitude of different golf balls and to me that is our best opportunity, as if they are doing that is means they don’t understand. You wouldn’t have a Formula One car with four different tyres on it; it is vital players understand the characteristics of their ball. Why would you want to make the game any harder than it already is?
Will you be increasing the number of golf ball fitting days you put on?
Ball fitting is an intrinsic part of what a golf pro needs to do nowadays. Golf pros have a captive audience that go to their clubs and green grass is the fundamental part of golf and we are focused on custom fitting and supporting the club pro. We try and give the pros as much information as possible and urge them to have trial days with different balls or amnesty days where they swap people’s products. They should be giving their members a short game seminar, a golf ball clinic, shaft clinic and talking about custom fit. Pros have an opportunity and they need to use that to explain all the things that they understand that their membership don’t. If a pro holds a ball fitting session members will learn a huge amount but the most important part is that the member will then look at the golf pro in an increasingly improving light of, ‘they really know what they are talking about so why would I buy product from anyone else?’
What does the future hold?
The key business strategy for us is to grow our mid-price point two piece technology business and that is why we have developed UltiSoft and it could really change the business. I believe if people try it against anyone else’s ball then it will win. We also see opportunities with three and four piece – we have AD Tour which is a fantastic product for the average guy who doesn’t have the club head speed and it can have huge benefits. I think that Pro V1 owns the top end of the market and we own the middle, so the real opportunity for growth is a softer category for us.
We had the best year last year on Tour that we’ve ever had. We have a European Tour truck, we go to all the main events we have good players and they are all playing Z-Star products. We deserve to do better in that area and that is something we are going to concentrate on by doing more ball fitting days – we started doing ball fittings 12 years ago and I’m astonished that we can fit 20 people in a day and they are all using the wrong product. That is an enormous opportunity for us and the golf pros.