Can Honma figure out North America?

At every PGA Show, MyGolfSpy asks the same question: Which Japanese equipment companies are still trying to figure out North America? This year, for the first time, we weren’t sure if Honma should still be on the list.

Yonex, Epon, Fujimoto, ONOFF, Fourteen, PRGR and others have tried. It’s possible but it takes commitment and cash. Srixon, Mizuno and Bridgestone have done it. Even Miura has its own premium forged niche under the 8AM corporate umbrella.

For years, calling Honma a niche Japanese brand might have been generous. It was known primarily for its super-ultra-mega premium Beres line, with a market limited mostly to Asians living in North America. The company went public in 2015 and ownership wanted growth. Honma became another brand in the Let’s Figure Out North America chorus line.

Five years and a few management changes later, it appears Honma may very well be figuring out North America. All it needed was a cash commitment and a three-phase plan to set the wheels in motion.

Phase One: A Man With A Plan

Honma’s first major push to figure out North America in 2017 was the big-box retail route. Honma did get on some shelves but that was about it. A year later, Honma hired a new man with a new plan. Former TaylorMade CEO Mark King was brought on by Honma Chairman Liu Jianguo as a “strategic advisor.”

At the time, King was quoted as saying Liu wanted “someone to help him who understands golf, understands golf in North America and understands how to present that brand to the market.” Say what you want about Mark King, but that reads like the first line of his resume right there.

King left to take over Taco Bell a year later, turning over the Honma reins to another longtime TaylorMade exec, John Kawaja.

“Ownership wants to be a global player,” Kawaja tells MyGolfSpy. “And to be a global player, you have to be a player in North America.”

Honma’s North American management team has some legit North American bona fides. Kawaja spent 11 years in senior leadership at TaylorMade, while Marketing VP Brad Holder is another longtime high-level TaylorMade expatriate. Global Product VP Chris McGinley is a 21-year Titleist veteran.

Phase One in figuring out North America? Simple. Hire people who already know North America and get out of their way. Give them the financial wherewithal to do their jobs. Let them develop products to appeal to the North American golfer. And finally, let them create a distribution model that doesn’t rely on the big-box floor salesman to sell your product for you.

Phase Two: The Right Stuff

There are golfers in North America who, at the mere mention of Japanese forgings, turn into 13-year old girls at a Taylor Swift concert. Utter the word Endo and they’ll jump on your lap and lick your face like a puppy.

Don’t ask how I know this.

Most Japanese OEMs can’t figure out North America for one simple reason: their product gets in the way. Force-feeding products engineered for the Asian market to American consumers is akin to pushing a rope.

“Often the product spec is designed for a different type of player,” says Brad Holder. “Someone with slower swing speeds or a smaller stature.”

“Premium performance – that’s where most of the business is in North America,” adds Kawaja. “Whether it’s for the better player or the game improvement player, we have to design products specifically for success in this market.”

To that end, Honma assembled a U.S.-based design team led by McGinley to lead its premium performance projects. The Honma North America team works closely with the engineering team in Sakata, Japan. This January, Honma launched its first U.S. led product line: the TR20 metal woods and irons.

“We were able to get specific about blade length, blade length progression, topline thickness, how the topline blends into the hosel, and so on,” says McGinley. “It was great to work with this group in Japan that had incredible knowledge and history and bring some of the things I knew about the North American market.”

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A Lead-off Double

Honma’s TR-20 460 driver finished a strong fourth overall in MyGolfSpy’s 2020 Most Wanted testing (the Game Improvement XP-1 finished seventh). The TR-20 finished just a tick behind the TaylorMade SIM MAX D and just ahead of the Srixon Z785. It wound up well ahead of some big names and finished with the third-highest ball speed in the test.

Honma_TR20 driver

“My first trip to Sakata right after I first got hired, I saw some of the things they were working on,” says McGinley. “They were looking at things a little bit differently, how carbon was used, where it was placed, how it bonded to the frame. I knew we had the start of something good.”

“The thing that stood out most was their process – it really blew us away,” adds Kawaja. “We created the design in Carlsbad and then sent it to Sakata. A takumi [master craftsman] takes a block of Mississippi persimmon wood and shapes the product by hand to get just the right look. From there, it goes to CAD and science takes over.”

Form and function can be strange bedfellows in golf. Sometimes you get more form than function, sometimes more function than form. It’s rare to get both but that’s what Honma strives for.

“I’m sure the guys at TaylorMade think SIM is a beautiful driver,” says Kawaja. “As new products go, it’s innovative, it’s a different shape. But when you put our driver down, we want you to say, ‘God, that’s beautiful.’ And when you hit it, we want you to say ‘Wow! What’s going on here?’”

In other words, good-looking and a great personality.

“We use the words ‘beautifully crafted performance’ and it’s important to us that beautiful is in that phrase.”

Art is one thing but both Kawaja and McGinley insist the team in Sakata takes a back seat to no one when it comes to technical know-how and wizardry.

 

“It starts with a piece of art,” says Kawaja. “It finishes with the best know-how and the best technology and construction and design techniques. We know how to make crowns thin and weight variable so you can optimize the delivery of launch conditions.  Everyone does that but I’m not sure everyone starts with craftsmanship.”

Phase 3: The Retail Enigma

To figure out North America is to understand one basic truism: what sells in Osaka doesn’t necessarily sell in Omaha. Products need to be geared to the Western consumer but so do the marketing message and the sales channel.

Golf retail is all about brand loyalty in Japan. Brands have their own direct-to-consumer retail centers that create an entire brand experience. Product lines are broader and golfers identify not only with the equipment but with anything bearing the brand name. Men’s apparel, ladies’ golf dresses, hats, bags, shoes; you name it, it’s for sale. Golf is a comprehensive lifestyle industry.

Over here, big-box retail is king. There may be brand affinity but hot products drive the market. Prior to King’s arrival, Honma worked its way onto the shelves at several major retailers. Unfortunately, most of that product wound up staying there.

“That’s the reality of small brands,” says Kawaja. “If you walk into a PGA TOUR SuperStore or Golf Galaxy, Honma is not top of mind. Chances are it’s not the driver you’re going to take into the bay and it’s not the driver the sales associate is going to recommend.”

To combat that, Honma is using a variety of channels to create what it calls “premium customer experiences” in North America. For example, the Roger Dunn store in Santa Ana, Calif., features a full Honma store-within-a-store. It’s a fitting gallery showing off everything from the new TR-20 series to a $75,000 fully blinged-out set of Beres irons. Honma House opened up in Carlsbad last fall. The facility doubles as the North American business headquarters as well as the custom-build center, a full retail outlet and fitting studio.

There are also Honma Experience fitting centers at the Reunion Golf Resort in Orlando, the Ko Olina Golf Club in Hawaii and the Golf Performance Project in Victoria, British Columbia.

“These are our efforts to bring an elevated, personalized, one-on-one Honma experience to the golfer in North America,” says Holder. “We want to bring that premium, almost concierge-type service to golfers as best we can without opening our own stores all over the U.S.”

This past January, Honma launched the linchpin of its go-to-market strategy: a fully stocked fleet of mobile fitting vans.

Goin’ Mobile

“Our main distribution strategy is creating a partnership with golf professionals,” says Kawaja. “In a very bespoke way, we want to bring a one-on-one fitting experience to consumers. We want to get the right equipment in their hands and establish a relationship directly with the golfer.”

Honma’s mobile fitting van program started in January in nine key markets around the country. Each van is stocked to the gills and manned by a Honma territory manager, who’s also an experienced fitter. COVID-19 has since grounded the fleet but the idea is anyone can reach out to Honma to schedule a session. The fitter will drive the van to a club near you.

If you’re thinking “just another Demo Day,” don’t. It’s a full-fledged, Trackman-based outdoor fitting, one-on-one with Honma.

“In a perfect world, the fitter will have two or three scheduled appointments with members,” says Kawaja. “He’ll take them through a great fitting experience and we’ll custom build and ship whatever they buy. We know the golf pro has no appetite for bringing in equipment, especially equipment that’s not in the top four, so we look after him by way of a referral commission.”

MyGolfSpy Community Forum member Paul Kielwasser went through the process in Louisiana in January. He wound up getting fitted into a TR-20 driver.

“I saw a post on Instagram and sent a private message about maybe getting a fitting,” says Kielwasser. “They got right back to me and eventually set me up with Robbe Trout. He met me one-on-one.”

He had previously been fitted into an Epic Flash Sub Zero but found more ball speed and carry and less dispersion with the TR-20 and says those results have carried over to the course. The Ventus Black wound up as the shaft of choice, with a hefty up-charge. He says the fitter never pressured or pushed him into spending the extra dough.

“Robbe let me re-try some stock shafts just to be sure, and he was more than willing to fit me into what I wanted,” says Kielwasser. “He wasn’t trying to sell me on it and kept asking, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I made the choice.”

Honma plans to add five more territories when the van program resumes. The goal is to have 14 vans on the road by the middle of June.

“We think there’s a market for maybe 25 to 30 of these mobile territories,” says Kawaja. “We’re focusing on creating a very unique experience for the golfer and creating a great fit. We want to make sure they’re in the right equipment and become lifelong Honma fans.”

Is There a Phase 4?

Honma’s history goes back to 1959. Over the years it earned a reputation for top-shelf persimmon woods and premier forgings. Honma, along with the rest of the Japanese golf industry, fell on hard times in the mid-’90s. It filed for bankruptcy in 2005. Liu, a Chinese businessman, bought Honma out of bankruptcy four years later and almost immediately started turning things around.

The company went public in 2016. After a couple of hiccups, Honma has hit a financial stride, turning a $38-million profit on $260 million in sales. Any company in any industry would kill for a margin percentage like that. Oddly, while Japanese craftsmanship has serious trade value, Honma’s retail irons aren’t forged there.

“There are still some forging houses in Japan,” says Kawaja. “The product we make for Tour is done in Japan and all our designs are done in Japan. Our irons are crafted, designed and engineered in Sakata but the actual production is done outside of Japan.”

Honma says the Tour is an important part of its efforts but you can’t talk about the Tour without talking about Justin Rose. Did Rose dump Honma because he simply didn’t like the gear? That’s the easy narrative but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny since Rose was intimately involved in the design and testing.

Hey, sometimes golfers fire OEMs and sometimes OEMs fire golfers. Sometimes it’s the equipment and sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes it’s a mutual parting of the ways due to irreconcilable differences. In this case, by mutual agreement, no one is talking.

Honma does say several non-contract players are using its equipment. And several players you’ve heard of, including a recent major winner, are doing full-on testing.

What Can Honma Be?

That’s a good question. A better one might be: Is there room for Honma in North America?

It’s the reality small brands face every day: if you rely solely on traditional retail, you’re going to stay small. The cards – and the status quo – are stacked against you. The edict from above, however, is clear: Grow. Quickly.

“If you look at Japanese companies, Mizuno is the most commercially successful,” says Kawaja. “They’re the king of irons. That’s what we want to be. I have a lot of respect for Mizuno – they do things consistently well.”

Kawaja is aiming higher than Mizuno, though. He firmly believes Honma can reach $80 to $100 million in North America.

“That’s clearly below the Big 4,” he says. “But globally, we’re a $260-million golf equipment company. That’s bigger than Cobra. Not many people know that but that’s a fact.”

Honma’s three-phase game plan is undeniably different and undeniably bold. Both traits are shared by Chairman Liu who, according to a report in the Japan Times, has created a culture of ‘don’t be afraid to make a mistake – take a chance.’

“Our game plan differentiates us,” says Kawaja. “Golfers are eternally optimistic. They’re always looking for the new thing that can help their game. We’ll create a different feel to our brand and create a different relationship with our consumer than the big guys are currently doing.”

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