Today begins a 3 part series on Wilson Golf from MyGolfSpy's Forum Director, John Barba.

In Part I John examines the mistakes and missteps that led to the decline of the Wilson Golf brand. In Part II John will look at what Wilson is doing on the R&D side as well as the company's overall equipment strategy. Finally, in Part III, John will look at the perception golfers have of Wilson, and how the company plans to improve it.

Written By: John Barba

Imagine if you will a golf manufacturer starting 2007 with less than nothing. Over the course of 7 years, sales for that company reach the mid-$120 million mark and the company finally starts turning a profit.

Oh, and along the way their equipment is used to win 3 majors and cop 2nd place in a fourth.  Did I mention their tour staff has 3 wins worldwide this year?

Not bad for a 7-year old company, wouldn’t you say?

I bet you’d think reaching that level of accomplishment in only 7 years is borderline amazing. You’d probably think these guys must be making pretty good stuff, and you might even say, “bully for the little guy showing those big OEM’s a thing or two!”

What if this company follows 2-year product release cycles, doesn’t come out with a new driver every six months, doesn’t promise you 17 more yards every year and doesn’t go over-the-top-crazy signing Tour staff to big money deals. They preach fiscal responsibility and provide you, the consumer, with gear priced well below TaylorMade, Callaway and the gang?

And what if I told you this little company had some of the better performing drivers and fairway woods in the MGS Most Wanted reviews in both 2013 and 2014?  And one of the best performing irons MGS has ever reviewed?

Wouldn’t you be the tiniest bit intrigued?

I bet you would.

But more than anything, I’m guessing you really want to know who this Cinderella-story-outta-nowhere company is.

It’s Wilson.

Yep, Wilson.

“Whoa, hold on cowboy.  Wilson? They’re old people’s club. They’re the – yeccchhh – boxed-set-Wal-Mart company.  That can’t be right.”

It’s Wilson.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

Re-Booting Wilson Golf

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Okay, so maybe that “starting in 2007” line may have thrown you, but there’s a very compelling argument to be made that 2007 was the year that separates the Tale of Two Wilson’s.  The first Tale serves as a Harvard Business School-level case study on how to drive a legendary global brand into the ground and damn near kill it.  The second Tale can’t really be called a rebirth or resurrection (not yet, anyway), but it can be called a re-boot.  Wilson 2.0, if you will.

Today we’ll look at just what did happen to Wilson and how, through a series of ownership changes, an evolving golf landscape and, as today’s Wilson leadership freely admits, poor management and really, really bad decisions steered this once-proud market leader to the edge of doom and worse: irrelevance.

A bit later we’ll discuss what’s happened since the 2007 re-boot, how Wilson is trying to get back in the game and assess whether they’re succeeding.  And lastly we’ll look at Wilson’s equipment, their philosophy and what their brand is trying to be.

So, just what the hell did happen to Wilson Golf?

To understand, we need some background.

We all know the old Wilson: iconic forged irons; Snead, Palmer, Stewart, Caspar, Irwin, et al; more majors than any other brand. And we all know that Wilson seemingly fell of a cliff somewhere along the way and slipped into virtual irrelevancy.

wilson-snead-blue-ridge-1966

“With any 100-year old brand there are ebbs and flows that happen,” said Wilson Golf General Manager Tim Clarke, in an interview earlier this month in Arizona.

Now there’s an understatement.

So when did the ebbing start for Wilson Golf?  The answer can be found in 5 watershed years: 1970, 1985, 1993, 1997 and 2006, and it starts with the taste of a new generation…

The Boxed Sets of the Pepsi Era

PepsiCo bought Wilson in 1970, and its stewardship of the brand ran through 1985. During that time the seeds were planted that would ultimately send Wilson Golf tumbling from the top of the mountain to beneath the bottom of the heap.

Back then Wilson was the name in golf: world-class irons and the tour’s best players on staff.  But in the 70s PepsiCo management started taking over various Wilson business units, including golf.

“Everybody wants to make their mark,” said Clarke. “A new person comes in and he’s gonna tell you how it’s gonna be done, because the way you’ve been doing it is wrong.”

The new Pepsi people started doing what Pepsi did best – package stuff and sell large quantities of it - hence the birth of Wilson’s “boxed sets.”

Boxed sets became high dollar volume, low margin, low service SKUs sold through department stores.  Wilson sold a ton of them over the decades, creating cash flow. But the damage to the brand, the notion that Wilson was a “department store brand,” had begun.

wilson-ultra-walmart

In 1985, PepsiCo sold Wilson to a highly leveraged private equity group, and 4 years later the equity group sold out to Amer Sports, a Finnish holding company (which at the time also owned MacGregor, buying controlling interest from Jack Nicklaus in 1986). Amer still owns Wilson today.

“During that period of time there was a clump of three ownership changes in a period of 4 years,” said Clarke. “It affects your business and it affects what you stand for.”

But as I learned during my visit with Wilson management, bad business decisions didn’t end with new ownership.

“If you think back, in 1993 Wilson was on top of the mountain in irons,” said Clarke. “We had multiple tour players but we were losing market share even though we made great stuff.  We were the forging darling back then. We couldn’t make any money, but we were number one!  The perception was we were great. The reality was fiscally we were a disaster.”

Wilson’s long run at the top was about to take a sharp right turn. They were still selling tons of irons, but Callaway was making Big Bertha-sized waves. The King Cobra oversized irons came out, and TaylorMade was prepping its Bubble Burner shaft. The new girls in town were starting to turn heads.

And Wilson Golf was swimming in red ink.

Compounding Mistakes

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So what do businesses do when they start losing both money and market share? They tend to make shortsighted decisions that haunt them for decades.  Wilson started trimming its Tour staff and, much to the chagrin of Pro Shops (who still sold most of the balls and equipment back then. Ask your Dad), jumped in bed with Wal-Mart.  At that time Wilson’s Ultra was one of the best selling balls in golf, giving Titleist a run for its money. In a quest to meet sales goals and secure end-of-year cash bonuses, management cut a huge deal with Wal-Mart for the Ultra.  Wal-Mart could sell the balls for roughly a dollar more than what the Pros could buy them for.

Reaction from the pros was about what you'd expect.

Now let’s fast forward to 1997. Wilson’s sales are still strong at a round $350 million but, according to Clarke, the division is still losing money by the barrel. MacGregor, doing even worse, is dumped by Amer Sports.

In ’97 Tiger makes history at the Masters with a hot new Cobra driver and later bags Titleist irons.  Adidas buys Taylormade, and TM staffer Ernie Els wins the US Open. Ping and Callaway are still flexing, and what does Wilson come out with?

Fat Shaft.

fat-shaft-iron

“Fat Shaft worked – there’s no doubt about it,” said Clarke. “The consumer didn’t vote for it as well as we hoped because it was polarizing. Some people would just set that thing down and they were used to something tapered and were like, ‘uh-uh, I’m not gonna play it.’

“Even though I could put you on a Trackman and I can show you data to prove you’re an idiot for not playing it, people just wouldn’t listen.  When I took over we did move out of Fat Shaft, because customization and fitting were becoming so important.  You couldn’t really customize and fit Fat Shaft.” - Tim Clarke, General Manager - Wilson Golf

It was also around this time Wilson Golf started riding the General Manager merry-go-round: 6 new GM’s in a period of 10 years, with each trying to fix what the guy before him messed up.

“That’s a lot of change,” said Clarke. “I saw us go here, I saw us go here…I’ve seen a lot of it. We just kept changing direction…whether it’s ownership changes or general manager changes, it affects your business and it affects what you stand for.

“Golf consumers are very educated. The elite followers are exceptionally knowledgeable, so you gotta stand for something.”

By the early 2000’s Wilson started standing for Game Improvement irons, with premium irons taking a back seat. Wilson continued to cut back on Tour staff and TV advertising, market share kept dwindling and the losses kept mounting.  The cash flow from the low-margin, high-volume boxed-set sales, one would think, was critical. Revolving-door management teams kept making the types of decisions that downward-spiraling businesses tend to make – bad ones.  The sales force was downsized, the marketing budget was slashed and R&D was at a standstill.

“And when you do that,” said Clarke, “sales disappear and things go south.”

Hitting Rock Bottom

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2006 may have been rock bottom for Wilson Golf. From ’97 to ’06 sales nosedived nearly 55%, to roughly $153 million and the losses kept mounting, to the tune of around $15 million per year.  Was there a concern that Wilson would go the way of MacGregor?

“Oh yeah, for sure,” said Clarke.  “There are lots of sleepless nights when you’re in a business unit that’s losing millions of dollars. When I first got the position (Clarke was named Wilson Golf GM in late ’06) people would say ‘you need Amer Sport to investment-spend in you!’ And I’m like, they are! They’re covering our $15 million in losses. What do you want me to do, tell them to give me another 15?”

Wilson didn’t fall down this rabbit hole overnight.  The downward tumble started gradually, but soon turned into a 22-year long landslide and rumors started swirling that Wilson Golf could be sold off.  By Clarke’s estimate, Wilson’s market share in irons bottomed out at roughly 0.6% by 2007.

Read that again.  The brand that had, for decades, been the standard in golf and had won more majors than any other brand, was now only selling roughly 1 out of every 200 golf clubs sold in the U.S.

At that time, golf industry analyst Casey Alexander wrote, “The public perception is that Wilson no longer makes premium golf clubs.  If that perception goes on for two or three season, it will be a daunting task for management to turn the Wilson ship around.”

Is Wilson up to that daunting task, or is the brand too far gone?

“If you think about how long it took us to get the perception of 'poor',’’ said Clarke, “it’s going to take us probably just as long, if not longer, to get us back into the world class. We didn’t get there overnight, we’re not getting out overnight.”

Stable Management

tim-clarke

Clarke has been the head man at Wilson Golf for over 7 years now – a relative eternity compared to the “Whack-A-Mole” management that preceded him.  Since 2006 Wilson Golf’s overall sales have dropped further, down 20% from $153 million to what Clarke estimates to be in the mid-$120 million range this year.

The difference is the color of the ink at the bottom of the ledger.  Black has replaced red.

“To deliver a profit this year in a golf market where we see TaylorMade down 40%? We’re up in the US. We’ve had double-digit growth the last three years in the US that’s been driven by our pro line equipment. And this year we’re up again, and we’re probably one of the few companies that can say that.” - Tim Clarke, General Manager - Wilson Golf

Double-digit growth may sound impressive, but when you’re starting from a 0.6% market share that kind of growth still represents baby steps.  In the coming days we’ll look how Wilson is trying to keep the baby stepping while changing its perception; how Wilson spends its money and how important a little “luck of the Irish” was in re-booting Wilson 2.0.

In Case You Missed It

Part II - Wilson 2.0 - Rebuilding the Wilson Staff Brand
Part III - So What Now, Wilson?