But the story of Lamkin Grips is a little different, a little more personal. Sure, there are some similarities to both Bettinardi and PING but when you talk about a 97-year-old family business that spans three generations, as third-generation CEO Bob Lamkin says, “you could definitely write a book about us.”
Navigating the Family Business
If you’ve never been a family member in a family business, it’s hard to grasp the dynamics at play. It can either be the best of all possible situations or the worst of all possible situations. And sometimes it’s both.
“I applaud primarily the second generation,” Bob Lamkin tells MyGolfSpy. “Because to get to that third generation, that’s the amazing part. What goes on from generation to generation, between the family members involved and the different dynamics, it’s just amazing.”
If you know your golf equipment, you know Lamkin. While not as dominant as Golf Pride, it’s a solid No. 2 in the golf grip market with a strong presence with OEMs and retail. Lamkin was the very first company to manufacture golf grips in the U.S. Its long history starts in Chicago, travels southwest to San Diego and across the border into Tijuana. It also crosses the Pacific to Asia and not for the reasons you might expect.
And, like the PING story, it starts in a garage.
Lamkin Grips: The Chicago Stockyards
“My grandfather started Lamkin in 1925,” says Lamkin. “He was such a nice man and he worked for a company called Chicago Rawhide.”
Chicago Rawhide was founded in 1878 to take advantage of the raw leather from Chicago’s stockyards. The company tanned and treated that leather for industrial belts and seals. By the ‘20s, the company was making various leather products for the growing automotive industry when it was approached by another Chicago manufacturer.
“Wilson Sporting Goods came to Chicago Rawhide and asked if they could help develop a leather wrap on a golf club,” says Lamkin. “My grandfather, a golfer, was in on the meeting. The company told Wilson no, but Papa raised his hand and said, ‘Let me give this a shot.’”
In 1925, Elver Lamkin became the first leather grip manufacturer in the U.S., making wraps in his garage on Chicago’s South Side. “It all started as an experimental project for Wilson Sporting Goods,” says Bob.
Lamkin remained committed to the leather grips into the ‘50s and ’60s. However, a competitor that would eventually become Golf Pride forced Lamkin’s hand. Reluctantly.
“The Fawick Rubber Company out of Akron came into the category with a slip-on rubber grip,” says Lamkin. “And that changed the whole dynamic of the leather grip market.”
By then, Elver’s son Robert was working in the business but the transition from first to second generation would be more than a little bumpy.
“Your Father Lost His Job Today”
The rubber grip revolution was on but Elver was having no part of that particular bandwagon.
“Papa, God bless his soul, told my father no one would play anything but a leather grip,” says Bob. “My father kept going to his father and saying, ‘Dad, we have to start making rubber grips, Dad.’ And my grandfather kept saying, ‘No, it’s just a fad. No one’s going to play that stuff.’”
So what does Robert Lamkin do when his dad tells him no? He does what any son would do when his dad tells him no. He does it anyway. And he does it in his garage.
“Dad bought two injection molding machines and secretly started making rubber grips.”
Gramps, as you might expect, wasn’t pleased. At all.
“I was like six or seven years old when I came home and my mom says to me, ‘Well, your father lost his job today,’” remembers Bob. “She said we were really going to have to buckle down. We had six kids in our family.”
The firing didn’t take. Two days later, Robert Lamkin returned to work and ironed things out with his old man. By 1963, Lamkin fully joined the rubber grip revolution and the second generation took over.
“We became the Lamkin Leather and Rubber Company,” says Bob. “We supplied leather grips for Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and others. But the industry was clearly moving to the more economical—and much easier to apply—rubber grip.”
Lamkin Grips Leaves Chicago
Fast forward to the 1980s. Lamkin was facing another challenge—cheap, imported Asian grips. At the time, Lamkin enjoyed a solid business with OEM customers who dual-sourced grips from both Lamkin and Golf Pride. It wasn’t thinking about establishing itself as a consumer brand.
The pricing pressure, however, was taking its toll and Robert Lamkin had no choice but to move out of Chicago, its home for 63 years. The choice was either El Paso, Tex., or Tijuana, Mexico.
“At this time, the kids were still pretty young,” says Bob. “My mom looked at El Paso and then looked at San Diego and told Dad, ‘If I’m moving anywhere, I’m moving to San Diego.’”
The plan was to set up manufacturing in Tijuana and have the company headquarters in San Diego.
“Dad thought he could get that factory up in three months. It took 14 months,” Bob remembers. “He lost 50 percent of his sales. Things were tough.”
At this time, Bob had been working on a career in law enforcement but decided it was time to join his father and three brothers in the grip business.
“My brother Jack was in charge of manufacturing and my brother Mike was in tooling and engineering,” Bob says. “My brother Tim and I were in operations. I was the last sibling to get involved. My brothers never worked outside of the business.”
By 1993, Bob was put in charge of sales. Two years later, Lamkin released the Crossline, the most popular grip in its history. And two years after that, the company formalized its long-standing relationship with Arnold Palmer.
There was, however, a sea change taking over the golf industry. And this change forced Lamkin to once again look west.
All the way to the Far East.
Expanding to Asia
The ’90s may have been the most exciting era ever for golf equipment. New technology created new ways to hit the bejeezus out of the ball and OEMs could bring that new technology to golfers faster and more profitably than ever.
OEMs discovered China. And their move across the Pacific threw a monkey wrench at Lamkin—both the company and the family.
“Our key customers—TaylorMade, Callaway, the others—moved to China,” says Bob. “They said, ‘Look, we’re assembling over here. We’re going to use a local supply chain. If you’re not involved, we can’t buy from you.’”
Logistically and financially, it made zero sense to make grips in Mexico and ship them to China, only to be shipped back to North America as part of a finished golf club. So, rather than lose all that OEM business, Lamkin had no choice but to set up operations in China.
Not that everyone saw it that way.
“My first trip to mainland China was in 1994,” says Bob. “When I came home, I gave my dad an 18-page typewritten report. I think he looked at the last two paragraphs.”
The elder Lamkin wanted no part of China. Finally, in the late ’90s, Bob persuaded his dad to take a closer look. He showed his father an assembly operation and explained the vision.
“It was a defining moment for this company and the third generation,” he says. “When we got back to the hotel in Hong Kong, we met at the bar. Dad had been there a while already and he looked at me and said, ‘This is your call.’
“At this time, he was in his late 60s and he said, ‘You’ve got a handle on this and I’m going to trust you to make the right decision.’”
Generation Three Takes Over
“I think with my dad, the hardest thing he had to do was choose one of the boys to run the business,” admits Bob. “I know he struggled with it for a long time.”
In 2000, Robert did make the decision and turned over the reins to Bob, the last Lamkin brother to join the company and the only one who had ever worked outside of the company.
“Like my father, I had two of my brothers pass away during the course of their careers,” says Bob. “Another one decided to move on to other things.”
So it was amidst a bit of family turmoil and the challenge of starting operations in China while still keeping the Mexican plant running that Bob took over the family business.
“I was very cognizant of what the repercussions would be if the China move failed,” admits Bob. “It not only affects your parents but it also affects your siblings and their families. And the people that work for you and their families. I had no experience doing this but I had some help along the way. And I had a very benevolent banker who believed in Lamkin.”
Reflecting on the past 22 years, Bob recognizes the transition was hard on the family.
“It’s one thing to take direction from your dad; it’s another thing to take direction from your brother,” he says. “And I’ll tell you, when I look back on some of the decisions that were made, I definitely would have handled them differently.”
Robert Lamkin passed away this past February at the age of 94.
“Dad came into the office every day until he was 88,” remembers Bob. “He’d come up the stairs with his coffee and his paper. We had become so much a part of each other’s lives and it was all blurred between family dynamics and business.”
And even though Arnie’s arrangement with Lamkin had only been official since the late ’90s, his relationship with the company goes back to 1960. And it’s another relationship that Bob cherishes.
“Between my father and Mr. Palmer, it was like living a dream,” he says. “What I was able to take away in terms of running your business, your character as a person, how to treat people … to be mentored by two people you love and respect was a really great part of my career and my life.”
And not to be forgotten is Bob’s mother, Joan. The 93-year-old family matriarch is every bit a part of the Lamkin story as her husband and son.
“We had six in our family and all of us were 18 months apart,” says Bob. “My mother was such the foundation of this family. She’s a very tough Norwegian woman. Mom didn’t say much but when she did talk, you listened.”
The Future of Lamkin Grips
Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be a fourth Lamkin generation waiting in the wings. So at some point, Bob will have to come to grips with being the last Lamkin standing.
“My wife and I have a blended family of six children and four grandchildren,” he says. “And none of them have expressed an interest in the company. So there will be a time when a decision has to be made about what happens.”
That time, however, doesn’t appear to be soon. Even though he’s in his early sixties, Bob remains an energetic force of nature with no plans to retire. He’s simply having too much fun.
“We’re creating,” he says. “We have a whole new putter grip technology and a swinging grip technology that’s coming up. It’s really fun working with the engineering group and the chemistry group to create products we think will help golfers enjoy the game more.
“I’m really proud of our three generations of family, from my grandfather and my dad and my brothers, and really everyone who has touched this business over 97 years. And, of course, a big shout-out to my mom. It’s important to me that they’re all recognized. It’s really been a collaborative effort over 97 years.”
And, as anyone who owns a 98-year-old family business will tell you: the first 97 are the hard ones.
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