To say that Doug Hawken, who will retire as president and chief operating officer at PING at the end of January, got in on the ground floor of the company 45 years ago would be an understatement.
You can read more about his decision to retire here.
Hawken has performed a lot of jobs at PING’s headquarters in Phoenix, introduced several innovations and became a familiar face in Canada as he progressed through the company.
I had a chance to fire a few questions to Hawken in which he discussed not only the past, but also the future of the company and the golf equipment business.
You started at PING in 1971, when Allan Solheim noted that you have potential. What was that job and what were your main duties?
Back then my job description was somewhat vague, so I performed a variety of tasks for the plant manager, including digging trenches for cement foundations, hauling trash to the dump and cleaning up after the guard dogs. It was instrumental in helping me realize the importance of every job within the company. I look back on it 45 years later and I’m grateful for some of those early tasks as they helped form my work ethic and gave me great perspective and appreciation for all our employees.
You eventually became production manager and played a key role in PING becoming the first American equipment company to achieve ISO certification. Tell us about that and what it meant to the company?
Continuous improvement and quality have been part of PING’s foundation since Karsten (Solheim) started the company. It’s engrained in PING’s culture, so the opportunity to become ISO certified made sense because it was really just formalizing what we were already doing. It’s a standard in the aerospace and automotive industries which we’ve always looked to for inspiration on how to best manage our business. It touches every discipline in our company, from engineering to manufacturing, and speaks to our commitment of providing our customers the highest levels of innovation, quality and service.
Under your direction, PING began an account visitation program that has brought thousands of club fitters to your plant in Phoenix since 1994. Obviously, your relationship with key accounts and education in product development and custom-fitting is a company priority through this program.
At the time, we felt we had lost touch with some of our customers and what made us different and successful. We needed to evolve our approach to the business and better communicate our story to our customers and golfers in general. We felt the best way to do that was to create PING disciples in the field through education and hands-on training. The program helped re-build our reputation as leaders in technology and custom fitting, while further strengthening our customer relationships. We’re still very much focused on that strategy today as consumers have become even more selective in the process of buying equipment. Custom fitting is now an expectation for most golfers.
Do you think you would have lasted 45 years had PING been a public company instead of the family-run organization that it is under the Solheims?
Both approaches to business have their advantages and disadvantages. In PING’s case, keeping it family-run has proven the best solution as it allows us to take a long-term view of the business where we can do what is best for our employees and customers. It starts with the mindset of the leadership team. We’re in the business of creating and sustaining meaningful jobs for our employees and their families. We accomplish that by designing and manufacturing the best golf equipment in the world. It’s an innovative approach that I’m passionate about and one I’ll endorse over any other. That business model would be more difficult to execute if we were a public company.
You went through the transition between Karsten and John Solheim. What were the differences in style and the similarities?
I’ve been very fortunate to work very closely with Karsten and John Solheim, who empowered me to become more visible throughout the company and within the industry. Their styles were very different, but both were very hands-on in their approaches and shared the same goals of doing what’s best in the long term for the company. Karsten almost always made the decisions based on his assessment of the situation, without the input of too many others. It was affectionately known as “Karsten’s Way.” John takes a more collaborative approach to the decision-making process, usually gathering multiple viewpoints and relying on experts in their disciplines to help guide him to a decision. Both their management styles were right for PING during their respective eras as the industry evolved to its current state.
There’s a lot of change going on with other golf equipment manufacturers these days, causing some to paint a gloomy picture for the golf industry. What’s your take?
The industry has changed a lot in recent years causing some to question its long-term health, but we take a different view in that we see great opportunity for a company like PING regardless of the size of the industry. We all know that change is inevitable and a right-sizing of the golf business landscape is currently underway. We see that as healthy. We know there will always be a need for high quality, innovative golf equipment. We’ll continue our focus on that approach.
As you leave the industry, at least on a full-time basis, what is the main challenge facing golf club manufacturers?
The main challenge is the one we’ve always embraced and enjoyed. How do we continue to improve the performance of golf equipment? It sounds simple, but it’s what Karsten always focused on. If we can design and manufacture better equipment on a regular basis, everything else takes care of itself. Navigating the uncertainty of the global economy and the trends of participation in the game obviously present challenges, but if we don’t achieve the primary goal of engineering high-performance equipment, those factors outside of our control would be the least of our concerns.
How is PING prepared for the future?
In our minds, the future is the next day. We come in every morning thinking about improvements for every aspect of our business to support our goal of operational excellence. That’s always served us well. Of course, we plan for the future from a product, business operations and management perspective. In that regard, we’re well prepared for the future as the third generation of the Solheim family are transitioning into larger roles in executive management. We’re continually evaluating our processes and procedures to stay on top of the latest technologies and trends, whether it be manufacturing or marketing. From the product development side, we’re excited about what our innovation teams are researching and developing for the years to come.
You have spent a lot of time in Canada and you have made many friends including customers and media, what would your message be to the Canadian market?
I’ve always enjoyed my interactions during my numerous visits to Canada. The country is one of the most avid and important golf markets in the world. Its tradition in the game is among the finest, with a fascinating and influential history. We’ve enjoyed tremendous loyalty for a very long time with Canadian golfers and we’re grateful for it. They understand the value of custom fitting and our customers have consistently provided a high level of service for our brand. The media is well-informed and have helped us get our story into the minds of the Canadian golfer.
PING Canada has supported golf at so many levels, but Brooke Henderson was someone you and John Solheim did not hesitate to support. She is now a global star, are you surprised at all with Brooke’s accomplishments?
We’re not surprised at all by Brooke’s tremendous success. She’s been associated with PING since her junior golf days and her amateur record was clear evidence of her talent. More importantly was the character she demonstrated in the midst of all that success and continues to show today. We’re very selective in who we choose to align our brand with at the professional levels. Brooke fits perfectly into our culture.
I know you plan to spend a lot of time with family and who can blame you, but will you ever be able to make a full transition into retirement?
I plan to stay very involved on PING’s board for many years to come. I’ve had a great career with PING and I’m very thankful to the entire Solheim family for the opportunity. I’m proud to be associated with a company that puts the well-being of its employees and their families above all else. I’ll miss the daily interaction and the challenges that come with leadership, but mostly I’ll miss the friendships I’ve enjoyed with the thousands of employees over the years.