The recent naming of John K. Solheim as president of PING Golf Japan is seen in some quarters as the next logical step in his ascension to leadership of the entire company, but don’t go planning any coronations just yet.
The grandson of company founder Karsten Solheim and son of current chairman John A Solheim says he’ll have too much on his plate to consider the move to Japan as a temporary assignment.
For one thing, his wife Brooke and children Peyton, Brighton, Sutherlund and Valor are also off to Tokyo and moving the entire family across the ocean is a big undertaking.
“My family is excited to go over there and I don’t think we just want to go over there for a year. We want to spend some time over there and leave a good company set up there in Japan and also take advantage of the opportunity,” he said.
“The school my kids are going to get to go to and just absorbing the culture is going to be a great experience for everybody,” said Solheim, who says he’s spent most of his life in the Phoenix area, where Ping’s headquarters are located.
“So, I kind of see it as, `You know what? Here’s a chance to go have a big adventure, so why make it short,’” he said.
Learning the culture and language are going to be immediate challenges for Solheim as he seeks to increase market share for a company that first established a facility in Japan in 2004. Before that, Ping business in Japan was handled through a network of independent distributors.
Ping Golf Japan employs 75 people to service the needs of Japan and other Asian countries including South Korea and Solheim will lead all aspects of the business including operations, sales and marketing as the company seeks to increase its market share.
“For me, the big challenge we have right now is our market share’s nowhere near over there what we have in the U.S., or what we have in Europe, or what we have in Canada, so to me, the big challenge is just try to get, we call it our fair share of the business over there,” he said.
It won’t be an easy task however with a culture and business environment that is totally different than what Solheim is used to in North America.
“I have a lot of confidence in our product, so I don’t think there’s a big gap there, although they do have their own set of needs. I think we can meet that,” he said.
“Different marketing techniques are used over there. There are a lot more brands,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll get exactly the same market share over there as we have in the U.S.
“In the U.S., there are five brands or whatever that all have pretty big market shares where over in Japan, there are a lot of brands and just in the retail environment, they carry a lot more different lines. There are a lot of Japanese lines and then all the U.S. brands are there, as well,” said Solheim.
As Ping’s vice president of engineering since 2001, Solheim was focused mostly on product, but now he will need to add new dimensions such as marketing to his job description. The second part of that challenge is identifying what works in a competitive and new market.
“I’ve been around it, working with (vice president of sales and marketing) Pat Loftus, (president) Doug Hawken and my dad. I wouldn’t say I’m totally green at it, but yeah, definitely there’s a learning curve for me,” he said.
“I haven’t been around it that much in the Japanese market at all, but I guess no one really has except for our people over in Japan,” he added.
Therefore, the people around him as he settles into his Japanese assignment will play important roles, not only in getting Solheim used to the culture and language, but also introducing him to the Asian market.
“For me, in engineering, I’ve always said it’s all about the people and getting the people the right tools and then, providing a process to use those tools,” he said.
The combination of moving his family to Tokyo and the challenge ahead from a company perspective means that Solheim’s assignment isn’t expected to be temporary one. He figures at least three years, perhaps more.
“I’m kind of looking at it and thinking three years from the kids’ standpoint is a pretty good number to when the kids will be going into high school, so to me, it’s like three-and-a-half years or eight years,” he joked.
“I definitely see it as a development type thing to learn more about the overall business, giving me a chance to run the manufacturing side of things, the sales side of things, the marketing side of things, so yeah, I see it as a development thing,” added Solheim.
“Going into it, I’m not looking at it as a small step just to check the box off. To me, it’s a pretty big task, so I guess I’m seeing it as more than just a step. This is, to me, a much bigger endeavor than just to call it a training step,” he said.
“If anything, this gets me out of my dad’s hair for a little bit. I don’t expect overnight to go and fix everything in Japan and have these huge market numbers.”
That will remain his focus for however long it takes, giving him little time to think about moving into the chairman’s role back in Phoenix.