A 10-and-a-half year run in the golf industry is enough to earn a guy the “veteran” label, but may not seem so significant to more seasoned types who have been around for two or three decades.
Yet, Chris Walling has packed a lot into his 10-plus years, first with Spalding and Top-Flite and since 2004, as director of marketing for Callaway Golf Canada.
Actually, Walling has been around longer than a decade if you include his time picking golf balls and working in the shop at Crestwood Golf Club in Ontario and serving in golf retail for Dynamic Golf.
He would soon return to the golf industry after initially planning to become a chiropractor before steering back into sports marketing and business at Toronto’s York University and eventually winding up as a product manager for Top-Flite and Etonic brands at Spalding in November, 1998.
“It was my first significant job right out of university,” said Walling, 35, who has left his position at Callaway to strike out on his own to establish an advertising and marketing services agency that, for now, is being called Muriel Marketing Services.
“For everything that the golf business has done for me and been for me and for how much I love it, I’ve always wanted to do something fairly entrepreneurial in life,” said Walling.
“I never want to consider myself completely away from the business because it would really crush me to say that because I’ve spent so much time,” he said, fondly recalling mentors and world travel that were part of being in the industry, not to mention working with people such as Gary Player, Phil Mickelson and David Leadbetter.
Nothing is for sure, but don’t be surprised if Walling re-emerges in the industry, representing some golf product, for he is well-respected even among rivals of Callaway for both his marketing skills and a direct but likeable personality.
A business conversation with Walling was not all about marketing, for he had a good handle on the state of the industry and the economy through his own research and certainly, the experiences of a career that saw him transition from staggering Spalding to the Top-Flite Golf Company and eventually to Callaway, which acquired Top-Flite in 2003.
Walling recalls the uneasiness of being at the 2004 PGA Merchandise Show as the impact of the convergence hit home.
“That was a big, big week for us because there was a lot of uncertainty to the future,” said Walling. “What was going to happen? Nobody knew (each other’s) personalities. It was an interesting time.”
Of course, convergence was increasingly becoming the norm in the golf industry and other companies had been through the same thing. In Callaway’s case, it was a matter of two companies with different cultures coming together and uncertainty for at least a while, where the Canadian headquarters would be situated.
While Top-Flite was based in Toronto, Callaway was in Victoria and it was finally decided to take the eastern location. To go along with that uncertainty, there were the typical questions about which employees would remain, nothing new in such transactions.
It was tough, but Walling says it taught him some valuable lessons.
“From a business standpoint and from a career resume standpoint, I’m glad I went through it the one time because some of the lessons that you learn from just a pure business integration standpoint are pretty invaluable,” said Walling.
“There are all the business aspects in terms of financially how does that work, how does that work from a sales and distribution model, how does that work from setting up a marketing organization?
“To bring all of that together from to completely different perspectives and turn that into the organization that we’ve become today, there was a lot of work involved. It doesn’t ever just naturally harmonize. There’s work and time and effort that you have to put into that from a relationship standpoint.”
It all worked out for Walling, who calls Callaway Golf Canada managing director Scott Reid, who came from Victoria, “a friend for life.”
As it was during the transition, Walling is still taking lessons from his experiences.
“This is my first real significant recession that we’ve had to go through and just the planning behind that , watching the reaction from others, watching how the media handles that, watching how customers react to that, watching how consumers react to that.
“Considering that we’re an industry that relies on disposable income – and the golf season’s really just getting going – I don’t know if we’ve all felt the pinch as hard as maybe we though we were going to, especially with everything that’s coming out of the U.S. from the media side,” he said.
Walling hasn’t allowed the shaky economy to affect Callaway’s Free Lessons Program, a highlight so far in Walling’s career.
After kicking off last year in Toronto, where teaching guru David Leadbetter created a huge media buzz with his appearance at a downtown shopping centre, Leadbetter appeared in Vancouver earlier this year.
The Free Lessons Program that Leadbetter endorses includes a half hour lesson with a Canadian PGA professional along with equipment purchases. It’s also been picked up by other Callaway territories overseas and the American operation is keeping a close eye on its success.
“That was classic `Golf Industry Meets Marketing Industry 101,’ where we conducted research, we found a consumer insight, we partnered with the CPGA as a core partner to bring the program to life and to market and worked hard with the trade to make sure we got them behind it.
“Then, we created a full advertising campaign around it where we used Leadbetter and brought his persona to life as the therapist or the doctor to the consumer. From a measurement point of view, it was extremely successful,” said Walling.
There has been a lot packed into the last 10 years for Walling and it appears there is more to come as his career veers off in another direction.
He can be reached at (416) 388-1114, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.