Over the next 12 months, the golf industry will recall fondly the innovations of Karsten Solheim and the milestones reached over the 50-year history of Ping Golf / Karsten Manufacturing, but one key theme will emerge in the anniversary celebrations to come, that being the company’s reputation for forward thinking.
Karsten’s son John, now company chairman and chief executive officer, says his late dad had a pat answer when asked about the best club he ever built. The reply would always be his next one.
Refusing to stand pat and get stale is necessary in all aspects of a company, now based in the Phoenix area, that has survived 50 years of challenges and grown from a garage operation in Redwood City, Calif., to one of the most recognized brands in golf with over 1,000 employees.
One of the great challenges facing not only Ping, but the entire golf industry, is an uncertain immediate future, with a deepening recession tightening its cold grip around the entire globe and thinning out the disposable income that drives golf, whether it be equipment sales or rounds played.
It’s a given that it won’t be easy in the golf industry for awhile, but uncertain how bad it will get and how long the tough times will continue. Ping’s past will be front and centre in 2009, but behind the scenes, the immediate future will be discussed at family round tables and meetings with key trusted advisors.
Whatever decisions are to come, they will be made with research and deliberation, not due to pressure. Its unique position as a family-run organization means Ping doesn’t have to answer to shareholders in those difficult times.
“Being privately-held and reporting to the family lets us do long term adjustments and things, but at the same time, this is an interesting time we’re going into,” said John Solheim.
“There are going to be some challenges. I foresee us making some adjustments to what we’re doing to make sure that we’re as solid as possible going into difficult times. My feeling is we need to make moves before we have to,” he said.
“To be ready is our forecast,” added Doug Hawken, president and chief operating officer for Ping. “To sit here and forecast 20 or 30 per cent growth in the next few years would be unrealistic. We have plans for new products, plans for growth, but we’re going to manage within whatever the good Lord has to offer.”
That means the evolution of the company from its humble beginnings a half century ago will continue into the second 50 years as market conditions change. One of the most noticeable differences over the first 50 years has been the management styles of John and Karsten Solheim, a World Golf Hall of Fame member.
Karsten, who passed away in 2000, was very much a hands-on operator, while John is more research-based and willing to listen and delegate to trusted advisors and family members.
“To be where we are today, 50 years later, is just unbelievable. My dad never dreamed the business would grow as big as it did. I think he’d be pretty proud. There are some things that I know he would do differently,” said John Solheim.
There are also things he would do the same. “We’ve always been an engineering-first company. That’s what my dad was all about. That’s how he started because he wanted to make (golf clubs) better,” said Solheim.
“A lot of things that we do today, he didn’t have the technology available to him. He totally changed the golf marketplace and club design and fitting and manufacturing, as well,” he added.
That remains a company goal to this day, but Hawken adds that another aspect of the company hasn’t changed over the years. Hawken started as a part-timer in 1970 before taking a full-time position the following year.
“I started there in the summer and drove trash to the dump and cleaned up after the guard dogs and helped dig a trench for our first foundation for our first dust collector and did odd jobs in manufacturing and various jobs over the 38 years I’ve been there,” he said.
“It’s just been quite an experience and it’s been very gratifying to be a part of something that has sustained itself for so long,” he added.
“The way Karsten taught me was we’re in business to create jobs, stability and a living for our employees. We do that by making the best golf clubs in the world, so if we keep in mind the decisions we make and how they impact our families and our loved ones and apply those to the golf business, we’ll be around for a long time.
“At the time, I thought that might be a little naïve, but I find out now that was cutting edge thinking that’s a formula for longevity as a company,” said Hawken.
Family remains an important part of Ping where John’s brothers Lou and Allan served as company executives before retiring. Many of the third generation are in the company, including John’s sons Andy, David and John K. Solheim, now in a key role as vice president of engineering.
The senior John Solheim says preparing the company for the third and even fourth generation of Solheims is an important consideration, but you don’t need to carry the name Solheim, or even be related, to play an important role.
“Family is so important, but family doesn’t stop just in my family,” said John Solheim. “It’s interesting the way that works.
“If the company’s going to be stronger, we have to have the best person doing the job. If it’s a family member, we’re really fortunate, but he’s got to compete with the others that are out there. Fortunately, it’s worked out very well,” he added.
Whatever challenges Ping has faced over the years, Solheim says each has been a test that has made the company stronger. “To do what we did, everything had to work. We had to become a much more modern company. It put us to the test,” he said.
Evolution never stops, so Ping moves forward with its traditional company values and a willingness to change with the times.