People in Golf - Leslie Hepsworth

Under Leslie Hepsworth's guidance sales of range balls and two piece balls have grown more strongly than almost anywhere else in the world. Golf Features catches up with him as he reflects on the last decade and a half and considers the next chapter in his career.

Golf Features: What are the main changes you have seen over the last fifteen years?

The industry has changed a lot - we are now dealing with highly informed retailers and consumers. Smoking mirrors and blustering advertisements for products and technology simply get found out at the click of a button; state-of-the-art websites from all manufacturers ensure consumers are overloaded with information. This then leads to pressure on manufacturers and retailers to stock more lines, and ensure trial and fitting are part of the sales process in tandem with fitting machinery - no longer is just ball flight good enough for a sale. The UK market has still the most important single country turnover within Europe, and is probably the most difficult as it often leads on pricing, and overall is a more aggressive marketplace than many other countries. There are also higher demands for support, often to back up what is already a challenging retail environment. Clearly the Internet has changed the business model for all companies and retailers and has offered both some growth opportunities from their competition, if they are doing all the right things.

Golf Features:: And, more specifically at Srixon, what changes have there been within the company? 

 It’s hard to believe that SRI Sports purchased Cleveland Golf back in 2007 from Quicksilver, which led to - for me personally, and the rest of the team - a lot of change by integrating both Srixon and Cleveland into one business unit from top to bottom:  finance, sales teams, supply and demand, logistics, buildings and all the legal work that as a director you have to understand.  Anyone who has ever gone through this process will know just how much work this involves.  Then a few years later, the sports division was taken public and once again tasks that you could never have dreamed of hit the desk: all were worked through, and in the end the result was a very strong business model.

Leslie HepsworthGolf Features: Srixon has grown its ball, club, accessory range, and range ball business over this period. What are you most proud of?

Obviously all sales growth is part of a number of components. You need great products and we have definitely had those through the years, helping us grow the business to very high levels in certain categories. All the products, including Srixon, Cleveland and XXIO, have had to come through some serious research and development.  All of the lines, as part of this process, are always thoroughly tested by the appropriate level of player depending on the product line, from higher handicappers to some of the world’s finest Tour players. This process is very rigorous and expensive, but you cannot produce high performance products every two years without consistent funding in testing and R&D. I will always be most proud of taking Srixon’s 2 piece UK data share from almost zero to hero. It is the same story with the range balls, where the numbers achieved have been simply amazing, along with launching Srixon clubs into a tough market with fantastic sell-in (to retailers), but importantly sell-through (to the consumer – the acid test for a great product).  We are seeing some good growth in Cleveland as well, so these are four elements that I am really proud of.

Golf Features: Srixon has had great growth with its ball sales around the world, both game balls and also range balls. In Europe, the growth has been stronger than anywhere, how have you managed to achieve this?

Going back to when I started, I looked carefully at the market, the competition, and where our technology had an advantage.  We repackaged with a new, fresh image with the marketing and sell in methods, using trial as a main player in this as well: if you have a great product and you are not afraid of trial, it is just then a question of getting end users and retailers to join the partnership.  This included amnesty ball trial days, ball fitting, and very informative websites in the early days so that the technology available to help people was presented in a simpler and informative way.  Players found pure performance, feel and other benefits, which led to an unprecedented growth. Consumers are very loyal if they enjoy using a product that helps them play better golf - and of course they then tell their friends! 

Golf Features: Without giving all your secrets away, how would you develop a brand in the UK and Europe today, given all of the changes to the world from when you started?

I would take the time to ensure the package is complete. I call it full circle selling: if you can encompass quality, performance, margin, smart marketing and possibly a Tour presence, and then well worked out distribution, ensuring that if people invest in you they are part of the success. I believe options exist to grow even if the market is stagnant, as often the competition is not on the ball and leave openings for smart people.  That is a key part - understanding the retailers’ business is always the start point.

Golf Features: What are the main challenges facing manufacturers and retailers in the current market in the UK and Europe, now and in the future?

Same for us all: too many brands, reduced margins, increasing overheads, player demographics getting older, not enough young players coming in or - more importantly – staying in the game, and reducing membership as people have busier lives and golf takes a long time to play.  In addition to this, golf is also not on the school curriculum and our TV coverage is so weak compared to some other markets, eg USA golf channel, etc.    The smart manufacturer and the smart retailer will increase their business; although the cake isn’t getting any bigger they will just take from the weaker channels.  You have to be very clear and plan ahead, then work to PDCA - a true Japanese method: Plan, Do, Check, Action, so constantly review and change if required.  You cannot sell in a market if you do not understand it, so if you want to be here in the future, think about it.

Golf Features: Do you think that many manufacturers will start selling directly to the public, via Amazon, etc?  Could this be a worrying trend for the industry?

This is for me, as a one-time pro along with my father, a horrifying option.  I believe golf should always be sold and promoted by specialist-trained and qualified people.  I think it will happen with some brands that lose their market positions, without all the funding you need nowadays to make running a business a viable concern. But if a large manufacturer were to really pursue this option the kickback would be monumental, and clearly they would lose all support from many accounts, but time will tell - and hopefully never in my lifetime.

Golf Features: Do you think manufacturers should work more closely with golf course and range owners to develop and promote golf?

Where golf is played is the key to protecting the future for all of us, so a big yes on this. A better link has to be developed on this as a joint cross-company way to work closely with all parties.  But this is the golf industry and it has never been an easy task, so many different organisations pushing in different directions. We are delighted to work very well with all of the golf course and range operators and I think that is one of the reasons behind our success in Europe. We are delighted to support OGRO and the UK Golf Federation and are looking forward to seeing everyone at GolfBic at the Forest of Arden in a few weeks time.

Golf Features: Will traditional pro’s shops exist in the future and has the golf professional’s role changed forever?

Leslie Hepsworth:  I hope so.  The good ones will survive, along with the good golf clubs that work in harmony as a strong and commercial unit.  A lot of issues for me have been caused by a lack of commercial business knowledge within the average committee at a golf club, many of whom are clueless, making awful and ineffective decisions that affect the members and the pros.

Golf Features: What products and golfing services do you think will sell well in the coming years?
I see more growth in the putter market, technical clothing and higher levels of information-based technology in-store to increase sales in wedge fitting and general club sales.  I also see growth in driving ranges that are offering more from cafés as well as better quality mats, balls and definitely adventure golf - anything that retains people at the site will increase sales.
Then on the service side it is clear to see many retailers and some brands are making mistakes – they need to go back to basics on improving service, adopting longer term planning, and not being afraid of change is key.  Standing still in my book is going backwards.

Golf Features: As a mature market, do you think that there are too many golf manufacturers vying for a smaller number of golfers each year?

Overall yes.  We have seen a reduction in mid to low price brands that have left the market as bigger brands try to own the price points that these companies used to sit in.  I think in the premium sector some brands that are trying to increase shares in almost every category may struggle, as I doubt that method will work.  Better to stick to what you are best at, and invest strongly in that in order to protect what you have. This, for me, is a clearer path to retaining business in a declining player market.

Golf Features: What are your three best suggestions for growing the game in the UK?

Get a cohesive policy from all federation and governing bodies to push the idea that people should try golf.  Get golf played and supported at school level. Get some golf back on terrestrial TV. 

Golf Features: Has ball technology gone too far - will we see the ball limited, or reduced in flight to preserve existing courses?

All companies are governed here and all products have to pass regulations to hit the market.  As a rubber company, we have a lot of knowledge, some of which can be used in ball technology.  Mainly now it is performance that helps people enjoy golf more, whether that is spin, distance accuracy, etc, but for me the Tour pros today - who are basically athletes - are the major reason for distance achieved, compared to years back.  That is also linked to older, shorter courses, where wooden woods and poor shafts also contributed to people hitting less distance.

Golf Features: How important are golf centres and golf ranges to the growth of the game and to manufacturing companies?
Leslie Hepsworth: A good golf centre or range performs a key role, as I believe this area of the golf industry actively works on attracting new customers who may not have originally considered playing golf.  And they will always help juniors feel welcome - unlike some golf clubs – which can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole. It is vital for all the golfing bodies to realise that places where golfers start are vital to the growth of the game and should be helped and not hindered. Manufacturers need the growth of the game to be strong, so the pipeline of customers is healthy for the future.

Leslie can be reached on: 07887 530878
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