For those who led golf’s major brands through the past year, the proverbial outward nine featured a few bogeys and some dreaded “others” on the scorecard. The inward nine – full of optimism surrounding the game – had a string of birdies and an eagle or two.
Such were the unpredictable circumstances for captains of the industry in 2020.
First came March, with the pandemic halting supply chains and shutting down courses and retails stores around the world for, in many cases, several months. For much of the spring, the world stayed inside and revenue dried up, causing companies to leap into crisis mode. By mid-April, Callaway had laid off more than 100 people and more than 300 others had been furloughed – and chief executive officer Chip Brewer took no pay at all. Other original equipment manufacturers, such as Titleist, Ping and TaylorMade, all closed factories and made painful moves similar to Callaway’s.
Then, sometime during the summer, it became abundantly clear that golf would become a silver lining in an otherwise dark business moment. With less commute time and a desire to escape quarantine for the sanctuary of nature, golfers flocked to courses and bought equipment in record numbers.
Last month, the National Golf Foundation estimated 50 million more rounds of golf will have been played in 2020 compared with 2019. And Golf Datatech reported that Quarter 3 of last year saw just more than $1 billion in retail golf equipment sold in the United States. That was the second-highest quarter recorded, up a staggering 42 percent compared to the same time period in 2019.
To gain perspective on what it was like to guide a company throughout this time, Global Golf Post's Sean Fairholm spoke with TaylorMade chief executive officer David Abeles.
When were you first aware of the virus? Did you find out as everyone else did in March or did it come onto your radar screen earlier?
Early in the year, January and February, we started to hear about some health-related challenges in our supply chain in Asia, in particular in China. We did not have insights as to specifically what it was or what it ultimately has become, but we started to see what I would call moderate absenteeism in some of our facility partners. We started to do some work on ensuring our supply chain would be remedied if we continued to see a challenge in our workforce out there.
As the world became aware of the broader-based epidemic, soon to become a pandemic, we were a bit ahead of that because we’re a global organization and had intel into what was happening in Asia.
At what point did it become a major concern? I’m sure at the beginning when you first heard of it, you may have thought it could be handled without too much of an issue, but at what point did it really hit home?
We started to become more aware as the virus spread into Europe and then there was some dialogue in late February, early March that we were starting to see more infections in North America. I had personally been in Europe when the news started to break in Italy. By mid-March, we really started to get a sense that this would have some impact on our business, although it was still undefined at the time what that would be. We were getting calls from customers and we knew there was going to be some kind of shutdown, but truthfully I don’t think anybody knew what that meant at the time. There’s no protocol specifically in place to address a pandemic.
As you’re talking, I’m just wondering emotionally on your end, what was that time like leading an organization like TaylorMade amidst all of this chaos?
Emotionally, I was focused on taking actions because we’re a very solution-focused company. We’re extremely fortunate because we have a tremendous culture and connected employees in every area around the world. We’ve benefited over the years from having a strong communications platform to provide transparency to everyone. Throughout 2020, there wasn’t a single week that went by where there wasn’t a video message or some form of direct communication from my office to my associates base informing them of our learnings and our actions.
Really where my head was, I wanted to make sure our people were in a good place where we are securing their health and safety and their family’s health and safety. And then ultimately, ensuring that, foundationally, we’ll have a business plan to address some of the unforeseen realities we were about to deal with. And because there was no precedent, any of the assumptions we built into our plan weren’t supported by historical data points, so that in itself was very interesting.
What were some of your first actions once you got into the second, third week of March and moving beyond that point?
We’re always optimistic (about) finding solutions to even the most difficult problems, this one being the most difficult challenge any organization has faced in over 100 years. We wanted to ensure the TaylorMade brand was in a better position when we exited the pandemic than when we entered. All of our decisions were against that guiding principle.
We did a lot of different things. From April to mid-June, we went through a shutdown in our Western markets and had very few retail partners to sell our product and there was very little golf being played. Fortunately in Asia we started to see strong momentum because the pandemic was being managed and was a couple of months ahead of Western markets, so we reinforced our supply chain knowing there would be a strong demand for our products as the world recovered.
A lot of people forget that the golf industry had strong momentum prior to the pandemic. We entered 2020 on a record pace. The industry was growing and our business was growing faster than the industry. We knew that the momentum was going to continue and, other than that 75-day window in the spring, the industry continued like it had been going. We were thoroughly prepared for a surge.
And then of course, one of the greatest things our company has ever done was hold the TaylorMade Driving Relief event at Seminole Golf Club in May. That was the first live sporting event to be televised since the onset of the pandemic, at least domestically. We brought four of our superstar athletes together and raised $7 million for COVID-19 relief efforts.
Golf’s performance from the summer and beyond, it seemed like every day there were new reports about rounds played being up or equipment sales being up. Could you have foreseen a response from the golf community to this degree?
Over the last 41 years as a company, we’ve had to navigate through some pretty difficult times but have always recognized that both avid and recreational golfers are very committed to the sport. We always believed golfers would come back to the game and come back quickly.
When you had more opportunity to work from home, physical distancing on golf courses, a wonderful outlet for recreation and an opportunity for families to come together, a lot of variables came into play and they converged to accelerate the growth we were experiencing prior to the pandemic. I can’t say we could have predicted specifically this level of play and consumption, but we always had a lot of optimism.
The biggest question, the part where people are asking whether this is sustainable, we absolutely believe it is. We think that in addition to the new entrants to the game and the core golfers who have continued to support the industry, those who have suffered during the pandemic and can’t play, whether for health reasons or economic reasons, are going to return once they get vaccinated and life returns to normal.
Do you believe the TaylorMade brand is stronger for having gone through this process?
I wouldn’t be the only industry executive to say that you never want a crisis to happen for any reason. I was so incredibly proud of our brand positioning prior to the pandemic and our leadership in the global markets, but we’ve become an even stronger brand through this.
I believe we’ve done the right things on behalf of golfers and golf communities around the world, and as a result of that, we are seeing a greater demand for our product than we have in our entire history. There are more golfers engaged with TaylorMade than at any point, and that’s a very exciting development.