Trying to sell the perfect putter on a shoestring
Can a small putter maker -- powered mostly by word of mouth -- find the green against bigger rivals?
EAST MEADOW, NEW YORK (FORTUNE Small Business Magazine) - A couple of hundred yards from the practice green at Eisenhower Park Golf Course in East Meadow, N.Y., Guerin Rife holds up his latest brainchild, the Two Bar putter, and points it toward the sky like a loaded rifle. "The grip on this one isn't quite straight," Rife grumbles, squinting as he peers down its metal shaft. "I've got to get it right before I can put it into anybody's hands."
After twisting the putter's grip slightly, Rife rechecks its shaft. "Much better," he says, sliding the club into a golf bag with a dozen others he has inspected. "It may seem nitpicky," Rife notes, "but I'm dealing with professionals. They know what they want in a putter, and they're not going to take it into battle unless it is perfect."
Rife is the founder and president of Orlando-based Guerin Rife Putters. Until recently he designed golf clubs for other companies, such as Spalding. Then, a couple of years ago, the 54-year-old designed what he regards as the perfect putter, an odd-looking gizmo tricked out with enough physics-friendly attributes (please see box) to knock a couple of strokes off any golfer's scorecard, he claims.
"Outstanding launch characteristics and improved end-over-end roll with less skidding," gushed the May issue of Golf Tips magazine. After raising $1.5 million from angel investors, Rife started making putters last year. Since Guerin Rife putters were introduced on the Champions Tour in May, the putters have consistently claimed the No. 2 spot among all putter brands, behind giant Odyssey and ahead of such brands as Ping, Titleist, and TaylorMade.
But what's especially remarkable is that Rife is succeeding on a relative shoestring. This year the company will spend $200,000 on a direct-marketing campaign, eschewing such conventional approaches as glossy magazine ads and six-figure endorsement deals. Rife does pay performance bonuses to the golf pros who wield his putters in tournaments.
Meanwhile, he says, he scored $3 million in revenues in 2005 and expects to at least triple sales next year with only a slight boost in his marketing budget. In December, Rife sold $500,000 worth of Two Bars--at $200 apiece--and he doubled that figure in January.
"No doubt, it's the hottest new putter on the market right now," says Tony Duran, president of the Duran Group in Buena Park, Calif., one of the industry's largest independent sales and marketing firms. "There's no other putter gaining in distribution and market share like this one." Duran says the Two Bar's distinctive style creates a strong selling point for retailers.
Rife is hardly alone in his quest to earn the cachet of, say, putter designer Scotty Cameron, whose firm was acquired by Titleist in 1994. Last year Knoxville-based startup GAIM Golf launched its G360, a putter whose features include a void in the putter's head, enabling its user to pick up a ball without bending over.
"The Two Bar seems like it's probably a very good putter," says GAIM Golf president Gary Patterson. "But if you take that putter's strongest point, we can compete with it--and this doesn't even take into account that ours picks up the ball." For now, Rife is thinking more about appealing to golf pros than about the crowded retail marketplace. "We're just trying to get our putter into as many golfers' hands as we can," he says.
He has spent the past year trailing the PGA tour circuit, trying to persuade pro golfers to use his putter. Winning them over, Rife figured, would drive amateurs into stores. "It's not a conventional putter, so the battle is getting people into the stores to try it," says R.W. Eaks, a Champions Tour pro who recently switched to Rife's Two Bar. "You've got the rods sticking out and all these grooves on the face, and the feel of it is softer than any putter I've had. But nearly every time I putt with it, the ball seems to either hit the hole or go in."
Last spring Rife persuaded PGA Champions Tour pro Dana Quigley to try putting with the Two Bar. Quigley liked it enough that he decided to compete with it last June at the PGA Champions Tour's FedEx Kinko's Classic in Austin. Quigley placed second in the tournament and made the Two Bar his putter of choice as he went on to become the Champions Tour's top money winner last year. "Every time Dana wins with our putter, our sales spike, new retailers take notice, and it's just good for business all around," boasts Rife.
The relationship with Quigley has since been monetized: The company has given him a performance bonus during the tour and has paid him $15,000 for starring in a half-hour infomercial that appears on the Golf Channel. Shortly after Quigley played in the Kinko's Classic, the infomercial pulled in orders for 2,000 putters. Overall, Rife estimates, the company has seen a 145% return on the $350,000 it spent producing the TV spot. "That's the kind of lightning in a bottle we're looking for," says Jim Barfield, president and majority owner of Rife Putters.
Still, chances are slim that Rife can string together many Quigley-esque endorsements. Pro golfers tend to be superstitious about their equipment, and the established clubmakers can pay more for endorsement deals: Callaway (Research) pays an estimated $1 million annually to LPGA champion Annika Sorenstam to brandish its Odyssey putter. Even Aserta, a two-year-old putter maker based in San Jose, spends $1.5 million on print ads and performance bonuses each year, according to the company.
Rife is counting on those golfers who have yet to endorse a putter or who want the flexibility to switch putters when their performance is suffering. Of the top 50 golfers on any major tour, maybe five are on this list, including such big names as Fred Funk, Sergio Garcia, and Retief Goosen. (For more on Funk, see "In the Green," in our February 2004 issue) Rife's success depends on his ability to court big-name golfers the moment they step onto the practice green, to watch them closely, sense their putter needs, and finesse a Two Bar putter into their hands, along with an offer to tailor it to their liking.
At The Eisenhower Park Golf Course, a couple of days before the Commerce Bank Championship earlier this year, Rife gazes out onto the practice green, where several pros are putting and chatting. He knows the etiquette: Pro golfers don't take kindly to intrusive salespeople, especially during practice. Rife waits a few moments before strolling quietly toward Bruce Summerhays, a veteran of the Champions Tour.
Summerhays's 11-club endorsement deal with Ping--a pact that includes the putter, irons, and driver he uses--hardly makes him a strong candidate for Rife, but contracts do end. And Rife makes it his business to know when. After watching Summerhays miss several consecutive putts, Rife introduces him to a metal putting aid he designed and patented. Summerhays sinks a few putts using the device, and then Rife hands him the Two Bar putter. Summerhays makes several 18-foot putts with Rife's club and hands it back to him. "This is a beautiful putter," he says, as he saunters across the green to continue practicing with his Ping.
Rife spots Tom McKnight a few yards away. McKnight takes a few putts with his Odyssey, then steps over and surveys the dozen Two Bar putters, as well as Rife's more traditional-style putters, strategically placed on the green for sampling. McKnight recently started experimenting with Rife's Two Bar. "Hey, I sent you guys my putter to make some adjustments, and I never got it back," he says to Rife, as he sinks a putt. "We thought you didn't like it," Rife answers.
McKnight steps over and grabs one of the traditional Rife putters. "What? I loved it," he says. "I need it back." McKnight sinks several more putts with the Two Bar. He smiles, clearly impressed.
Rife would love to have him take a Two Bar into the tournament, but McKnight is loyal to Rife's more traditional club. Rife cuts a look over at company CEO Jim Barfield, and within seconds Barfield is on his cellphone whispering to his secretary at Orlando headquarters. "I need you to look in my office. Toward the back, you'll find a putter," Barfield instructs. Barfield nods at Rife. "It'll be here for you tomorrow, Tom," Rife tells the golf pro.
"Okay," McKnight says, walking away. "Perfect."
Rife turns to Barfield. "We'll see," he says. "Today he says, 'I love it,' but then he can say, 'I don't love it,' anytime he wants." True. But as the golf adage says, "Drive for show, putt for dough." As long as that's the case, Rife should be able to find plenty of testers on the green.
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