Writer Leonard Finkel had the opportunity to sit down with David Abeles, CEO of TaylorMade Golf Company, on October 2nd, 2017, the first day of the separation from adidas.
Finkel: What's different, if anything, with the change in ownership from adidas? Has it changed your strategies, whether it be in product development, marketing or any other segment of the business?
David Abeles: Leonard, today is day number one, so we are excited about the future of our new ownership structure. What I can tell you is that first and most immediately, we no longer have responsibility for selling apparel with the adidas brand. For the first time in 20 years, TaylorMade is a stand-alone, privately-held equipment and golf ball brand. That will be highly advantageous in our business moving forward as we continue to focus and be intense around those categories and bring revolutionary new products into those categories to golfers. The first major change is that our focus here at TaylorMade is solely on the continued growth and development of our equipment and golf ball business.
Finkel: Can you tell me a little bit about your professional background and how you rose to your position at TaylorMade?
Abeles: I’ve had 15 years in total and three first days with the company. I left a couple times and was very fortunate to come back. TaylorMade, in many regards, is a big part of my professional life certainly, but my personal life as well. I started on the salesforce back in the mid-90s and worked my way through management and an international role into running the global commercial operations of the company. I came back in the Spring of 2015 to my current role as CEO of TaylorMade and over the course of the last 2 ½ years, I’ve had a terrific run and resurgence of the strength of our brand, not only in the marketplace but on the worldwide Tours. I’ve had 15 years all in at TaylorMade and 20+ years in the golf industry. I’m thrilled to be working here at TaylorMade again with a group of talented people that help us live out our dreams.
Finkel: Are you introducing any exciting new products?
Abeles: We always have exciting new products. That’s what we do here, great and exciting new products. I don’t say that flippantly. Our goal at our company is to bring products to market that are measurably better in form and function than any products have been in golf before, including our own. Currently, we just launched two exciting new irons. The first is the P790. It’s arguably one of the hottest irons in golf. It’s been incredible for us from the day we launched it. The adoption on Tour has been fantastic and subsequently, over the past two weeks, we introduced the product commercially to the United States, Europe, and Japan. It’s become an extremely successful product. It blends classic shapes to modern technologies and provides distance and forgiveness in a players package, unlike anything that golf has ever seen before.
Finkel: I believe we just featured those irons in last month’s newsletter.
Abeles: You probably did and Club Champion is selling an awful lot of them and we thank you. It’s a red-hot product right now. The other new iron we brought to the market is a super game improvement product called the M CGB, which is an ultra-low, multi-material product that is built for distance and forgiveness for the mid-to-high handicapper. That product was just launched on September 29th, so we are in our first week and seeing it perform very well for us also.
Finkel: What segments of the golf business do you see as growing?
Abeles: The industry has been interesting and engaging over the past several years. A lot of the public reporting has been indicating that there hasn’t been a whole lot of growth. But we’re seeing growth in the market and specifically in custom fitting. That bodes well for the industry long-term as well as us at TaylorMade, one of the premium brands in golf. We need to demonstrate how our product technology leads to better performance from our equipment. We think there’s no better way to do that than to have a really effective professional fitter engaging golfers in the appropriate products and tech package to enable them to perform better than they currently do. We think custom fitting is an enormous part of growth for the future. We also see alternative forms of golf emerging and I’m sure you’ve written about those. They will add to participation and we're starting to see that. You may have seen the most recent NGF report that there were 2 ½ million new golfers that came into golf last year which is a high point for our industry. We’re looking forward to that continuing. And we’re seeing the erosion, those leaving the game, are doing it at a declining rate. I believe that over time, golf will be in a great position. The advent of highly trained expertise in customization and personalization not only add value to our business but to the overall industry.
Finkel: You mentioned custom club fitting. It seems really important to TaylorMade.
Abeles: Custom club fitting is critically important to the growth of our company long-term. It gives us what we believe is another competitive advantage, with the most advanced technologies customized into the hands of golfers. One of the unique things about TaylorMade that consumers are starting to recognize more and more, is that we have led the way in metal woods and mass customization. We launched products like the 300 series, which ironically is 15 years ago, or the R7 which ultimately led to the R11 or RocketBallz or the current M1 and M2 products. All of those products were built with a high degree of customization into them. Flight control technology revolutionized the way loft and lie angles performed in metal woods. Whether it is loft adjustment in our metal woods or movable weight track technology that enables us to optimize center of gravity (CG) for better launch speed and spin, I’m proud to say that nobody does it better than TaylorMade. These have some correlation to our iron business as well and it’s critically important to us and will continue to be as we move forward.
Finkel: There is a perception that custom fitting is only for the better player. A study in Golf Magazine earlier this year found that custom fitting might have an even greater impact on performance and distance for mid-to-high handicap players.
Abeles: I completely agree with that. We see it every day. We don’t just test better players. The protocols at TaylorMade, we test all playing abilities. Take a look at our range of products, whether it’s irons, wedges or putters or the golf ball; we design those products around specific player profiles to enhance their performance. Whether you get custom fit as an 18 handicap or a scratch player, we are 100% certain it will benefit your game at every level.
Finkel: The PGA TOUR is obviously important to TaylorMade. How often do Tour players get fitted and can you tell me a little bit about that process? How long might it take for them to get perfectly in tune with a new set of irons for instance?
Abeles: It starts with highly trained and capable technicians that can lead a process. It’s no different than Club Champion. You have to have the right people that understand how to fit technology into the hands of golfers. It’s no different with players of different handicap levels. We work with our Tour players literally every week, with our sports marketing team on-site at every PGA TOUR event throughout the course of the year to ensure that we’re constantly improving the specifications of their products in certain loft and lie adjustments, spin or shaft capabilities or something the player necessarily requires because of the course set up. The composition of a Tour player's bag changes every week to the specific golf course they are playing. We are constantly working with our players to improve the role of customization in their bag. We engage every one of our Tour players personally. We have launch technology on the practice tee at the Tour events and we monitor every aspect of their launch capabilities, the speed and spin off their metal woods and management within their irons with spin ratios and shaft dynamics that affect all of those things. We are constantly working with different component companies, working with different loft and lie configurations to optimize the performance of those players. It’s a continuous process, from the beginning of the year when our players move into the new products and throughout the year as they compete on Tour.
Finkel: Can you talk a little bit about your R&D department and how products are developed?
Abeles: Fortunately, we have what I believe is one of the best R&D development groups in golf. I’ve been quoted before saying we have a blue-chip R&D team and as long as we continue to build engineering capabilities and research and development disciplines, I think the future for continued development at TaylorMade is brighter than even what we’ve done in the past. I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of advanced design and performance of our products then I am right now. Knowing what we have to work on in the next six or seven years, I’m very excited about that. The R&D function works in collaboration with our product creation function. We’re unique here at TaylorMade where we have a product creation team that works on advanced designs and new ideas and we have an R&D team that works on advanced engineering and how to manufacture those products. When those two concepts come together, then ultimately, we can manufacture something high performing for all golfers. What’s interesting about our business technologies on the platform today is that we know they will work; however, we don’t have the manufacturing capabilities to bring them to market. Being able to manufacture a product is one thing but being able to manufacture new technology is something different. Our R&D team is a state-of-the-art group of very talented engineers downstairs who are constantly working on new innovations, they are constantly working on what we call continuous improvement and development in product technology and they are constantly working with golfers of all skill levels to ensure that the technologies we are thinking about, we can ultimately bring to market, which will have an advantage for them in terms of total performance.
Finkel: You talk about the challenges of bringing product to the market. Is it that you can design a piece of equipment but mass-producing it is much more difficult?
Abeles: The bigger challenge and I’ll use the M1 and the M2 as an example, perhaps two of the hottest drivers right now, and the M2 iron, which is one of the best-selling irons in the history of our company in the marketplace. Those products are four or five years old but it took us that long to ensure that we got the performance profiles, the materials, and the engineering process in place to commercialize those products and bring it to market. When I say bring it to market, I mean bring it to a Tour player and bring it to a regular player, a non-Tour golfer to improve his or her performance. We don’t ever bring anything on Tour unless we are able to commercialize it and provide the same benefit to all golfers.
Finkel: How healthy do you believe the golf business is and what do you expect to see over the next 5 years? What do you see in the future for TaylorMade?
Abeles: I think the golf business, and this is not just a US comment, has gone through a few years of resetting at retail. But in the end, I think the business is in a very good place. We’ve got good competitors in the market with solid fundamentals about how they run their operations. I think it will continue to be highly competitive. I like our competitive advantage given our technologies like M1 and M2 and TP5 and TP5X, the fastest premium Tour golf ball in the marketplace. That’s a big position for TaylorMade, a revolutionary new technology in a golf ball. We have the number one selling putter model in golf with the Spider Tour products over the course of the last six months. I’m sure your readers have seen the red Spider on Tour. TaylorMade is the original red and no one should be confused about that. I am very optimistic about the continued growth of our company and our continued engagement with golfers to provide greater value to them. I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of TaylorMade then I am now.
Finkel: Is there any other information you'd like to share with our readers?
Abeles: Just get out and play golf. There have been questions about how we can find new ways to grow the game and this is my response. This is a terrific game so go find a friend that either has stopped or someone that doesn’t play but wants to start and take them out on the course with you. Hopefully, they can adopt the love and spirit of the game that we all have.