Ill bet you said Ely Callaway. If youre a real golf business fan and watch this space a lot, perhaps you said Wally Uihlein (Titleist), Mark King (TaylorMade-adidas), Eddie Binder (Spalding) or John Solheim (Ping). But Ill bet you still came up with Callaway first.
And therein has laid the blessing ' and curse ' for Callaway Golf of its founders inimitable charm. For better or worse, the corporate persona of Callaway Golf has depended on Ely Callaway. And now that his retirement seems imminent 'because of succession plans, disease, or both ' one has to wonder if Elys absence from the scene will alter the balance of power in the golf industry.
Last week, surgeons removed Mr. Callaways gall bladder. During the operation, they found a tumor on his pancreas. The company, timing its announcements carefully to minimize the effect on its stock, described its condition as manageable. Mr. Callaway was expected to be back at his desk in a few weeks. As of this writing (May 4), he is still in the hospital, but is said to be mobile and in good spirits and appetite.
But the company has not conclusively answered questions about the pathology results on the pancreatic tumor. Depending on its state of advancement, pancreatic cancer can kill in a matter of weeks, although it doesnt always. Malignant pancreatic tumors dont respond to ordinary cancer treatments, say medical experts. And operations to remove the pancreas have a low survival rate, especially among older men. Mr. Callaway is 81.
Those of us who know him, even those of us who have had serious disagreements with him, hope Mr. Callaway will retire pursuant to his plans to let loose the reins of power, not because of disease or worse. Mr. Callaway said even before his medical problems came to light that he would retire some time this year.
So what will happen then? Who will reporters go to for some of the best copy in golf journalism? Since Callaway rose to prominence in the early 1990s, Mr. Callaway has made himself available more often than most executives at his level. His Georgia accent, undiluted by years in California, immediately attracts attention. His devotion to his companys message holds it. I recall being amazed in 1993 that I could get him on the phone any time, even though I was no more than a cub reporter in the golf press.
Callaways depth chart of capable executives is long, but not one of the contenders has as much affection for the limelight as his current boss. So Callaway will have to dream up new strategies to make up for the publicity Mr. Callaway garnered. Perhaps the best thing to do is not make the successor try to be like Ely. It cant be done.
And how will other companies respond? Likely by rushing into any perceived gap in leadership at Callaway. If there is any uncertainty, any lag between our definite knowledge of who leads Callaway and our learning of who will, competitors will take advantage. Expect a lot of ink and air time for competing execs.
Of course, Callaways media relations skills may make such a window very narrow, if it allows one to open at all.
In the end, its product quality that sustains this industry, as it is with any worthwhile business. But getting consumer and trade attention is the first step. When Ely Callaway has to stop doing that, it will be the end of an era. Callaway Golf will have to reinvent itself, at least in part.