As Its Third Generation Comes of Age Ping Advances

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SEDONA, Ariz. ' The different drummer to which Ping marches has kept up the beat, even as the company moves on from the death of its founder, capitalizes on the momentum of his sons management ' and shows a glimpse of the future in his grandson.
 
Karsten Solheim died in February 2000. His company honors his memory every day, but not in the usual way. That alone would make Karsten proud; in company headquarters two hours south of here in Phoenix, its easy to find placards with the universal negative sign (red circle, diagonal bar) over the words, Weve always done it that way.
 
So instead of relying on framed portraits in the halls of Ping (although they are there), Karstens company remembers him by innovating, by turning golf into an engineering problem and solving it.
 
The JAS putter is the most extreme example of what Karsten had in mind with heel-toe weighting, said John A. Solheim, Pings chairman and CEO, and Karstens youngest son. John A. (the reason for the use of the initial will become clear soon) took over active day-to-day management of Ping in 1995.
 
The putter he introduced Tuesday to members of the golf press, gathered in Phoenix and then here in this desert resort, features a forged titanium face and tungsten at either end of the head for that all-important weighting. It also carries a suggested retail price of $425.
 
The drumbeat gets louder. It was Karstens way to make the best product he could from an engineering point of view, and to charge what he thought it was worth, no matter what the rest of the market was doing.
 
It was also his way to find a new way, when necessary. Ping has taken that idea to heart in more than engineering: Even before the 2002 PGA Merchandise Show, Ping announced it would not come back in 2003. Trade shows, it decided, were not the best way to communicate with customers and the press. Better to spend that money getting those people on Pings own turf, where their attention will be undivided. Nike did the same thing this summer. Precept is doing it this week (carefully planning its event to begin when Pings ended). Callaway has been doing it since 2000. Other companies are likely to follow, even those who also attend trade shows.
 
The drummer has also marched Ping away from lockstep adherence to product releases timed for trade shows. So it was that Ping introduced new items across almost its entire line: Irons, wedges (as single replacement clubs), putters and bags were on view. Only metalwoods were untouched, and word is we wont have to wait long to hear about those.
 
Without a touch of arrogance, Ping executives fearlessly answer the obvious questions about whether this moribund golf economy is a suitable platform for such a large product introduction. True, they say, not much is selling well (irons have been particularly sluggish) ' but its all relative. Ping is doing fine, they say, and theyre confident theyll do well with the new gear.
 
Thats a luxury available only to big companies who have a lot of resources and dont make a lot of mistakes. Another advantage Ping has been able to preserve since Karstens days is inventory management. In golf clubs, at least, the company builds to sales, not forecast. Essentially, it only builds what it has already sold. This was a business principle near and dear to Karsten, and the company has managed things well enough so that if it stopped making irons this minute, all the clubs on the racks at the Phoenix assembly facility would be shipped out within two days.
 
Every company has its own personality; among the top golf equipment companies, they all have enthusiasm in common. At Ping, the passion is expressed mainly as quiet commitment. Energy and exhilaration are redirected into more innovation. (A slide in a presentation to journalists said, Engineering is the center of the universe.)
 
But some of the most obvious excitement reporters have ever been allowed to see at Ping was displayed this week. The company had just completed a large sales meeting, gathering more than 200 sales representatives and distributors at Phoenix headquarters for the first time in Pings history. The buzz in the wake of the meeting was not just about new products, but also the presentation skills of John K. Solheim, John A.s son and the companys vice president of engineering. At this meeting, John K., 28, came of age as a Ping executive, was the consensus at headquarters. And even though his father, 57, still feels in his prime and has no plans to slow down, company execs were comfortable calling John K. the heir apparent in front of reporters.
 
John K., an honors engineering graduate from Arizona State University, inherited the Solheim reticence. He is friendly but quiet, and it would never occur to him to brag unless he could back it up, and maybe not even then. Like his father and grandfather, he is thorough, and seems to have engineering in his blood. He has worked with his father on various projects (the Ally putter and others), and has run projects on his own (the Isopur putter line was his responsibility).
 
But John K. did not come to the company immediately after college. And he spent part of his youth in the very un-Solheim-like pursuit of playing guitar in a band.
 
That may be why slow-motion videos of golf clubs hitting balls, prepared to show journalists how Ping engineering ideas are put into action, are accompanied by edgy, modern rock music. And it may explain why the heir apparent can be seen walking around in cutting-edge bowling-style shoes, and why his goatee looks hipper than his fathers now-white version.
 
But dont expect the Ping drumbeat to syncopate too much. The principles that guided the grandfather and the son live in the heir apparent. Indeed, they were passed down directly: John K. followed his grandfather around for an entire summer, watching as the older man walked the 20-plus buildings of the Phoenix plant and oversaw all aspects of design and production.
 
So the shapes of the new putters will be familiar to golfers, even though they will soon be able to use the Internet to choose their face and ballast (back) options for the new Specify series. And the i3 irons lived for three seasons with no new model introductions until now, when the i3+ irons are ready. (Ping often makes small changes to designs every year, but has avoided introducing each change as a new model.)
 
Still, industry watchers wonder about the day young Solheim will become the third-generation leader of one of golfs most powerful names, and what things will be like when he does.
 
You can see here how much more inertia this new putter line has compared to its parent models, John K. says, pointing to statistics on a slide. Then to be sure he has been understood, he translates: It doesnt twist. All done without a hint of irony, condescension, or irritation, the words come from him just as they have passed through a now-whiter goatee.
 
Oh, its been great, says John A. Solheim in his quiet, rich voice, allowing himself a smile as he thinks back on his sons development as a golf engineer. Johnny has already done a lot of great things for Ping, and Im pleased to see how hes going. That sales meeting was very good.
 
The patriarch would have been proud, and that knowledge alone seems to make the Solheims feel good about the way the largest family-owned business in golf equipment is going. And while the memory of Karstens death feels recent (his widow, Louise Solheim, started her address to the recent sales meeting, It has been 30 months, and had to stop for a moment), there is clearly a forge-ahead attitude. Like a steady and familiar drumbeat, it carries Ping fearlessly into a tough market with a lot of product, and a lot of pride.