Executive Interview: Turnaround Specialist Tim Clarke of Wilson Golf
27 Jan 2015
by Corey Ross of AmateurGolf.com

see also: Equipment Reviews

Tim Clarke of Wilson Golf works things out<br>with Wilson Tour-Staffer Ricky Barnes
Tim Clarke of Wilson Golf works things out
with Wilson Tour-Staffer Ricky Barnes

When Tim Clarke took over as General Manager of the Wilson Staff golf division nine years ago, the brand was arguably at the nadir of its first 100 years. The glory days when Wilson Staff bags filled the fairways of the PGA Tour were long gone. In fact, Wilson’s Tour presence had dwindled to one player. Clarke made regaining Tour presence his No. 1 priority – and got a serious reality check. Clarke says he literally couldn’t pay pros to play Wilson clubs.

“We tested our equipment with players and couldn’t get anybody to play it and sign up,” he said at the PGA Show in Orlando. “For me, that was the eye-opener that this was going to be a climb and a half.”

The rejection caused Clarke to re-order his priorities and pump an extra $3 million into golf R & D and revamp the golf division’s entire innovation system. The payoff came last year when pros playing Wilson gear notched wins on three tours, including the PGA, and the golf division turned a profit for the first time in Clarke’s tenure. That allowed Wilson to salvage a happy ending for its 100th anniversary in 2014.

At the PGA Show, Clarke sat down with AmateurGolf.com to talk about the revival of the Wilson brand and his hopes for the start of the next 100 years.

AmateurGolf.com (AGC): What did reaching the century mark as a company mean for Wilson golf?

Tim Clarke (TC): In a brand that’s 100 years old, you want to respect the past, live in the present and plan for the future. The 100th anniversary was a great opportunity to put a retro bag out and celebrate that heritage. But that was a one-year plan. Now we’re back on to the Wilson Staff bag. But the 100 years was exciting. Had a great year in a tough market. We  won on the PGA Tour with Kevin Streelman’s record-setting finish at Hartford. We won on the Asian Tour with Padraig Harrington at the end of the year, and we won on the European Tour with Marcel Siem in the BMW event. To have a win in each tour on the globe was pretty exciting and a great way to close out the 100 years.

AGC: What the benefits/drawbacks of being a brand with that much heritage?

TC: What you don’t want to do is hang on to the past. You want to figure out where we can play and win today. When I got this opportunity, I asked, “Can we be successful?” If I didn’t think we could be successful, I wouldn’t have taken the job.Our advantage is that the brand resonates with people. People have a lot of experience with Wilson, whether that’s your first ball glove, your first basketball or your first tennis racket. And the crossover is strong. Now 2015 is kicking off our next 100 years. We’ve innovated, and what our team has done is impressive.

AGC: What’s the priority for 2015?

TC: We’re focused on our product and rebuilding our North American business, but whether people know it or not, we’ve always been a big, strong player in Europe – we’re the No. 4 iron brand in the UK. It’s bizarre to look at a nine share in the UK and a two share here, but we’re looking to grow that.

AGC: Wilson landed five products (a driver, fairway, hybrid and two irons) on the Golf Digest Hot List. What does that say about the improvement of Wilson’s technology?
TC: The Hot List gives us a tailwind. You still have to execute. (But it shows) we’re earning back integrity and respect. It’s still not where it needs to be but our growth of Staff equipment is growing at a fast clip and we that to accelerate in 2015. We’re the oldest original golf brand still in competition. Titleist was 1932. We were 1914. But we never went away. And that’s a credit to the brand. And we’re right in the meat of the market now. We’ve eliminated a lot of our low-end stuff.

AGC: Besides equipment, Wilson put a lot of thought into its new ball, the Wilson Staff DUO. How does it compare to the elite brands?

TC: It’s 29 compression points, which has a lot of people chasing us. It’s super soft, and other brands are trying to get into that space. We’ve been in front of that curve all the way. And we added the duo spin, which makes a three-piece ball for that better amateur who needs a little more green-side control. When we did testing, we found 80 percent of golfers prefer a softer product. It’s huge. The myth of playing a hard ball because you’re a strong player was true in wound technology, but not in solid-core technology. All compression is, is an indicator of feel. You want that and then, obviously, to maintain distance. And that’s what we’ve done.

AGC: What are the challenges of competing in golf when your company doesn’t specialize in it?

TC: Wilson is a sporting goods equipment company that can compete in the golf space, but we are not an elite golf brand that doesn’t have to worry about all segments of players.I have to look at all players and offer something everybody can get into play, up to the Tour player. I think we’ve had the same struggle as Nike has getting known for authenticity in equipment because they aren’t (recognized first as a golf brand).

AGC: You’ve added Tour pros, but you consider Troy Merritt’s signing in particular meaningful. Why?

TC: He came to us. It was beautiful. He tried the stuff and thought he could win with it. When I first started, guys wanted a lot of money because they we worried the equipment might hurt their game. We had to change our game. And we got the support of our business plan and now it’s an exciting time in our golf division.

AGC: What was the highlight of this year’s PGA Show for you?

TC: At Demo Day, we were six deep at 15 bays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. We used to only have tire-kickers who were waiting in line to try other brands. This was a real shift. It’s what you dream of, and all of a sudden you’re standing there and it’s happening.

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