Bob Philion was a busy man at the PGA Merchandise Show, meeting with dozens of friends/customers/soon-to-be customers … as well as welcoming back Greg Norman as a Cobra Golf staff member. But he wasn’t too busy to give me a few minutes of his time for a “Presidential” golf conversation.
Golf Conversations: Bob, when I started this web site, it was my intention to talk to all sorts of different people from the world of golf. Not just the top players but the caddie master, the course superintendent, the person who makes the hot dogs at the turn house. I wanted to have conversations with people and that takes at least 20 minutes or more. So I appreciate your taking the time to yak with me.
Bob Philion: But you know I don’t make the hot dogs.
GC: And you, sir, are on the board with the first excellent quip. I always try to give my golf equipment industry interviewees a free ad slogan. And I’ve got one for Cobra. Are you sitting down?
BP: I’m sitting.
GC: “Cobra Golf: Snakes In The Grass.” Get it? Cobras are snakes … golf clubs move through the grass. And that’s free.
BP: Is that free?
GC: That’s a freebie.
I used to be in advertising. “Used to.” That’s why I’m doing this now.
BP: I hear you.
GC: Ok, here’s another piece of business for you: “Cobra, panther, mountain lion, cougar.” What’s the difference between those four animals?
BP: You tell me.
GC: Trick question. There is no difference – they’re all the same animal. Ok, now that I’ve lulled you to sleep, let’s start. You’ve been with Cobra Puma for almost three years?
BP: Not quite four – three-and-a-half, since the formation of the company.
GC: You’re a young guy to be President of such a large company – that’s quite impressive. Kudos to you.
BP: Thanks. It’s going great. We’ve come a long way in three-and-a-half years. We acquired a brand and an R&D team but we had a year to a year-and-a-half where we were hiring a lot of people for the infrastructure of the company.
We had pulled Puma Golf from Puma, combined it with Cobra for the legal entity Cobra Puma Golf. So we had a year-and-a-half where it was a bit like a house on fire. We were just bringing bodies into the company to get stuff done. After that, we’ve been able to develop the business and be more proactive in how we’re attacking the market … and getting better at everything we do. Versus the first year and a half was about just doing it … just getting off the ground.
GC: No easy task.
BP: Now I feel like everything we do … we’ve been through it a couple of times and now it’s about getting better and looking ahead, innovating, making sure that we’re solving customer needs.
GC: You were at Reebok before?
BP: Before Cobra Puma Golf, I was at Puma. I came to Puma to start the golf category in 2005. Before that, it was Reebok for ten years.
GC: How did you get your start in golf?
BP: I played in college.
GC: Where was this?
BP: Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.
GC: Jason Kokrak went there.
BP: That’s right.
GC: He’s on the website, I interviewed him.
BP: Did you?
GC: Yes. Everything is “Bob this, Bob that.” He’s crazy about you!
BP: We met at the airport on Sunday after he missed the cut at the Humana. We were on the same plane.
GC: “On the same plane?” That doesn’t sound right. I told Jason: “As soon as you start making some real scratch, you gotta get yourself a jet.” But kids today, they don’t wanna listen. Anyway, two famous golf people from Xavier … that’s amazing.
BP: Well, there’s more. We have a pro: Sebastian MacLean graduated from Xavier two years ago. He’s on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.
GC: You know, you look like a pro golfer.
BP: I do?
GC: You’ve got that tall, lean, “where’s-my-courtesy-car?” look.
BP: I played in the Humana Challenge last week. In the pro-am — Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
GC: Who’d you play with?
BP: I played with our pros: Jesper Parnevik on Thursday, Jonas Blixt on Friday, and Ricky Fowler on Saturday. My amateur partner was Holly Sonders.
GC: Oh, you were in that group! That group was on TV a lot. I should say, Holly was on TV a lot. You weren’t on TV. Hmmm, why is that?
Holly has a nice swing.
BP: She does.
GC: How’s your swing?
BP: I did all right. I was proud of myself. I’ve got two little kids so I don’t get a chance to play as much I’d like but I hung in there. I had a couple of good rounds. I’ve played in Wednesday pro-ams before but to do the tournament is something else.
GC: How so?
BP: Just to see the Tour players dialed in and really focused. On Wednesdays they understand it’s amateurs and they’re trying to help you out. But when it’s Saturday, we had Snedeker and Fowler and they were grinding it out. Ricky had to make the cut. It’s just a different atmosphere when it’s “game on.”
GC: You just want to stay out of their way.
BP: You kind of wanna do that but they also want to stay loose. And I knew the guys. It was a fun round, great conditions, and a great course. You can’t do that in any other sport. I can’t play in the World Series or in the Super Bowl.
GC: Bob, I think you could. You look very athletic.
Did you get a chance to meet President Clinton at the Humana?
BP: I didn’t but I had before at Xavier. He came and spoke at Xavier when I was there.
GC: So you were a good golfer at Xavier. You must have started early in life.
BP: I did. Twelve years old. Worked at a golf course, picked range balls and cleaned balls, parked cars.
GC: Where was this?
BP: Galion, Ohio, just north of Columbus. I played a multitude of sports but golf was the one that looked like it was going to help me pay for school, so I stuck to golf. I went to college and then became an assistant pro at Galion Country Club.
GC: I’m impressed.
BP: Then I left golf for ten years because I got a job at Reebok and became a sales rep. I spent four years in the States, then went to Europe for six years. Then I had a chance to come back to golf and started from scratch with Puma. It was a great entrepreneurial start-up.
GC: Puma is an international company, right?
BP: Yup. German based.
GC: They have the deep pockets.
BP: Puma’s owned by Kering, which is a French company. It has two divisions: the luxury division headlined by Gucci. And then a sport lifestyle division headlined by Puma. We’re one of eighteen companies owned by Kering. They own Puma, Cobra Puma Golf, Volkom, Treetorn. They own Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta. A very dynamic group.
GC: When you got out to Carlsbad when you started Cobra Puma Golf … for those first few months, were you working twenty hours a day?
BP: Yeah. Some people are in the acquisition business. They go and acquire and integrate a company. And they’ll go and do another one. It was taxing; I don’t know how people do that. Now we’re to a point where we’re seeing that success and the hard work of the integration pay off. I wouldn’t want to go back to those days and do another year of acquisition integration.
GC: It takes time to do the R&D and get the products to market.
BP: We acquired an R&D department. That was the beauty of the acquisition. Not only did we get a great name and brand in “Cobra” – that resonates globally – but also an R&D team. So we didn’t have to start from scratch. We had to hire a lot of sales, marketing, merchandising people. A lot of back-office people. But I don’t think we would have acquired Cobra without the R&D team. It would have set us back five-plus years if we had to start from scratch.
GC: But when you came in – no disrespect intended – wasn’t Cobra not a big player? It had been when they had Greg Norman and Hale Irwin.
BP: To some degree, it had dropped a couple of spots in terms of market share. But certainly it was still very prominent on the global scene. The last owner had multiple brands. Cobra’s our only equipment brand.
GC: The previous owner was Titleist … Acushnet.
BP: Fortune Brands. We had a chance to polish Cobra a bit … and Puma Golf had the footwear, apparel, and accessories. So to the retailer, we have a much better proposition than Cobra alone or Puma alone.
GC: Is one a bigger seller than the other?
BP: Our business is about split, 50-50. It’s actually very close.
GC: And your guys had a lot to do with that. Ricky Fowler was quite a phenomenon.
BP: They did. We’ve more than doubled our business since the acquisition in 2010 in a marketplace that hasn’t really grown. Ricky was along for all that from a Puma Golf perspective. And then he switched his clubs to Cobra in 2012.
This week at the PGA show we announced that Greg Norman is coming back to Cobra Golf. Last year, we announced Jesper Parnevik as well. So if you look at our staff: Lexi Thompson is our youngest … Jonas Blixt. We added Graham DeLaet, Ian Poulter, Will MacKenzie. So as our business has developed, we’ve needed to expand our Tour team as well. And make sure that we don’t get pigeon-holed into any particular demographic. A lot of people thing we’re “young.” We don’t talk “age” as much as “youthful mindset.”
GC: Well, that lets me out!
BP: If you think about all those players, you think of world-class performance … their own sense of style. We like the word “swagger.” They also help us keep our demographics broad.
GC: Now you need someone a few years older than Greg Norman … for people in my demographic.
BP: As long as they have that youthful mindset and swagger.
GC: Oh, I’ve got swagger, baby! Hey, speaking of Jesper … the guy’s got the hat with the bill turned up. How many of those custom-made hats did you have to manufacture?
BP: Jesper is a great example of how we work with our players. We’re not counting balls, drivers, and shoes. We’re not trying to be the biggest…
GC: I know. But the hat.
BP: We worked with him. We ended up going through probably five revisions of the hat to get to a flipped brim. We had Puma designers who were working on it. It’s kind of a cycling cap with the flipped brim. We actually did retail the hat.
GC: Riding Jesper’s coattails, will you be selling any volcanic ash as well?
BP: We are not.
GC: You might be missing something there, Bob. That’s a tremendous growth market waiting to explode like Krakatoa.
BP: We don’t see that as an emerging market.
GC: Hey, you’ve got a lot of pretty colors now in your drivers.
GC: And I see that you’ve got an easy-to-adjust driver. I like that much better than those drivers where you need a monkey wrench.
BP: The trend overall is personalization. It’s happening big-time. What we’re trying to do from a company perspective is have technical personalization. You mentioned adjustable lofts. We call that “MyFly8” technology which is in our BiO Cell and BiO Cell+. That’s fairway woods, hybrids, and drivers.
We’re the company that also does personalization from a style standpoint. We’re the only one that’s offering a color choice. Both the BiO Cell and BiO Cell+ come in five fresh colors, in both the metals and the irons.
We feel like we’re giving more personalization. Golfers are saying, “Talk to me as an individual consumer.” We’re seeing that across industries – forget about golf for a second. Everything else you get a choice of color – why wouldn’t that happen in golf clubs?
GC: Obviously, folks can see the color choices at Cobra’s web site. And –I assume – at Demo Days?
BP: Yes, we call those “Cobra Puma Golf Experiences.”
GC: Pardon me, I should have known that.
BP: We call them that because we’re trying to bring more life to that traditional demo day. Instead of just whacking balls, we play some music, we might try on some shoes, we have some competitions.
This year we’re adding our “Go Looooooooooooooong Challenge.” We’re gonna put our stuff up against everyone’s club and we think we’re longer with the BiO Cell and BiO Cell+.
GC: Why is it called BiO Cell?
BP: “Bio” in terms of personalization … as in your bio.
BP: And “cell” because of the technology and the weight placement.
GC: I was thinking “bio” referred to “biology” somehow. Ok, now that makes sense.
BP: It’s your bio.
GC: Got it. You don’t have a little “anti-top” adjustment on your drivers, do you?
GC: Get the boys in Research to start working on that!
Please, Bob. Because some of us out there really need help!
BP: You hit on something that’s really important to us and that’s simplicity. We think the golfer can get bamboozled really quickly with a lot of other adjustments that are out there. We’re trying to keep it ultra-simple. On our loft-adjustment, you can see the loft right in the window.
GC: Great idea.
BP: You turn it, you can see it. It’s very clear to the consumer. And we have SmartPad which squares up the face without an additional adjustment. I think simplicity is …
GC: The game’s hard enough without having to think, “Did I turn this the right way?”
GC: Thank you for your time, Bob. I always love talking to a guy who uses the word, “bamboozled.” Good luck to you.
BP: Thank you, Robert.