By SCOTT HAMILTON
One minute Ari Techner is accepting a $10,000 investment from his kid brother to launch a golf equipment company; four years later he’s waiting to board a nonstop flight from Portland, Ore., to Tokyo for a meeting that he hopes will expand his business. In a consolidating industry that’s hardly hospitable to entrepreneurs, Techner arguably deserves kudos just for staying in business. But to the surprise of many, his business – Scratch Golf, a custom-fit wedge manufacturer – is doing more than treading water.
According to company officials, the Springfield, Ore.-based startup eclipsed a milestone last year – generating more than $1 million in sales. And on a recent Tuesday, Techner personally sold more than $10,000 in clubs, making a distant memory the $575 in sales Scratch Golf recorded in December 2004, its first month of operation.
The company’s wedges have made it into the bags of seven PGA Tour and 11 Nationwide Tour players, notably Jesper Parnevik and Tag Ridings. (No player, however, is under contract.) Scratch Golf also has gained shelf space among key retailers, such as PGA Tour Superstore and Edwin Watts Golf.
But what makes Scratch Golf intriguing is that it has gained a foothold in the marketplace with no advertising budget to speak of, even less brand recognition, and a selling price that’s as much as three times the cost of typical premium wedges. That’s usually a formula for failure, but it’s producing results for the company.
Industry observers and retailers offer a few theories for the clubmaker’s success. They say Scratch Golf has surfaced at just the right time, capitalizing not only on the growing momentum of custom-fitting, but the limited attention major competitors have given to the practice in the wedge category.
Word-of-mouth advertising, they say, also is working in the company’s favor, helping justify the $299 price tag as a fair cost for a customized club as opposed to a mass-produced one. (Scratch Golf also sells assembled models for $199 each.)
The company’s fitting system is based upon the principle of matching certain swing types with a particular type of sole grind. It has five basic grinds to match three swing tendencies, ranging from shallow to steep approaches – and can further customize a club with 13 additional grinds. Golfers then select one of three head shapes and make picks from a variety of shafts and grips. They complete the process by choosing one of six finishes.
If that’s not enough to satisfy consumers, a company official says, “We’ll do anything somebody asks us.”
“There’s no doubt you can (buy a similar wedge off the shelf), but the problem is most folks don’t put any kind of emphasis on fitting,” says Kelly Burdette, merchandiser for golf clubs for the PGA Tour Superstore chain based in Atlanta. “That’s what I like about Scratch – the emphasis on fitting and actually targeting a particular player’s needs.”
Burdette says he chose to carry Scratch because “it was kind of a (niche) product, and what we try to do with our stores is show the products you won’t go into a typical store and see.”
The club’s expensive price, however, has limited distribution and sales. But retailers who are carrying Scratch Golf say the wedges are turning over enough to keep them in stock.
“We’ve talked with customers and it’s like, ‘Oh, $200 for a wedge,’ ” says Brent Pittman, assistant manager for Edwin Watts Golf in Palm Beach, Fla. “But sales have still been going pretty well. Some people seem willing to pay for them.”
For now, that validation is priceless for Techner, the 28-year-old president and CEO of Scratch Golf. The company’s chairman and chief operating officer is his brother, Chad, who provided the seed money for the enterprise when he was just 21. They say their youth has been an asset rather than a detriment.
“I actually think it’s been a big benefit for us,” Ari Techner says. “Besides bringing a fresh perspective, I think people meet me and they know I’ve had to work hard to get where I am. We do some things differently from a lot of companies, but I never worked for Titleist, I never worked for TaylorMade. We just do things the way we feel they should be done.”
The idea for the business came shortly after Techner, a self-described equipment junkie, and his friend, Jeff McCoy, graduated from the PGA program at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich. McCoy, now the company’s master grinder, had a special skill for grinding wedges, and Techner recruited him. Chad Techner was looking to invest the money he had saved and embraced Ari’s idea.
The three men set up in McCoy’s one-car garage, and most of the money went toward buying heads. They use soft 1018 carbon steel to forge wedges, and they offer lofts ranging from 46 to 64 degrees. “Getting our name out there has been the biggest challenge,” Ari Techner says. “But that’s also where we’ve seen the biggest growth the last year – just getting our name out there.”
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Scott Hamilton is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him e-mail [email protected]