(From the Feb. 20, 2012, issue of Rubber & Plastics News)
AKRON—The fact the business of golf is shrinking in the U.S. is well documented: golf course closings are far outpacing openings, and the number of active golfers has been falling steadily for a number of years.
The reason why is up to debate—the recent recession, the cost of engaging in the game, the fact people don't want to or can't spend several hours on a course are cited in several studies.
What is certain is that competition between manufacturers of rubber golf grips is getting tougher. Already it's a David vs. Goliath story, with changes in the game's popularity in the U.S.—while it is growing overseas, especially in Asia—making it challenging for smaller manufacturers.
Gibbs Plastic & Rubber in Bencia, Calif., is one of the little guys, making “Mint Grips” branded products for grip companies globally. The challenge is made more daunting by the presence of several “behemoths” in the industry, including Lamkin and Golf Pride, said Darin Michels, owner of Gibbs Plastic & Rubber, which also makes custom rubber and plastic products.
Small but important
Michels said golf club grips actually produce a small percentage of total revenue for Gibbs. But he maintains the golf grip business because of the presence of many loyal customers and that the sport still has millions of players, despite the overall decline in numbers.
“Just about every golf grip manufacturer has purchased from us at some time and it's a steady business,” said Michels, who estimates that Gibbs made more than 50,000 golf grips in 2011. His firm has the capacity to produce up to 500,000 per year.
“It's not our core business by any means but there is a market out there mainly because many companies don't want to invest in the tooling needed to do the work,” an investment Michels said can be as high as $250,000.
The company's core business is the manufacturing of custom rubber products, including for such industries as oil-field drillers, rubber-to-metal bonding and an array of diaphragms.
The story is slightly different for Alan Anderson, global operations excellence manager for Golf Pride, one of the sport's best known brands of golf grips. Golf Pride is a division of the conglomerate Eaton Corp., a global leader in technology, electrical, hydraulic and mechanical power products.
In recent years the consolidation of golf club manufacturers has forced Golf Pride to focus on increasing its aftermarket presence, requiring regional sales managers to market directly to courses and golf equipment specialty stores to increase sales for the re-gripping of existing clubs. In this economy, the average golfer is hanging onto his or her clubs longer, and re-gripping can be a cost-effective way to improve performance.
“Historically our sales were driven via promotions from distributors, but that has changed and we're looking for other ways to promote our brand,” Anderson said.
Golf Pride's representatives can do that by participating in regional or local “demo days” where customers at retail golf stores and at golf courses can come in and be fitted for the proper grip based on size and performance needs. Then, the Golf Pride representative will install one grip for free, providing them the opportunity to try it out before they buy more.
“That is where we're trying to further build our brand and educate (consumers) about the option of re-gripping,” Anderson said. “Golfers are seeing it as a viable option to buying a new club.”
Making a golf club grip
The manufacturing process for golf grips involves paying attention to such factors as where a golfer will play, and designing different grips to handle such elements as dry air versus moist air. The increasing number of grip options today hasn't necessarily made the manufacturing process more complex, Anderson said, especially given Eaton's presence as a component manufacturer for such industries as aerospace and automotive.
“We use the same processes the rest of the company uses so it's done at a tolerance our competitors can't match,” Anderson said. “It is true that with less variability (in grip options) years ago our tolerances were much wider, but today that process is more streamlined.”
Gibbs began manufacturing golf grips more than 40 years ago thanks to Michel's father, under the “Scotty Grip” brand. That was the first injection molded rubber grip made in the industry, Michels said. Today the company makes six different styles of simulated leather grips with an array of characteristics under the Mint Grips brand. It also provides custom grips, including customized logos, for many of its smaller customers globally.
Another challenge with making golf grips today is that there is often more of an emphasis on the marketing of such products than the actual quality, Michels said.
“It's very marketing oriented—that often seems to matter most to many customers,” Michels said. “There's a lot of flash to selling grips these days. I think we're one of the only companies left that manufactures them in the U.S. It is a very labor-intensive process.”
Grips for clubs and putters come in a wide variety of colors, including two-tone and camouflaged, Anderson said. There are also more sizes and even custom grip options for golfers.
Some of the larger grip companies pay or endorse professional golfers to play clubs that include their grips, something Michels doesn't do. It is an important part of the marketing effort for Golf Pride, which pays professional players to endorse and use its products.
Continued price pressures coming from large and overseas competitors probably will limit the amount of growth in golf grips Gibbs will see in the coming years, Michels said. Yet there is still a market for steady work, especially because the firm is one of the few companies that will work with elastomers and various paints.
“There are lower-priced options on the market but for our customers we are very affordable,” Michels said. “We have a steady business without really doing any advertising or marketing.”
Golf Pride does advertise globally, but Anderson understands the pressure of being one of the industry leaders that is facing margin challenges each year.
“What we're defending is the consistency of our brand and the quality,” he said. “We continue to spend on R&D. When you're at the top it can be tough to stay there.”