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Bridgestone Golf driving to be top premium ball maker

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A Bridgestone Golf ball line at its Covington, Ga., plant.
A Bridgestone Golf ball line at its Covington, Ga., plant.

AKRON—Bridgestone Golf Inc.'s recent decision to produce all of its premium golf balls at its Covington, Ga., facility makes for not just a good manufacturing story, but also an excellent marketing one as well, according to a company executive.

As the Bridgestone-brand golf ball has grown from No. 5 to No. 2 in the U.S. after being sold in the domestic market for less than 10 years, the company has put more of its production in Covington, said Dan Murphy, Bridgestone Golf executive vice president of sales and marketing.

Bridgestone now manufactures roughly 3 million dozen golf balls—or 36 million total balls—at the Covington site. Most of those are premium balls that retail for $25 or more a dozen, he said. The company has added roughly 20 jobs at the factory in the last 18 months, boosting employment to 130.

“We were successful in the U.S. from a demand creation perspective,” Murphy said during a recent trip to Akron. “I think that Japan made the logistical decision that it would be smart to manufacture it closer to where we are selling it. It created some efficiencies related to logistics and shipping and shorter reaction time to market.”

With all the premium balls—the E and B series—now made in Covington, the firm continues to produce some of the cheaper balls in Asia, where labor costs make more of a difference in the price-sensitive product categories, he said.

But the more advanced production processes and high-quality work force made it feasible to make the higher-end balls in the U.S. He said the staff there also has done a good job in making the production process more efficient.

“Our guys in Covington have been very conscious of constant improvement and finding ways to take costs out of the process, mostly through automation,” Murphy said. “As the products have become more sophisticated, the manufacturing process is fairly complex, and the work force here in the U.S. lends itself to being capable of handling that complex manufacturing.”

Some portions of the facility are so automated, he said, it's a “lights-out” process with no people in the department.

Rising fortunes

Murphy is proud of what Bridgestone Golf has accomplished on the sales and marketing side of the equation. “We've taken what essentially is a tire brand and beat in the golf ball category some of the big sporting goods giants such as Nike, TaylorMade and Callaway,” he said.

The company has done that both by having a top-notch product to promote but also by differentiating its marketing strategy, he said. Golf products traditionally are sold through what is known as the “pyramid of influence,” where top golfers play a product, and it trickles down to amateur golfers.

Titleist is the king of this approach in the golf ball market and still holds a commanding No. 1 position in the sector. Bridgestone Golf has signed a few golfers to its endorsement roster, including Fred Couples, Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker.

But Bridgestone also has added a second part to its marketing effort, focusing on education and golf ball fitting for amateurs.

“Fitting was something that we really endorsed and created,” Murphy said. “Ten years ago, it didn't even exist as a conversation in the industry, and now it's very common to talk about getting fitted not only for your golf clubs but to get fitted for your golf ball.”

Bridgestone Golf has done roughly 300,000 customer fittings, and he said that has helped it to understand what is going on with the everyday golfer's swing and to use that information to develop its products.

“We want pros to play our ball, and we have a ball they can play at a really high level with,” he said. “However, for the average recreational player, there's a different way to go about choosing your golf ball.”

Future goals

The firm's short-term goal is to raise its market share to 20 percent from its current mark of 14 percent. Murphy said Bridgestone holds 20 percent in certain portions of the market—mainly in the premium side of the business—but getting to that share overall is important.

“We feel like strategically a 20-percent share of the market would be very important,” he said. “It would really solidify us in that No. 2 spot.”

Looking into the future, the company has loftier aspirations. “Long term we certainly believe our product, our technology and being part of the Bridgestone organization enables us to think big,” Murphy said. “We don't have a timeline on it, but we would like to be the No. 1 golf ball in the world.”

Having the affiliation with Bridgestone, especially, is key, he said. “It's a wonderful difference-maker for us. It's funny to hear the tire people say consumers think tires are black and round with treads. It's a similar joke in golf balls: they are round and white with dimples.”