@36aday is pleased to introduce interviews with leaders in the game of golf in Canada. Nine questions are presented to probe important issues of the game, personal experiences, stories and insight. Just like 9 holes of golf, I hope you find this enjoyable and that it leaves you wanting more.
This is the first of a three-part conversation with Dean Snell, owner and inventor of Snell Golf balls. In this segment Dean discusses his business philosophy, why he turned down Tour players seeking to play his ball, his love of Canada and hockey, and his support for Snell Golf Canada’s commitment to junior golf.
- Dean, your story is well documented – your early history of work in the industry and how you hold numerous patents on golf ball technology. But for those who are not familiar, why did you choose to go out on your own and brand your own ball?
DS – I have been extremely fortunate to work for two of the best companies in the golf industry in Titleist and Taylor Made. I have been very blessed to have the opportunity to develop products for the best players in the world. I spent the last 25 years between those two companies designing golf balls and working with tour players and recreational players getting a lot of feedback from players on what they’re looking for in performance, especially the tour players. I have a lot of good friends on tour and I spent of time with them. So understanding golf balls and golf ball technology is something that I know very well.
The golf business was struggling a few years ago, with courses closing and people canceling memberships; it’s expensive, people aren’t playing. What I thought I could do was see if there was a way I could give back. First, I wanted to make sure my three children were finished with school before I did something on my own. I wanted to give back through taking the best materials, the best process, and the best performances and create very high end golf balls but not have big overhead costs. No big marketing budgets and definitely no big tour contracts. So the cost to make the balls are the same as other manufacturers, the performance is outstanding, but all the savings that I don’t have to pay out I pass back to the consumer. So the main focus was to keep the price affordable. We sell direct to our customers, we sell in some pro shops, but we focus on providing performance for average golfers who may have found balls like this too expensive to try. Maybe if they can have it they can enjoy the game more and maybe play better, play more and help grow the game. For me it was the chance to give back by providing great performance at affordable pricing.
MJ – With tour pros, have any of them had an opportunity to try your ball and do you foresee a day when a pro may go, ‘No, the heck with it, I am going to be playing a Snell ball’?
DS – We have had that. We have had five tour players approach us with their agents wanting to play the ball and we declined. They obviously would be looking for some endorsement money and if I do that than someone has to pay that bill. I want to make sure that everything that I do with this business that affordability and performance doesn’t change. Having these things would add costs and that is not the goal. If I do anything with retail or pro shops I’ll take the margin hit but I want to keep the price the same to continue to provide that level of performance at a price that is affordable. We did have tour players’ call, they were interested in playing (Snell balls) and we respectfully declined.
We did have three guys on tour last year actually play the ball. A couple of them got in trouble from their sponsors and they had to switch back. We had a couple players qualify for the US Open that used the ball. One player actually qualified for the Senior Tour this year and he used the golf ball for free because he likes the performance. The tour players who did play it liked it – and I don’t want to give names and get anyone in trouble – but there has been an interest in it. I think over the next couple years more and more people will be interested. Some players are seeking contracts of $100,000 or $200,000 but they have putts on the 18th green for that amount. That mindset is starting to change. They can take money but if they think performance is better they could win that money back if the ball is better. I hope that message will continue to get out and our growth on tour will take place that way and keep the price low.
- How would you categorize the success of your work under Snell Golf?
DS – It’s been much better than expected. It was a nice little project I wanted to start. It was self-funded with some help from some friends. What I thought I would do in sales in the first year I did in six months. And we started direct on-line sales. We ship free in the United States; it’s a little different system in Canada. 2016 was our first full year and our business was up 400%. Having something grow 10-20% year over year is nice but we grew by 400%. I wanted to do a nice crawl-walk-run approach and we went from crawling to sprinting pretty fast. It’s all good, it’s moving in the right direction and we will continue to support access to affordable, quality product.
MJ – I know the interest the public has in a quality, value ball is high and the example of the interest in the Costco ball is a good example of how something can snowball pretty quickly. So 400% is extremely impressive. Is growth for Snell Golf something you see being able to sustain over time?
DS – I don’t see 400% year over year, if so this is a gold mine, but in this industry which I have been in for 28 years the targets are for 10% annual growth. Our January (2017) was 2 ½ times over the year before and February has been strong too so far. Now these are the slow months because so much of the country is cold and people are not playing golf. We’re off to a good start; we have some new things coming in March and April. Word of mouth and social media have been how we’ve been able to keep the price down on the marketing side and our customers help spread the word. This is all helping keep our costs down. Things are moving in a strong and very positive direction.
- As I’m sure you’re aware, Canada is a golf-crazy market with over 5 million people participating in golf annually. Why is it important to have set up direct Snell outlets in countries outside the United States?
DS – I have a real passion for Canada. I am a hockey player. I love hockey and it’s my first favourite sport if I have to be honest. I spent a lot of time in Canada growing up around the game of hockey. I love the Boston Bruins – Montreal Canadiens rivalry. The Canadian market for us is close to my heart. Looking at our social media outlets I see so many passionate golfers from countries outside the US. And if there’s a way where we can take what we’re doing here in the US to another country, like Canada or Japan or other places, if we can set it up then we will. Now it was a struggle when we got started. It was not easy to get balls from the US to Canada. We shipped across the border and it was expensive and balls would get returned. Being able to come up with a solution that fits and offer the product is a home run. We started in the US and we’re now in 11 different countries today. Of those 11, Canada is one of our biggest. We’re excited about it. Last year was our first in Canada and it started modestly but things are building and we’re excited for the growth and future success.
MJ – Following up, I know the Canadian office has been aggressive in promoting support of Snell Golf Canada for junior golf. What are your thoughts on that?
DS – I think it’s outstanding. The future for golf is not with people who play now and have played for 20 years. It’s going to people with people who are learning it today and who will play it for 40 years. We have to continue – through sponsorships of junior programs like the team at Snell Golf Canada are supporting – to do things different. I share the excitement and energy of the Canadian team at Snell Golf for initiatives like this. Identifying areas that can have a nice impact on the game that can hit a lot of players and help grow the game are things we will support.
MJ – The investment strategy of connecting your brand to junior golf in Canada is great to see. Snell Golf Canada also piloted an ambassador program. There are certainly options and working with countries around the world opens up unique opportunities in those areas.
DS – I agree. We launched an ambassador program here in the US in August or September last year which identified key people in golf in the US. This kind of effort which gets the word out and helps keep costs down are an important part of our business model. Having ambassadors to the business is important to us. If we got into the traditional golf way – endorsement contracts, magazines, TV commercials – which is what we’re trying to keep away from, it helps us manage our costs and we can continue to provide current products and explore future product options.
Click here for Part 2 – great insight on product development.
Click here for Part 3 – Dean’s approach to ball fitting