Success Stories: Barney Adams

Golf equipment entrepreneur Barney
Adams sold golf clubs on the Home
Shopping Network and infomercials
when he had trouble breaking
through to regular retail
channels. He grew Texas-based
Adams Golf Inc.
from $1 million to $85
million in annual sales in
three years. But he didn’t
do all that by selling golf
clubs. Adams did it by
providing a service—
clubs that would get
those golf balls to go
the distance.

“In the first place, I think
everybody is in the service
business. You have to define
what service that product
provides the customers,” says
Adams, 70. “My job was to improve
the flight of the
golf ball when you
hit it.”

To tackle his
customers’ biggest
problem, optimum
ball flight, Adams
applied everything
he knew to
develop clubs that
hit well and felt
good in the hand. He sketched
out his design on a yellow legal
pad—no computer, not even a slide
rule. Using this approach, Adams
developed his signature Tight Lies
fairway wood.

For several years, while running his small golf
club business, Adams custom-fitted clubs at a nearby
course, working 12 hours a day or more. He tested
the clubs with his customers at the range. That’s
where he came up with the concept of the wow
factor, which became embedded into the business
culture at Adams Golf. Testers’ response was “Wow!
That really hits good.”

Adams says you must first determine the most
important service you provide to your customers.
The same concept applies to any business, whether
you’re a parts manufacturer or a tailor shop. “That,
to me, is the difference between some outfits that are
pretty good and some outfits that are outstanding,”
Adams says.

Adams’ love of golf started when he was a caddy
at the Onondaga Golf & Country Club in New York
in the 1950s. He went on to get a business-management
degree from Clarkson University and started
working for Corning Glass as a quality engineer,
analyzing product defects. But Adams wasn’t much
of a corporate man.

“Everybody
is in the
service
business.”

What he really wanted to do
was work in the golf industry and
eventually run his own outfit, but
he couldn’t get his foot in the door.
Despite the rejections, he didn’t
stop analyzing why one golf club
design felt great while another was
all wrong. Was it the head, the
shafts, the materials or a combination
thereof?

In 1982, Adams got a call from
Dave Pelz, known as the “short game guru.” Pelz had
found backers for his invention, called Featherlites.
He called in Adams to run the company. Adams
was so excited about his big break that the extent of
his investigation into his new job entailed playing a
round of golf and taking a quick tour of the plant.

Big mistake. A design flaw caused the clubs to snap at the
grip, especially when played during tournament pressure. The
company fixed the flaw, but the damage was done. Adams’ task
wasn’t so much to increase sluggish sales as it was to reverse negative
sales. Customers wanted their money back, and there were
threats of lawsuits. Then the banks were calling in their loans, and
Pelz Golf was imploding.

But Adams hung on. He sold out Pelz’s inventory on the Home
Shopping Network. In his book, The Wow Factor, Adams says he
stayed because people were counting on him. And, most important,
nobody lied to him; it was his fault for not investigating properly.
But the cuts went deep. It got to the point that he and Pelz
were making the clubs themselves.

When Pelz Golf closed, Adams bought up its remaining assets
and started his own company. To finance it, he took a job in Silicon
Valley and hired others to run the golf company. After he banked
some savings, he returned to Texas and set
about the task of running his new business.

On his first day of work, Adams came in early and sat at the desk
where the company kept its books. Within 30 minutes, he was gut
punched. He found a drawer full of past-due notices and collection
letters. All those glowing financial reports were lies. He didn’t have
enough money to cover it all.

Adams blames himself, saying he asked to be cheated because
he was so full of himself, being president. As the owner, you need
to take blame as well as credit. “It goes with the gig. You’re the top
person. You’re going to get credit for some of the successes. I get
credit for things I didn’t even know were going on,” he says.

Instead of shuttering the business, Adams kept at it, moving
money back and forth between his lines of credit and credit cards
to pay his bills. He kept this up for years. Meanwhile, he plugged
away, doing custom fittings and developing new golf products.
He collected six patents but few sales.

That changed in 1996 with Tight Lies, which sent balls and
sales soaring. Adams Golf earned two placements on the Inc. 500
Fastest Growing Small Companies list and took the IndustryWeek
Top 25 Award for Growing Manufacturing Companies, among
other awards. In 1998, Adams Golf went public with the largest
IPO in the history of the golf industry.

Adams learned more than a few things about running a
business in the meantime. He says it’s critical to lay down the
proper culture for the kind of company you want and to make
sure everyone understands the goals of the business and what’s
expected of them.

The interests of the company founder and the employees will
never be the same, but fairness goes a long way, Adams says,
starting with executive parking spaces, for which he has a personal
distaste. “It’s raining cats and dogs, and your car is parked right
outside the door and your employee has to run 85 yards in the
parking lot in the pouring rain to get to his car.”

And although Tight Lies remains one of the best-selling fairway
woods of all time, Adams says there’s more to it than money. “If you’re
going to start a business, it has to be something you’re passionate
about. If it had been about money, I would have quit 40 times.”

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