Pro-shop alum Poulter puts experience to work
Ian Poulter is an outlier.
The English Ryder Cup star doesn’t have a story that features a stellar college career, like a Luke Donald, or one with the gilded route to teenage fame and fortune enjoyed by a Tiger Woods or a Rory McIlroy. No, Poulter came up the hard way, scraping by, playing local pro-ams and satellite tours while working in his local club pro shop, selling Nick Faldo sweaters and Seve Ballesteros-endorsed white shoes.
Like Greg Norman before him, Poulter has commercial instincts and a group of fans loyal to him and his look.
But it’s that very background that gives Poulter something more valuable in today’s sports marketplace than mere golfing talent. It gives him an authentic story, two of the marketing industry’s favorite words, a fact of which Poulter is acutely aware.
“I learned a lot in those years,” he said recently, referring to the time spent managing the stock room at the back of the pro shop at Woburn Golf Club, just north of London. “I learned about golf and merchandising and brands.”
The biggest lesson, he said, was that ownership is everything, and in this respect, one player’s business model stood out above all others.
“Greg Norman had his own brand, taking it all the way to world No. 1,” Poulter said. “Greg was an inspiration to me as someone who wanted to expand his brand far beyond just clothing. I used to merchandise the shop. I used to buy the Pringles and Lyle & Scotts [Scottish golf apparel brands], all the stuff. I looked at Greg as a golfer; I wanted to be the Greg Norman of my world. I liked the fact he wasn’t just a golfer; he was a businessman too.
“I was aware that owning the IP was important,” Poulter said. “It’s easy to take an endorsement deal to promote someone else’s product. But if I put the time and effort into creating my own line of business, making a level of investment into your own business to create a brand. … If I fast forward 10 or 15 years, I have something in place that they have today.”
Poulter is at a lower level in commercial terms than the Great White Shark, but the fundamentals of their businesses bear comparison. They both have a keen business mind and they also have a tribe. U.K. golf courses have their share of mini-Poulters strutting the fairways, all with checked trousers, hair gel and attitude. Many of those very fans could perhaps be seen in the galleries this weekend, as the British Open tees off at England’s Royal Liverpool Golf Club on Thursday.
“As an athlete, you are a pass-through entity,” Norman once said. “Agents were taking commission on an annual basis, and if you had a three-year deal to represent someone, they would take their money, and you knew there would be another Greg Norman down the line. There he was — Tiger Woods.”
In Poulter’s case, the opportunity to create IJP Design, his own company, came as he exited one clothing deal and entered a new club and shoe deal with Cobra/Puma Golf. In 2007, he launched IJP Design and by 2012, he said, the business was making a profit for the first time. Revenue for the business was around $7.6 million in 2013, with the company employing 16 people full time.
The product is made in China and retails via professional shops at golf clubs, with around 70 outlets in the U.K., 50 in the United States and more than 100 in the rest of the world.
Like many of Europe’s golf’s elite, Poulter is now a Florida resident, visiting his home country only occasionally — for this week’s British Open and the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s flagship event, earlier in the year.
“There just aren’t as many U.K. events as there were,” Poulter said, “which is about sponsorship. It’s not our fault. We’d love to play more.”
He recalls his formative years dominated by the stars of European golf in the 1980s, when players such as Faldo, Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam broke the American dominance of golf’s major championships and turned the Ryder Cup into the multimillion-dollar event it is today.
“If you go back through the years, that generation of players played in Britain far more often,” he said. “Today, the U.K. fans are starved of seeing their home-grown players playing as often as they would like.”
This disconnect between the fan base and the event schedule leads some to suggest that Poulter and his ilk are harder to relate to than the previous generation of stars. It’s not an argument Poulter has much time for.
Poulter launched IJP Design in 2007. Revenue was about $7.6 million in 2013, and the company employs 16 full time.
“No. It’s the opposite,” he said. “Social media wasn’t around back then. Your only perception you ever had of Faldo, Seve, Woosnam, Lyle … was when you could see them in action. You get far more from today’s players than just seeing them on a golf course, and today’s players give more than that generation gave us back then. We’re more open. You get to see more of us not just on the course, but away from the course too. That’s a big change of the last decade. People are closer to us now, they know more about us now.
“If you tried to interview Seve or Faldo 20 years ago, would you get more out of them than you get from us today? I think you get more out of us than you would have got out of them.”
More than any of his contemporaries, Poulter’s brand has been built using social media. His Twitter handle, @ianjamespoulter, boasts a following that is pushing toward 1.7 million, a substantial global media platform from which he pushes a mix of content ranging from photos of his expensively curated car pool of Ferraris and Bentleys through to sponsor references and product updates on his latest line of plaid trousers.
“The younger kids have someone to look up to,” he said. “It’s up to us to make golf fashionable and fun, and fashion is a way that can definitely help. Look at the kids who come out and play today: they are flamboyant and fashionable. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”
Richard Gillis is a writer in London.