B.C. Golf Industry Gears Up

Thanks to B.C. entrepreneurs, golf enthusiasts can now play the local links decked out in locally sourced equipment and golf wear.

Bill Holowaty, executive vice-president, Miura | BCBusiness
Bill Holowaty tees up to demonstrate the magic of a custom-fitted driver.

Thanks to B.C. entrepreneurs, golf enthusiasts can now play the local links decked out in locally sourced equipment and golf wear.

So there’s an exceptionally loyal British Columbian who prefers to eat local, buy local, play local. Some of the playing this homer indulges in is on the golf course. Could he or she even equip local? Emphatically, yes. In fact, this person could head down the first fairway wearing and playing a selection of the game’s most interesting products – some fetchingly artisanal and ultra-exclusive, others blindingly new and, gasp, even edgy. Not to be parochial about it, but it’s hard to imagine a “locagolfer” turned out better anywhere.

First to address the artisanal and ultra-exclusive: in this case, the clubs the person will be carrying, which are as worthy of such adjectives as any on earth. Yes, it’s true; one of the most storied equipment brands in the game is based in an office park overlooking the ninth fairway of Burnaby’s municipal Riverway Golf Course. Even within the golf community many will have only the vaguest notion of the Miura line, but the clubs are among the most expensive that money can buy: hand-forged trophies that are shrouded in myth and played by numerous touring pros, including winners last year on both the PGA and Champions tours.

The legend of Miura began in 1957 when a 16-year-old named Katsuhiro Miura opted to try his hand at forging golf irons instead of the samurai swords that had originally given his hometown of Himeji its reputation as a Japanese steel capital. (Ring temple gong here.) By the 1980s, his meticulously crafted irons were firmly established in the home market and they began to carve out a tiny niche overseas, albeit one that was necessarily below the radar.

The brand’s obscurity to that point had to do with the growing role of equipment sponsorships on the PGA Tour. It was becoming difficult to sell golf clubs that lacked the sheen of a pro endorsement, forcing equipment companies to sign up tour players even if they didn’t manufacture clubs of the sort the pros wanted to play. To get around this vexing problem, some of these companies contracted with small-volume manufacturers like Miura to produce limited editions and prototypes that weren’t available for sale to regular consumers. So it was that Miuras came to be played by Masters winners Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal, and that Raymond Floyd, Retief Goosen and a pre-Nike Tiger Woods can be counted among the many pros who at some point played the clubs, even if they had no idea they were doing so. On the websites favoured by golf’s version of the gearhead, conspiracy theories revolving around irons that may or may not have been designed and manufactured by Miura continue to proliferate like native poa annua grasses on West Coast putting greens.

So Miura irons are handmade artifacts of sterling quality played by tour gods and goddesses, but how did the company become a B.C. story? The answer resides within another kind of legend: that of the Canadian hockey player who is unwanted or overlooked by the NHL and so finds himself exiled to foreign shores. In Miura’s case, there were three: Herb Wakabayashi, a British Columbian turned collegiate star at Boston University who ultimately landed in Japan, where he became a three-time Olympian; Bill Holowaty, a North Vancouver tire dealer’s son who starred at UBC before also heading overseas; and Doug Buchanan, a Kamloops boy who joined the other two on the Seibu Tetsudo team before retiring to coach China’s national hockey team and ultimately become a lawyer. Hailed as Japan’s Mr. Hockey, Wakabayashi was introduced to Katsuhiro Miura, who confided in him a desire for international distribution that would allow his irons to emerge above ground. And Wakabayashi in turn introduced Miura to Holowaty and Buchanan, both of whom would ultimately return to Vancouver.


Image: Paul Joseph
Bill Holowaty, vice-president of product strategies for Miura, tests his swing.

Holowaty, now executive vice-president of product strategies for Miura, is relating all of this while sitting on a chair in the second-floor common area in Miura Golf Inc.’s world headquarters in the Burnaby office park near Riverway Golf Club. Golf clubs lean against the walls in no particular order and piles of boxes are arrayed here and there. A receptionist comes and goes, leaving the phone to be answered or not, as the case may be. Ping or TaylorMade this isn’t, but then again, unlike most of the industry giants, Miura is growing rapidly these days and the premises, relatively humble though they may be, are a sign of good times.

“For the first few years we pretty much ran it out of our houses,” says Holowaty. He, Buchanan, Wakabayashi and a fourth partner, former UBC athletic director Rick Noonan, bought into Miura in 1997, leaving the Miura family as the largest shareholders, but taking on the job of distributing the line outside of Japan. At first the partners envisioned pro shops as the easiest way to retail the clubs, but the green-grass category (as on-course shop operations are known) proved to be in decline due to the ascendance of big-box retailers. Fortunately, Europeans were receptive to the idea of high-end golf clubs marketed without the benefit of advertising or pro endorsements, and were soon accounting for almost half of Miura’s fairly modest sales.

Then the fledgling operation began to benefit from another industry trend, one that, at first glance, would seem more negative than positive for a product trading on classic good looks and time-honoured performance characteristics, rather than blinding innovation: the rise of specialty retailers offering computerized swing analysis and custom club-fitting. For this new kind of retailer, being able to offer unique and high-quality clubs represented not just a distinguishing characteristic, but something of a departure from the mainstream industry. While the major equipment companies sold in the big-box outlets moved toward ever beefier and more elaborately styled irons in an effort to minimize errant shots and dazzle prospective buyers, the new breed of club-fitters reassured golfers that there was no need to forgo spare and elegant irons like Miuras, as long as shaft and head were properly matched to each other and to the golfer. This became all the more true after Miura debuted its own version of what the industry calls a game-improvement iron, geared to the enthusiastic but not necessarily expert golfer.

Meanwhile, the considerable cost to buy a set of Miuras began to seem more reasonable. For one thing, club-fitters generally waive or reduce the cost of analysis and fitting when it leads to the purchase of new irons. For another, Miura’s system of selling irons individually instead of in a set brought the cost down relative to others, since players were increasingly switching from their long irons to separately purchased hybrid clubs, which many golfers find easier to hit. Today a golfer might spend $1,500 to $2,000 on a set of top-line Callaway or Titleist irons, only to pack the three- and four-irons away forever, when for about the same money he or she could be custom-fit for Miuras, purchasing only the pitching wedge through five-iron.

With what appeared to be a viable North American business model in check, the partners sat down and did some math. Of the 25 biggest golf markets, Miuras were available in only about 14. So began the push to penetrate more deeply within the growing ranks of retail club-fitters, a move spearheaded by a newly hired vice-president in charge of distribution.

Then, in 2010, the company made another crucial hire, picking up new president Adam Barr, who for 12 years had been working as the Golf Channel’s equipment-industry editor, giving him perhaps the biggest contacts list in the business. Miura not only found the North American distributors it was looking for, but launched in several Asian countries and has recently found surprising success in big-box chains like Golf Town.

In recent years, Miura’s still-solid European business has been easily overtaken by sales in North America, with Asia coming on strong, even as the Miura family continues to run the Japanese operation. A promising early 2011 turned stellar in May that year, after K.J. Choi won the Players Championship, the richest tournament in the sport, while playing Miura irons. (Nick Price on the Champions Tour and the LPGA’s Samantha Richdale are among the other pros who have been playing Miuras – despite the company’s policy of paying no sponsorship fees.)

“Maybe it’s the star goal scorer who puts you over the top, but just as likely it’s the checking centre,” says Holowaty, reaching back to his hockey days in an attempt to explain the company’s sudden good fortune. Whatever the cause, Miura Golf (which does not release sales figures) claimed a sales boost of about 50 per cent in 2011, and that year was named Canadian golf company of the year by ScoreGolf magazine.

So our homer has been entirely successful in finding irons to play and, conveniently, Miura also makes a driver and a selection of putters, while marketing a leather carry bag. Meanwhile, a Vancouver-based company, Mibrella Inc., has devised a slick umbrella specially designed for West Coast weather as well as the push carts that so many golfers have come around to using. And a player looking for more protection from the elements could opt for outerwear from a local outdoor provisioner such as Arc’teryx Equipment Inc. True, a ball will have to come from elsewhere, but the gear is otherwise taken care of. Now, will this person have to play barefoot and wearing only his or her underwear?


Image: Paul Joseph
James Lepp rocks a pair of his street-inspired
golf shoes.

Fortunately not. Certainly shoes won’t be a problem, thanks to another athlete turned entrepreneur, in this case an actual golfer, James Lepp, whose product takes care of the “new and edgy” description even as he represents another sports-world trope: the phenom who passes up a promising sporting career to pursue his true passion. In 2005, while a student at the University of Washington, Lepp bested current PGA Tour mainstay Michael Putnam in extra holes to become NCAA Division-1 champion, the high point in a stellar college career that had him ranked as one of the top half-dozen or so amateurs in the world. But even before he left college for what everyone assumed would be a quick sprint up the professional ranks, Lepp was feeling restless. More and more, what he wanted wasn’t to play golf, but to design golf shoes.

Lepp had no background in either shoes or design. He came from a family of accountants and had studied business. All he knew was that no one else was producing what he and his golf buddies wanted to wear when they were on the course. His first Photoshop attempts were, he allows, “just terrible.” But he persevered, and by 2008 had largely quit competitive golf to concentrate on the operation, leading to his first line of shoes in 2010.

Lepp is sitting in his boardroom as he details the timeline – his boardroom being the Earls restaurant on Abbotsford’s South Fraser Way, a short drive from his home, which doubles as Kikkor Golf Inc.’s head office. Lepp is an easygoing West Coast guy, but there’s a trace of disdain in his voice as he describes the golf shoes he had to wear as a competitive golfer. Clearly, it will be a while before white and black saddle shoes show up in the Kikkor lineup.

Instead, his shoes for men and women resemble the sneakers and skate shoes that most people under the age of 40 wear when they aren’t forced to put on something else. From a golf point of view, they’re utterly functional – comfortable and water-resistant, with soles designed to provide the grip and stability a golfer needs when making a hard swing. Still, some in the golf world were mildly aghast when Kikkors first dawned, convinced that tradition and performance (whatever that might mean in the context of a golf shoe) should be paramount. But time proved to be on Lepp’s side, as pro golfers – including a relatively ancient Fred Couples – began to give up traditional styles in favour of more casual looks, and mainstream brands rushed their own “alternative” shoes to market to compete against upstarts like Kikkor. Lepp’s line remains a niche, with sales not yet measured in the tens of thousands of units. But it is now distributed throughout most of North America, even as he relies on the online world for a large proportion of both sales and marketing (a highlight of the latter being the goofy golf trick videos he posts on YouTube).

Image: Courtesy of Lija
Linda Hipp lets her T-shirt do the
talking about her contemporary
women’s golfwear line, Lija.

Earlier this year he signed his first pro endorsement with Ryann O’Toole, who is entering her sophomore season after a rookie year that saw her added to the U.S. Solheim Cup roster. With luck, it will be a case of one rising star wearing the wares of another.

Ultra-premium clubs. Outré shoes. Now, what is our golfer going to wear on his or her back? Strangely enough, that was exactly the problem Linda Hipp faced before going on to solve it. Hipp had taken a marketing job with Orca Bay back in the mid-1990s and was beginning to focus on her golf game when she realized there was simply nothing on the market she could imagine venturing out in. Always stodgy, the traditional golf uniform was plumbing fresh new depths, leaving her no choice but to abandon her job and make herself something to wear.

Initially called Hyp Golf, but renamed Lija in 2004, Hipp’s fashion-forward line struck an instant chord, racking up successive annual-sales increases in the 50-per-cent range, which put Lija Style Inc. on Profit magazine’s list of Canada’s 100 fastest-growing companies for four years in a row. (As a private company Lija does not release sales figures, but Profit estimated annual revenues approaching $2 million.) By 2008, Hipp had sponsorship relationships with no fewer than nine LPGA players, mostly young, when she began to notice that the economy wasn’t doing very well. “No problem,” she thought. “Golf will be insulated.” It wasn’t, of course. In the U.S., sales of golf equipment dropped from $3.7 billion in 2007 to $2.8 billion in 2009. Like everyone else, Hipp was faced with plunging sales and unsold inventory, a situation that didn’t work itself out until last year. Fortunately, around the same time she diversified into yoga, tennis and other active wear, and that end of the business has done well. From her headquarters in a Richmond office park, Hipp now distributes to some 2,500 retailers, mostly in North America but also in Europe and Asia.

There’s just one problem with all of this: Lija only makes clothes for women, and there appears to be not a single B.C. company offering a similar service to men. Given the recent turn toward more flamboyant on-course apparel, some male golfers may find that Lija items fit reasonably well and look perfectly fine. Careful with the capri pants, though. And ixnay on the skorts.