Sunday 25 September 2016

Your Business: Disrupting the golf market

Tony Judge tells Sean Gallagher how he went from banking to setting up his own golf-club-hire business

Sean Gallagher

Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30

Sean Gallagher with Tony Judge, CEO of Clubs To Hire Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Tony Judge, CEO of Clubs To Hire Photo: David Conachy

Most entrepreneurs have a curious mind. While most people tend to complain about everyday problems, entrepreneurs, on the other hand, have a tendency to view these as opportunities or challenges that merely require solutions. Such ingenuity is at the heart of many successful businesses and this week's entrepreneurs certainly meet that criteria.

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Watching travellers in an airport struggling with their golf clubs while trying to board their plane was the catalyst behind Tony Judge and Gerry McKernan's decision to set up their own golf-club-rental business in 2010. While their idea may now look simple, even obvious, it was an innovative move that has already brought them considerable international success. Today, their company, Clubs To Hire, employs 40 staff and has an annual turnover of over €3m.

This week, I met up with Tony in St Margaret's Golf Club on Dublin's northside to learn more about the business.

"Clubs To Hire is a disruptive business that operates in the golf travel market," explains Tony. "It's like a car rental company, only we rent out golf clubs instead of cars. Whether you are going on a golfing holiday with friends or on a business trip, we save you the hassle of bringing your clubs through busy airport terminals, waiting for them at excess luggage, paying high carriage charges, as well as worrying about them getting stolen or damaged," he adds.

It's a straightforward model where travellers book their choice of clubs via the company's website www.clubstohire.com. They can then choose to collect these at one of the company's three Clubs To Hire shops in Faro, Malaga and Lisbon or at meet-and-greet points in a further 20 key airport locations around the world. These include Dublin, Edinburgh, Alicante, Palma, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Cape Town and Orlando. Alternatively, customers can choose to have their clubs delivered directly to their hotel on arrival.

"We supply a selection of high-end brands such as TaylorMade, Callaway, Mizuno and Wilson Staff. Shaft types include both regular steel and graphite, and customers can choose either male or female sets as well as right or left-handed clubs. And we also have an extensive range of clubs for children," adds Tony.

Customers can rent clubs for a day, a week or up to a month at a time and with prices from €35 up to €60 per week, they get to experience the latest clubs on the market at less than it would typically cost to transport their own. Having looked after more than 250,000 customers since Tony and Gerry began the business, the company expects to rent out more than 80,000 golf sets this year alone.

"Approximately 50pc of our customers come from the UK with the remainder drawn from Ireland and Germany, as well as Sweden, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands," says Tony.

Tony Judge grew up in Clontarf, north Dublin, where, from the age of 14, he worked part time in the bar of the nearby Royal Dublin Golf Club, where he was first introduced to the sport of golf and immediately fell in love with the game. He studied marketing and business at the College of Marketing and Design at DIT before moving into the banking sector, firstly with AIB and later with Bank of Ireland and First Active. After that, he spent five years with Smurfit Paribas Bank, where he became the bank's head of marketing.

"As part of my role there, I organised golf events, which I really enjoyed and became good at. As a result, in 1995, when I felt I was ready for a change from banking, I decided to apply for the job as Director of Mount Juliet Golf Club and was lucky to be appointed," explains Tony.

The move turned out very opportune for Tony because Mount Juliet was chosen as the location to host the Irish Open for the following three years - giving him even greater experience as well as considerable contacts within the sport. From there he moved to St Margaret's Club in north County Dublin, where he worked for a further two years.

He then ran a South African-based IT software business before finally returning home in 2006. At the time, Ireland was in the throes of a huge property boom and so Tony decided to set up his own property investment company, where he acted as a broker for those looking to buy investment properties abroad. While things started off great, it wasn't long before the market totally collapsed.

"It was a very challenging time but thankfully we were able to get most people back the deposits they had paid," he says.

The idea for Clubs To Hire came about after his now business partner, Gerry McKernan, was sitting in Faro airport waiting for his flight home to Ireland. Originally from Belfast, Gerry had established a number of successful businesses. While in the airport, he noticed a number of people struggling with their bags of golf clubs, and after he discussed the incident with Tony, the pair decided there had to be a market for a golf-club-rental business.

Having spent the first six months developing their website and booking engine, the pair then turned their attention to trying to agree deals with golf club manufacturers to supply them with reasonably priced clubs. As a new start-up venture, though, they had little credibility and had to work incredibly hard to convince manufacturers of the potential of their idea. Enlisting the aid of Paul McGinley also helped open doors and after considerable persistence and determination, they eventually managed to agree a deal with both TaylorMade and Callaway. With these in place, they then began to focus on opening their first physical shop in Faro a few months later.

"That also had a tough start because the clubs we had ordered from the manufacturers were late arriving. With orders to fill, I ended up having to go to a local golf club and rent sets to pass on to our customers until our own supplies arrived," explains Tony. "While we lost money in the beginning, the business eventually took off and has been growing rapidly ever since."

More recently, the pair launched a sister business, Clubs To Buy, where they now sell off their used golf sets at affordable prices, something that is also proving a big hit in the market.

What are his plans for future? I ask.

"We want to continue to disrupt the golf sector and are ambitious to double the size of the business over the next three years," says Tony. "We're currently in the process of opening two more airport shops and are looking at developing into new markets such as Austria, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. With an excellent team and a growing database of happy customers, we also see great opportunities to add additional golf- related services to our current offering," he adds.

Tony Judge has had a very varied career. His love for golf combined with his knowledge of marketing and banking as well as his expansive network of contacts in the sport have all culminated to help his new venture become successful.

Steve Jobs put it well when he said that: "You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."

I think Tony Judge can testify to that.

Tony's advice for other businesses

1 Start with enough money

Make sure you have enough money when starting a new business. It is very easy to run out of cash early on, so it is best to have enough capital set aside to deal with unpredicted crises that you hadn’t planned for. Lots of good business fail, not because they don’t have customers but because they run out of cash.

2 Do your research

You simply cannot do enough research when starting out in business. Research is important to identify the real need you are planning to satisfy in the market with your particular product or service. Detailed research is also key to putting together a proper business plan.

3 Aim to disrupt

Try to be as disruptive as possible in your chosen industry. If you can master this, you have a unique opportunity to differentiate your business from all others in your sector. Many traditional industries are open to disruption but you have to be courageous and be willing to think outside the box.

Overview

Company: Clubs To Hire

Business: Renting of golf clubs

Set up: 2010

Founder(s): Tony Judge & Gerry McKernan

Turnover: €3m

No of Employees: 40

Location: Headquartered in Clontarf, Dublin with 23 locations worldwide

For further information: www.clubstohire.com and www.clubstobuy.com

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