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When the late Payne Stewart won the U.S. Open back in 1999 with a particularly strong putting performance, Jim Grundberg took note. Grundberg, at the time an executive at the big Odyssey (ELY) golf brand, was intrigued by the design of Stewart's putter, made by tiny SeeMore Putter. "We thought: 'Wow, that's something else,'" says Grundberg. "We looked at [that putter] as a threat."
Grundberg left Odyssey soon afterward but SeeMore remained in the back of his mind. After Grundberg and three friends later won a recreational scramble using Grundberg's own SeeMore putter, he became even more interested in the company, which by then was flagging.
He called Jason Pouliot, a former colleague at Odyssey, and in 2006 the pair bought SeeMore, betting they could turn it around. They appear to have done so: In 2009, sales for the 10-employee company were $1.5 million, up from about $50,000 when they acquired it. The Franklin (Tenn.)-based SeeMore accounts for a sliver of the golf equipment market, which totaled about $2.8 billion in 2009, according to the National Sporting Goods Assn. Still, SeeMore's growth shows how entrepreneurs can jumpstart an existing business, using even the most basic strategies of new product introductions and marketing.
When Pouliot and Grundberg bought SeeMore, the company was selling just one product, a putter invented by Jim Weeks, a golf instructor who founded the company in 1998. The design of the putter's head set it apart, commanding $150 at retailers' cash registers. When a player, looking straight down onto the putter, positions it so that the shaft appears to run between white lines—obscuring a red dot painted on top—the putter head is supposed to be square to the ball, increasing the odds of an accurate putt. "Hide the red dot" is an oft-repeated company marketing line.
One of Pouliot's and Grundberg's first moves was to roll out new products. Drawing on their industry knowledge and the informal research they conducted via conversations with golf pros, retailers, and others in the industry, the two settled on creating an entire line of premium putters.
In 2007, SeeMore began selling a high-end line made of milled materials, which have a more refined feel than the cast materials most putters incorporate. Despite an eye-popping $325 retail price tag, the "mSeries" line of six putters took off in 2008. SeeMore that year sold 5,500 putters from that line, accounting for more than half its total sales of about 10,000 putters. Other product introductions, too, have had impact: In early 2009, SeeMore launched putters made of a combination of milled and cast metals with a retail price of $185 to $225.
Growth has continued into 2010. During the first five months of this year, revenue is up by 19 percent, and unit sales up by 39 percent, from the same period a year ago. Much of that growth, Grundberg says, is fueled by sales of SeeMore's new, less-expensive putters, which retail for $150 to $165.
To get the word out, Grundberg and Pouliot work the greens at professional events. Surrounded by an array of SeeMore putters, the duo stand for hours near the course during pre-event practice days, hoping players and caddies will stop by. (Tour rules don't allow vendors to approach players directly to hawk products.) The objective isn't to sell putters, but to give them to players: In 2009 the duo attended 30 tournaments and gave away from two to five putters at each.
In its marketing materials, the company highlights famous players who use SeeMore putters—most notably Zach Johnson, who won the 2007 Masters and late in May won the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.
The company's bare-bones strategy is working. "As far as I could tell, SeeMore had essentially dropped off the map" before Grundberg and Pouliot bought it, says Sean Weir, founder of PutterZone.com, which tracks the putter industry and reviews equipment. The current owners, says Weir, "took a good thing and made it better."
Now that the business has momentum, with projected 2010 sales of about $2.5 million, Grundberg and Pouliot are working to boost gradually the number of club shops and sporting goods stores—currently fewer than 1,000—that carry its products.
"We've got to find a way to reach more golfers, to find as many quality golf shops we can to tell our story," says Pouliot. New products incorporating the red-dot alignment system are always on the horizon. In April, SeeMore launched its first putter with a plumber's neck—a horizontal bend at the end of the shaft. SeeMore is also pushing aggressively into distribution overseas, especially in Korea and Japan.
Above all, say Pouliot and Grundberg, the turnaround is working because they took a single, solid product and built on it, spinning out variations to sell at a range of prices and plugging them with on-the-ground marketing. "We don't want to make wedges; we don't want to make drivers," says Pouliot. "Our goal is to be the best putter company we can." If the two keep it up, many more players in the future will be hiding that red dot.