Broad appeal makes golf a great business tool

A popular place to initiate or close a deal

By: Mike Mathis
   Some think of the sport of golf as nothing more than people swatting a small white ball with metal sticks. Others, however, see an opportunity to build their businesses beneath blue skies rather than in a stuffy office.
   While golf enthusiasts can likely think of no better place to conduct business, especially when the weather is perfect, even some non-golfers understand that the front and back nine is the perfect setting to form and build business relationships.
   "You are on stage. You’re in the spotlight," said Bill Storer, president of Business Golf Strategies, Inc., a firm based in Basking Ridge which teaches businesses how to use golf as a business tool. "It’s not about you, it’s about your customers when you’re playing business golf," Mr. Storer said.
   Mr. Storer called business golf "the six-hour sales call" that has been popular nationwide for many years. He said $3 billion in business is transacted on the golf course annually, a figure he believes will rise as the popularity of the sport expands, particularly among women executives.
   John Loughlin, assistant manager of the Mattawang Golf Club in Montgomery Township said the number of fledgling golfers, particularly women, is on the rise because companies are encouraging their employees to play golf. "Companies want to entertain their clients in a sociable setting," Mr. Loughlin said. "(Employees) are required to play in the company golf outings."
   John Buser, general manager of the Tournament Players Club at Jasna Polana in Princeton Township, said 60 percent of the membership there is corporate, a figure that has remained stable for the last five years.
   Companies that conduct business on the golf course vary widely, from construction companies to law firms, Mr. Storer said. Some companies will incorporate a round of golf into sales meetings, while others may encourage employees to play golf with clients, he said.
   "They see golf as a team-building exercise," Mr. Storer said.
   A former sales and marketing executive for AT&T and Lucent Technologies, Mr. Storer co-owned a company that managed more than 140 corporate and charitable golf events in which 10,000 people participated. "I got promoted because of my knowledge of golf," said Mr. Storer, who began playing at the age of 12. "When it comes time to consider who to promote, there you go."
   Mr. Storer said people tend to patronize businesses because they are comfortable with the owners and operators, not necessarily because those businesses have the best products and services. The golf course is an excellent way to cultivate those relationships, he said. "It’s critical to build a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship with clients," Mr. Storer said.
   Like many other things in the business world, the decision to transact business on the golf course often rests with the person in charge, Mr. Storer said. "If the top guy doesn’t play golf and doesn’t believe in it, guess what happens?" Mr. Storer asked rhetorically. "It’s the trickle down effect."
   Angela Deitch, president of Angela Deitch Consulting, a management training and consulting firm in Ewing, said golf tournaments are perfect opportunities for business people to meet and mingle, and sponsorships help create publicity for the sponsoring company.
   Ms. Deitch has chaired the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual golf tournament for four years. The event, which is scheduled for June 12 at Olde York Country Club in Chesterfield, is usually sold out in February, she said.
   The tournament, which is limited to 124 participants, offers corporate sponsorships from $2,000 to $3,000 and hole sponsorships for $150, Ms. Deitch said.
   "What client doesn’t want to be treated to a day of golf?" Ms. Deitch noted. "Part of doing business is having visibility. If you have you’re name on a sign (as a sponsor), you’re getting your name out. You become a known entity."
   Ed Griffin, general manager of Princeton Fuel Oil in Hamilton, said that while he doesn’t play golf, he understands the importance of the game as a marketing and sales tool. That’s why he decided to pay $2,500 to be a major sponsor for the Princeton chamber’s golf tournament, he said.
   "People are going to be conducting business with their friends, and this is a great way to make friends," said Mr. Griffin, adding that he’ll partake in the tournament’s cocktail hour. "Almost every one of (the participants) needs a heater or air conditioner sooner or later. I always get it back."
   Nina D. Melker, first senior vice president at Yardville National Bank, said two bank employees and two customers play in the tournament. Bringing along prospective customers is encouraged as well, she said. "It’s a way of thanking people for being a customer of ours," Ms. Melker said. "When you’re in the golf cart all day, you can talk, even if you’re not on the course.
   "(Playing golf in a tournament) is a great way to do business, have fun and support the community at the same time," Ms. Melker said.
   Those who don’t play golf can judge a putting tournament or man the beverage cart, Ms. Deitch said. "There’s lots of opportunities to network and talk to people, even if you can’t play with them," she said.
   As with any discretionary business spending, business golf is still subject to economic swings and politics. Mr. Buser of Jasna Polana said he has seen some companies institute restrictions on client entertainment due to cutbacks, which forces club operators to come up with ways to sustain profitability.
   "Once you start dropping prices, you cut into your fine line of profit," Mr. Buser said. "The (golf club operating) industry has had to become more innovative and creative to make up for these dollars." One aspect of the business that is growing is rental clubs because visiting players often don’t want to deal with the nuisance of traveling with their own set, Mr. Buser said.
   Mr. Storer agreed that government regulators may not look kindly at pharmaceutical executives who are playing golf while the nation’s health care system and prescription drug prices are under scrutiny.
   "Times are difficult in certain industries, and you have to be careful," Mr. Storer said. "You can’t go out every week April through November and play golf once a week."
   Mr. Storer said he believes companies can include golf as part of their promotional mix, along with dinners, sporting events and the theater. "When you look at the cost per conservative hour, golf far and away is better than any client entertainment," Mr. Storer said. "You’ve got a lot of time to talk about business and to get to know the person behind the golfer. You get to build relationships."
   Because playing golf with clients is about the client and not the host, Mr. Storer did caution business owners against making the wrong impression by turning a friendly outing into a fight-to-the-death competition. "(Some executives) must keep their handicap and will do anything to keep it, even if it means defeating (a client) by 20 strokes and making him look like a fool," Mr. Storer said.