Q&A with PING Golf / Karsten Manufacturing, 2019 Dean’s Award for Family Business Leadership
What is the best advice you’ve given the next generation?
The best advice we have given the next generation came to us from our grandparents. Our grandfather taught us in life as in golf we must “play the ball where it lies.” We need not bemoan or cast blame for erroneous shots, instead we strategize and make the best shot for the ultimate goal we can achieve in this moment. Sometimes that means making a safer shot away from the hole – one that avoids traps and other potential high score mistakes — but ultimately sets you up to win. And our grandmother gave us a list of verses by which she and Karsten ran the business, including, “[E]ncourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” I Thess. 5:14b-15 (NIV).
Where was the last family vacation destination?
In September, many in our second, third and fourth generations spent a week at the famed Gleneagles golf course in Scotland for the Solheim Cup golf tournament. The Solheim Cup is the fruition of my grandparents’ dream to help grow and advance girls’ and women’s golf, and has become one of the premier competitions in all of golf. We had a wonderful time not only supporting the tournament and meeting with golf industry leaders, but also golfing, visiting a castle, doing archery and experiencing falconry activities together.
What is the family business book that you recommend the most?
We recommend telling the highs and lows and lessons learned in building the family business to the next generation, so they can have the benefit of building on that hard-fought knowledge. We felt the next generation deserved a book that detailed their heritage and provided the stories and details underlying the family’s journey, and so my uncle, our CEO John Solheim, commissioned the writing of our own book. The most important family business book is the one that tells your story to your future generations of workers.
What is the greatest advantage of family business ownership in your industry?
Family business ownership has allowed us to safeguard our brand name such that studies show people consider the name “PING” synonymous with integrity, quality and innovation. Our grandparents and all in our family business have sought to make every decision with the customer’s good in mind, to engineer innovative improvements continually and to build the highest quality custom-made golf clubs to help each golfer play their best. The trust and loyalty we have earned has helped us endure and grow our market share. Plus, family business ownership enables us to make our decisions for the long term rather than for quarterly earnings reports, and our shared values allow us to give to better our community, country and world.
What is the best business decision you’ve made to position your enterprise for fourth generation success?
Living within our means and choosing continually to remain debt-free is the best set-up for future success. We have watched many golf equipment manufacturers rise and decline or disappear altogether over the 60 years we have been designing and making PING golf clubs. Some others could do well during a period of growth, but could not survive recessionary times or unexpected challenges. By continuing to invest profits back into our employees and into growing the business steadily and resisting the temptation to borrow, we help ensure PING can thrive long into the future.
What are the overlooked business opportunities for family owned companies?
Most of today’s biggest businesses were birthed by the hard work of a founder and family, and indeed family-owned manufacturers are the backbone of the American economy. Never underestimate the good that can be accomplished simply by devoting family talents and time to making a valuable product in the USA. And there’s no greater job training program than a family can provide — my grandfather would find the one best route to drive from point A to point B, and my grandmother wanted the bottom of her kitchen sink washed, dried and shined after dinner clean-up or the work wasn’t complete — this perfectionism and attention to detail is naturally in all of our lives now, if not already in our DNA from birth. Finally, paying attention to the gifts and passions of individual family members and employees helps us explore new ways to make products as well as launch entirely new products.
PING Golf parent company Karsten Manufacturing Corporation was founded in 1959 by a Norwegian immigrant, Karsten Solheim. Karsten, while employed at General Electric, used his after-work time to design a putter to improve his golf game. His prototype putter produced a unique “ping” that gave the product its name. Production continued in the garage on evenings and weekends with youngest son John A. Solheim helping build the putters and wife Louise handling customer orders, service, delivery, bookkeeping and sales. GE transferred Karsten to a facility in Phoenix and Karsten stayed with GE until 1967, the same year that professional golfer Julius Boros won a high-profile tournament using a PING putter. The subsequent orders for Karsten’s revolutionary putter required manufacturing to be moved out of the garage and into a small production facility in Phoenix, where building golf clubs finally became Karsten’s full time job.
As demand for PING clubs grew, all of Karsten and Louise’s children eventually joined, each bringing unique skills and abilities. In 1995, when Karsten was 83, his son John officially became president of the company after a unanimous board decision (including Karsten’s vote). John addressed challenges, significantly expanded the golf club product line, strengthened custom-fitting options, and oversaw growth while building on the foundation of innovation, quality and integrity established by Karsten and Louise. John involved the third generation early on. John’s oldest son John K. Solheim became president of the company in 2017, likewise following a unanimous board decision. Several family members hold key roles in the company.
Today this global privately-held enterprise employs more than 1,000 and exports products to about 100 countries. The Solheim Cup, founded in 1990, continues to showcase professional women’s golf at the international level. PING products are still designed, engineered and built at the company’s manufacturing facility in Phoenix, Arizona. The building Karsten and Louise originally purchased is still in use, and PING golf equipment is made on the same campus, expanded to include 25 buildings on over 50 acres. PING maintains a high employee retention rate and attracts a diverse, multicultural team. The Solheim family are strong leaders promoting U.S. manufacturing.