When the pandemic hit American golf courses in 2020, Stateside golfers took to their feet, and Gloucester golf trolley manufacturer Stewart Golf reaped the rewards.
Nicky Godding, Editor at Business & Innovation Magazine, talks to CEO Mark Stewart at Stewart Golf, whose headquarters is in Glucester
Around 20 million people play golf in the USA. It is world’s biggest golf market, and unlike the UK – which ordered the closure of golf courses for months during the pandemic – many American golf courses stayed open.
But they had to take extra precautions, and one of those was to ban, or limit to single riders, the use of buggies – the staple mode of transport for the vast majority of Stateside golfers.
So what to do? Faced with the frankly unthinkable alternative of carrying their golf bags on their shoulders as well as (hushed gasps), walking between tees and greens, our American cousins began buying every golf trolley they could get their hands on to transport their clubs. And that one fact meant two stellar years of growth for Gloucester-headquartered Stewart Golf, which was named this summer as one of Britain’s fastest-growing private companies.
Stewart Golf co-founder Mark Stewart takes up the story.
“When Covid happened, like any other business we had no idea what was going to happen. Then within a few weeks, we discovered that golfers in the States weren’t allowed to sit on their buggies any more.
America started walking almost overnight. “It was little to do with how good we were at building or selling golf buggies, more that the environment in which we were operating changed almost immediately.
In fact, anyone selling golf trollies in America in 2020 sold out almost overnight.” It helped, of course, that that Stewart Golf do make exceedingly good push, remote control and follow golf trolleys.
Designing some of the world’s best remote control golf trolleys
The company was launched in 2004 by Mark, his father Ross and grandfather Roy, with family friends David Funnell and Jon Stewart-Miller. They design and build some of the best remote control golf trolleys in the world. And as the business is owned by engineers, each trolley built by hand in the company’s Gloucester workshops undergoes rigorous checking before leaving the factory. Servicing is also carried out there.
The company, which turned over around £6.7 million last year, sells a significant number of the 6,000 or so golf carts it makes every year in the USA.
Each one costs three times or more the average cost of a golf trolley in the UK – from between £1,200 to a top of the range model with bespoke design at around £2,500. That’s because Stewart Golf trolleys are uniquely designed with remote control features which have become increasingly sophisticated.
Its latest trolley is the Stewart Golf Q Follow, the most compact remote-control trolley it has ever made. This uses a pioneering microcellular composite chassis, making it stronger, along with new electronics which are now made in Gloucester.
You can easily spot a Stewart Golf X10 Follow, not only because they trundle obediently a couple of metres behind their owners, but also because they’ve been designed to stand out on purpose, said Mark, although the latest Q Follow has a slightly more understated design to differentiate it.
And the company’s golf trolleys have won awards over the years, including a Design Excellence Award from the British Business Council.
Having established itself in the UK in the early 2000s, Stewart Golf began looking at the opportunities for growth in the American market in 2015.
Sales go stratospheric in the States
“Half of all golf rounds are played in America,” said Mark. “But American golfers are not big walkers so we weren’t sure if our trolley would sell in sufficient numbers.”
After a few years checking out the American golfing market, and taking a cautious approach to expansion, Mark finally secured the services of a third-party warehouse and took on a distributor who deals with the golf courses and third-party websites there. “Our expansion was as lean as we could make it.”
The strategy worked. Sales to the USA have increased every year since, doubling some years, and thanks to American golfers being forced to walk the course during Covid-19, it has gone stratospheric.
But with the world returning to normal, and golfers to their buggies, is Mark worried the boom in sales will cease? Actually – he and his team are quietly relieved.
“We are hopefully at the back end of Covid-19 and have spent the last two years not only increasing production, but also building ourselves into a more forward-thinking company to continue that growth, but in a more considered way.”
Stewart Golf has also expanded and invested in its marketing team and increased the size of its Gloucester manufacturing facility by around 50 per cent.
“We still see a big opportunity in the USA. We have had two years of people walking the golf courses in the States because they had to, and also on the private golf courses which didn’t previously allow people to walk because they wanted golfers to rent their buggies. Now there are a lot of people who have discovered they like walking, they feel better and have lost weight. Many feel more physically connected to the course.”
Increased sales bring their own challenges While sales rocketed during the pandemic, the downside was having to ramp up production and recruitment. “We could have sold more than we made, but we had supply problems like everyone else,” said Mark. “If we run out of even something as small as a particular washer, we can’t make the golf trollies. So we have sourced more parts from the UK.”
Because of continuing supply chain issues affecting stocks, and the company’s sales growth forecasts, lead times have gone miles out. “I have already done next year’s forecasting,” said Mark. “Despite our growth and profitability, we are careful of our cash situation because we have to hold a lot more stock than before.” But the company has managed its way through well. And part of that is the positive working culture it aims to offer its growing workforce (which has almost doubled to 35 in the last two years).
“We want everyone to enjoy their job. It’s possible to increase your output by 20 per cent but not for a long time with the same amount of people, so we needed to recruit and new people have to fit into our culture.”
A busman’s holiday across America
Mark spends most of his time in sales and marketing, and with the growth in sales to the USA, he and his team spend a fair amount of time visiting golf courses across the States.
But the company isn’t ignoring its home territory, or indeed the 30 or so other countries it sells to globally. “In the UK, around 97 per cent of people walk a golf course. Of those, around two thirds have an electric trolley, and only around five per cent have ours. There is plenty of room for growth at home.”
Does he play much golf himself?
Not at his own golf club in Cheltenham. “I think I’ve played there just three times this year, playing off a handicap of 17.” But when he’s away, it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday, and he’s sheepishly aware that his work trips look a lot like other people’s holidays. “I play golf and go out for dinner five days a week.”
Where did the Stewart Golf bag idea come from?
The original idea for a Stewart Golf bag came from Mark’s grandfather, when Mark was about to go to Loughborough University to study engineering.
“In a normal golf bag, the golf clubs are always upside down and get wet in the rain. My granddad designed a carousel which could be spun with a door opening to clubs the right way up. Our original idea didn’t work because the bags wouldn’t fit in a car boot. There are lots of things engineers can solve, but size is a tough one.”
While Mark was at Loughborough, David and Jon (directors of the company), worked on various golf trolley ideas, with Mark pitching in when he was home.
At the time electric golf trollies were perceived the same as mobility scooters – for a certain demographic who were old and infirm, and the designs were ugly.
“We looked at the market and saw that the sweet spot for golfers was – at that time, largely guys aged 40-60. So, we designed products that looked different and gave people the freedom to wander around.”
Stewart Golf’s reinvention of the golf trolley, with its remote control “follow me” function caught on fast and their market continues to grow.
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