Golf retailer Club Champion sees 20% annual growth with private-equity help

How does a little company rise so quickly past its expected limits? For one, Club Champion’s owners, Sherburne included, sold a majority stake in the business to a deep-pocketed Los Angeles private-equity investor, Levine Leichtman Capital Partners, a few years ago to give the business the financial support it needed to build more stores.

Then it was Levy himself, hired a year ago. The company had been ably led by a local executive contingent since its founding in 2010, but Levy had broad experience in the big leagues of retailing. With an MBA in marketing from New York University, 59-year-old Levy had been president of direct-to-consumer at Tumi, a premium luggage company; CEO of Refac Optical Group, which operates 80 stores under the Nationwide Visions name; and held assorted other executive positions at Macy’s, Tommy Hilfiger and Jones Apparel.

“We interviewed a lot of people,” says Sherburne, who is still a minority owner of Club Champion. “We knew we were expanding to the next level and needed more experience to get there. We did a reset of our executive team to make sure we had the right people for that. “

At Tumi, Levy took the store count from 45 to 90 in his four-year tenure while also growing e-commerce, then watched the company go public. Club Champion is likely to have similar ambitions for a public offering of stock, eventually, too. Wall Street will no doubt notice the Club Champion flagship set to open within days in New York City, on 42nd Street between Second and Third avenues.

Meanwhile, foreign expansion is coming via acquisition. In December, Club Champion purchased the two-store Tour Experience Golf business in Toronto, giving it an opening in Canada. On March 1 came another deal for Golf Principles in the United Kingdom, followed by a deal in April in Australia for PureForm.

“We’re in a position now to hire a general manager of international, and perhaps locate that person in London,” Levy says. “We feel really good about our growth plans. It’s a big world out there and we’re going to build a global brand. “

Club Champion’s appeal is science and selection. It charges customers upwards of $ 350 for a fitting indoors at its stores, where they sample hundreds of different club heads and shafts kept in inventory to determine (via electronic launch monitors) which of the selections send the golf balls they hit off of mats the farthest with most accuracy. Once the session is over, Club Champion assembles the right combination for the customer on order.

The formula has been so successful, and Club Champion has grown to so many places, that increasing numbers of golf course pros who once sold equipment to their club members have given up.

“Indoor club-fitting has taken over the industry,” says Jim Suttie, a veteran Chicago professional who divides his time between St. Andrews in West Chicago and other golf clubs in Naples, Fla., And Des Moines, Iowa. “Club Champion’s club-fitting system has gotten so good that I send my students there now when they need equipment. I’d rather spend my time teaching on the range than trying to fit clubs these days. “

Lee Murphy can be reached at [email protected]

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