In a new series, Golf Digest Woman profiles some of the most interesting women working in the diverse, often male-dominated world of golf. This week's subject is 48-year-old Golftini founder Susan Hess (below, right), a single mother of three teenage boys who turned a fashion emergency into a golf-skort empire.
Q: You make a living selling golf skorts, but your background is in telecom sales. How did you make that leap?
A: I really didn't plan to start this, but it just happened and I went for it. I didn't know what I was getting myself into [laughs].
Q: Tell us about your background. Are you a big golfer?
A: I moved a lot as a kid but spent most of my childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, and went to Ohio State University. My grandfather taught me how to play golf -- both my grandparents played until they were 90. So I learned young, but I didn't play a lot because I did other sports. I was a swimmer and ran track and played soccer. My first career was in sales for MCI. I did that for a good 10 years and I loved it. Then, after getting married and having kids, I moved to New Jersey and became a stay-at-home mom. At age 40, in 2004, I was getting divorced and picked up the game again. I joined a nine-holers club at a public course called Ashbrook in Union County. It took six hours to play nine holes with these ladies -- they followed every single rule -- but it was great. I caught the bug and started playing daily, but I couldn't find anything new that I wanted to wear.
Q: So you decided to make yourself a skort?
A: Yes. I wanted a black skort that didn't come up to my armpits and down to my knees with 100 pleats, but that's really all there was at the time. I went online, I looked everywhere, and I couldn't find anything. My niece worked for Bloomingdale's and she'd given me a copy of Women's Wear Daily magazine, which had a listing of sample makers in the back. So I got in the car one day and drove to New York City. I went into this shady building in the garment district, which I'd never even heard of before. I called a friend and said, "If I don't come out in an hour, this is where I am," because it was really scary. But I met with a woman named Sherry, showed her some examples and told her, "This is the skort I like, this is what I want to change about it." I brought two yards of black fabric, and she said, "Okay, come back in a week." I passed by a really cool ribbon store on the way back in and thought, "That might be cute and kind of sporty." So after a few trials we made this one skort with black-and-white ribbon trim down the side. It was very basic, and I wore it to play golf. Everyone I played with loved it, because it was modern and feminine. It was just cute. Then one of the girls I was playing with said, "I want one, too." So I made another one. Then more friends wanted them, so I made another 20 -- one for each girl, with different patterns and different trim. It would take like a week and then they'd be done.
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Q: But sewing or design had never been a hobby of yours before?
A: No. I like fashion, I know what looks good on people and I know what looks bad on people. I guess I kind of have an eye, and that's how I find my designs. It's not technical, I'm just aware of everything around me. I'm going with my gut, and it's worked.
A: A LOT. It was $50 to make a sample, and that didn't include fabric, ribbon, babysitting, gas, tolls and everything else. But my friends started wearing them and then a pro at a club said his wife worked at another club in New Jersey that would love to carry them. So she knocked on my door and asked if she could be my sales rep. At the time, I didn't even have a company, and the skorts didn't even have a label. So after a brainstorming session with a friend at a bar called Martini's, I decided on Golftini and had some labels made up for the skorts that this girl was now taking around to country clubs. She'd put five in their shop of different patterns and then they would call and special-order. It would take me a week; I would go into the city, buy two more yards of fabric, and so on. I was charging $125 per skort at the time, but they probably cost me $175 each with all the expenses involved. I wasn't anywhere near breaking even.
Q: Then what made you keep doing it?
A: What spurred me on was the excitement. My friends weren't just buying one to be nice, they were buying three and four. At the time, no one else really made anything that wasn't too golfy. But these women could wear my skorts and play golf, eat lunch and then go pick up their kids, and no one else had a clue that they'd been on the golf course all day. These women didn't really want anyone to know what they were doing all day. They thought the skorts were cute and fun, and had something for everyone.
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Q: So your brand spread through the country clubs of New Jersey. How did you take it national?
A: In October of that year, a pro at one of the clubs told me, "You should go to the PGA Show in Januray." I had no idea what that was, but I looked into it, and decided to go. I paid for the worst booth, 10-by-10 feet and back by the bathroom, which ended up being great. Prime real estate because of all the traffic. I got a banner and I went to the little seminar that the PGA put on in the city. I made a ton of appointments before the show, and I brought my niece and my friend to help me out. Before the show I only had skorts, so I made a top in three colors, I made a capri and I sourced a couple of sweaters so that I could have a "collection." I got business cards and a website -- within two months, I just pulled this company together, and I had no idea what I was doing. But I went to the show, and my first day there, I got an order for $70,000 from the PGA Tour Super Store. It put me on the map. It allowed me to go to production and really get off the ground.
Q: Did that big order freak you out a little bit? Sherry the sample maker wasn't going to pull that off, was she?
A: It did freak me out. My niece and friend and I went straight to the bar [laughs]. I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn't really have the money or a plan or anything; all I knew was that I needed to make hundreds of skorts in six weeks, because I'd told them I could do it. And I did it! I found a production person in New York who understood my time frame and my needs. I had to make 100 of each piece to make the price work, so I made 1,500 skorts and tops and sourced some sweaters. At this time, I was buying fabric, so I had to find the fabric. I didn't even know if they had it in stock -- I didn't think that far out. For one of the skorts, I had to order 1,000 yards, because that was the minimum, so I just had to make it work.
So I filled that order and then I had leftovers. But I got other clubs at the show from all over the country that were going to bring them in as well. Our biggest selling feature was that we did special orders. I had all this extra inventory, and we could ship it the same day. Unbeknownst to me, that was huge in this industry, and it still is. It's something we really pride ourselves on, and the pro shops and resorts love it because they don't have to bring everything in. They're expensive pieces, but it wasn't that risky for the shops to try it, because they didn't have to stock more than a few. And the woman that really likes the skort and buys it will end up buying two, three or four.
Q: Did you have to start staffing up after that?
A: My niece was like my full-time assistant and lived with me. And then I hired an assistant who was with me for a year, and we put a lot of the procedures and real company stuff in place. Then I had a girl for four and a half years, and between the two of us, we ran the whole place. Now I have 12 sales reps across the country, 11 of whom are women. Then I have summer help, and great interns who learn so much when they're here. They enjoy it, because not one day is boring here at Golftini. You never know what's going to hit you at any moment. You have to constantly switch gears.
Q: What does your business look like today, seven years later? How long did it take for you to be in the black?
A: The first year when I really launched, I sold $500,000. Then I've pretty much grown every year slowly. My goal for this year is $850,000, and next year it's a million. I have my reps in place, and I have the structure of my business in place, with a new warehouse -- that took a lot of the burden off. Up until this year, the third floor of my house was my warehouse.
Q: How have your boys (Ryan, 19, Keegan, 17, and Parker, 14) handling everything?
A: They don't really know any different. I make it work so that I go to all their sporting things. They enjoy playing golf with me, even though they're basketball players first. They are my number one and Golftini is one-and-a-half right there behind them. They know it's our livelihood, and they help out. When I produced my clothes in New York, it came in all year round, and there were boxes to carry upstairs and carry down all the time. We packed and shipped everything out of here. This year it's nice that it's not here. I've moved a lot of the production to China and it direct-ships to my warehouse. In the past, when somebody placed an order, we'd go upstairs and get it and ship it. Now we e-mail the warehouse and the warehouse packs it and ships it. I've hired a woman who's a working mom like me. She works her schedule around her world and she gets it done. I call her on her cell phone and she can call the UPS guy and tell him we have one more shipment and he'll come back and get it.
Q: Do you feel good about the future?
A: The cart is still in front of the horse and always has been, but I make it work. Every single day. Most days are planned to the minute. I know what I need to get done, and I prioritize. It's like any other working mom, I get that. I've written two business plans -- one at the beginning, after my first show, that was just sort of a plan of attack, and then I just recently wrote one that I am excited about because it feels more real. I know what I'm into now and where I think I can grow my business. I am still a salesperson, which I love. If I could just do two things, it would be sell and design. It's the whole business part and all the crazy extra stuff that takes up so much time. If had all the money in the world, I could blow this up. If I could put more people in place, I could take the time to step back and look at the whole thing. But instead I'm just growing it steadily and it's still going well.
Q: If you had known how much work it would be, do you think you would've done it?
A: People say they can't believe I started a bottom-based women's brand. And I say, "Oh my god. I did that." But cute bottoms were what I couldn't find. And I figured, if I can't find them, then other women can't either. And it turns out I was right. I have over 350 accounts now, and a strong, loyal following. I add one or two new products each season, I've added a longer length, which people had been asking for, and I've added junior girl styles this year, and it's going great. The skorts are really the heart of what I do, but I've added things like polos and sweaters so it's turned into a brand that people like to buy head-to-toe.
Q: How much do your skorts cost now?
A: All my skorts are $120 retail, all my polos are $70 and the junior skorts are $60. The junior skorts cost just as much to make as a big one, but people were asking for them. They're for someone who isn't a toddler but isn't a size 0 yet. Golf, as you know, has really come about with young girls, so it's aged 5 to 11, and then they can go into the adult sizing. It's been a huge hit.
Q: You're raising your boys alone, how does that impact your business?
A: My kids are with me full-time, and it's hard. I've had a boyfriend throughout the years who's been a wonderful support, but it's still just me paying the bills, raising the kids and trying to enjoy it all along the way. Sometimes I get crazy and step back and think, "Okay, Susan. Get it together. It's just skort, not rocket science, not curing any diseases. Relax, just do the best you can." I think most moms have to do that, because there's that guilt we all go through. But I'm a much better person being a working mom. I get so much out of it and it does make me happier, which I think makes my kids happier. I didn't work for a lot of years.
Q: Looking at you, it's clear that you also find time to work out.
A: I do, I work out every day at 5:45. That's my time. Even if I'm tired, I still do it, because by 11, I'm good. Otherwise I'm edgy by then. I enjoy it and it sets the tone for my day. I get up at 5:25, I drink a cup of coffee on the way, and I do this Pure Barre stuff at a studio, or I run. I get into all the latest things, from yoga to running to P-90X.
Q: Let's talk about being a woman in this industry. What has that been like?
A: I don't really feel like a minority. I just did the Florida show by myself and there are a lot of women-owned companies on the apparel side. In seven years I've seen a lot of them come and go for different reasons, and I just take note. Some people helped me when I first started, so that's what I really like to do if there's someone new. Let's share and learn from each other. I believe in that whole karma thing - what goes around comes around. The one person who wasn't nice to me isn't in business anymore. The important thing is really to just be who you are show what you stand for and move forward. I really don't like to use the word "authentic" because it seems overused. But I know who I am, I know where I came from, and I like where I'm going, so I'm just staying on that path.
Q: You lead a full life, to say the least.
A: I do, and talking about it makes me happy. I couldn't imagine it any other way.