Mark King, the former president and CEO of TaylorMade who transformed the golf industry’s innovation cycle and restored the company to a dominant leadership position throughout his three decades with the brand, is getting back in the golf business.
King told Golf Digest that he is serving as a consultant to Honma Golf’s chairman Liu Jianguo and will be guiding the company’s strategy as it looks to expand its presence in North America.
“Honestly, I had no intention of doing anything like this,” said King, who announced he was stepping down as president of Adidas North America in April. “But when I met Chairman Liu I was so impressed with his thinking and his dreams for the company."
King, who maintains a consulting deal with Adidas, said his role is in “helping build the Honma brand in America. I have no operational responsibilities. I’m really just a strategic advisor to the chairman.”
While King’s position is being labeled “consultant,” those familiar with Honma’s U.S. operations say this will be King’s show.
“He’s in charge,” said one former Honma employee who requested anonymity. The employee indicated King’s position was announced internally at Honma last month. “It’s been in the works for awhile. Mark’s taking over everything.”
Adam Sheldon, formerly general manager of Honma Golf USA, told Golf Digest that he was leaving the company to pursue other interests. King said that Jeff Letorneau, Honma USA’s chief operating officer, will run the day-to-day business, but Liu is the one ultimately in charge.
“There were two things that made this attractive to me and the first one right away was him,” King said. “He doesn’t speak a lot of English, but his enthusiasm is mesmerizing. On top of that, with this brand, I see the opportunity to do different things, the right things for this brand, to understand who its customer is and how to reach that customer.
“He was interested in having someone help him who understands golf and understands golf in North America and how to present that brand to the market. My role is to help them build the brand.”
Honma, famous for its gold-plated clubs, artisan-style craftsmanship and five-figure price tags, has redoubled its efforts to become a major player in the golf business both globally and specifically in North America. Originally established in 1959 in Sakata, Japan, it languished in the early 2000s and was purchased out of bankruptcy in 2005 by a fund run by Liu, a Chinese businessman whose company makes hair dryers and rice cookers. An avid golfer, Liu changed Honma’s business model in Asia and its sales have increased the last four years in a row to nearly $250 million. Honma now is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange after a 2016 initial public offering.
In its most recent earnings report in May, the company listed 2018 fiscal year revenue up 8.5 percent. Sales in the U.S. were up 83.6 percent, including an increase of more than 200 retail “points of sale” in North America. Still, those numbers are small. King says the company in the U.S. has fewer than 150 accounts and less than 400 doors.
In short, Honma remains at best a curiosity in the U.S. market, with limited retail reach and no PGA Tour presence to speak of. Among the growing luxury golf brand business, it trails significantly behind Arizona-based PXG and XXIO, the high-end arm of SRI Sports, the parent company of Cleveland and Srixon that’s been the top-selling brand in Japan for over a decade.
But its recent results suggest Honma has bigger designs than being the quirky, jewel-like gift that Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe gave to President Trump (Trump was given a gold-plated Honma driver valued at nearly $4,000 shortly after being elected in 2016.) Honma’s Liu told The Nikkei, Japan’s largest financial newspaper, that Honma is still battling a perception problem. "The quality of Japanese manufacturing is famous around the world, but its marketing is a bit weak," he said.
That’s clearly where King, 58, comes in. King was legendary for driving sales and creating demand while leading TaylorMade from 1999-2013 and throughout his 34 years with the brand. Aside from a brief stint at Callaway, King was with TaylorMade from its very early days as the first company to develop metalwoods, starting as a local sales rep and rising through the ranks based on his continual success and compelling personality. As CEO, King often unveiled products in Steve Jobs-like public performances in front of hundreds of cheering employees and retail partners.
King’s TaylorMade was famous for relentless innovation and equally relentless product launches, eventually reaching more than 50 percent market share in metalwoods at one time and launching four new drivers in one 12-month span. Of course, a key part of its success also was dominance as the No. 1 played driver on the PGA Tour, but he also wasn’t afraid to change the status quo by introducing white drivers and even doing a segment on CBS’s "Undercover Boss". He was on the offensive from the jump in an industry that was conservative and defending the norm almost by rule. Under King, the then TaylorMade-adidas Golf reached $1.7 billion in annual sales in 2013, or about 1,700 times the revenue the brand was generating when King started there in the 1980s.
Of course, King also hasn’t been shy at challenging golf’s traditions and its ruling bodies, advocating 15-inch cups and other alternative forms of the game, including non-conforming equipment, and once suggested to Score Golf that "the PGA of America should write its own set of rules with the PGA Tour."
King hinted that Honma is planning a major event for the brand in January to launch its latest products, marketing plans and even a high-profile U.S. tour presence. Chairman Liu already has announced a strategic partnership with Japanese investment house Itochu Corporation this summer, signed two former world No. 1-ranked women in Shan-Shan Feng and So Yeon Ryu, and in July Liu was there to announce that Honma would be the title sponsor for the Hong Kong Open, a co-sanctioned event on the European Tour and Asian Tour.
“Listen, I was ready to retire, I wasn’t really looking to do anything,” King said. “But as this was presented to me by Chairman Liu, I could see he has big plans and a big vision. I really found it exciting because it is not TaylorMade or Callaway or Cobra or Titleist or Ping. This is a much different brand with very different price points and a fascinating story when it comes to technology and craftsmanship. This is a totally different experience.”