Featured Business: ForeGolf
Name: Derek Murray, owner of ForeGolf Limited – a golf equipment manufacture and retail business.
Having won the GCA (Golf Clubmakers Association) World Clubmaker of the Year 2010 award – the first ever winner from outside of America – a majestic location was needed for ForeGolf, an Irish company specialising in hand building golf clubs following a detailed custom fit analysis.
So, shortly after television crews from around the world broadcast the beautiful Killeen Castle in County Meath , venue of The 2011 Solheim Cup, ForeGolf moved in to custom-built premises where customers are fitted for golf clubs, which are then made by hand onsite.
Hand making golf clubs in the ForeGolf workshop is an applied science; there is a focus on analysis, and proper measurements are taken. Then the best quality components are used under licence to build bespoke branded golf clubs for amateurs and professionals alike.
The ForeGolf team brings “tour” quality directly to the public at a price you’d pay on the high street, and this is what won ForeGolf the World Clubmaker accolade, explains founder Derek Murray.
It is the hand making of clubs that separates ForeGolf from the rest of the golf industry; no other golf retailer hand-builds their own clubs, he says.
“There is no fast track to this skillset,” explains Derek. He got his training when he was invited to go on tour, and he built up experience of what takes place and how to apply that to the normal marketplace.
ForeGolf is very much a family business, with Derek’s father Don now doing most of the hand building of clubs, his mother Christine on reception, meeting and greeting customers, and his sister Jill doing marketing and admin.
Everyone is on an equal footing, including Aaron Morrison who manages the workshop and Derek’s right-hand man David Williams who assesses golfers, prices clubs and directs the making of clubs. Together, Derek and David oversee the fitting system and prototyping new products, whilst Derek also focuses on the running of the business. This close knit team is very important: “You can’t do world awards on your own.”
Interview with Derek Murray
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
It started out as a golf store. I’d been building clubs for a couple of the Irish players and, as part of that, I got invited along to the Czech Open. There are large trucks that travel around with the tour and they have mobile workshops inside them. It was by chance, getting onto one of these, I realised that at the very top skill level – where you would think these guys could play with anything – they don’t. They have their club tailored for them. My thought process changed. The normal golfer that doesn’t have this skill level needs more help; why isn’t the normal golfer getting this service? So, I delivered a top-end tour service to the public golfer. It was like a light bulb moment.
How did you initially fund your business?
My mum and dad gave me a dig out in the early days and gave me the finance to start off in 1997. We went to AIB in 2003 when I saw an opportunity to bring my skillset out onto the road. We built a huge truck and were the first independent [suppliers] with a fully-fitted, 40 foot tour truck. That catapulted us above everybody else. We brought it to different golf clubs; we did a tour of Ireland over a couple of years and brought it to the people. We didn’t have Killeen Castle at the time, so we had to make sure we were profiling ourselves.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
The great thing about our business is that it involves science and technology. It’s an ever-evolving process. Shafts, club heads and the ability to hit the ball further and straighter are always evolving.
What have been the highlights to date?
The big personal one for me was winning the World Clubmaker of the Year in 2010. There were 6,400 applications from around the world – we were the first winners ever outside of America . The other is the move to Killeen Castle . Bar none, this is the best practice facility in the country and certainly one of the best I’ve been to around the world, from a tour perspective.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
You have to love what you do. You have to have passion for what you do, or else you’re going through the motions. That’s the best bit: I know I love doing this. That’s quite a privileged position; having a business you love, and doing what you love. We love what we do and we’re pretty good at it as a result.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
Luckily I’ve got family here with me, so that’s easy. I’ve a great CEO at home. I call her my CEO; my “missus”, Claire, manages home and my two boys and my life outside of the whole crazy world of golf and jumping on a plane to America . I try to stay at home with the lads as much as I can.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
It’s gas because we meet a lot of people in our business that are fairly up there in business. There’s a guy called John Solheim who owns PING . His father set up the company in the 1950s and it’s one of the most cash-rich businesses in the world. If you’re a pro golfer and you win with a PING putter, they cast two solid gold replicas of the putter and send one to you. They put the second one into the putter vault in Arizona . I went over to meet them and saw all these replicas. When we won World Clubmaker of the Year, he sent me a gold putter with “The Team at ForeGolf” and “World Clubmaker of the Year for outstanding services to golf” on it. They made two, so there’s one in the vault.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
My sister Jill installed a CRM (customer relationship management) system. It was the single most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen. I used to write all my files by hand. It was like a doctor’s office; I’d pull out your file and everything would be handwritten. She got Sage in to do the CRM. It runs our whole business, from our referral programme to emails, bookings, follow-up emails, measurements – everything is managed on one CRM system.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
We really encourage people to stay in touch. We have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which are very engaging. We send out a monthly newsletter and get feedback from our clients all the time. Because our sessions are very one-on-one, we get an idea of what they want and follow this on through various lines of communication. We give people different avenues to explore.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The earlier one was the venue. We had a great service and a very average venue. We overcame that with the move to Killeen Castle . The other challenge is that “custom fitting” is a very broad term – what we do is very different to what’s out there. We have an hour-long intensive process and hand build the clubs here with special licences – that’s our custom fitting.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
SMEs are so important to Ireland . The procedures in place to get grants to develop your business – I’ve never seen the amount of hoops you have to go through. We were guided through it by this brilliant guy from Meath County Enterprise Board. It’s people like him that we need in place. If you’re trying to get funding and access what’s available from a grants perspective as an SME, that could be challenging if you didn’t have someone like him helping you out. We need less hoop-jumping: grant accepted; grant applied; job growth.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
Golf as a sport is about having fun – at an amateur level. We like to have fun with people. I’m used to talking with people and being engaging. What comes naturally to us is a fun factor and a very friendly side. We’re serious when we have to be.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
The people winning. We looked after Shane Lowry last year. He made nearly €1 million and won in Portugal . Knowing you’re part of the process, that gives us an unnatural amount of reward. And people losing shots off their handicap and emailing us – those little success stories reaffirm the belief that you have that you can make a difference.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
The catalyst, from our perspective, was winning World Clubmaker of the Year 2010 and being in the AIB ad on television. You can see the spike in our web traffic when that hit TV for the first time. What was happening in the golf industry was there were a lot of mass produced products and people weren’t playing any better and they wanted to know why, so they found us out. That was the catalyst for our growth.
How did you scale/grow your business?
I wanted to show people how the clubs were being made. Moving to Killeen Castle allowed us upscale the business, create a better workflow where we could build clubs easier and better, build a club room where we could fit people. It also helped the look of the business. That’s how we scaled and grew it.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
We’re all about the quality. We can’t do volume. We’re all into the quality and not the quantity. We’re not about selling golf clubs. We’re about analysing the person correctly, doing the correct paperwork, getting the components from the companies – which is a specialised licence. Building the clubs by hand is very time-intensive. It’s exorbitantly cost-heavy, but it means that at the end of the day you get the result. We stuck to the core values.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
I’ve a notebook beside the bed, so I write stuff down if I wake up at 3am. I’m a gut feeling type of a person. I get inspiration and ideas literally from everywhere.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
There’s nothing better than being your own boss, because you can kind of do whatever you want to do. Having said that, you can’t really – because you still have to do the stuff you have to do to make it work. As a group or a team, we operate really well together. The motivation is that we love what we do, we’re really good at what we do, and people respect that and enjoy it.
What’s your vision for the future?
I’d love to see custom fitting by ForeGolf in other locations, because eventually we’ll run out of people in Ireland . I’m thinking that I can do something somewhere else at some point. Watch this space, as they say.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
I’ve a couple of people whom I bounce ideas off; who have been pivotal in the success of the business moving forward; people I can soundboard off. I’m in the process of getting a mentor through Meath County Enterprise Board, because I think it would help us enormously getting someone who can help us with other markets.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
Don’t have anybody owe you money. Pay at the till. If you don’t do the numbers, you’re in trouble.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
When your business starts to grow, choose your team very carefully. Maybe you’ll have to go out on a limb to get a particular guy or girl, but choose carefully.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
This is one we use here from Coach Paul Bear Bryant: “Show class, have pride and display character. If you do, winning takes care of itself.” My “missus” has house rules for the kids – and me: “Be happy, always tell the truth, laugh out loud, work hard, love one another, don’t whine, keep your promises, help others, do your best, say your prayers, please and thank you, try new things, use kind words and smile.”
What, if anything, would you do differently?
We’re 15 years in business and, thankfully, it’s progressed nicely for us. To be honest, I wouldn’t change anything because it’s been the makings of it; it’s been a nice progression. We haven’t tried to grow the business too fast.
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