Interview with Matt Ward
Born in London, a Surrey County team player, and likely possessing one of the shortest professional careers in the history of the game. Simon has always worked in the golf industry. Most notably he launched golf in Europe for the Ralph Lauren brand and served as their international Vice President.
More recently, Simon served as CEO of the largest golf management group in the Netherlands—BurgGolf—and today, is CEO for Royal Albartross London, luxury golf shoe and accessories brand.
THE LEE STORY
Soul to sole: I started my golf career as professional golfer touring South Africa on the Sunshine circuit with my brother, Robert, a successful professional golfer and now Sky Golf TV host. We’d often travel together, and I would be on the bag, which, was literally the only way I was going to walk up the 72nd hole of championships and tournaments with the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer, and many golf icons at the pinnacles of their careers. I learned that a successful professional career was not in the cards for me, and I would need to carve another niche for myself.
In 1998, I entered the golf distribution business with the putter brand, Never Compromise. I managed to get one into the hands of a friend, Jean Van de Velde, at the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond. Jean said at the time he was playing great but couldn’t hole a putt. Subsequently, he qualified for the Open Championship at Carnoustie (1999), where he broke the putting record for 72 holes and famously ‘splashed’ his way into the play off.
I went on to represent Tehama, Clint Eastwood’s golf apparel brand and eventually, came to Polo Ralph Lauren, where I successfully launched and built their golf business throughout EMEA and managed this for almost 18 years. During this time, I negotiated several sponsorships and official supplier arrangements with many of the game’s great tournaments, including the Ryder Cup and The European Open. The highlight being securing the patronage of the Open Golf Championship and official outfitter status to the R&A.
What was the genesis for Royal Albartross?
Alex Bartholomew, our creative director and founder, launched Royal Albartross in 2012 in a quest to create the world’s finest golf shoe. She is involved in every step of the brand’s creative direction, and the product development process.
Starting with a small artisan shoemaker outside Florence, Alex won a business and product design prize from the Footwear Friends Charity in London. From there, she took a booth at the PGA Show in Orlando, which lead to a small selection of orders. This journey has resulted in a beautiful collection of leather footwear and accessories that marry both golf and a luxury lifestyle.
How does the company differentiate itself from your competition?
We try very hard to give golfers products that enhance the enjoyment of their game through thoughtful details, great style, and incredible comfort. Our team’s experience with luxury brands is invaluable, as is our appreciation of the process required to create beautiful leather products.
Furthermore, we never compromise, we focus on the customer experience and delivering a beautiful product. We work with small family-run factories in Italy and Portugal, concentrating our efforts to source the very best components and leathers. The devil is in the detail.
What impact has the pandemic had on the business and how do you see the rest of ’22 into the start of ’23 playing out?
Like many others, the pandemic impacted down production and created supply chain challenges. However, with the increase in golfer participation levels and the reaction to our latest collection, we’ve experienced strong year on year growth in all markets. Due to our European production, we are anticipating reduced impact for 2023, and look forward to get our new styles to customers as early as possible.
Who is your customer and in what ways do you reach out to others who may not be familiar with the company?
Our customer is anyone with a real passion for style, who appreciates the finer things in life. They may be of any age or culture. They may travel, enjoy luxury products, appreciates the game of golf, or values thoughtful design and small details – the comfort of handcrafted leather shoes that turn heads in the tee and beyond.
We have a loyal following who wear our products because we aren’t mass produced and are built to last.
Are there noticeable differences between men and women in terms of products purchased and the style they prefer?
Interestingly, when we first started designing for ladies, it was clear that women didn’t want smaller versions of the men’s shoes with a wash of pink. They wanted a range that was designed specifically for their needs. We design for style and comfort, for both men and women, taking a lead from fashion trends and bringing to the golf course.
As a lifestyle brand, in the past we have produced a women’s slip-on, perfect to be worn for a light round of golf and on to lunch afterwards. Many of our styles transition seamlessly from the golf course to the clubhouse.
Companies routinely tout the importance of customer service. Define the term and the approach followed by Royal Albartross?
In my opinion, being a luxury brand isn’t just about product, it is about experience. From purchase to play, the experience should be enjoyable. Along with our packaging and all the little details, we expect to be available to customers at any time.
Our customer care teams are based in Arizona, Florida, and London, so most time zones are covered, and we are always prepared to go out of our way. Overnighting a shoe bag to a customer’s club for a special event is not unusual. It’s both a necessity and a privilege if we are to give golfers a true sense of Royal Albartross.
In approximate sales percentages — what is the results of the company via green grass shops, brick and mortar retail outlets and online?
We are approximately 50% wholesale distribution in golf clubs and stores, and 50% direct to consumer via our online stores.
Is the company considering expanding its product line and if in what areas would that happen?
In 2020, we added a line of Cabretta leather golf gloves in an array of colors for men and women. In addition, we offer an array of small accessories (jewelry cases, make-up, and cosmetic bags) and satchels – all reflecting the same level of craftsmanship and quality.
Our woven and leather belts are extremely popular and for 2022, we have added to the women’s line, with a collection of belts that coordinate with some of the women’s shoe styles. We plan to launch new accessories for 2023, which will fit seamlessly into our customers golf lifestyle.
Do professional golfer endorsements matter and does Royal Albartross see a meaningful value from them?
While we work closely with a small number of professional golfers and enjoy seeing our shoes showcased on television, the core of our business is a loyal lifestyle customer with a true appreciation for how golf can enhance your everyday life.
The biggest challenges — short and long term for the company is what? And what course of action are you contemplating in dealing with each?
As a fast-growing small company in a highly competitive golf market with some of the world’s biggest brands, the challenge for us is to communicate the value of luxury golf products and make ourselves heard.
We still firmly believe there is room for us in golf as a premium offering, set against a backdrop of mass-production. We will therefore continue to focus on the values of design detail, quality, and comfort so you can always – Play with Style.