Interview with Matt Ward
A third-generation native of Arizona, I graduated from Arizona State University in 1994, and immediately began working for my family’s forklift equipment business. About 10 years ago, I started a venture capital/management firm, helping digital entrepreneurs scale up their businesses. The experience of starting a successful company from scratch made me think I could do it again. And while I’ve always been a golfer, I came into this business because I saw solutions to problems that were hurting those already in the golf industry and preventing new people from coming to the game.
THE HOBBS STORY —
As an avid golfer most of my life, I became very aware when people who report on the game said that it was in trouble. That rounds and participation were down. And, more than anything, that the next generations weren’t interested. I listened to what was being said and asked myself if that were true. I wasn’t convinced.
So I talked to lots of people, including Millennials, and asked them what they wanted. They said they wanted to play golf, but there wasn’t a venue, a place where they could play real golf but in a slightly different way, faster and more fun. I also talked to owners of courses and found they didn’t have an answer to their problems, no way to assure their success.
When I combined those responses it led us to realize we could really help the sport, help grow it and bring new people in, particularly Millennials. Which is why we named the company what we did. I’ve built and run companies in my prior life, notably a venture capital/management firm that we built from scratch. Running a successful business means knowing how to recognize when a problem exists and how to find a solution. That’s what a business is, and that’s what we’re doing with Millennial Companies.
When you wake up in the morning — what’s the driving passion?
The hunt. With so many courses already closed and more closing every year, you’d think it was simple. In reality, our solutions are only appropriate for certain situations and I really enjoy hunting for that next opportunity, finding a chance to not only help an owner who is struggling but to have a lasting impact on a lot of stakeholders.
Is there an oversupply of traditional golf courses in the United States today?
Yes, absolutely. During the growth period a decade or so ago, when homes were being built faster than demand could catch up, builders and developers used golf courses to entice buyers. It was an amenity, and people would pay more to live on a golf course. Unfortunately, most of these courses were not tied to the surrounding homes through the HOA or some sort of membership.
Is the situation with golf courses similar to the glut of malls that exist in America now and, in your estimation, which of the two is in the more perilous financial position?
Yes, in that the way people shop today is not how people shopped over the last 30 years. Market demand has changed and both mall developers and golf course operators have to change or go out of business. But there’s a major difference in the financial impact: Most mall developers are big companies that can more easily repurpose their land than course owners due to zoning laws. Golf course closings hit the owners—often families and individuals—very hard.
Some have said the elimination of upwards of 25% of the traditional golf market would likely mean a stronger overall business climate for those who do survive. What’s your take?
I don’t know that I’d agree with the 25% number, but I do agree that courses need to close to balance out supply and demand. However, that said, those that survive will need to, in many cases, look at the type of golf that is being offered in order to be successful long term. The type of golf people want today is different. We help course owners—individuals and municipalities—offer a product that the market wants.
In your estimation — are there many facilities still in denial on where the overall market stands today?
Absolutely. There are still “traditionalists” who feel that giving their course a facelift, improving their clubhouse, and/or building new facilities like wedding halls will solve the problem. We’ve found that just compounds the problem. Those owners have to realize that, at their locations, golf in its current format is not sustainable. The same is true for municipalities, which think doing research or a market study will solve things.
If they looked properly they’d realize they have to reduce inventory. Municipalities have additional concerns, but we’re seeing newly elected administrations, which feel they have some time and momentum, are choosing to act. Municipal golf has to do this, and we see it just starting to happen.
What role should major golf organizations such as the USGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour, LPGA play in the efforts you’re advocating?
I’m not sure exactly what role they should play, but they have to do something. And some of them get it. We have four PGA Tour players involved with us, all of whom believe that the type of golf currently being offered has to change. The PGA of America is beginning to get it: Look at PGA Jr. League, the best thing they’ve ever done. And it works perfectly with the alternative forms of golf we are building.
Golf has for years been a game of leisure — taking the time to enjoy the outdoors, the course and the people you’re playing with. But, for many in the Millennial generation the thought of spending upwards of 5 hour or more in a given location is viewed as being a time waster. How do golf facilities. successfully handle the needs of traditionalists and those seeking something vastly different?
I don’t agree with your premise. I don’t think people are seeking something vastly different. No matter what their age, they want golf, they like golf, they want to be outdoors swinging a club. But they want a different format that is shorter, easier, faster. Golf is still a game of leisure, is still enjoyed outdoors. The only difference is a Millennial’s idea of leisure is two hours, not eight.
Is there a specific area of America where your efforts are happening quicker than in others? Do you attribute any reason for that?
It’s happening in all 50 states. But don’t think it terms of geography: The greatest demand is from private owners of daily-fee courses. That’s who needs us the most.
How much golf do you play in a single year and if you could change one thing in golf unilaterally what would you suggest be done?
I used to play a ton, but I don’t have the time now. I’d play more if it didn’t take as long. So one change would be to take less time. But also, golf needs to be more interesting, more relaxed—with alternative ways to play and fewer restrictions—and more fun.
Define the term “Urban Golf Village” and what its overall impact can be?
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