The GBN Interview: Mark Stewart, CEO Stewart Golf
Golf Business Network
Mark Stewart, CEO and owner of premium trolley brand Stewart Golf, talks exclusively to GBN about the company’s growth in the 20 years since it was first founded, how the business has been impacted by Brexit and the pandemic, and what the future holds
We still get that comment now! When we were first looking at the electric trolley market we strongly felt that there were two things missing: a focussed remote controlled trolley that was purpose designed for excellent stability, and something that looked more like a sports car than a trolley. Those two design ideas inevitably made our products more expensive, but we thought there was a space for a premium option in the market.
How many people does the company employ now globally, how many countries are you exporting to, and how many units did you sell in 2022?
We currently have 35 staff at our Gloucester headquarters in the UK. We have sold to 40 countries over the past couple of years, where we sell to a mixture of retailers and distributors. The number of units sold is confidential, but it increased dramatically through the pandemic and that number was sustained during 2022.
As a British-based company, with all the components assembled in the UK, how has Brexit impacted on Stewart Golf’s ability to do business with EU countries since 2019?
Brexit made a big impact from a sales point of view, mostly due to the logistics of getting shipments delivered to end-users and retailers. This forced us to make a change in how we operated, so we now only ship to retailers and distributors rather than consumers. This was actually a blessing in disguise as it simplified our processes internally, and we actually sustained the levels of sales that we had seen previously.
Covid obviously had a big impact on the golf industry, both negatively and positively, but how was Stewart Golf affected during 2020-21, and have there been any lingering production or supply chain issues that you are still feeling today?
It was a roller coaster! Sales almost tripled through the pandemic, which meant that we had to increase our workforce and production space to cope with that demand. At the same time there were well publicised supply chain issues that we had to contend with and that meant golfers were waiting 12 weeks at one point, which was less than ideal.
Of course, we went from the end of COVID to the start of a war in Ukraine which brought different issues with it. All we can do is plan to be as robust as possible as a business and at the same time be nimble enough to move quickly when the next crisis hits, as there always seems to be another one around the corner!
In the face of an impending recession and rising cost of living, what are your sales forecasts for 2023 looking like?
I’m an eternal optimist so I always think we can grow. One of the reasons we love exporting is that it means we’re not reliant on the UK market for our growth. For example, the US has seen a surge in the popularity of ‘walking golf’ since Covid, which is great news for all trolley brands which operate there. There are opportunities for growth in almost all of our export markets as well. For example, we have just signed a new partner for Australia which could be significant for the overall growth of the business.
The company has recently rebranded with a new logo. What was the thinking behind that and what does it say about the company and the direction it is heading?
We found that our product development majors on the latest technology, but our branding made us look and feel more ‘heritage’ so we wanted to correct that. That’s not to say we won’t be keeping the Union Jack within our branding – we are incredibly proud that we build our machines here in Great Britain, so that will remain part of our identity.
The new logo is more dynamic and modern, and feels more appropriate for the current product range and what we know we have in the pipeline for the future.
Who do you see as your ‘average’ customer in today’s market and has the consumer profile changed at all over the last 20 years?
Our buyers are passionate golfers first and foremost – they play 2-3 times a week. There is a misconception that Stewart customers are millionaires that drive Bentleys, but that’s not true. Whilst our products are unapologetically premium, they cost less than a decent road bike these days.
In the UK, around 97% of people walk a golf course, and of those, around two-thirds have an electric trolley, and only around 5% have ours. There is plenty of room for growth at home.
What is the best-selling model in the current range and what future developments might we see from Stewart Golf from both a product and technology standpoint?
The Q Series has been a huge success for us and became our biggest seller quite quickly. We never discuss future developments before they are launched but rest assured that we are not resting on our laurels!
You set up an American arm of Stewart Golf in 2015. How has that performed over the last seven years and how hard has it been to break into a market where buggies and carts still dominate the golfing landscape?
The US is a really important market for us and I see a lot of growth potential there. In 2015 we started very cautiously, but sales doubled every year until 2020 before the pandemic sent them off the charts.
It’s true that the US is still a riding market, but walking is becoming more accepted and trolleys (or electric caddies as we call them out there) are recognised as a category now. Our goal is not to compete with the buggy manufacturers, but more to give golfers a choice between riding at one end and carrying/pushing at the other.
Given that you’re largely in the lithium battery business, do you have sustainability programme in place for the business, and what steps are you taking to reduce your company’s impact on the environment.
We take our role seriously and do what we can to reduce our impact. Because we own our factory we have installed in a large solar panel system on the roof which produces a huge amount of clean energy, both that we use ourselves and export back to the National Grid. To date this has saved more than 50 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere which is the equivalent of planting almost 3,000 trees. All of our company cars are now 100% EVs, and not a single scrap of waste that we produce goes to landfill.
Looking back on 20 years in the golf industry, and with all the hindsight that it offers, what, if anything, would you have done differently when you were first starting out, and more latterly, as the business has grown?
Firstly, it’s been a real privilege to work in the golf business for so long, I’ve had a blast!
I think if anything I would have been even more bold with our approach, not just with regards to the product, but with our whole business. We always seem to be at our best when we take risks and follow our instincts, rather than what the received wisdom tells us.
As the business has grown we have invested a lot in leadership training which has been transformational. Stewart Golf has a very strong culture and that makes coming to work every day a pleasure.
You recently attended the PGA Show in America. From talking to retailers and other golf brand owners, what was the general feeling you got about the health of the global golf industry in 2023?
It feels to me like golf is full of fantastic entrepreneurs and as such are usually optimistic. The wonderful thing about our industry is that it serves passionate consumers who will always value something that can make a difference to their golfing experience. The great thing about golf is that there is no substitute for getting out there and playing 18 holes with friends. It’s something that the internet is going to struggle to replace, no matter how hard it tries. In fact, the more we are engulfed in screens and tech, the more I think we’ll crave getting outside and enjoying a walk, and hopefully, a game of golf!
Do you have much time to play golf yourself these days, and if so, where do like to play?
Between the business and having a young family I don’t get a lot of free time, but I have the advantage that golf is ‘work’ for me as there is always a new prototype of something that needs testing out. I am a member at Lilley Brook Golf Club in Cheltenham, but I seem to play more golf on my travels to the USA than I do at my home course. My resolution this year is to play more golf, but I think that applies to all golfers everywhere, doesn’t it?
In Canada, Stewart Golf products are distributed by JPSMGolf. For more information about Stewart Golf’s full range of golf trolleys and accessories, visit https://jpsmgolf.com/collections/stewart-golf-carts