Angel Ilagan took over as president and CEO of Bridgestone Golf just over one year ago, moving into the golf industry after 30 years of successfully developing and growing businesses in leadership roles with companies such as Vera Bradley, Pandora Jewelry, Newell Rubbermaid, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Conagra, and General Mills.
The NGF recently sat down with Ilagan to discuss how strategic leadership carries across industries, Bridgestone’s positioning in the golf marketplace, his ties to the sport, mentorship and the continuing evolution of the retail sector in golf.
What have been your biggest successes and challenges from Year 1 with Bridgestone Golf?
Coming into this, like in some of the previous industries I’ve been in, I walked into an industry where the focus wasn’t on business and wasn’t focused on the majority of the consumers, the majority of the golfers. What we did was develop a strategy by which we were being true to our Bridgestone mission, which is serving the golfing community with superior products. When I was being interviewed for this position, it was just well-known that Bridgestone golf balls and golf ball performance was one of the best kept secrets in the industry, to the point where players who are more technical knew we had a superior product but the consumer had no idea how much better our product was than the competition. So with that challenge actually brought the successes, like signing Tiger Woods. He’s an equipment golf ball junkie. Signing him, and not really based on his experience of performance and accomplishments on the tour, but just his endorsement value is just tremendous for us. It really has convinced the consumers of our competitors to take a look at our product and we’re seeing a significant amount of conversion from that. It was also refocusing on serving the end golf consumer, the golfer, rather than taking care of the establishment if you will. There’s been a strong business performance here. In a category where most of our competitors are seeing declines year over year, we’re seeing significant growth.
It is encouraging, but true to form, our team isn’t satisfied. And we’re probably not going to be satisfied until we’re triple our size, and probably not even then. We could have sold a lot more product, but we’ve been taking a pretty conservative approach to where we’re at. We’re seeing the pendulum swing to our advantage. We’re seeing a large increase in awareness of brand. We’ve taken what was considered a disadvantage – which is we have a wide range of products – and we’re focused on all of them equally, because each one serves a different segment, a different level of golfer.
Is there an advantage in coming to your role from outside the golf industry?
I think so. We’ve had people in the past come in from outside the organization – my head of sales came from the pharmaceutical, nutritional business and he brought that whole aspect to it.
The industry has been very slow to change and they’re doing the same things today, in general, that they’ve been doing for the last 30 to 40 years. Coming in here and taking mostly a business approach to it, as well as a consumer approach, it’s really benefited us. Now the entire organization has really geared toward serving that community and really the focus is on the end golfer. That basically allows for more inclusion than exclusion. When you think about how the golf industry has operated, it’s really excluding the majority of the golfing population because it’s really focused on the golf community or the elite player – the top 1 percent.
We want to have more and more people enjoy this game. Because that’s the only way the category is going to grow. And we need to focus on making people not only play better, but enjoy the game even more. The majority of consumers want to just go out there and enjoy themselves and have a good time. They’re not necessarily concerned with the financial aspects of the game. It’s nice to take that kind of perspective and know who your audience is and who you’re serving.
While you didn’t work in the golf industry previously, where does the game fall in your life?
I have an uncle who was a former pro player and my grandfather during World War II built a lot of the courses in the Pacific for the U.S. Navy. He was tasked with building runways when the U.S. Navy planes needed somewhere to land. He would build these asphalt runways really quickly – I don’t think they’d pass safety code today – but it was to land combat jets. He’s a civil engineer – it’s the way he actually gained citizenship here in the U.S. — and he built a number of golf courses on these islands so the officers could go play. He used to talk to me about how the greens were actually made of sand. They would have maybe three holes or nine‑hole golf courses across the Pacific. My grandfather into his 60’s was a scratch golfer and so, me trying to get to know my grandfather, that’s why I got to know the game. I played in high school and enjoyed the game from that. When I was in high school I was living with my grandfather and I played 18 holes a day during the week and 36-54 holes a day on the weekend.
Being in the equipment side of the business, how to you see retail shifting in the golf industry?
The industry has to catch up. We’re now in the online world and the ones who are going to take advantage of that are the ones who are going to cater to the existing generations of golfers and basically expand their reach and influence to those consumers. Those are the guys who are going to be winning. What we’ve established with our sales force is we’re no longer calling them ‘Territory Sales Managers,’ we’re calling them ‘Retail Business Consultants.’ We’re providing them with the tools to help the men and women and companies improve their sales, and not just on our products, but in totality. How do you give the best offering to the consumers? How do you open up yourself to online purchases? We’re about 20 years, maybe 15 years, behind. Whether it’s a green grass golf shop, an off‑course account, and I’d even say some of our big strategic accounts – the sporting goods – we haven’t done a good job in totality of creating a nice retail display and merchandising impact to our consumers, and we haven’t done a great job of advertising. We’re pushing forward to that.
The traditional aspect of just doing television advertising on the weekend of a golf tournament was only reaching about 10 to 15 percent of the golfing population. And they really weren’t the ones playing golf. We really need to take that approach and keep pushing it forward. We’re also doing a lot more comparisons. We’re comparing our product against a competitor so that the consumer will know exactly what’s right and what is the best fit for them as opposed to just word of mouth. That’s another thing that’s worked out well for us.
Who was a mentor for you as you progressed in your career? Are there certain individuals who stand out in that regard?
Very early in my career coming out of graduate school, I had the good fortune of talking to many people who were CEOs and mentored me — at General Mills, Foster Farms and other companies. My greatest mentor, and he’s since passed, was Peter Spokes at General Mills. He was the president of Yoplait at the time and he hired me. He told me the best thing you can do is get as much experience, as wide a breadth of experience as you can in every function, in every industry that you can cram in to the time frame between now and the time you become a president. He said you just have to be ready to do everything. Rather than be a Jack of all trades, you have to be a King of all trades or all industries. He really pushed me to understand things theoretically, to not just understand things from a tried and true perspective; that the experience you gain you must show you understand that you’re making the difference. Another one after that was probably Jim Smith, the CEO of Ipsos – I worked for him at Conagra. He was an extremely intelligent guy who pushed me to figure out this stuff for yourself because unless your father was a CEO or president, you’re not going to inherit this from anybody else. Every situation is different, so there is no easy or set way to get to your end goal. He said, ‘The most important thing is that you remember it’s not just a business; that your responsibility is to the entire population — that’s the end consumers, the employees, the share-holders. Keeping that in mind will force you to make the right decisions not only for the business, but for everybody.’