Ely Callaway, the master salesman, would have found the silver lining in today's volatile market

Ely Callaway, the master salesman, would have found the silver lining in today’s volatile market

Ely Callaway in 1998 showing off the new steel-headed fairway woods.
Dave Martin/AP

“It would be hard to find a product that’s more fun to sell,” Ely Callaway used to say. And nobody had more fun selling golf equipment than the cackling, free-wheeling founder, chairman and CEO of Callaway Golf.

Ely moved on to the bargain barrel in the sky a few years ago, but I remembered him with a smile this morning. Which says something about the old huckster, because the article I was reading on marketwatch.com — “Callaway Golf Company Releases Preliminary Third Quarter 2008 Results” — was the antithesis of fun. The gist of the piece, obscured by phrases like “fully diluted earnings of $0.02 per share” and “gross margin improvement initiatives,” was that Callaway Golf sales fell off $23 million from Third Quarter 2007.

“Both our international and U.S. businesses were softer than expected as a result of the turmoil in the global financial markets,” said George Fellows, Callaway’s current president and CEO. “These recessionary conditions had a significant adverse effect on retailer and consumer confidence and exacerbated the normal end of season sales slowdown.”

When the world financial system melts down, in other words, you put off buying those shiny new X-20 Tour irons.

And yet, I thought of Ely Callaway, the master salesman, and smiled. I remembered having breakfast with him at a hotel coffee shop in Orlando in January of 1994, the week of the PGA Merchandise Show. Ely rattled his copy of The Wall Street Journal, asking, “Did you see what the stock did today?” Finding CalGolf in the NYSE stock tables, he smiled. “Ah! Up four.” Ely was so tickled that he called the waitress over and, in his brittle Georgia twang, ordered a second bowl of grits. “Right away, sweetheart,” she replied.

Ely turned to his wife, Cindy. “Did you hear that? ‘Sweetheart!'”

Cindy said, “You are a sweetheart.”

At 74, Ely was having the time of his life. I remember him in his office in Carlsbad, Calif., fanning magazine ads out on his desk: the ads of competitors who claimed they made oversized drivers that could bash a golf ball farther and straighter than Callaway’s bulbous Big Bertha driver. The old man flashed his pixie smile. “It’s wonderful,” he said of the carping ads. “They mention Big Bertha in their ads more than their own names!”

He thought the other companies were missing the point with their carefully plotted graphs and their photographs of Iron Byron. Robots, Ely argued, couldn’t measure a club’s appearance and feel — factors that contributed to user confidence. “We don’t say Big Bertha is the world’s longest driver,” he said. “We call it the world’s friendliest driver.”

Only Ely, who had made two previous fortunes in the touchy-sniffy worlds of textiles and wine making, would have hung an adjective like “friendliest” on a cold lump of stainless steel. But therein lay his genius. With an understanding of golf psychology surpassing that of most golf-industry insiders, the wily founder built Callaway Golf from a three-worker outfit making hickory-shafted putters and wedges to a 3,000-employee juggernaut with annual sales of roughly a billion dollars.

He was more than a chief executive; he was the face of Callaway Golf, an iconic figure comparable to KFC’s Colonel Sanders or Wendy’s Dave Thomas. As an industrial prophet, Callaway could out-Iacocca Iacocca and out-Perot Perot. He condemned consultants, praised the American worker and supported protectionism. He pointed with pride to his Carlsbad factory, a spotless, high-tech operation that employed hundreds of workers, mostly black and Hispanic. “In the old days, this is what American industry did,” he told me on a tour of the factory floor. “It made products so good that the world wanted to buy them. We’ve got to get back to that position.”

Did Ely see the storm clouds gathering over the American economy? I doubt it. He was too optimistic and too much the indefatigable salesmen to go down that gloomy road.

But how I wish he were still around to lift our spirits, make us want to hit it longer and straighter, and put us back in a buying mood.