The following “Six Questions” short interview with Ken Wang, Owner, Pound Ridge Golf Club / President, U.S. Summit Company, was conducted by our Contributing Writer Cameron Chung. Special thank you to Shane Sharp, Vice President at the BUFFALO Brand Invigoration Group, for facilitating this interview.
(1) Venture merchant by day, golf course owner by night (so to speak). How did you first come into contact with the great game of golf, and what inspired you to buy and build a golf course?
I mishit my first golf ball at a driving range that used to exist on Rte.3 in New Jersey. The Meadowlands Sports Complex is there now. My father took me; I was about eight years old. He thought I had talent. He was incorrect. We bought the predecessor golf course in 1980, all 9-1/2 holes of it. It had been a full 18 but a local developer had cut it in half to build housing. We bought the rest with no greater motive than liking real estate and golf. Years later we asked Pete Dye to restore it to 18 holes, tore out the old course and built the new one.
(2) What was your first exposure to the golf industry (versus playing the game)? How is, or was, U.S. Summit Company involved with PGA TOUR licensing?
My first industry involvement did, in fact, arise when one of our subsidiaries became the PGA Tour’s licensing agent outside the U.S. At the time, we were performing a similar role for the NFL. The Tour is a great organization, but licensing its logo was more difficult than, say, licensing Tiger Woods or Greg Norman. Our business relationship ended several years later, but I did get to play (TPC at) Sawgrass a few times!
(3) Your sister is legendary fashion designer Vera Wang. Is she a golfer, and if so, do the two of you discuss your respective businesses on the golf course?
Vera is a golfer. We both take a lot of strokes. In my case it’s because I lose a lot of balls. Vera often hits several balls on one hole, (Bill) Clinton-like. Kind of a one-woman scramble format. Not sure how to score that. We don’t really talk about business on the course. I sell pharmaceuticals, OTC and consumer products and industrial chemicals; she sells clothing. We might as well be trying to communicate in Martian.
(4) What is the biggest challenge facing the golf industry over the next five years? What changes would you like to see, or do you expect to make at Pound Ridge to meet this challenge?
I think golf’s greatest challenges are lack of time, lack of money, a growing preference for virtual experiences over real ones (especially among the young) and the continuing fragmentation of everything. Despite this, you can get branded golf umbrellas from branded-brolly.co.uk for not too much and still be a proper golfer! In thermodynamics we call this entropy — a tendency towards randomness — and golf is not alone in having this problem. I have several friends, deep into middle age, who have just discovered golf and are as hooked as the rest of us. They now have the time, the funds and the focus, and I suspect they are a better investment than trying to attract younger cohorts which don’t. Sorry for the bad pun, but once a course is built, the course is pretty much set. One can only do so much; the public will decide. Sure, you can do things like golf course netting installation to help improve the course and attract more customers but it’s one of the few things you can do. However, few golfers know their own games. If they did, most would move up to the “proper” tees and enjoy the sport far more. This is especially true for Pound Ridge, which has a reputation for appealing to skilled players. Fortunately, as golfers mature in the sport, they start to appreciate the best courses, which I like to think favors us. Educating the public about the quality and playability of Pound Ridge is our crusade.
(5) What aspect of your career – golf or venture merchant – are you most proud of?
I don’t think much about what makes me proud. Not to go existential on you, but I don’t search for a deeper meaning in what I do. I try to support my family, enjoy my work, do what I find interesting and try not to do any damage along the way. I must confess, however, that having had a hand in creating a beautiful golf course beats a sharp stick in the eye.
(6) What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in the golf industry at a high level, and or buy and operate a golf course in today’s marketplace?
Referring to “today’s” marketplace kind if makes it a trick question. Unless a number of courses close, supply will exceed demand — at least in the U.S. — and job, or owning prospects will be an uphill climb. The industry is still struggling and right-sizing will take time. In the meantime, like most industries, the low end and the high end can survive and perhaps even flourish while the middle is likely to get killed. Surviving courses will need to be distinctive in some way and smart in how they operate. High-end jobs will be in short supply, but talent combined with passion usually wins out at the end.