How the business of making golf balls saved four small American towns

In contrast to the rest of the golfing gear in your bag, the golf ball is still manufactured in America to a significant extent. Not Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam or China. Instead, the cities of New Bedford (Titleist) and Chicopee (Callaway) can be found in the state of Massachusetts. Or, the Georgia town of Covington (Bridgestone). Or Liberty (TaylorMade), located in the state of South Carolina. In the United States, approximately nine out of every ten premium golf balls are manufactured in one of four factory towns located in three different states.

Each of these operations combines the highly technical aspects of today’s manufacturing of golf balls with workers whose multigenerational legacies often stretch back to the Great Depression. Often, these legacies are passed down from parent to child. These sophisticated manufacturing businesses have become the pride of these small towns and, in some cases, the engine that drives them. In turn, these small towns continue to propel the largest ball companies, which together produce half a billion balls each year.

This comes at a time when manufacturing in the United States has experienced some decline. The first decade of this century saw a decrease of one third in the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States. This was most painfully felt in the towns on the country’s periphery, where goods that were once thought to be essential to the landscape and character of a region are increasingly being built overseas. In spite of all of this, the golf-ball business holds strong and continues to thrive. The answer is always the same whenever you inquire with officials at these companies or in these towns about why golf balls are still manufactured in these areas. They are proud of their technological processes at plants that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week; however, the asset that they are most proud of is one that is much more straightforward. To paraphrase the words of the Mayor of Chicopee, Richard Kos, “Natural resources have made the United States of America a great country, but the resource that is special now, the resource that is special here, is the human resource.”

It is not a tale about golf balls that you are about to hear. This is a tale about real life and real people.

The familiar tale of Titleist, whose legendary Pro V1 franchise accounts for approximately three-quarters of the balls played in professional golf and one of every four balls sold in the United States, begins with a missed putt by the company’s founder, Phil Young, which led him to question the quality of the ball he was using at the time. Because of this, the company has made a commitment to manufacturing precision, which continues to serve as its guiding principle. (To give you an example, ever since Titleist, which was originally a company that processed rubber, started manufacturing golf balls in 1932, they have been X-raying the balls to ensure that the cores are perfectly centered.)

It is not an exaggeration to say that no other company in the world manufactures balls of a higher quality or produces a greater quantity than Titleist. One of the reasons for this is that the company’s 1,200 employees working in its ball operations have a combined total of 23,000 years of experience in the ball-making industry. Every day, members of the company’s staff working in R&D at all levels and on the factory floor communicate with one another. It is not a coincidence that all of Titleist’s research and development, manufacturing, testing, custom-logo, and distribution facilities are centered within a circle that is eight miles in diameter.

Bill Frye, senior vice president of golf-ball operations for Titleist and a former employee of Boeing who joined the company 28 years ago, explains that “this type of manufacturing, it’s not linear.” “It’s a matter of incorporating. In addition, there is a certain sense of pride that comes along with realizing that you are not merely a cog in the wheel. Someone working the third shift grinding cores is aware that the cores are an essential component of the ongoing success of the company and its plans for the future.

A company whose most popular product was a tour-played ball with rubber windings was able to transition to solid-core, multilayer constructions with the introduction of the Pro V1 in the late year of 2000 thanks to the manufacturing agility that the company possessed. If it seemed like that process was completed in a single night, you can thank a workforce that has experience in that particular field. At Titleist, Manny Baptista met the woman who would become his wife, and he has also worked there with his brothers. Even after 37 years, going to the same job is still like returning home to me. “In all honesty, coming here is like a breath of fresh air,” he says. “In contrast to the normal course of life, any chaos that occurs here is under control.”

Even though this culture may be at the core of Titleist’s ball business, rumors began to circulate in 2011 after the company was acquired by Fila, a sports conglomerate owned by South Koreans. These rumors suggested that the company might relocate its operations to another country. It didn’t happen, and as a result, the effect on the region, as well as on Acushnet, the company that owns Titleist, is more than just emotional today. Acushnet is the largest employer in the area and most likely the most important benefactor as well. This is in addition to the local hospital system. It is estimated that the payroll of the company alone has an economic impact of half a billion dollars. In a new nation, you can buy new machines and a new building, but you can’t buy a culture there.

According to Peter Broome, senior vice president of industry and trade relations for Acushnet, “as part of any good business, you had to go through the exercise and evaluate.” “However, you quickly come to the conclusion that there is a great deal more to the big picture than economics. One can always come up with a justification for moving manufacturing processes, but the fact that we’re the ones who started this thing makes a difference.

Mike Gemaly was almost born on the old winding-room floor at the original Ball Plant I, where his mother worked. Mike has been making golf balls for the past 36 years and is one of more than 50 employees who have more than 25 years of experience. He dominates the space like the rock star he once thought he would become when he moved away from town. But as events transpired, he found himself back at home and ultimately obtained his GED through Titleist. Everyone in his immediate vicinity, including Manny, is aware of what the company has done for them and how it has helped them in turn. It’s possible that Titleist golf balls are the best on the market because they perform so well on professional tours around the world. However, the enthusiasm with which golfers embrace Titleist’s products likely has a lot to do with the enthusiasm with which Titleist employees embrace their jobs.

Gemaly explains, “When we see a golf ball, we see our life, and we see the people that we’ve been close with.” “We are aware of the factors that have contributed to our success in life. This is not a regular golf ball at all. It is too significant for something like that.”

Vince Simonds, whose father Jim started in 1948 at the same ball plant that his son now runs, is aware that things could have turned out differently in a town where Spalding/Top-Flite and now Callaway have been manufacturing golf balls since 1896. Jim Simonds’s father was the first employee at the plant, and Vince Simonds is now the plant manager. He reflects on the early 2000s and says, “It was really bad,” referring to the time when Wall Street investors purchased Spalding/Top-Flite and ultimately filed bankruptcy for Top-Flite. “It was really bad,” he says. “Pensions were taken away from employees who had been with the company for decades,” she said. Simply put, there was a great deal of unpredictability. When we started, there were more than a thousand people working for us, and now there are only 125. But I knew that the last thing I wanted to do was be the guy who locked the doors to this place and watched the parking lot become overgrown with weeds.

Callaway had purchased the company out of bankruptcy in 2003, but following the end of the recession, there was a brief period of time during which it appeared as though the plant would be shut down and the company would move its golf-ball production to Mexico or China. But when Callaway president and CEO Chip Brewer took over the company in 2012, he made the decision to make Chicopee the fulcrum for Callaway’s re-energized golf-ball business, beginning in 2015 with the Chrome Soft line of balls. Chicopee became the fulcrum for Callaway’s re-energized golf-ball business. The so-called “ball that changed the ball” was instrumental in doubling Callaway’s ball business and propelling the company from fourth to second place, respectively. According to Brewer, “We took a different tack,” and at this point, “we’re really only tangentially starting to see the benefits of what we’re spending there.”

Callaway has spent $50 million over the course of three years on reinvestment in its ball business that is based in the United States. Now, the most advanced and highly automated robots collaborate with union workers from Boilermakers Local 1851 to manufacture the first ball to use graphene, which won the Nobel Prize in physics, as the core material. The town of Chicopee has been revitalized. The local bus route was preserved so that factory workers will have an easier time getting to the plant, and new commercial investment has been made along the street that leads to the plant, including the opening of a Dunkin’ Donuts. This year alone, Callaway has brought in revenue of $70,000 for a recently opened hotel.

According to Simonds, the region’s comeback is about the pride of a community that had lost more than a third of its manufacturing jobs in the first 15 years of this century. Not only were people’s ways of life shifting, but the region was also on the verge of economic collapse.

The Callaway plant now has worker training programs in conjunction with the community colleges in the surrounding area thanks to collaboration with state and local officials. According to Simonds, a significant portion of the millions of dollars invested in the plant has had an effect on the local economy for a variety of workers including electricians, mechanics, and programmers. Kos, who is about to step down as Mayor of Chicopee after serving in that capacity for the second time, was serving as Mayor during the time that the old plant closed due to poor decisions and a worsening economy.

“Callaway saw the level of productivity of the people who were still here as well as the ones who came and learned from example,” says Kos, a lifelong resident who remembers the days when tour pros like Lee Trevino would come to the factory and hit balls at nearby Annie’s Driving Range. “That has made this facility able to be something that a publicly traded company can justify,” Kos says. “Callaway saw the level of productivity of the people who were still here as well as the ones who came “In that economic climate, nobody gives a hoot about Chicopee, and nobody even gives a hoot about the golf ball. They are concerned about the bottom line as well as how it can be justified.

The implementation of new technology and the growth of the existing building are not the only criteria that Simonds uses to evaluate progress at the Chicopee plant. In a plant that has more than 400 workers at the moment, he can’t remember the names of all of them, which is a clear indication of how large the workforce has become.

“We’re golfers, love the game, love the business, and wanted to stay in it,” he says. “We wanted to stay in it because we love it.” “There were a lot of people in the financial industry looking at the numbers and saying that there has got to be a cheaper and more economical way to do this. On the other hand, there are intangible aspects to it. The workers on the factory floor have a wealth of information to share. You can’t just type “golf ball making machine” into Google and expect it to work properly. You need to have that history behind you in order to be able to develop the systems and processes that are necessary to do it in an accurate and profitable manner.

David Bernd worked for Kimberly Clark for 34 years and recalls the safety briefings the company provided to employees who were going to Augusta, Georgia. “Most people would fly into Atlanta and drive to Augusta via I-20,” Bernd says. “They made it a point to caution us against coming to this location.”

“Here” is the town of Covington, Georgia, which has a population of approximately 13,000 people and is located 35 miles east of Atlanta. Covington is located within Newton County, which Bernd represents in his role as vice president of economic development for the county.

The high number of movies and television shows that are shot in Covington has earned the city the nickname “Hollywood of the South.” This nickname was given to the city as a result of the city’s prominence as a filming location. The final football scene in the movie “Remember the Titans” was filmed at the city’s Homer Sharp Stadium. Just as Coach Herman Boone’s Titans overcame adversity to thrive, so has the city of Covington. With Bridgestone Golf serving as the primary contributor.

Bridgestone, which is headquartered in Tokyo and is a global leader in the tire, rubber, and sports industries, established a U.S. marketing office in Covington in 1985 and began manufacturing balls there in 1990. This action helped bring other businesses to the area, much like an anchor tenant in a shopping mall.

“Every Japanese executive that comes here plays golf and is familiar with Bridgestone,” says Bernd. “Every single one.” “We make it a point to take them there in order for them to get ball-fit as well as golf balls with their logo on it. When they return to Japan, they will have knowledge that Bridgestone is located in Covington. It is an effective message to recruit new members.”

With compliments from Bridgestone Golf

There are currently five hotels within ten kilometers of Covington that are in the planning stages. Construction has begun on the Covington Town Center, which will feature a theater in addition to townhouses, offices, and retail space. It is possible that Facebook’s construction of a data center in nearby Stanton Springs, which will cost an estimated $42 billion, will be the single largest economic development project in the state’s entire history.

Bernd is quoted as saying that “none of this could have happened without the foundation that the Japanese companies, particularly Bridgestone, laid 30 years ago.”

Bridgestone Golf’s President and Chief Executive Officer, Dan Murphy, has lived in Covington for a very long time. He witnessed the depressed state of the neighborhood when he first moved there, and he is now delighted to see the area undergoing revitalization.

In 2014, Murphy was instrumental in the company’s decision to manufacture all of its premium balls in the Covington facility. The philosophy that golf balls should be “made here, played here” was instrumental in increasing the workforce to its current number of 173, with close to 90 percent of employees residing in Covington or in the surrounding area. Covington was the location for the filming of all of the television commercials for Bridgestone, including the most recent ones featuring Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau.

However, Murphy and Bridgestone contribute more to Covington than just their logo would suggest. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) are something that Murphy and Bernd believe in and support. In the case of the city of Covington, the objective is to completely do away with poverty and achieve complete employment. Education is the most important factor in achieving that goal.

Bernd says that the state determines how many beds it will require in its prisons based on the number of children who are able to read by the end of the third grade. “Our schools were not good. In 2012, we had a high school graduation rate that was lower than sixty percent, and eighty percent of our students read at least two grade levels below their grade level.

With compliments from Bridgestone Golf

2013 marked the beginning of a reading program that would eventually involve 600 different volunteers, the majority of whom were employees of Bridgestone. Since then, Eastside High School’s graduation rate has surpassed 90 percent, and the school has received an A ranking for the first time on a national scale. It also constitutes a fundamental shift in terms of personal economics. The median wage in Covington is now close to $60,000 per year. Dennis Johnson, who has worked for Bridgestone for the past nine years and began his tenure there as an entry-level cure press worker, is now in charge of supervising 18 coworkers during his shift. Johnson, a former employee of Harley-Davidson with tattooed arms, a strong Southern drawl, and a quick wit, resides in Covington and takes great pride in the fact that he worked there, particularly on the Monday that followed this year’s Masters Tournament.

Johnson responds, “That’s Tiger Woods, and we made his golf ball,” referring to the golfer. “Every single one of us plays a role in that, from the person who is responsible for receiving the rubber to the person who is in charge of sending the ball out the door. Put your name on it, and take pride in the work that you’ve accomplished.

In spite of its patriotic name, the town of Liberty was—and to some extent still is—at risk of falling victim to the unpatriotic fate of becoming a defunct mill town in the South. On Front Street, the main drag, there are a dozen red, white, and blue “Welcome to Liberty” banners hanging from telephone poles. These banners provide a striking contrast to the numerous boarded-up buildings that line the street. A deserted church is one of the South’s most unusual sights, and it can be found just around the corner. A gloomy emblem for a city that is struggling to keep its identity.

The upper northwest corner of the state is home to the town of Liberty, which has a population of slightly more than 3,000 people. A blow was dealt to an economy that was already struggling when, in 2011, the Liberty Denim plant closed its doors for good. According to data collected by the United States Census Bureau between 2013 and 2017, the median income was $35,986. Census estimates.

Just a few miles away is the Pickens County Commerce Park, an area that, despite its relatively small size, has experienced significant expansion and development over the course of the past decade. Included in this is the 120,000 square foot ball plant that TaylorMade inaugurated in 2014. It was not always a foregone conclusion.

The manager of the factory is Scott Austin. In 2006, he joined the company at a time when the TaylorMade ball plant was located thirty miles away in the former Dunlop building.

Austin, who is seated behind a desk that is covered in customized and sliced-open golf balls, explains, “My area of expertise was moving plants.” “After working here for a few months, I found out that we were going to move the urethane line to Taiwan. Therefore, it’s safe to say that leaving South Carolina was discussed.

But in 2012, TaylorMade’s revenues skyrocketed as a result of the RocketBallz metalwoods phenomenon, which provided the management team with the financial confidence to proceed with the construction of a new building in the United States for the company’s golf-ball business. The construction of the plant required an investment of $13 million from TaylorMade, and the company worked with regional contractors and suppliers throughout the process. When it first relocated to Liberty, there were approximately 80 people working there. Today, there are 230. Ray Farley, the executive director of Alliance Pickens, believes that the arrival of TaylorMade will have a positive impact on the local economy that is somewhere in the eight figures range.

Pickens County’s educational system receives financial support equivalent to sixty-five percent of the revenue collected from taxes. One of these schools is a technical high school in South Carolina that is ranked in the top one percent of schools of its type in that state. TaylorMade and other companies in the state are in need of the talent that the school trains. According to Farley, “it’s the private sector contributing to education, and education contributing to the workforce of the private sector, which then contributes to economic development.” [Citation needed] “The income from those taxes keeps the cycle going.”

There are reasons for optimism despite the fact that the region is still dealing with difficulties. According to the latest data available, the number of people holding jobs in Liberty has increased by 9 percent, the median income for households has increased, and the city’s poverty rate, while still higher than the national average, has decreased by nearly 2 percent.

According to Ken Roper, a Pickens County administrator who has spent all fifty of his years in the area, “We have one area with the past and then this other area where there is the future, hope, and growth.” It’s possible that this town wouldn’t have a reason to exist if it weren’t for businesses like TaylorMade and the others like it. A small town relies heavily on its sense of pride. This community puts in a lot of effort. They use their hands to create various things. They want to have a positive outlook on the years to come. Now there is reason to have hope.”

Hope is something that is familiar to Janice Holland, who has worked for Dunlop and now TaylorMade for the past 32 years and who began her career earning $3.35 an hour. After a two-year fight against cancer, she is now back at the plant, and she now has both of her sons working in Liberty alongside her. She says that once you invest your life in a company, you become acutely aware of its every detail. “This is a great place to work, and we treat each other like family here. You can’t just ignore the fact that a product is being manufactured right here in the United States of America.

Holland is employed in the custom-tour department, where she is responsible for distributing merchandise to the tour staff. She makes it a point to put notes in each player’s box, whether it be to tell Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm, or Rory McIlroy that she is cheering for them. After that, she prays aloud for each of them to have a wonderful day, just as she does when she is at church. Blessed. Whether or not the church has been closed off with boards.

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