5 Questions for Ashworth’s John Kawaja

Ashworth is all about dressing the golfer — even when he’s off the golf course.

For fall ’11, the brand debuted a four-style footwear collection meant for use on and off the course. So far, the line’s breakout hit has been the Cardiff, a spikeless shoe in tumbled leathers and suede accents. Other looks have a golf sensibility without the performance aspects.

“While we make serious shirts for golfers, we felt our opportunity in footwear was on these more transitional shoes that you could wear to and from,” said John Kawaja, EVP of TaylorMade-Adidas Golf, which owns Ashworth. “They are fun shoes we felt the golfer would want to have.”

The shoes are distributed strictly in golf shops. And to capitalize on the success of the Cardiff, Kawaja said a similar style would be added for spring ’12. Here, the exec weighs in launching footwear in a down economy.

1. Why did you want to launch footwear for fall?
JK: It’s not the first time that Ashworth has been in shoes. We were in the performance golf shoe business in the early 1990s without any success. I mean, they were essentially almost unwearable. They were the old Goodyear-welted, hard leather dress shoes with the spikes on the bottom. They were really well made; they just weren’t very comfortable. Our current approach, in terms of our reason for getting in the business, was that we felt there was a need for fun, relaxed shoes that golfers could wear to the golf course. Another important part of our business is allowing the golfer to dress like a golfer and feel like a golfer when he’s not playing golf.

2. How did you decide how big to make the selection starting out?
We looked at what golfers wear and the staple in any guy’s shoe collection: canvas, off-course golf looks. We knew these things would be pretty fringe and more fun than anything else. The one that’s really hit a home run for us is the Cardiff shoe, which is the transitional shoe that can be worn anywhere. To be able to go to the office, have lunch and then go play golf is pretty handy.

3. Do you have a plan for expanding the shoe collection?
I don’t know if it’s going to always be four [styles], but we do want to keep it tight. First and foremost, Ashworth is an apparel brand. So our footwear products are going to be a fun brand expansion, things that can become a staple [for our customers]. We don’t see it being half our business anytime soon. And we don’t want to overburden our retailers. They are selling golf shoes, and this is a new business opportunity for them that they don’t go after today.

4. Sounds like you created a new category. Have retailers been receptive to that?
They have. When the shoes start to leave the shop, they start to get more convinced. When we first started selling [the line], a lot of retailers were willing to bring in a tight size run. The sell-throughs have been phenomenal and the reorders are way past the bookings we did. We’re chasing it, we’re keeping the airplane from China full of shoes, and it will be for the next few months to keep up with the demand.

5. Is it harder to convince retailers to take a chance when the economy is bad?
It’s the nature of retailers to be cautious when people aren’t spending as much. But if your business is going to be down, there’s usually a great opportunity to look for [areas] that might have been previously overlooked. Today, people need all the revenues they can muster up. And if they can do it economically and not be too overburdened by carrying too much inventory, there’s a real opportunity for retailers.

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