ENDING ON A HIGH
Now before I get into the ups and downs of the last 3 months, I have to say that regardless of all of it, I feel incredibly lucky that I still have a business and that my family and I are healthy. That is clearly the most important factor here and I appreciate that a large number of people have not been as fortunate.
Prior to lockdown, the business had been gaining real traction, notably since the PGA EuroPro Tour decided last summer to roll out our tees for the 2020 season. I can’t thank Dan and Matt enough for this, it was a real boost for us! From the early stages it was clear that there was a desire in the game to make positive changes and drive for sustainability, but it wasn’t obvious what the first step could be.
We finished our first year by agreeing to supply our first European Tour event, the Oman Open 2020, with custom branded tees and matchboxes. Our product was brought in to support the wider ambitions of the Golf Oman committee to promote sustainability – thank you Jamie for getting us involved in that one! To top this off, American Golf placed a significant order for our tees and our upcoming clothing line. We were on a huge high.
FIRST SIGN OF TROUBLE
COVID-19 first impacted our business in January. To provide some background, we exclusively use moso bamboo for our golf tees. This is a temperate species of giant bamboo, native to China, and provides a perfect sustainable material to make tees. We source this bamboo from a government contracted and sustainably managed 100-hectare forest in the Jiangxi Province.
We were notified in January by our manufacturing partners that the roads to and from the bamboo forest had been closed by the Highways Agency in an attempt to reduce the spread of the COVID 19 outbreak. The road was subsequently closed for 3 months. When you are reliant as a business on a raw material that is sourced from the other side of the world, decisions like this make you feel helpless, particularly as we began to start to see a clearer picture of the impact of COVID-19 in the region.
Ideally, we’d have everything manufactured in the same location that it is grown, but this just isn’t possible in China. Even the benefit of hindsight doesn’t help me with this one, so best just to write it off to experience. I’m happy to say that although this specific situation resulted in the delay to our castle tee product line, they will be on sale by the 12th June!
GETTING THE MAKO OVER THE LINE
Despite the business being directly impacted by the virus in January, naively at no point did I think that the problems being experienced in China would impact us here. During January and February, we were finalising our designs and fabric specifications for the Mako polo shirt. This was a big moment for the brand. Our wider ambition is to be the first brand to introduce cutting edge sustainable technologies to the golf market.
The fashion industry has a huge impact on the environment. Did you know that 35% of all microplastic pollution in the ocean comes from synthetic textiles, like polyester and nylon, and every time you wash a polyester golf polo shirt you are contributing to it? This is the sort of information that most golfers won’t know, which is why it is important that we raise awareness of the damage these sorts of fabrics cause. We focused on addressing the impact of the industry on water quality and consumption levels as well as microplastic pollution created by synthetic fabrics.
By surrounding the business with experts in their field we developed the Mako polo shirt. It is made from a fabric blend of organic cotton and the only non-toxic and biodegradable elastane in the world – the Roica Eco-smart yarn, certified by the Hohenstein Institute. We then selected our European based manufacturing partner who are the only manufacturer in the world to have so far met the textiles procurement standard set by Greenpeace. This standard covers everything from organically farmed natural fibres, to testing for harmful substances, to fair pay and transparency.
From the performance point of view, the organic cotton creates a soft, breathable fabric with a premium pique finish while the biodegradable elastane allows the polo shirt to move and stretch without impeding your swing. Just ask James Tait – Top Ranked Long Driver who hit his first shot after lockdown in the Mako polo shirt over 410 yards! Almost as good as my first shot, but we’ll come to that later.
The polo shirts were due to go into main production in the last week of March. By this point as we all knew the virus was very much across Europe. Almost unbelievably though, our manufacturing partner managed to keep to the agreed production timeline whilst ensuring that social distancing protocols were strictly adhered to. The polos were delivered on time and we fulfilled orders as agreed.
A combination of due diligence in the selection process for a manufacturing partner and a lot of luck got us through this one. It is worth saying here, that if those polo shirts had not been manufactured on time and we hadn’t been able to fulfil our initial orders we would have been in severe difficulty. As a precautionary step I had explored the financial support that had been made available by the UK government, but due to the size and stage of the business and the speed at which we had grown in the early months of 2020, we very much fell between the gap of the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (50k+) and the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (capped at 25% of 2019 Revenue). I really hope we don’t lose too many good, disruptive businesses as a result of the pandemic.
LOSING THE OPEN
The Oman Open 2020 took place at the end of February and we got some great exposure. The products and the company ethos were really well received by the industry. On the back of this we were fortunate to start having conversations with the European Tour and IMG about future events.
This was huge for the business, not only from a potential product sales point of view but with regards to the platform that we could provide to our charity partners. It has always been the aim that in addition to donating 25% of our profits to charities, we would provide them with opportunities to educate and create a buzz around sustainability within the golf world. We want to get the experts in front of golfers! We were making plans to support several Tournaments over the Summer/Autumn, one of which was The Open. This was the dream; a Major Tournament. We finalised artwork for the custom matchbox units for one of the corporate sponsors and then the lockdown hit. All tournaments were cancelled. We were devastated.
We are incredibly lucky to still be here, and we know that the relationships we have built over the last 12 months are still there, so hopefully we will pick up again when tournaments return. We know that there are a lot of people and businesses in the events space that have been more severely hit than we have.
Collaboration is going to be key for us to get our message out there to as many golfers as possible. Whether that is collaborations with golf clubs, Tours or other brands. With that in mind, we were delighted when we partnered with Stromberg on our first product collaboration; a 100% GOTS certified organic cotton polo shirt manufactured by our team in Europe. Securing this deal was big for us, with delivery due at the end of April. I was already having sleepless nights before the lockdown about failing to deliver and the impact that could have.
Yet again our manufacturing partner came up trumps and got the polo shirts completed on time. I was ecstatic. We booked in the delivery and the goods were on the move. We had done it. At least I thought we had. I received a phone call on the morning the delivery was due to arrive. Whilst the lorry had stopped at a service station to fill up with petrol, it had been vandalised and half the product had been stolen. I couldn’t believe it.
For the polos to be stolen 50 miles away from the warehouse with all the challenges we’d faced was unreal. This was 4 weeks into lockdown! I can’t say we’ve learnt anything from this one, but it did make me think of the Monty Python song “Always look on the bright side of life,” so we raised a glass and toasted the polo shirts that did make it.
Throughout the lockdown period I had been at my in laws in a house of 6 (including my 15 month old daughter). From initially thinking that “lockdown with the in laws” sounded more like a bad movie than a period of my life, I quickly realised how incredibly fortunate I was to be surrounded by people and not going through isolation by myself.
I think for golfers, those 4 hours you have on a course with a friend or family member can actually end up being the best time to have meaningful conversations and talk about how you are feeling and what is going on. It’s unlike any other sport I have played where the majority of conversation is “banter”. I know there are lots of people who have struggled with their mental health during this period, so I was delighted when I heard that golf courses in England were to be opened again.
Tony (my father in law) and I booked the earliest tee time we could get, thinking that the courses were going to open on Monday. All other slots being taken, we settled for Wednesday morning at 9.04am. As things transpired this turned out to be one of the first tee times in the country!
We were delighted and spent the whole night beforehand talking about it. We arrived about 20 minutes before our tee time. The course was in great condition and despite the reduced numbers, there was a real buzz of excitement. The first hole was a 176-yard par 3. I took my go-to hybrid, having not swung a club for 8 weeks, and teed it up. The main thought in my head was to not lose a ball because I only had a couple more in my bag! I made an OK connection (quite thin) and looked up to see the ball moving forward in the air. To be honest, I was happy enough with that.
I saw the ball bounce and head towards the green. I then lost sight of it, but assumed I’d find it there somewhere on the dance floor. As I approached, the ball was nowhere to be seen, until I checked the hole! First hole, first shot, first ever hole in one!
I posted a short video on Twitter when I got home and within an hour it had 25k views. Within 2 hours I had been called by The Times and The Telegraph. That evening it had over 100k views and I was booked in to do BBC breakfast in the morning! Unbelievable. We haven’t stopped laughing about it since, I’ve definitely had my 15 minutes.
So, it has been an up and down few months for OCEAN TEE as a business. We are fortunate that we seem to be surviving and we have a lot of new exciting initiatives planned, including the launch of our women’s polo shirt in September. I want to be transparent in everything we do as business, so I hope you have found the above interesting and always feel free to ask me any questions.