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Broholm expands Ahead beyond golf roots

Anne Broholm, the chief executive officer at headwear and apparel maker Ahead, sees plenty of opportunity in 2018.

One in a series of stories about the participants at the 2018 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla.

Anne Broholm, the chief executive officer at headwear and apparel maker Ahead, sees plenty of opportunity in 2018. She can lean on more than 30 years of progressive management experience in the apparel industry, including the past 5½ years at New Bedford, Mass.-based Ahead, to guide her.

Ahead provides merchandise to green-grass golf shops, resorts and professional golf tournaments. The company also is active in the corporate and collegiate markets. 

Before being named CEO of Ahead in 2012, Broholm was vice president of the golf division at Cutter & Buck, a Seattle-based apparel company. She also has worked for Ocean Pacific, Liz Claiborne and Imperial Headwear.

Ahead CEO Anne Broholm

Broholm spoke recently with Alex Miceli, Morning Read’s founder and publisher, about her company’s 2018 outlook heading into next month’s PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla.

Alex Miceli: In the 5½ years you've been at Ahead, what are the things that you've been able to put your stamp on?

Anne Broholm: We have launched two new divisions, so we have taken our company from being almost all golf-related in terms of our sales and customer base to having some corporate business and also having some collegiate business. That has been a healthy progression for the company. Golf is who we are, and that's in our DNA and always will be, but these other complementary sales channels have really given the company some additional sales growth that maybe golf is not able to right now, for many reasons. Golf is somewhat flat. So, we're excited about that.

AM: If golf weren’t flat, would you have been seeking these additional revenue sources?

AB: I think so. We're known for our creativity and how we decorate and ornament. It's stretching that a bit by looking at what's out in other markets and what other people are doing and really challenging ourselves. It's given the company fresh new challenges and fresh new energy. So, I think that we would have. It's healthy. Regardless of golf growing or not growing or whatever the stats are, golf is a fairly seasonal business, so we absolutely enjoy having some business from other channels that aren't quite as seasonal. That really helps us out because we decorate 80 percent of what we ship here in New Bedford. We don't manufacture it, but we’re kind of like manufacturing where we do a lot custom work right here in these four walls.

AM: Where do you source most of your materials?

AB: Most of our finished goods are sourced from Asia and the Far East, where we have a number of countries we work with to source apparel. Our headwear is mainly produced in China and Bangladesh. 

AM: Do you own the plants or contract with them?

AB: We do contract, however some of those partners have been with us for almost our entire 20-year history. So, while we don't own them, there's a mutual partnership that goes deeper than just a contract relationship, if that makes sense. 

AM: So, because of that history, a lot of the issues that others experience that start out in China, you don't have a lot of those issues?

AB: We don't. We have great partners overseas, and we also have a great products team here that does spend time two or three times a year in our partner facilities, as well. We have a Far East office that we rely on. We have an office in Taiwan as well that supports us. New Wave, our parent company, has an office in Shanghai that also supports our sourcing efforts.

AM: Would Ahead have an interest in bringing manufacturing back into the U.S.?

AB: I don't know if we would directly do it or we would partner with someone who already has that setup, but certainly from the customer standpoint there is an interest. We have one customer right now that we are working with on a joint basis to produce some made-in-USA caps for them under the Ahead brand.

AM: What was their desire to have it made in the U.S. versus having it made somewhere else?

AB: “Made in the U.S.” has certainly seen a resurgence. That resonates with the end consumer, so our customer who is selling to the end consumer wanted to give their customers that option, certainly not for a huge percent of their assortment but for a small percent. 

AM: When you decided to go into these other business areas, how much more did you expand in regard to employees and the business itself?

AB: We’ve expanded strategically. We expanded our customer-service area by about 30 percent. We have expanded our art support, as well. I'm happy to be bringing the company along in terms of streamlining and more technology. The positions that we have added have been to the benefit of our customers. 

AM: Very few CEOs in golf are women. How difficult was it for you not only to get into this business but also to be able to advance in golf? 

AB: I didn't come up through golf. I came up through apparel, so I was in soft goods my whole career – nongolf Liz Claiborne and Ocean Pacific and a few other big brands that are in other spaces, so I got into golf by accident. That was with Imperial Headwear. I frankly wish there were more women in golf. I don't know that the actual barriers, at least from what I've experienced, are as concrete as the perceived barriers. We need to be supportive of women who are coming up through various channels, whether it be on the game side or the vendor side like myself, and really encourage it. There’s a perception out there that it's hard and these barriers exist, and I haven't found that to be as much of a reality as maybe people will assume. That prevents sometimes women from going for that next step or taking that next leap or certainly diving into something full steam in the golf business.

AM: From the apparel and headwear standpoint, do you see the marketplace growing at all, or do you see it pretty much stagnant? And if so, does that mean that for you to grow you have to actually take from another competitor?

AB: I don't think the market is growing appreciably. You have to not only work to maintain your share and keep your current customers, but, yeah, you have to work to grow your share if you want to grow appreciably in the current space.

AM: How do you do that?

AB: Ahead is not the only one putting out great product, and I think great product is a given. You do it by finding the points of differentiation. We lean heavily on what we were founded on, which is our creativity. We also lean heavily on being able to work with our key customer partners and deliver them across category platforms that merchandise well in their shops so we can sell them headwear and accessories that coordinate or headwear that coordinates with their apparel that they bring in from Ahead. You also have to keep service in the forefront. At the end of the day, your customers have a choice whom to buy from, and we want them to come back to Ahead. We want the service to speak for itself and be second to none. 

AM: Outside of the product, is your customer service the biggest thing you try to differentiate from your competition?

AB: Service is on par with product differentiation. Product differentiation can inform the product itself or how you decorate it. It's a combination of both. Product differentiation comes from the marriage of product and ornamentation, and that's where we get our point of difference. 

AM: Are you involved in helping facilities merchandise?

AB: At the very high level, we're actively involved with key customers who look to us for display support and assistance. We have our own working woodshop, which is great treasure at Ahead. We have done everything from small customer headwear fixture or a countertop accessory fixture to complete shop remodels where we work hand in hand with a shop to bring it to life with completely new fixturing. Certainly, they put up some money for that, too, but that's where we get to also have some input on how our product's merchandised. We did Pinehurst; we did Reynolds Plantation. So, yeah, our commitment to merchandising is as strong as anyone, and certainly we have a great sales force out there that tries to visit and work with the customers as closely as they can in the field. 

AM: Would you ever think about expanding or spinning that business off to do work with others to be able to bring in more people and to expand your base on that?

AB:  We haven't yet. It's an intriguing thought. It's a support arm of our company currently. It's not a standalone revenue center, but certainly the demand is there that it probably could be.