"The golfbusiness," says LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem, "has been an alienworld for women." Charles Gore, a longtime golf marketing guru andpresident of his own New York advertising agency, agrees. "Nobody in thisbusiness has ever taken women seriously," he says. "That's why therehas never been one female who has had anything like a major management-levelposition."
This is an article from the Jan. 30, 1995 issue
Meet Jan Thompson,since September the vice president and general manager of Wilson's golfdivision (1,400 employees, about $200 million in sales) and the highest rankingwoman in the golf business. Of her success in a man's world she says, "Themain thing is, I know when it's time to leave. I feel natural and comfortablearound men, but I am not one of the guys. So there is a time for me to be thereand a time to let boys be boys."
And that is theessence of Thompson. She keeps things simple: "What I want to do is sellmore clubs and balls." She talks straight: "Wilson owned golf, and welet it go. We forgot how to innovate. We failed to understand the dogs ain'teatin' the dog food." She talks sense: "I don't look at things the sameway as men because I'm not a man. But I market to men and women, and I don'tsee any difference." And she has some advice for women executive wannabes:"If you don't play golf, you'll end up in charge of lunch."
Indeed Thompson,44, is solid no-nonsense. Her hair is cut short, she wears sensible shoes, andshe gets instantly to the point. She looks you straight in the eye and doesn'tblink. "Jan always has fact-based information," says LPGA star MegMallon. "She does not blow sunshine up your skirt."
Thompson worksfrom dawn to exhaustion, and then a little bit more. For relaxation, she works.Her office at Wilson headquarters near Chicago-O'Hare airport is spare,ordinary, a hard-core working enclave. If she has a yellow legal pad and a penin her hands, she is in her element. Small talk makes her eyes glaze.
"Her work isher life," says brother Dan, an air traffic controller in Kalamazoo, Mich.Thompson, who has never married, doesn't dispute that and says, "You haveto be passionate about what you do and go with it. I am passionate about twothings—cars and golf. If you feel like you're working too hard, then maybe thework isn't any good."
Hard work was partof Thompson's upbringing as one of five children (three boys, two girls) in ahappy, middle-class Catholic family in Detroit. As soon as she could talk, shewould say, "Do it my own self." Her mother, Mary Jane, a nurse, says,"She was always very independent, a goer supreme. She taught the other kidshow to climb the backyard fence."
Dan was the onewith the paper route, but his little sister was more than an adequatereplacement. "I knew his route, I knew everybody on it," Jan says."I could collect—and I got bigger tips."
She attended anall-girls Catholic high school, then went on to Western Michigan University.Originally she thought she might be an English teacher, but during one summershe got a job selling encyclopedias. Right away she sold a set and collected a$100 commission. Thompson's eyes were suddenly opened to new possibilities. Herdad, George, a manufacturer's sales rep, cautioned her, "Don't get toocarried away." But Thompson was already carried away. "That experiencetaught me to have confidence in myself," she says. "That was when Icame into my own. I discovered I was not afraid to sell."
After getting herdegree in marketing, she was hired by Chrysler as a management trainee in 1972."I liked cars because my brothers were into them," she says. When shemade her first call on a dealer, he asked if she played golf. Says Thompson,"I knew instantly I'd better." These days she's a 15handicapper—straight off the tee, weak around the greens—but she understandsthe lure of the game. "You hit 50 bad shots, but you also hit two sweetones—and the sweet ones keep you coming back."
Thompson stayedwith Chrysler for 12 years, then moved to Toyota and its luxury Lexus division,where her marketing savvy was put to the test. While other executives thought agood symbol for the Lexus would be a bird ("I didn't like the image of whatbirds can do to cars." she says), Thompson pushed for the elegant gold Lthat has helped establish the car's brand identity.
She moved on toMazda in 1988. as a veep in charge of U.S. marketing, then moved to salesoperations. Thompson got Mazda heavily involved in sports promotions, mainlygolf, tennis and skiing, and strengthened its relationship with the LPGA, whichgot her more interested in the golf business. Last year, after concluding thatshe had given Mazda "all I had to give," she took the job withWilson.
Wilson neededhelp. Once the industry leader in premium-club sales, the company had slippedto fifth place, behind more aggressive outfits like Callaway and Cobra. Itsgolf-ball sales had been stuck in third place for several years.
Wilson CEO JohnRiccitiello says, "Whether I hired a woman, a minority or somebody threefeet tall was not of any consequence. We've got a couple-hundred-million-dollarbusiness to run, and I needed the best person."
When Thompsonstarted with Wilson in September, she was immediately faced with anotherproblem, this one having to do with the company's image.
In June '94 Wilsonnegotiated a new contract for John Daly, giving him a 10-year deal worth areported $30 million, even though Daly's outrageous behavior had led to afour-month suspension from the PGA Tour in 1993. After more incidents late in'94, Daly took a "voluntary" leave. Thompson won't confirm the contractfigures or comment on the deal she inherited, but she did take the unusual stepof "suspending" the terms of Daly's contract until he cleans up hisact. She says Daly asked her recently, "What are you going to do aboutme?" Her response was, "That's up to you." With Daly now back onthe Tour she says she'll settle the situation soon.
In the meantimeshe recently signed up Mallon, currently the only LPGA player with a Wilsoncontract. Indeed. Thompson's past relationship with the LPGA has fueled thebuzz that she's a leading candidate for the commissioner's job, which Mechem isrelinquishing at the end of this year. "Maybe sometime in my life, but notnow," Thompson says, quashing the rumor. "It's flattering."
One of her goalsat Wilson is to sell more to girls and women (of the two million beginners eachyear, about 40% are female, says Thompson), but she rebels at the idea of"women's" golf clubs and someone saying "the pink ones are overthere." Says Thompson, "That's not what women want, just like theydon't want women's cars. Equipment should be ability driven, not driven by sexand age."
At this earlypoint Thompson insists she is not a force in golf, "but I will be. I'll dothat by running a damn good company and making money."