The year was 2004, and Susan Hess was a stay-at-home mom who had recently gotten the golf bug. She fell in love with the game but not the clothes; she could not find a golf skort that she liked. Fashionable in her everyday life, she was irritated that what was available in the golfwear market at the time was what she called “frumpy and very unfashionable.”
Hess took matters into her own hands, and thus was born Golftini, a leading women’s apparel brand that Hess started and still leads today.
Living in New Jersey at the time, Hess found a sample maker in the garment district of New York City. She made a skort, then two, then 20 and then 50, all sold out of her home. She concluded that enough women liked what she was doing, “so I decided to go for it and start a business.”
Hess needed a name for her budding enterprise. So off she went to a martini bar with a friend to scheme. She looked up at a huge neon martini behind the bar, wrote the word “golftini” on a napkin and drew a martini glass. It took, and to this day, the logo she sketched out appears on each piece of apparel she sells. The logo is light pink, in honor of her mother who passed away of cancer when Hess was 14.
Hess learned about the PGA Merchandise Show, the annual gathering in Orlando, Florida, of golf industry buyers and sellers from all segments of the industry. She signed up for the 2005 Show, investing $10,000 for a booth and related paraphernalia. She grabbed her samples, her best friend and her niece, and it was there that lightning struck.
PGA Tour Superstore, today a huge golf retail chain, was just getting started. An apparel buyer stopped by her humble display area “in the worst area of the show floor near the bathroom,” and left Hess with a $70,000 order. Over a thousand units needed to be shipped in six weeks.
Hess had no idea what to do next. She simply knew she had to deliver.
With her credit cards maxed out and payment on the order to follow 60 days after delivery – an eternity for a startup business – she turned to her father for a loan, to which he agreed. He made her write a business plan, which she struggled with, and he was paid back in full, with interest.
Hess did not have a fashion degree, she did not have a business background and she knew nothing of the golf business. She had little experience with fabric. She knew nothing about manufacturing or distribution. She had no banking relationships, no understanding of trademarks, no sense of Asian supply chains, no idea how to sell products outside of America.
What she did have was great sales skills developed in the telecommunications business, as well as a healthy dose of grit, moxie and dogged determination. She just figured it all out, step by step. Just as she found a sample maker in the early days, she found a production manager in New York who helped her create that first shipment for PGA Tour Superstore. One step forward on a very long learning journey.
Word started to spread when her skorts hit the sales floor at PGA Tour Superstore, and country clubs began to come calling. Each year, the business would grow bit by bit as the company’s reputation for outstanding customer service grew and its offerings became a riskless proposition for golf shop buyers. The apparel would sell, and there were few returns.
Flash forward to 2017, sales crossed into the seven-digit territory.
And then, in 2020, the pandemic hit. Many apparel makers canceled their fall lines, but Hess rolled the dice and did not cancel her factory orders. That proved to be fortuitous; the surge in participation ensued and many of the new players were women. Demand for Golftini products remained strong, and many new consumer customers were acquired. The goodwill created among her independent sales reps and her factories could not have been purchased for any amount of money.
With her children grown, Hess moved to Chicago in 2019, mostly because it was time to stop running the business out of her home. Today, Golftini operates out of a warehouse building complete with an industrial elevator in the city’s West Loop area. She oversees a very lean team of nine full-time employees (including one of her sons) and 21 independent sales reps serving 1,000-plus golf shop customers in America. She has a growing e-commerce business and a burgeoning international business.
Having built a team, Hess is no longer doing a little of everything. She can now focus on what she enjoys and is good at: design. After all, her business card reads “Designer.” She also has time to travel, to get out into the field and talk to customers and see and feel what is happening in the marketplace.
Oh, and she can play more golf now. Her 2023 goal is to play once a week.
Hess believes Golftini can cross another line, nine figures in sales, in 2025. She did this all by bootstrapping the business; she does not have any investors.
Hess and her business have come a long way from a panic-inducing $70,000 order 18 years ago. It will be interesting to see where she takes the business from here.
Top: A desire for fashionable golf outfits helped drive Susan Hess to start Golftini. Photo: Courtesy Golftini
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