Interview with Jim Donigan from Peter Millar

October 18, 2010

Although Chris Knott founded Peter Millar as a lifestyle brand, it's through golf that his company has become almost instantly recognizable. It can be found in most of the pro shops of the Top-100 golf clubs. It's what many of the Titleist touring pros wear at tournaments. It's what the NBC Sports golf team wears. And it's what the U.S. Ryder Cup team will wore in Wales just a few weeks ago. Today we have one of Peter Millar’s sales representatives, Jim Donigan, here to share with us his perspective on a brand and a business that we Assistant Professionals find ourselves knee deep in.
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Jim, thank you so much for lending your perspective to us today. There is so much knowledge out there and part of Pay It Forward Golf’s purpose is to “go out on a limb” and simply ask for it. On that note, please introduce yourself to the readership and explain what your sales territory is and your background in the golf industry.

My name is Jim Donigan and I’m with Peter Millar. My territory is the peninsula of Florida, Sea Island and all of the Islands (from Bermuda to Aruba). I’ve been with Peter Millar almost since Day 1 of the company – and what a great company to work for, too!

I grew up in the business, you might say. My folks owned the preppy store in Gainesville, FL where all the U of F students and town’s people would buy their Lacoste, Gant and Polo shirts. In fact, the first Lacoste shirt ever to not have a green gator/croc on it was the Orange one – they did a Royal gator at my father’s request!

After graduating from U of F, I worked for Gant Sportswear for 12 years selling to the retail stores. At one point, I had managed to open 60 Gant shops within the major retailers (Burdines, Dillard’s, Belk’s, etc.) here in Florida. When the big retail stores started consolidating in the early 90’s, it was time to do something else or move to New York City.

Golf seemed to be a natural for me, I had become a low handicap by that time and knew the apparel business pretty well, but didn’t know the first person in the golf apparel business. At first I had a bunch of no-name lines, but eventually built up a nice business. None of the pro’s or buyers knew me, but I showed up wearing a coat and tie and talked of nothing but business. It seemed like a lot of the other guys down here wanted to talk about PLAYING GOLF at their club, not about how to make the shop more money.

My first big brand job was with a high-end golf apparel company that specialized in the Italian 80's Egyptian mercerized yarn, I was with them for 9 years. It took me a couple of months to get over the sticker shock and was amazed at the demand for $150 shirts! It was a great experience as I had no prior involvement with that fine of cotton and the mercerization process. Eventually, 60’s mercerized Egyptian yarn made the 80’s Egyptian mercerized knit shirt obsolete, and the business slowly faded – “9/11” didn’t help matters either.

How did your relationship with Peter Millar begin?

Toward the end of my tenure at my previous company, a buddy of mine, Chris Knott, called me and asked if I’d be interested in selling his cashmere sweaters on the side. Sure, I said, what the heck. The rest is history! Chris’ theory was (and still is) this, “A poor man NEEDS a bargain, but a rich man LOVES a bargain!” That is Peter Millar in a nut shell. Give that “better” clientele the finest materials with styles, models and fits that he and she are comfortable with, make them affordable and you’ll have them lining up at the door.

Can you briefly describe Peter Millar’s mission and vision?

Our vision is to offer a lifestyle to our consumer from golf shirts and cashmere sweaters, to swim suits and boat shoes. Sell to the best golf shops, resorts and specialty retailers and grow our business within those accounts. Don’t dilute the distribution by selling to everyone – sell the special places, so as to keep the brand special – and try to grow the different categories within that account.

One time, at a Member/Guest that I was working, a participant came up and told me how much he loved Peter Millar and how we were “everywhere”! I sort of chuckled and said, “No, we’re just ‘everywhere’ YOU go.” He agreed, laughed and proceeded to list all of the Merion’s, Pine Valley’s, Baltusrol’s, Seminole’s of the world where he had seen Peter Millar.

How does Peter Millar relate so well to the golf professional and golfers in general?

Golf pro’s and buyers aren’t really any different than a guy who owns his own specialty store. We just try to service our customers the way they want to be serviced. We’re always trying to do something better; take our shipments, for example. We don’t just throw a bunch of shirts in a box with a packing list taped in a pocket outside the box (that you can’t read because it was the 3rd or 4th carbon copy). We have a double compartment box, our shirts in a high quality bag, double tissued, with the packing list on the top of the shirts in an envelope. The top shirt in the box is the first shirt listed on the packing list. This makes it easy to check in our product and get it to the floor quickly. Plus, whoever checks our stuff in gets a mint that we put in the box!

As far as the golf consumer goes, almost everyone in the sales and design staff are golfers, so we’re concerned with style, fit, etc. We’re more critical about our product than any everyday consumer could ever be, because we know both sides of the story. Actually, the guy who helps Chris design the line was the 1st Assistant at Pine Valley before he started working for us.

What are some ways Assistant Professionals can be better "salesmen" in their pro shops?

The most important single thing is get out from behind the counter. Touch the product, turn it inside out, and learn from old dogs like myself. When a new shipment comes in, try to get involved in putting it out and merchandising the group. Try to figure out what you can put every item with; if it’s a golf shirt, try to figure out how many different pair of shorts and sweaters it can go with (that are currently in the shop). It doesn’t even necessarily have to be the same brand. Don’t just match it up to 1 sweater and 1 short. Be prepared when the customer says, “I already have a sweater that color.” When a guy is sniffing around something in particular, don’t ask if he needs help, go grab the other things like it and put them together and say, “Hey, you know what would look great with that? This!” Always know which of your members are your “buyers”. Pick out special things for them and tell them it’s in their locker. That shows that you thought of them and grabbed it before anyone else had a chance to snag it.

In your extensive experience as a sales representative, I'm sure you have seen and worked with your fair share of Assistant Professionals. From your perspective, what sets the great ones apart from the "not so great" ones?

Great assistants are, above all, gentleman. But, that doesn’t mean you have to be a robot. One of the most important things that I’ve learned from Chris Knott was that people like to be around/do business with people who are happy. The “smile” is the biggest tool in the sales bag/member relations. That doesn’t mean that you have to tell a good joke every time or be fake, but by the same token, nobody wants to hear someone else’s problems – especially when they’re at their club trying to escape the nagging wife, husband, boss, office politics and griping.

I like to get selling information from the guys who are there on the front-lines every day. Every time I’m in the shop I’ll ask the Assistant Professionals what’s been selling and what hasn’t? Many times, the buyer or H.P. who is doing the buying, doesn’t always REALLY know what people are buying and why. The assistants who are into it and “get it” know exactly what’s going on and why.

If you had to recommend some books for Assistant Professionals to read, what would they be?

“How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie
“Who moved my cheese?” by Dr. Spencer Johnson
“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey

You have many fantastic clubs in your territory and these clubs are certainly a cut above many others. What kinds of things can assistant professionals expect to learn from a merchandise operations aspect at clubs of this stature versus clubs of a lesser cut?

The only thing I could say is to adapt to the situation that presents itself. Also, always try to trade up your customer/member and do it with service. When it comes to price, someone will always be cheaper, but they won’t always out-hustle you. If all you can sell is $45 shirts, make them look like $100 shirts! Get some nice hangers, buy as many bust forms/mannequins as you can afford. There are plenty of websites that you can get them cheaply and you’ll pay them off in 2 shirt sales. When it comes to product mix, try to always have a Good, Better, Best assortment. As you know, there are very few places like Sea Island and a shop needs to have some merchandise that reflects the buying public. If the club is surrounded by million dollar homes, don’t have any cheap stuff in the shop even though you’ll hear about it for the first year, “Jeez, the old pro used to have affordable stuff in here. Now I can’t buy anything in this shop”. Chances are, that guy didn’t buy before either and the guy who does like nice things was buying his stuff somewhere else!

Golf professionals are always asking, "What can my rep do for me" and "What do I need from my rep?” I would like to flip the script and ask, what do you want from us?

Be honest. Putting off the inevitable doesn’t do anyone any good…..this goes for everyone (pros and reps). If you’re doing the buying at the club and don’t want to buy a line, tell the rep. Any good rep appreciates a honest answer and will move on. He just needs to hear SOMETHING– if you don’t want to talk to him, call first thing Saturday morning when you get to the shop or call the company and get his e-mail and shoot him a quick e-mail explaining your reasons. If he or she doesn’t “get it” and keeps calling, that’s their problem. You’ve done your part.

Jim, Peter Millar has made some great strides since 2001. Based on my experience with the company, there is no indication that Peter Millar will be going away anytime soon. I am sure you are an asset to the company and they are where they are because of staff members like yourself. Thanks so much for your time. You’re doing a great service to Assistant Professionals. Best of Luck.