How Greg Norman Became A One-Man Conglomerate
He never won the Masters, but the tournament was where he started his legendary business career
Thirty years ago, Greg Norman missed a birdie putt that would have won him The Masters.
As it turned out, the Australian World Golf Hall of Famer was more fortunate that year than his loss at Augusta let on.
In 1987, Norman laid the groundwork for Greg Norman Golf Course Design, which has since designed and built more than 100 golf courses around the world. At the time, Norman was 32 years old. He would go on to play professionally for another 22 years — during which he won 15 of his 20 PGA Tour victories and become the first golfer to earn $10 million in his career. The design firm he created in 1987 would become the foundation of a mini-conglomerate that would make his golf earnings look like spare change used to mark a spot on the green.
Norman now has nearly a dozen businesses under his company’s umbrella. The golf course design firm preceded the Greg Norman Collection apparel line in 1992, his wine label in 1996 and, eventually, an eyewear label, a restaurant, a line of meats, a real-estate development firm, a golf academy, luxury housing, a private-equity fund and a wakeboard park.
“He only had a high-school education — he never went to college because he started playing golf and traveling the world playing golf — but he’s always been a student,” says Chris Dillavou, Greg Norman Company’s chief operating officer and Norman’s son-in-law. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the game of golf or when he wanted to be a fighter pilot: He kind of has an engineer’s mind. More than anything else, he just gets granular and loves to learn.”
Before he started all of his businesses, he was being represented by management company IMG and was letting them do much of the steering.
“The brand came into its own when I left the management company I was with and figured I was just a pass-through entity with them like every other athlete is with a management company,” Norman says. “My ‘use by’ date was up and they were never going to invest any equity in my brand.”
At the time he stepped away from IMG, Norman was endorsing Reebok products and had developed a working relationship with Reebok founder Paul Fireman. Norman had picked up his “Great White Shark” nickname at the 1981 Masters, and Fireman’s Reebok created a shark logo for Norman and sold it back to him for a dollar. He then leased it back to the company as part of a long-term licensing arrangement that became the basis of the Greg Norman Collection, which functioned independently of his golf course design firm. While building the apparel line, Norman learned a valuable lesson about marketing and branding from Fireman.
“He believed in me so much because I put bums on the seats, I was a needle-mover at golf tournaments and I would sell Reebok gear when I endorsed Reebok,” Norman says. “He was powerfully strong in his belief that, by starting the Greg Norman Collection with Reebok’s distribution and marketing might, it would never be anything but a success.”
We don’t use the term “mini-conglomerate” lightly. The Greg Norman Collection’s now been in existence for nearly 25 years, and functions independently of the other items in Norman’s portfolio out of necessity. For example, when Norman wanted to get into winemaking in 1996, he took his endorsement deal with Australian brewer Fosters and turned it into a stake in then-Foster’s-owned Treasury Wine Estates — which eventually split off from the brewer in 2011. It is his belief that he needs to dedicate time to each branch of his business, specifically, to ensure both quality and credibility.
“You’ve seen a lot of other sports men and women try to follow what I did and fail, in many ways, because you have to have the strength of sustainability,” Norman says. “You have to have the distribution center, you have to have your own winemakers. If you’re going to put your name on the door, you have to be there all the time making sure the right [cost of goods sold] are there, the right labeling is there, the right varietal is there — understanding what varietals need to be added to the portfolio, whether it’s a Malbec from Argentina, a Savignon Blanc from New Zealand. Every year or half year we’re looking to see where the market is moving.”
Greg Norman Estates wines are part of a company portfolio that includes the Greg Norman Australian Grille restaurant in South Carolina, the Greg Norman Australian Prime beef line, Greg Norman Eyewear, a real-estate development company, a golf academy, a private golf community and a wakeboard park — all under Norman’s own brand. As with his clothing business, Norman has attempted to find partners that bolster his own brand instead of simply using his endorsement — most recently striking a deal with Verizon this year for a yet-undefined plan to bring wireless technology to professional golf.
“Paul Fireman always believed in me being a clean slate: He didn’t want me to have any advertising on me,” Norman says, noting that his own multiple businesses all refer back to him directly. “He convinced me to stay clean, trust the brand and make sure the brand was the priority above everything else.”
At one point, Norman’s brands all fit neatly under one larger title: Great White Shark Enterprises. As that company continued to grow, its priorities quickly centered around its future. Three years ago, Norman, who is now 62, took his executives to his ranch in Colorado and put two plans in front of them: A 12-year plan and a 200-year plan. Though Norman admits his staff “all looked at me like I was an idiot” for looking that far ahead, he wanted them to realize that they should be considering the bigger picture as well. Norman wanted to be sure that he could not only maintain his legacy, but ensure that the quality of products attached to his name and logo would be there after his death.
Norman took the first major step toward that goal in 2013, when he founded his Great White Shark Opportunity Fund and, with the help of private-equity firm Kohlberg & Company, acquired golf management firm Troon Golf from Goldman Sachs GS, +0.48% . Shifting away from sports marketing and toward equity, consumer and business-to-business transactions, Norman’s company’s rebranded from Great White Shark Enterprises to The Greg Norman Company last year and changed its shark logo for the first time since Norman’s Reebok days. Norman knows that younger consumers don’t necessarily associate his name with “The Great White Shark,” nor are they particularly tied to golf. But both he and his team are willing to adapt, as the new, sleeker, less ‘90s hypercolor shark on his products suggests.
Norman discovered that diversifying his company is perhaps the best way to help it weather the woes of the golf industry. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of U.S. golf courses has shrunk during the last decade by nearly 800 from its peak of more than 16,000. Though the U.S. still accounts for more than 40% of global golf courses, the NGF says the number of U.S. players dropped from an all-time high of 30 million in 2005 to 24.1 million in 2015. That’s below even the pre-Tiger Woods high of 24.7 in 1995. Norman’s golf course design company acts as an alarm for all of the above, sensing softness in the U.S. and other markets and letting Norman’s company know where to better focus its efforts.
“Because I played golf consistently for 25 to 30 years, globally, my footprint was there,” Norman says. “I was consciously making sure that, hedging against an economic downturn in the United States, I could be in Asia or Australia; or if there was a recession somewhere in Asia, America would pick up. I had the flexibility and the foresight to diversify myself enough by positioning myself on a global front.”
The one thing all that diversification can’t do, however, is insure the brand’s success in his absence. In March, the Greg Norman Company announced a partnership with the brand-development firm Authentic Brands Group (ABG). The firm’s portfolio already includes former athletes Julius Irving and Shaquille O’Neal, but what struck Norman was how ABG was able to increase revenue for the estates of deceased celebrities including Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson with help from retail partners including Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Target and Harrod’s.
Not only did ABG lack a golfer, but it lacked a brand with as many categories as Norman’s. After nearly a year of negotiation, Greg Norman companies agreed to a “forever deal” with ABG for the Greg Norman Collection and Norman’s other licensing and endorsement concerns. The ABG deal fit Norman’s 200-year plan, helps create a future for his rebranded company and, perhaps most important, offers it a whole lot of legal protection with a team of 12 lawyers.
“I know what I’ve been through just protecting my trademark in China,” Norman says. “I spent two and a half years fighting this legal battle in China with somebody who used my logo without my permission. I finally won it back, but it cost seven figures in legal fees and two and a half years of angst.”
With another generation teeing off at The Masters this weekend, Norman seems at peace with his legacy both on the course and in business. He’s spent eight years off the course and says he doesn’t feel the need to roam the course at Augusta or go into the clubhouse and shake hands just to drum up business. Sure, it’s the place where he lost his playoff 30 years ago and turned a six-stroke lead into a five-stroke loss in 1996, but it’s also a place he’d return to as a man whose post-career business ventures make his PGA career earnings look like, in his COO’s words, “nothing.” However, Norman is loath to disclose his company’s earnings and notes that the decisions that brought him here — leaving IMG, financing himself, hiring his own people, establishing his brand’s credibility — can be as difficult as Augusta’s Amen Corner on a Sunday.
“I get asked this question a lot, and all I can tell you is that it isn’t an easy path to go down,” Norman says. “It’s all about delivering the quality, finding the space you love to be in and making sure you identify that space, understand what that space is going to give you, execute on the business plan and keep following through.”
“You’re going to have failures, you’re going to have peaks and troughs and it’s how you come out of your troughs that will make you a better business, a better businessman and a better person going forward.”