Q&A: Golftec CEO Joe Assell earns PGA's Executive of the Year honor, discusses growth during COVID, future of golf lessons

Joe Assell
Golftec CEO Joe Assell was named the PGA Golf Executive of the Year during the opening ceremony of the 69th PGA Show in Orlando, Fla.

Joe Assell started Golftec in the basement of the Cherry Hills Country Club clubhouse in 1995, and it has grown to become the largest instruction and club-fitting company in the world, with more than 700 coaches working at 220 facilities in six countries.

This week Assell, a PGA professional, was named the PGA Golf Executive of the Year during the opening ceremony at the PGA Show in Orlando, Fla. The First Call sat down with Assell o talk about growing his business in the COVID era, the future of golf lessons and more.

The First Call: You've just been named PGA executive of the year — what was your biggest achievement from the past year?
Joe Assell: We grew incredibly as golf boomed in general. We rode that wave. We built 12 new Golftecs and bought back 16 of our franchises to be corporately owned. We hired 220 golf pros. We gave 1.7 million golf lessons. Our business rewrote every possible record we could have measured in 27 years.

TFC: How did manage that growth within the confines of the pandemic?
JA: Our biggest challenge initially was the coaches we needed to deliver. We were behind at the beginning but we caught up and got ahead. That was the key — to be able to deliver. It wasn’t that we needed to do more marketing. The consumer demand was there and we needed to fulfill it.

And we were constantly dealing with COVID. We have 220 Golftecs in 100 different cities, and the rules were different everywhere. What we had to do in one city was different in another city only a few miles away. We had a COVID task force that was managing dozens of sets of rules to abide by and operate as safely as possible.

TFC: The company mission is simple: to help people play better golf. What makes Golftec effective at that, and how do you measure yourself against that mission?
JA: We have the most well-trained coaches in the world. Golftec University is six weeks long, and it doesn’t matter who you are, to teach for us you have to attend and pass that University. Then we have continuing education beyond that. But you take an extremely well-trained coach and combine them with our proprietary cutting-edge technology. We launched OptiMotion last year, a revolutionary new motion-tracking system where we no longer needed straps or cords and it’s all through the cameras. We have a database of over 200 tour players that we’ve tested with our motion measurement, so it’s all based on facts and measurement and not somebody’s opinion or theory. You roll it all together and we have the ultimate learning and teaching environment combined with a well-trained coach. The net result is that we achieve our mission statement: you play better golf.

TFC: Your company tracks data on customers. How many golfers would you say fight a slice?
JA: It’s like 90%.

TFC: Those are my people.
JA: We have big data on the amateur swing. We’ve given 12 million lessons and we’ve recorded the swing data. So, you’re not always compared to a tour player. We coach based on your goals — hey, you shoot 95, you want to break 80, here’s how an 80-shooter typically swings. We have data on all of it. But we’re clearly in the business of fixing slices.

TFC: Ninety percent of your customers can’t be wrong.
JA: When I was a kid, I used to pick the range at a golf course. That was my summer job. All the balls were on the right side of the range. (laughs) That’s when I learned how many people slice it. You could run the range picker up and down the right side of the range and be done for the day.

TFC: What’s the ideal Golftec customer, besides slicers?
JA: Somebody who’s excited to golf. You might expect me to say something about age or handicap or gender, but we teach the entire range. For us the ideal customer is someone who is going to practice, who’s excited to work on their game and cherishes the excitement that comes from shooting lower scores.

TFC: What do you want Golftec customers to say about their experience when they leave the shop?
JA: That was simple. I learned a lot, I understood it, and I have a clear path for my improvement.

TFC: Golftec has evolved in numerous ways in 27 years. How will a golf lesson be different in two years? Or 10 years? 
JA: A lot is going to change. The comprehensive nature of a golf lesson is going to evolve, meaning it’s going to be your swing, but that your clubs fit, and your set makeup and gapping all work with your swing. And then there’s your body — strength, flexibility, fitness. It’s in our name: the T-E-C in GolfTec stands for the three things you need to achieve our mission. Technique, equipment and conditioning. We’re going to get better at that and the whole industry is going to get better at that.

I also think there will be more remote instruction via the phone, so you don’t have to drive all the way to your golf lesson every time. Kind of like Telehealth. I had elbow surgery over Thanksgiving and my final check-in was via Zoom with my doctor, I didn’t have to drive to his office. It’s going to be the same for golf instruction. You can’t learn and get the best coaching fully remote, but we see a future hybrid experience with both in-person and remote.

TFC: What about store expansion?
JA: We’re going to build 30 news stores this year. We’re growing extensively -- we can more than double in the U.S. I have 185 in the U.S. and we think the U.S. can hold 400. And we think the rest of the world can hold another 400 and I only have 36 outside the U.S. right now. You’ll see us open a new store every other week in 2022.

TFC: What’s been the most challenging part of your entrepreneurial journey? Was there ever a time when you almost quit?
JA: There were times when almost didn’t have a choice about quitting because we were going under. I always joke that the “F word” in business is fundraising. Sometimes it’s hard to raise capital and you’re pitching your story as hard as you can, but you haven’t found the right investor or they don’t like something about your story. I always say it takes two things to build a company: great people and capital. You might say “Oh, you need an invention or a patent.” Well, where do those come from? Great people. You can’t do it with only one or the other. Over the years, our most challenge times came when the fundraising was hard.

TFC: Were you ever at a point when you were walking into a meeting thinking, “This could be it.”
JA: Absolutely. During the dot-com crash in 2000 or 2001 we were weeks from being done and not making it. Our power was getting shut off because we couldn’t pay our electric bills. Coaches were calling us from around the country. We had some very trying days, and thank God we’re past those days.

TFC: What advice do you give to entrepreneurs today?  
JA: The standard answer is perseverance and to work hard, and everybody’s always going to say that. But the thing that I learned is to trust your gut. There were times when I had experts and advisors kind of guiding me and telling me what to do, but they didn’t know the business as well as I do — kind of like how you know your own kids really well. It was the same for the business. I listened to other people, but my gut was often the right solution. So I tell entrepreneurs to believe in yourself and trust your gut, and you’ll find your way.