The Massachusetts-based apparel manufacturer, based about 60 miles south of this week's championship in Brookline, has been an innovative presence at USGA championships since 1998
As far as home-field advantages go, this year's U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, couldn't set up any closer for Ahead USA.
With its New Bedford headquarters less than an hour away from the iconic course, the golf headwear company certainly won't be at a loss adding units as the week unfolds in the U.S. Open Merchandise Pavilion.
“I don't think there is any home-field advantage,” says a genial Anne Broholm, Ahead CEO. “I say that from the perspective of non-favoritism and that the USGA has a lot of vendors. It does make it easier if we have to replenish because we can drive it right up. But we earned our spots in the USGA merchandise lineup and we've enjoyed a partnership with them for some time.”
For 24 years to be exact, Ahead has enjoyed strong brand presence at the USGA's premier event.
Says the U.S. Golf Association's Mary Lopuszynski, senior director, licensing and U.S. Open merchandising: “I would say they are one of our longest-tenured retailers without any breaks and one of our larger suppliers in many ways.”
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The burgeoning relationship happened on a lark 25 years ago. While sidling by the Ahead booth at a 1997 trade show, Lopuszynski met Chuck Lord, now Ahead's chief creative officer. Compelling graphics caught her eye.
Lord, as the first employee, helped get the company afloat in 1995 after being involved in sports licensing. He saw a future in alternative graphics and was intent on figuring out how to sell different products to the same customer.
"We were pioneers at the time," Lord says. "Think of it this way: let's say you were interested in a Seattle Mariners hat. We developed the variety of hats you see today. One Mariners hat might be an on-field hat, another might say Seattle on it, another had the Mariners logo, and we took that same concept to the golf market."
Lopuszynski, immediately impressed, gave Ahead three SKUs at the 1998 U.S. Open, even though she had already completed her buy for the year.
Ahead did well that year at The Olympic Club, leading the company to convince Lopuszynski that going forward she should consider scaling back orders with it by 20 percent, based on products that had a potential to be left over at tournament's end. The thinking was a bit of a gamble, but served two purposes. First, it would buttress the effects of lackluster crowds or bad weather days that could hurt sales. Second, with Ahead's ability to embroider blank hats off-site, it provided Lopuszynski the ability to nimbly shift and create units, such as hats, during the U.S. Open based on what were proving to be hot sellers. Such a move reduced the risks of running out of supply if a product was selling well because Ahead could simply manufacture more throughout the week and overnight it to the Merchandise Pavilion.
At Shinnecock Hills in 2004, Ahead sealed Lopuszynski's confidence when it backfilled 3,000 Polo shirts off-site for Sunday's final round.
Lord and company continued to think outside of the box. Data had shown that hats were the closest thing to an impulse purchase. Fans craved logo apparel and accessories at an affordable price point.
Ahead experimented with personalizing hats and bag tags on-site for a nominal fee, telling customers their order would be ready in an hour or so. That eventually begat headwear with ball markers and magnetized clips, as well as other accessories.
But personalizing retail on-site became a game changer.
"It was also a great model for Mary to get the same customer to walk through the tent and probably make more ancillary purchases," says Lord.
In 2011, Sweden-based New Wave took notice, making Ahead its second North American acquisition — after it had taken control of golf and sportswear retailer Cutter & Buck. Enter Broholm, a golf industry mover and shaker.
Named CEO in 2012, Broholm left Cutter & Buck, where she served as global sales manager for its golf division. Under Broholm’s guidance, Ahead was named one of the Top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts in 2014.
"She's hands-on with our partnership with them," says Lopuszynski, laughing that she has partnered with Broholm when she was at Imperial, Cutter & Buck and now Ahead. "She's got her finger on the pulse of what they do and if any little thing goes wrong, she's right there to help solve it."
To be clear, Ahead's product isn't exclusive to the U.S. Open, although it supports all the USGA volunteer and member headwear. Also, during the busiest times of the golf season, Ahead will do as many as 35 events (i.e., club tournaments) a day that include sales of its merchandise.
"It's not to all to my credit certainly and credit goes to the team," says Broholm, who serves on the boards of the Annika Foundation and National Golf Foundation. "I inherited it and Chuck was here since day one as the first employee."
Not afraid to roll up her sleeves, Broholm will be on-site working in the Merchandise Pavilion. She lost count of how many Opens she's worked, but estimated it to be more than 20.
"We sell to shops that sell to consumers and it is an opportunity for those of us in the wholesale world to interact with the consumers," says Broholm, adding she couldn't divulge how many units they sell. "Get feedback on the product. Watch them try it on. Or watch them select more than one hat. And to help them out. We pride ourselves on service."
In the end, with the Merchandise Pavilion bursting with 400,000 logo items from 45 brands, it would be easy to lump Ahead in as just another vendor.
To paraphrase George Orwell, all vendors may enter the Merchandise Pavilion as equal, but some — like Ahead — are more equal than others.