ORLANDO, Fla. – On the sprawling floor at the PGA Merchandise Show, it has become the stuff of legend.
In fact, it’s almost cliché.
The outer reaches of the cavernous Orange County Convention Center, year after year, are populated by self-financed exhibitors who frequently fit a certain description. Sadly so, in some cases, because many first-time vendors of humble means don’t last long enough in the marketplace to attend the golf-industry expo for a second year.
Many fit the following description: Mom-and-pop entrepreneurs who poured their life savings into a golf-related project that was forged on their living-room table, hoping to find a niche that hadn’t been previously explored. Plenty who hoped to reinvent ball washers, divot tools, belts or tee markers find the market to be disinterested, saturated or both.
Bart and Erinn Walker of Phoenix fit the description, except for the last part, because this roll of the familial investment dice seems destined for success.
Camped on the outer edge of the exhibition floor, the husband-and-wife team, first-timers at the show, unveiled one of the most interesting new items of the week, a high-quality golf shoe that allows customers to customize color preferences quickly. Between holes, even.
Co-founder Bart Walker is a former banker who recalls one day telling his wife that he wasn’t exactly in love with his chosen profession.
“I’m not sure this is what I was meant to do forever,” he told her. “But once I find whatever it is, I’m going all in.”
True to the PGA Show legend, Walker quit his job, cashed in his 401(k) retirement account and invested in Jack Grace USA, a shoe company forged in his garage and named after the couple’s son and daughter.
Brad Smith, the company’s chief operating officer, calls the Jack Grace offerings “fast fashion” and says the principle is brilliant. The company markets a men’s saddle shoe, and the saddle (middle) portion is interchangeable, colored laces and all.
The colored saddles are held firmly in place – surprisingly so, in fact – by Velcro fasteners and magnets embedded in the sole. The color palette is practically limitless. In addition to the 25 stock colors, Jack Grace has the ability to specially produce corporate logos, alma mater insignias or any other customer style preference. The special-order saddles can include printed or embossed images.
“The design allows you to customize without being locked into a color long term, or short term, or any term, really,” Smith said with a laugh.
Bart Walker is an avid golfer with an admittedly elevated addiction to style. He used to buy shoes at estate sales and paint them himself, hoping that he could color-coordinate them with his golf shirts. When the notion to create a customizable shoe struck him, he tinkered on the iterations until he landed on the current design and launched the company. The company has been selling shoes for about 10 months.
Erinn Walker says that for months, their kitchen table was Frankenstein’s lab of sorts, with endless variations of “glue, magnets, types of Velcro.” Given that her husband had walked away from a successful financial career, some might have wondered whether he had inhaled too many glue fumes, but the novel project seems destined to resonate with potential customers. The idea is original, simple and has a reasonable price point.
The shoes, which are waterproof and built with leather uppers, cost $160 and come in white, black or gray, with a black saddle included. Each replaceable saddle costs $30, and a special-order color or design is $40. As for the latter, practically anything is possible. One family friend has a photo of his beloved dog emblazoned on the saddle of his shoes.
The intricately detailed pattern of the shirt and shoes worn by a company salesman working the company booth on Wednesday matched perfectly. “That’s exactly what I was trying to do, from a design standpoint,” Bart Walker said.
Even the color of the laces is customizable. After trying several variations, the self-described “garage inventor” realized that he was onto something when he showed his latest shoe experiment to a friend who said, “I want some.”
“Now the color of your shoes can be as temporary or as permanent as you want it to be,” Walker said.
JackGraceUSA.com has been selling directly to customers for the past 10 months, and feedback has been positive. Erinn Walker even printed a smattering of gushing customer testimonials about the product for display in the company booth at the PGA Merchandise Show.
For the family that gambled much of its financial underpinnings – a 10-by-20-foot chunk of floor space at the Orange County Convention Center costs about $12,000 this week – the best might be yet to come. Ask any exhibitor of fashion-related items on the show floor about his or her customer base, and there’s one certainty: Female golfers are more interested in style and fashion over any other metric as it relates to clothes, equipment or accessories.
So, when the women’s version of the shoes is unveiled, with the release set for later this year, business could jump.
Unlike some self-starting inventors who leave the show with only a few orders in hand and a potentially fatal dent in their family coffers, the Jack Grace USA crew seems destined for a happier ending.
“I just created something I wanted, really,” Bart Walker said. “And it turned out that my friends liked it, too.”