Chinese manager shakes up venerable Honma Golf

Kyodo

Liu Jianguo, a Chinese executive at the helm of Honma Golf Co., upset Japanese managers when he refused to add indoor hitting bays to the company’s golf shops in China.

Hitting bays are a fixture in Japanese golf shops as they offer visitors the chance to get the feel of new clubs. However, Liu favored the Chinese way, flaunting a gorgeous interior design that evokes the glamour of fashion shops.

The episode is just one example of how Liu has shaken up Honma Golf, a once-venerable Japanese golf club maker that is now emerging from the stigma of a mid-2000s bankruptcy under the wing of Chinese-controlled Marlion Holdings Ltd. Marlion Holdings acquired Honma Golf in 2010 in one of China’s most visible takeovers of a Japanese company.

In China, where golf was just starting to become popular among the nouveau riche, what visitors expected from golf shops was the glamour associated with the bourgeois sport. So Liu’s image-conscious approach proved successful, propelling sales of expensive products.

At 43 years of age, Liu, who has emerged as a prominent business executive after growing a small company into a major appliance maker in the space of just 10 years, is himself one of the richest men in Shanghai.

Liu manages Honma Golf by remote control from his office in Shanghai, giving instructions to Japanese managers through weekly teleconferences.

Marveling at Liu’s vigorous leadership, a Japanese employee said business decisions are being made “at a speed that was previously unthinkable.”

The Honma brand used to be among the most widely recognized among Japanese players but has lost its luster since the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2005.

Still, the takeover of this well-known brand by Chinese interests evoked mixed feelings and commentary among the Japanese public.

The acquisition came just as Japan faced the imminent prospect of losing its status as the world’s second-largest economy — a badge of honor it had worn for more than four decades — to China. China overtook Japan in terms of gross domestic product In 2010, becoming second only to the United States.

Public sentiment notwithstanding, Honma Golf got a new lease on life under Liu’s leadership, as a dose of boldness injected into its corporate culture helps revive it in the stifling aftermath of its bankruptcy.

“The mood now is ‘Don’t be afraid of making a mistake, take a chance,’ ” another Japanese employee said.

As it balked at paying top dollar to sponsor star golf players, Honma Golf was lagging rival golf club makers in competition for media exposure.

To close the gap, Liu gave the green light to coughing up big for a promising Japanese player Masamichi Uehira this year.

His decision was justified in June when Uehira placed second in a major tournament, the Japan Tour Championship, giving the Honma brand its first high-profile media exposure in a long time. This cemented Honma Golf’s turnaround with Japanese golf fans.

Honma Golf has been energized by Liu’s boldness on the innovation front as well. The company has introduced advanced equipment that makes it possible to apply two different types of plating to the club head.

Double plating could give Honma clubs a competitive edge by burnishing its upscale image and allowing it create unique designs and add new functions.

In Japan, concerns are growing over the “hollowing out” of industry as domestic manufacturers being overwhelmed by their regional low-cost rivals scramble to move production offshore.

But Liu dismissed the possibility of Honma Golf joining the exodus. “Now that we have acquired a Japanese brand, why should we transfer production to China,” he asked rhetorically. ” ‘Made in Japan’ is our advantage.”

Because wealthy Chinese cherish meticulous Japanese craftsmanship, Liu said, Japanese clubs can be sold at a profit in China despite the high tariff rate and labor cost. The key is cultivating the image, he said.

Honma Golf has already pushed the premium brand approach to the extreme. Prompted by a suggestion from the Shanghai office, it launched a club set priced at 1.68 million yuan, or around ¥21 million.

The clubs, whose heads are adorned with gold and diamond ornaments, are crafted by a master artisan at a Japanese plant. Several sets have already been sold in China.