Mike Ishizaka's Future Golf Diary Vol. 9: A 'Democratized' Service that Goes Beyond Locations and National Borders

Last year, GDO embarked on the launch of a full-scale US business by investing approximately 20.9 billion yen, which is close to the annual sales of its domestic business. It could be said that this was the moment when the vision of Mike Ishizaka, GDO’s CEO who moved to the United States with his family in 2017, finally began to take shape and move forward. We interviewed Ishizaka, who has temporarily returned to Japan, about his activities in the US, which are not so visible for those of us in Japan.

At the GDO Gotanda Head Office

ーーWhat is your assessment of the current status of the GDO Group's US operations?

In November 2022, we acquired a 98% stake in GOLFTEC Enterprises, LLC, which, together with the 2% held by CEO Joe Assel, gave us full control of its management. During the same period, we also acquired SkyTrak. While we originally thought that the three-year period from 2021 to 2023 would be the first phase of our "global challenge," we have now finally put in place a strategy for our US business and have begun to implement it. SkyTrak will build on the foundation of GOLFTEC's lesson business to expand contact with customers through devices that are not tied to a specific location, and we have a concrete image of the overall framework and outline of the business. I myself have been aiming for us to reach this point since I arrived in the US five years ago, and although we have not yet achieved all of our goals, I am pleased with how well we have done so far.

ーーIt seems that human resources for the US business are also in a strong position, especially in terms of the hiring of management-level personnel.

GOLFTEC is a historic company that will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2025 and has been led by Joe Assel as CEO since its inception. GDO became its largest shareholder in 2018, and we are bringing in more and more new faces, including through the acquisition of SkyTrak, as people and companies are attracted to our vision for the future. We are also able to recruit great talent mainly from within the industry.

Specifically, Jeff Foster joined first as CEO of SkyTrak and then as CSO (Chief Strategy Officer) of GOLFTEC. Previously, he built GolfNow into the number one reservation site in the US, dominating the competition. He is well-connected and excels in team building as well as strategic thinking. We also hired Gareth Londt, who had been CTO of the United States Golf Association (USGA), as CTO of SkyTrak, and Chris Koske, who had worked in marketing, sales, and product departments at Odyssey and Edel. Most recently, we hired John DeCastro, former product manager at Bushnell, as Chief Product Manager. These new people will have a positive impact not only on the SkyTrak, but on our existing businesses as well. We have a very good team, and I think our members have great abilities and potential.

ーーWhat is it about the GDO Group's business that attracts these talented people?

First, we have 260 real GOLFTEC studio locations, and we believe we can increase this number to 750 in the future. My guess is that people are interested in the fact that we are "not a completely digital entity" — and we offer an experience-oriented service that operates globally. I think it must be appealing that we have that sort of customer base and so many places that serve as a real touch point for users. On the other hand, while I don't know if the SkyTrak device alone would have attracted that level of interest, I think when people noticed that GOLFTEC was getting involved and thought about the potential they became very interested.

ーーIs that potential related to the so-called GOLFTEC ANYWHERE initiative (GTA)?

Yes. The original concept was centered on the idea that we could give lessons anywhere by combining the lesson know-how we have cultivated with the data that can be captured by the devices. I think a lot of people feel that the combination of GOLFTEC and SkyTrak has the potential to deliver the best user experience not just in terms of lessons, but also in the device business. The idea is that by combining the know-how and data that people who have been doing lessons for many years can bring to the table with devices, we can provide a better online service than anyone else.

ーーDid you come to the acquisition of the SkyTrak because you had the GTA concept in mind first? Or was it conceived in parallel with the acquisition?

The first question was, "Are you interested?" but it did not go from there in a single step. To begin with, GOLFTEC as a whole has approximately 900 bays, all of which contain Foresight Sports GC2 and GCQuad launch monitors. We have some system integration with Foresight Sports, but for maximum convenience and data utilization for our customers, it would be ideal if we could manage and integrate the data ourselves in our own software.

If we enter into fierce competition just to sell devices, we cannot justify the investment unless we increase our sales volume. So, we thought about what we could offer, and realized that if we could deliver our service to users through combining it with a device, we could differentiate ourselves and add value. We thought the acquisitions would make sense if that was the ultimate goal. To express this in an easy-to-understand manner, we started saying "GOLFTEC Anywhere," and before we knew it, GTA became our catchphrase.

ーーIn recent years, new businesses such as Topgolf, Puttshack, and PopStroke, which involve the use of devices, have emerged one after another. In this context, what is the scale of the GDO Group's efforts?

Until now, GOLFTEC could not make new contacts with customers without renting a physical location, investing in equipment, and hiring coaches, and therefore could only offer their services at a certain price point. The analogy we often used was that if a millionaire lived in a remote place, they would not be able to go a GOLFTEC even if they wanted to if one was not nearby. On the other hand, a GOLFTEC may be right in front of someone, but they can’t go to it because it’s unaffordable. With GTA, if users purchase the device, they can enjoy the service even if they live in a remote area, and they can take lessons at a lower cost. The idea is that, through this evolution, GOLFTEC can leverage its accumulated experience while freeing itself from its dependency on studios and expanding its customer contact points indefinitely.

Although there are still only 12 GOLFTEC locations in Japan, GTA can provide a service that is unrestricted and comparable to such studios even though it is unattended. Theoretically, we could expand to more locations. Moreover, we can offer the value that GOFLTEC has cultivated, plus more, online—even in places like existing practice ranges or private homes, where there is no physical GOLFTEC location. In a sense, this is the 'democratization' of the services we can offer. In terms of our experience, those who have tried golf lessons make up at most 20 to 30 percent of golfers, but we believe we can increase that number. While there was a temporary increase in golfers during the COVID-19 pandemic, it hasn't quite established. We believe that the business model we will develop going forward will make golf more accessible even for these potential customers.

US business expands, raising expectations for a spillover to domestic business

ーーTeam building was surely an important factor behind reaching where you are now. What is the key to building a good team?

The most significant factor in building a good team was having a clear goal, often referred to as a 'North Star' in English. We prominently put forth the concept encapsulated by the term 'GTA' and rallied around the idea of making it a reality. This generated a collective excitement—everyone, including Joe, thought it would be 'interesting' and felt 'we should try it' and 'we can do it.' Jeff joined the team early on, and he was able to utilize his skills in executing visions and team-building. He effectively leveraged not only individual skills but also external collaborating companies and his own network to assemble the team. I believe that this was the most crucial element in our success."


Reporter and Editor: Ryota Imaoka

Share this post