Airpark ‘think tank’ for all things golf
Story by Kimberly Hundley Photography by Mark Susan
Got an idea for a golf product or service you hope will take the industry by storm and make you a fortune? The team at the ‘Tank’ will know if your baby is a sweet stroke of genius … or a whiff. Be forewarned, though, you may find these guys are tougher in their familiar rough than ABC TV’s Shark Tank investors.
After 20 years immersed in the golf world—doing everything from managing tour-players to product branding and strategy—Tim Ummel describes himself as a “golf generalist.” He stands in The Golf Tank’s private showroom, dips into the jar of salted nuts on the bar, and explains how he and his partners almost accidentally created their idea incubator inside a space that’s proving irresistible to the sport’s movers and shakers.
First of all, he clarifies, the Airpark “Tank” was born from an appreciation and love for the ABC hit show Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs present concepts from every corner imaginable and vie for investor backing. “The fact that we are constantly pitched ideas in our day-to-day activites, we thought, why not take that concept and focus on one vertical: golf,” Ummel says.
The partners, who boast about 85 years of combined golf experience, had already secured a building east of the Scottsdale Airport runway and committed to gutting and renovating the former body shop. “We had the space and the footprint,” Ummel says, “and [we realized] we could buy one golf company or create a holding company that can buy multiple entities that we can invest in.”
Secreted behind tinted glass walls and a roll-up door, the resulting “Tank” is physically a showstopper: cool gray brick, spiral staircases, velvety greens, cushy couches, steel framed office loft, stocked bar, flat-screen TVs and the primo golf diversions the company already represents in some way tempt from every corner. Upstairs off the lobby, are swanky offices and a conference room, and hidden in the rear lies a a cavernous vaulted garage with gleaming Pebble Tec floors, ideal for expanded functions and deliveries.
“We said, let’s build a place that people walk in and go ‘Wow,’” Ummel says. “It was built specifically for that purpose, to give entrepreneurs a type of space they could feel good about it—an incubator for new ideas, a SkySong [the ASU Innovation Center] for golf, if you will. And on its own, it’s morphed into a great venue for private parties and events, which can be booked on our website.”
Unlike the show Shark Tank, which publicly seeks out pitches, The Golf Tank embraces a low profile, counting on the team’s extensive connections to bring in essentially pre-vetted ideas, usually through referral. And like bees to honey, golf’s insider population stroll through the doors; caddies on Pro-Am tours, players, coaches, friends of friends. In the middle of the Scottsdale Airpark News photo shoot, Business Development Director Mike Wagner ducks away to greet a first-time visitor who’s decided to check out the tank after jetting into Scottsdale Airport on other business: it’s the inventor of the first golf bag with built-in legs, a modification that revolutionized the equipment industry in 1986 and is still spoken of in tones of awe.
And though Ummel declines to elaborate on his relationship with Tiger Woods, he’s wearing a golf shirt that bears the logo of Punta Brava, a private, invitation-only golf club featuring the first Tiger Woods-designed golf course in the world, being developed at a site in Baja, California. All Ummel will say is the Tank is in the “same facility that houses the development project for Punta Brava.”
Even The Golf Tank website is anemic by design, with simple fields for would-be entrepreneurs to submit their ideas. Consultations are by appointment only. “As a comparison, if you look at the world of tennis, there aren’t that many products that you need,” explains Ummel. “Whereas in golf, there are mental aids, equipment, clothing, technology. Because of that, there are no shortage of people wanting to pitch their ideas and get things off the ground.”
Once an inventor does get in the door, they get an hour with Wagner and Mike Helfrich, cofounder and managing partner. “We’re the firewall,” says Wagner. The hopefuls, who arrive in different levels of preparedness, make their pitches or ask for guidance on how to take the next step. “They say, ‘Here is what I see and why my baby should grow up,” Ummel says, adding the team can usually tell within a few minutes if there’s any potential for a truly “disruptive” concept or not.
In the last year, the Tank team has seen a lot of pitches and is already focusing on a select few, whether via acquisition, investment or partnership. Now that they’re committed to developing and marketing a few concepts, they’re even choosier with new ideas. About 10 partners and support staff lend a hand in some fashion at the Tank, and business is brisk.
“Very often we find people come to us, and they think what they need is money, and the reality is what they need is a plan, some strategic thinking for how to grow—and certainly some introductions,” Wagner says. “I would think one of our strongest assets is our Rolodex, our ability to call up a variety of industry assets, whether they be media people, celebrity spokespeople, or industry veterans who do design.”
Ummel agrees. “That’s a big part of our strength. Twenty years in our industry has made that a very big Rolodex.”
The Tank also cherishes its partnership with Airpark neighbor Troon Golf. As the largest golf management company in the world, Troon is in a position to recommend products to its clients. “It’s a powerful tool, and amongst all the noise in the golf industry, it’s nice to have partners like that who can help us move the needle,” says Wagner.
Back Story: Last year, the PushNPutt won best new product at the PGA Merchandise Show. The concept is simple—push down on the top of the flag’s metal pole and the balls pop out of the cup, levitated by a steel disk. No more bending down, no more grasping around for retrieval. Partners at The Golf Tank took note: As the first pin-set improvement for practice greens since 1958, this was truly the kind of “disruptive” product that could electrify the market. It definitely had “Doh! Why didn’t I think of that?” appeal. But the inventor—a golf fan and player from North Carolina—wasn’t ready to sell his company. Then one day he came to the Tank in Scottsdale and forged a relationship with the partners. “We were able to walk him through four versions of prototypes,” Tim Ummel, the Tank’s cofounder and managing partner, says of the months-long collaboration. Upgraded materials and other modifications have made the product more attractive and durable to golf courses as well as owners of practice greens. The Golf Tank is partnering with the inventor on PushNPutt.
Marketing: As of press time, a new website for PushNPutt was set to launch March 1. Check out the four-second video that says it all. (The company hopes it will go viral): pushnputt.com.
Power Posture Pro (P3 Pro)
Back Story: A PGA TOUR player came across this machine designed to engage major muscle groups and improve athletes’ posture and motion efficiency. He introduced its inventor—the Australia Olympic team’s coach for motor movement—to The Golf Tank folks more than a year ago. “It allows people ages 6 to 65 to train their body to be in the greatest posture for a golf swing,” says Tim Ummel, cofounder of the Tank, which ultimately opted to partner with the inventor on the venture. “If we do it right, we can help the game of golf, and help it to grow,” Ummel adds. Prototypes for consumers as well as trainers, physical therapists and other prospective commercial customers are underway. “We’re hoping to launch in April,” says Mike Helfrich, cofounder of the Tank. “That’s when the Masters Tournament happens, and when most of the world says ‘this is golf season,’ and they’re very excited about it.” Because the P3 Pro’s benefits are universal to any sport, the Tank team envisions a wide and growing market.
How It Works: Users step onto the machine, find their hips, bend and get into a solid posture position. Then they perform a series of moves/drills that train them in proper movements. The goal is to make good posture a habit. Resistance is built into the sliding pads and adjustable for each individual. Stabilizer muscles work off core muscles, and when users get into a bad position, they have to correct themselves or step off the pads. The Golf Tank has developed a “five minutes a day for 30 day” program.
High Definition Golf Simulator
Back Story: When The Golf Tank partners began crafting their Airpark facility, they wanted to include a simulator for entertainment purposes. Cofounder Mike Helfrich knew of the High Definition Golf Simulator because of his equipment and technology background. The Tank’s custom installation—a striking feature usually set to display Pebble Beach’s famous seventh hole—so impressed the manufacturer, the company asked the Scottsdale group to be its Southwest distributor and flagship showroom.
Specs: Most golf simulators are created through computer graphics, but this one incorporates actual photographs of entire golf courses, which are stitched together in high definition with the help of topographic maps. From the comfort of home, a golfer can be driving toward a hole on Pebble Beach, birds chirping, trees swaying and ocean surf crashing; a moment later, with a quick switch of the main menu, he can be halfway around the world at St. Andrews in Scotland playing the actual contours of that course. The simulator allows for full golf instruction via cameras, it tracks myriad data and can be used as a home theater, etc. “This is the only one that blows away the visual,” says Helfrich. “It’s a very powerful tool for instruction and fitting vs. just gaming.” The simulators start at $40,000, depending on accessories.
The Only Green
Back Story: This indoor putting green is considered the flagship product of The Golf Tank’s holding company and was its first acquisition. Tim Ummel, cofounder and managing partner of The Golf Tank, had known the inventor of The Only Green for about 15 years and consistently noted the green’s excellent reputation among golf pros and aficionados. “It’s interesting, because it’s the only one of its kind. There is no competitor in its price category,” he says. When ‘the Tank’ came together, Ummel and the managing partners saw an opportunity to “buy the company correctly” and take it to the next level of tweaking, marketing and distribution. “We knew in their life cycle that they were ready to move on to that next chapter,” he says of the initial owner. “Timing is everything.” The Tank is now both owner and manufacturer of the green, and works with distributors.
Specs: Billed as the “only indoor tour-quality adjustable putting green in the world,” the green is made from tongue-oiled hardwoods and features a proprietary surface developed to give it a “true tour-quality roll.” The green is adjusted by hand via simple wooden levers—no tools required—and yields 1.5 million break combinations. The Only Green comes in five sizes (ranging from 8-by-2 to 20-by-4), and buyers can choose from six woods as well as size and headboard customization, and the addition of sidesteps. It is 100-percent manufactured in Arizona. Golf balls putted into the headboard are gently caught and held there for retrieval. Price is $3,200 to a little more than $10,000, depending on size and wood selection.
Marketing: On the website, the product is “endorsed and owned by many PGA TOUR members whose lives depend on how they putt,” says Director of Business Development Mike Wagner, who likens the green to a high-end piece of furniture for the home or office with the same kind of lasting power as a pool table. Companies such as Nordstrom and the Arizona Diamondbacks have rented the greens for special events and trade shows, giving the green valuable exposure to potential customers. More: theonlygreen.com.