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Second Draft: Jesse Ortiz

After a spectacular rise and fall with Orlimar, Jesse Ortiz has returned with Bobby Jones Golf Company to do what he does best - make clubs

By: Bob Seligman

It could have been such a beautiful story for Jesse Ortiz and Orlimar Golf—a classic tale where Cinderella finds the glass slipper and marries the prince. Where the hero discovers the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Where everyone lives happily ever after.

Once upon a time, Orlimar was a small family-owned company outside San Francisco that made a line of highly regarded persimmon woods. Orlimar clubs were well known in the Northern California area and had been in the bags of players like Johnny Miller and Ken Venturi.

Then in the mid-’90s, Ortiz discovered magic by combining a stainless steel body, maraging steel face and copper tungsten weights into one club. The TriMetal, which debuted in January 1998, was a shallow-face fairway wood that made it easier for golfers to get the ball up in the air, particularly from difficult lies. It was revolutionary in its concept of using three metals in a golf club, and golfers flocked to it.

Orlimar went from $1 million to $105 million in annual sales in two years. But just as quickly, the rags-to-riches story ended sourly amid debt, lawsuits and selling away much of the company in attempts to raise capital. “When you’ve got a company that goes up as quickly as they did, their infrastructure, their financing, their capital weren’t ready for it,” says Dale Robbins, president of Dale’s Winning Edge, a major retailer in Knoxville, Tennessee. “They started trying to be too much in chasing Callaway and TaylorMade and all the other companies and it put them out of their niche.”

Needing investors to launch the TriMetal, Ortiz went into partnership with businessmen Ed Dolinar and Rich Oldenberg in 1997, giving each one-third of the company. Dolinar, Oldenberg and Ortiz became co-chairmen of Orlimar Golf, but in effect, the family lost control of the company.

Part of the plan was a quick expansion into other products—irons and even a line of balls—as well as a move to Carlsbad, which was not only more expensive but further removed the company from the family’s reach.

There were other problems. Callaway filed two lawsuits, one alleging that the TriMetal irons infringed on patents for its Big Bertha irons, the other charging Orlimar with deceptive advertising practices. After Orlimar introduced balls, TaylorMade issued a cease and desist order, claiming that Orlimar infringed on its InerGel ball packaging.

Although Ortiz still maintains Orlimar’s innocence—and that the courts initially ruled against Callaway—the company settled due to mounting legal bills, especially after Callaway threatened to appeal.

These developments, in addition to the bankruptcy of several major retail accounts, affected cash flow. More pieces of the company were given away in an effort to raise cash, but Ortiz couldn’t halt the company’s slide.

In 2003 Ortiz left the company founded by his father, Lou. By the time he walked away, Ortiz says his family owned no more than three percent of Orlimar, later bought by King Par.

After a glorious rise and equally spectacular fall with Orlimar, the 54-year-old Ortiz has received a second chance at his storybook ending, thanks to Bobby Jones Golf Chairman and CEO Walter Rosenthal and the Jones heirs, who had reacquired the license for the legendary golfer’s name from Callaway and were looking for a designer name to make their clubs. (Ely Callaway, who passed away in 2001, was Jones’ distant cousin.)

“Even though he had encountered some difficulties at Orlimar,” says Bob Jones IV, Jones’ grandson, “we were very confident that he had learned a number of very valuable things and that his vision for the Jones Golf Company was going to be very compatible with ours, which would be to manufacture something that is aesthetically pleasing, technologically advanced and the kind of club that would benefit players from all levels.”

The clubs, known as Bobby Jones by Jesse Ortiz, indeed merge the classic styling of his father’s persimmons with the technology required of today’s high-performance clubs. The drivers have the same Russian beta titanium body that Ortiz used at Orlimar because he feels it’s harder and stronger than other materials. A graphite crown enables him to move weight away from the hosel, face and crown to other areas. The hybrids and fairway woods have a thin, maraging metal face and crown, and a stainless steel body. That lets Ortiz transfer 20 to 30 grams into the sole for a lower center of gravity.

“They perform well,” says Robbins. “It’s as good a club as any out there. He’s staying true to what he wants to do: hybrids, fairway woods and drivers.” Of course, designing clubs always was the easy part for Ortiz, who grew up helping in the workshop next to his father. During Orlimar’s explosive growth, it was everything else that he found difficult to handle.

“I don’t care if you were a Harvard MBA honors graduate,” Ortiz says. “Nobody can possibly be prepared or so arrogant to expect that you’re going to come up with something that takes you from $1 million to $100 million in 18 months. Nobody.”

As at Orlimar, Ortiz, who has an equity stake in Bobby Jones, is more than the designer. “At least half of what I do is CEO-type stuff,” says Ortiz, whose title is Vice President, Design. His previous experience—good and bad—should help his new company expand properly. Presently a $3 million company that Ortiz expects will grow fivefold next year and reach $40 million in five years, Bobby Jones Golf will remain a niche player, focusing on woods. But irons, wedges and other clubs are possible in the future.

“We should be extremely careful who handles the product and in what areas they handle it,” says Ortiz. “Don’t go chasing sales. That’s the big mistake we made at Orlimar. We wanted to get big. Everyone was looking at doing an IPO and you had to be $100 million-plus, but that’s not the way to go.”

Should Ortiz ever be tempted otherwise, reminders of the Orlimar days are not far away. The wresting of the company from family control divided the family; Ortiz and his sister, Carmen, don’t speak. Jesse reconciled with his father before Lou slipped into the grip of Alzheimer’s, but the regret remains. Ortiz wishes he could have done better for the man who taught him everything he knows about clubmaking, and wishes Lou could see the clubs he’s making now.

“I tried my best, and for a period of time we were No. 1 on tour,” Ortiz says. “I was proud of that, I’m proud of the products I’m making now, and I’m proud of the fact that my name is on the clubs with Bobby Jones. I think my dad takes comfort that the Ortiz family name will be well known for many years as one of the best clubmaking families that has ever existed.”

What About Orlimar?

While Jesse Ortiz is on the comeback, the company he left is doing the same. After buying Orlimar in 2003, Flushing, Michigan-based King Par is re-making it.

“Some people are not aware that it’s been bought out or moved from California,” says Stephen Graham, King Par’s vice president of marketing and tour operations. “Orlimar is simply a brand name. There essentially is no Orlimar Golf Company. But if they call it Orlimar or Orlimar Golf Company we’ll certainly let it lie.”

That’s because the rights to the name is the primary reason King Par bought the company, which no longer has any ties to the Ortiz family. (Ortiz’ father, Lou, started Orlimar in 1960; the name comes from the first letters of Ortiz and his two original partners, Pedro Liendo and Emilio Martinez.)

King Par owns brands like Affinity and Intech, entry-level clubs sold primarily through high-volume retailers like Wal-Mart. Acquiring Orlimar has given King Par access to a more upscale market, composed of more serious golfers. With Orlimar, King Par is targeting green-grass and off-course specialty shops.

In the past several months, Orlimar has introduced five lines. The Fury is for better players. ZX is a game-improvement line designed to help golfers fight the slice. It has a driver with a face that is six degrees closed; the hybrids’ faces are four degrees closed. Orlimar also has lines for juniors, women and seniors.

King Par is promoting Orlimar with a limited television campaign and print ads in consumer and trade publications. But there won’t be an infomercial like the one that brought TriMetal to prominence. King Par used one for six months in 2005 to tell golfers Orlimar was back, and with the brand now re-established, Graham says a new infomercial is unnecessary.

Even without the infomercial, the new-look Orlimar hasn’t forgotten the company’s past. “It’s unfortunate what happened with them, pushing so hard to go public that they just got upside down,” Graham says. “There’s that little element in you that you want to cheer for the family business guy and you want him to make it. He’s competing against large corporate giants and it’s just so tough.

“We knew it would take three to five years to get Orlimar going again and to come up with a product line worthy enough of replacing the success that Jesse and the gang had with the TriMetal. You always carry the element with you in terms of coming out with a product that’s worthy of the Orlimar name.”

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