Manufacturing: Design team names its own game: Chris Arnot on the couple who made their mark with personalised golf products
JDS (Customisation) Ltd is one of just four companies granted licences to trade at the Ryder Cup at the Belfry near Birmingham in September.
After 15 years of hard struggle and steady growth, it marks a satisfying landmark for Derek and Barbara Smith.
Back in 1978, she was a supply teacher and he was a golf- loving production control manager for Peugeot-Talbot. But they gave up their comfortable way of life to take a chance on a brass golf-ball marker, the size of a large cuff link with a club or company logo inside.
'I had always wanted to design something connected with golf, so I looked around to see what I could improve,' Mr Smith explained. 'At the time, ball markers were cheap and nasty plastic things. My next- door neighbour had an engineering company and I persuaded him to do me 100 in brass.'
In those days, plastic markers cost a penny each. A brass one with a club logo was 12 times the price. But Derek Smith was confident. 'Golfers like quality and they want to be associated with their clubs.' When he received an order for a thousand from a club in Edgbaston, Birmingham, he gave up his job, acquired a beaten-up Volvo and went on the road to sell more of them. The response was mixed. At the Dunlop Masters at Woburn, Bernhard Langer was impressed, John Jacobs, the commentator, less so. 'You'll never make a living at that,' he said.
Luckily, the manager of the Midland Bank in Leamington thought differently. A keen golfer himself, he gave the Smiths a loan of pounds 5,000. It was their only capital.
'We sat up half the night putting stickers on ball markers,' Mrs Smith recalled. 'The children helped out.'
Soon it was time to expand the product range. They moved into inscribed pitch repairers made in steel and brass with gold plating. Then into printed golf balls, tees and pencils with company logos for the corporate market.
Today, JDS is printing between 500 and 700 balls a day at its Coventry headquarters. The company employs a full-time staff of 34, plus another 20 casuals at the height of the season. Turnover is approaching pounds 2m.
After salaries are paid, all profits are ploughed back into the business. 'If we can grow at between 10 and 15 per cent year on year, that's handleable,' Mr Smith said.
The product range now extends to inscribed pens, sun visors, umbrellas and more. Japan is providing a rapidly expanding market.
And their old next-door neighbour in Leamington? He is still a leading supplier of brass ball markers.
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