How Two Yale Grads Turned An Idea Into the Growing Golf Apparel Star, Holderness & Bourne
By Adam Stanley
Alex Holderness and John Bourne.
Neither Alex Holderness nor John Bourne thought the other would really meet up at the coffee shop in New York City’s garment district after a few drinks the night before. But there they both were at 8 a.m., armed with a shared dream and a desire.
“We just kept complaining about the golf shirts we were buying in pro shops and one night we said let’s stop complaining about it and do something about it,” Bourne says. “We were bumbling around the garment district and had no idea what we were doing – but we just wanted to make a better polo shirt.”
The friends, who met while getting their MBAs at Yale, have been doing exactly that over the last decade. Their brand, Holderness & Bourne (“You have to get the complicated name out of the way early like Abercrombie & Fitch,” says Holderness with a laugh), can be found in more than 1,300 golf shops, with distribution plans for Canada and Europe. A bevy of PGA of America Golf Professionals and a half-dozen PGA Tour members wear their shirts.
"Holderness & Bourne take a lot of pride in their brand and, more importantly, their relationships. A lot of those are with PGA of America Golf Professionals like myself who value a best in class product for their golf shop," says Will Manning, a PGA Assistant Professional at California Golf Club in San Francisco.
Adds Holderness: “We’re very happy to have accomplished what we have. We’re very focused on golf. In terms of what the brand stands for and where we can be found that focus has paid dividends – not being everything to everybody but just be a really special golf brand."
The friends bonded early while at Yale over their shared love of golf. In fact, they admit, part of the reason they probably ended up at the school was because of the golf course. They’re quick to wax poetic of the new restoration plans outlined by Gil Hanse. The other thing they shared an interest in was clothing – Holderness would tell Bourne about where to get sport coats made, for example.
A few years after business school they were both still in the New York area – playing golf together on weekends and meeting in the city for drinks and talking about what their lives may look like. The shared love of both golf and clothes was still there, while the itch to be entrepreneurial was getting stronger with marriages on tap and life about to get “really real.”
“That plus not loving our jobs,” Bourne says with a laugh.
The duo was both in finance-related fields and with the complaints about what kind of polo shirts were on offer piling up, they decided to go for it. They were obsessed with the woven shirts they wore to their desk jobs – including the shaping, fit, and the collars. They also knew they didn’t like exhaustive branding or big logos. Quality, they thought, should be the real ‘brand.’
"When you're shopping for clothes a club, it means you're shopping for business. They understand, listen and in return come back with the best there is in apparel for us to offer golfers."
Will Manning, PGA
About a year-and-a-half later – after piecing things together on nights and weekends – they had one shirt in three colors. They made 1,000 of them. It was their "Are we doing this?" moment.
“We had enough reason to believe that we could figure it out,” says Bourne. “We quit our jobs and dove in. We put every single dollar of capital between us on the table and went for it. And bit by bit, we started making progress.”
Soon they had three shirts in three colors and they went knocking on the doors of PGA Members at country clubs nationwide. A handful, including Winged Foot, brought them into their shops. The orders came in and then every club called back a couple of weeks later saying the shirts were gone. They wanted more.
“It was a thrill,” Bourne says. “We didn’t really know what it all meant. But they sold them all, so that must have been pretty good. We just kept going.”
This constant pursuit of success, just like with the game of golf, is the thing that keeps the company going. They talk frequently about making an excellent product that’s innovative and interesting and new and authentic – but they back it up with excellent service. The brand’s number-one cultural tenant is excellence, both for the product on offer and the service the team provides.
“We’ve realized that great products only get you so far,” says Holderness. “That’s half the battle. The other half is to be reliable, especially for PGA of America Golf Professionals that need to look good in front of members and guests.”
Part of the reason why the two company founders feel so strongly about their brand is because their names are quite literally on every piece of product out the door. Holderness admits they didn’t originally want the company to look like “an ego project” but the more they explored different brand names, they kept coming back to how powerful the authenticity of using their own names could be.
If you looked in the back of your grandfather’s jacket, Holderness says, it was the name of the tailor that made it.
“You have to stand behind it if your name is on it, and we liked that responsibility,” Holderness says. “We’re a couple of guys trying to make a great product, and here we are. We’re putting our names on the label to stand behind that idea in a front-footed way.”
While the guys have had plenty of success to this point, they’re quick to borrow a golf-tournament analogy when they discuss their future.
“Everything we’ve done to get the business to where it is now has almost been the warm-up rounds. We feel proud to have earned a spot in the event, but we’re just on the first tee on Thursday,” says Bourne. “There’s not a lot of earth-shattering change in any given moment but when you sit back in five, and now 10 years, it’s amazing what was accomplished with a continued, determined, consistent effort.”