Northwestern Golf keeps its eye on the green

Nat Rosasco made golf affordable for the masses. His son and grandson built world's largest club manufacturer.

By Mark Fischetti

In 1929, Nat Rosasco, an Italian immigrant grocer, started a new company with a new idea—that everyone should be able to enjoy the game of golf, regardless of their income. Although this notion does not seem out of the ordinary, at the time it was unique; golf was played at clubs frequented by the elite, the only people who could afford the expensive equipment needed for the game. So Nat set up shop in the basement of his Chicago home. Good with his hands, and a genius for things mechanical, he built the necessary machinery and began to churn out low-priced golf clubs.

Business grew slowly and steadily. At the age of 15 Nat’s son, Nat C., began helping. The father and son got a big break in the 1950s: Because of Northwestern Golf’s low prices and dependable quality, the company was awarded a large government contract to supply golf clubs to U.S. military bases.

Nat C. worked his way up the ranks, and took over as president of Northwestern in 1965. The elder Nat would die the next year. Nat C. proceeded to grow the company into the world’s largest producer of golf clubs. In 1982 Nat C., 52, handed the reins to his son, Nat G., who was only 25. Nat G. remains in control of three Chicago factories and other plants worldwide.

In the early years, Northwestern grew because it produced quality clubs at working man’s prices. It gained prominence because it kept its focus. Competitors who finally entered the low-price market, such as Wilson, couldn’t resist battling for the up-scale pro-shop business too, which diluted funds. Northwestern spent its money solely on raising manufacturing and warehouse efficiencies.

“From my grandfather to my father, from my father to me, there was never an option to do otherwise,” says Nat G. “And for 65 years profits grew steadily. There was no reason to change the approach.”

When Nat G. took over in 1985, however, more manufacturers were encroaching on the KMart-WalMart-Target market. So he extended the family business philosophy: Northwestern became the first company to offer high-tech clubs—again normally sold in pro shops—to the ordinary duffer at an ordinary price. Northwestern flooded the department stores with graphite-shaft clubs while other manufacturers were still testing the up-scale market with high-priced versions of the same technology. The graphite clubs accounted for about 20 percent of the pro-shop market, but were almost nonexistent in department stores.

North western beat competitors to the mass market again in the early 1990s with the newest generation of club technology: so-called metal woods. Today the company makes 5.5 million clubs a year —more than any other firm—and earns more than $100 million in sales.

Northwestern is not without some of the flash of the upscale golf scene. It has a small line of exclusive clubs called ProSelect, which it markets directly to a select group of 2,000 customers. And like other manufacturers it sponsors pros who use and promote the brand, among them Gary Player, J.C. Snead, Bob Murphy, Judy Rankin, and Nancy Lopez. Actually, Northwestern started the trend of signing pros in 1963 when it marketed a line of clubs endorsed by legend Byron Nelson.

Nat. G. has added a twist to the pro endorsement game, too, signing baseball and football players—and a few big-name entertainers—to use the clubs and talk up the product.

Despite the clever marketing, production efficiency remains the big driver for Northwestern. Nat G. plans to consolidate his three large factories in Chicago, and is pursuing large chains even more aggressively. “Because we are family owned,” he says, “we can stay lean and efficient. We are hands on. The big retailers deal directly with the owners. They see us as more dependable. We can provide a steady supply; we have the inventory to do so and we have the money to back ourselves up. It’s very hard for other manufacturers to provide the same.”