How I did it

Golf legend Greg Norman launches small-biz equity fund

Tom Cunneff, special to
Greg Norman
Source: Greg Norman

Wearing a navy Ralph Lauren suit and crisp white shirt, Greg Norman is traveling through the crowded streets of Manhattan in the back of a black chauffeured Lincoln Navigator. He's headed to his Gulfstream G550 at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport after a New York City media tour with "TODAY," "Fox & Friends" and The Wall Street Journal.

Although the 60-year-old famed Australian golfer no longer plays competitive golf—he held the world No. 1 spot for 331 straight weeks in the 1980s and '90s—he is back in the media spotlight, prepping for the start of his new TV career: In June he will co-host (along with Joe Buck) Fox Sports' first U.S. Open broadcast. It's the start of the network's 12-year, $1 billion deal with the U.S. Golf Association (he'll also do the Women's Open, Senior Open and Amateur this summer). 

As a "living brand," Norman thinks his higher profile should have a positive effect on his business empire, which is comprised of 20 fully- or partially-owned divisions, including course design and management, apparel, real estate, wine, beef, event management and GPS technology. The company named after his famous nickname—the Great White Shark—reportedly posted $300 million in revenues in 2014.  

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That's impressive when you consider the U.S. golf industry is in the rough since its pre-recession heydey. The sport has contracted by 10 percent to 15 percent when you add up all the factors: course closings, decline in participation and golf-company earnings.

Norman's success is due to his global diversification strategy. Not only has he entered into many lines of business, he's also gone after hot emerging markets ripe for growth. 

The 7th hole at the Course at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, California, which opened in 1998
Source: Greg Norman Golf Course Design

The newest division at Great White Shark Enterprises he's most excited about is the Great White Shark Opportunity Fund, an asset-based debt-lending fund that provides alternative and flexible capital to small- and mid-cap companies. Norman won't reveal what companies they've invested in so far but said they have $75 million in capital. 

"It's a good place to be in right now, because a lot of small, entrepreneurial businesses can't get capital to grow their business," he said in his familiar Australian accent. "Many years ago my partner, David Chessler, and I invested in a couple small business and just saw the returns we were generating, in the high 20s and even above. We started off very small, but now we're growing at a comfortable pace, and we have institutions interested because we have a performance track record that's very positive. We don't want to be a $20 billion fund. We just want to be like the space we're in."

Norman's most profitable division is his golf course design company, which charges $1.5 million for a "signature" design. It has opened 95 courses worldwide and has another 42 projects in various stages of development with almost all of them in Asia, Mexico and South America, where the golf economy is not as negatively affected as in the U.S. 

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But like with any business, the Great Recession took its toll (back in 2007, his design fee was $2 million). "It's the hardest recession I've ever been through, and I've probably been through four recessions since I started my company in 1992," he said. "But once you come up the backside of it and people see that your credibility and business model has survived the negative test of time, your business is in a really good place to grow."

Since GWSE is such a closely held company, Norman won't disclose what his gross revenues were last year but does claim they increased by 63 percent. 

"Business is good, actually," he said. "We've weathered the storm and are seeing things turning around, especially on a global front where we've reached only 20 percent of our potential. Banking regulations in the U.S. have kind of killed the entrepreneurial spirit a little bit, but there are places in this country where you can do well and make money. That's why I started the investment fund. There are a lot of opportunities out there because of the regulations in place."

One division that's still lagging is wine. Norman has been a connoisseur and collector since 1976, when he won a bottle of the award-winning Australian red Penfolds Grange. Twenty years later he partnered with California-Australian conglomerate Beringer Blass (now Treasury Wine Estates). The company, Greg Norman Estates, makes 13 different varietals and shipped 160,000 cases last year to Australia and the U.S.—down about 90,000 cases from 2006—with the majority made in his native country. (A Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand will debut in April.)

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"Part of business is identifying the divisions in the company that need to be helped a little," he said. "And now, with the Australian dollar below par, our margins are improving on wine. It's a business I really want to start focusing on and getting it back up to where it was pre-recession."

Norman's business savvy first became apparent when in 1997 he earned $40 million from a $1.8 million investment in Cobra Golf after the company was bought by Fortune Brands. Norman rolled that money into his new wine business.

He also learned the importance of branding in the mid-'90s through Reebok founder Paul Fireman, who started Norman's clothing line in 1994 but allowed him to own his iconic shark logo that Reebok created for the apparel.

"He gave me the big push in understanding what marketing and branding are all about," Norman said. "Roger Penske is another one. I've been very lucky to get some guidance and direction from some incredible businessmen and human beings. I also like to build things, but I had no goal to build GWSE into the business it is today. It just evolved. I knew I didn't want to be just an endorsement-related player, where I couldn't build value in my own brand."

Lessons learned:

  1. Human resources can make or break you. You can have a fantastic product, but if you don't have the right people in the right place running it the right way, you can screw up big time, and it takes you a long time to recover.
  2. Begin with the end in mind. Always have an exit strategy. If you go into something with no vision for the future, you are destined to fail in the long run.
  3. Stay the course and compartmentalize. You're always going to hit bumps in the road; no business transaction is ever easy, but you've got to plow ahead and stay focused on the task at hand. I cannot do five things 100 percent, but I can do one thing 100 percent.