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Alumnus startup Seamus Golf accessories expanding to global markets
Author: School of Business Administration
Posted: May 29, 2013

Read the original story in The Oregonian here.seamus.jpg

Everything old is new again in the golf world, with players increasingly embracing the sport's old-school legacy through clothes and accessories reminiscent of the early 20th century.

Seamus Golf and its owners, Akbar and Megan Chisti, have been out in front of this trend for a few years. The Portland startup makes tartan golf accessories -- particularly golf head covers -- that add flair and character to a golfer's bag.

But the startup's use of lively tartan and heritage-inspired patterns isn't its only appeal. The line is entirely handmade and comes with such touches as detailed leather labels.

That's why Seamus products command premium prices and are available only at top-tier public and private clubs, as well as its own website. This year, the Seamus brand will expand into Canada, Japan and South Korea.

The husband-and-wife team welcome growth but don't want it to come at the expense of the company's intimate, artisanal character.

"We intend to always keep that touch," Akbar Chisti said. "It could limit us. But I also don't know how big the market is. We're not expecting to take over Nike Golf, though. Our goal is to just make the best head covers."

Seamus seamstresses make each cover from plush, heavy wool imported from Scotland and from Oregon-based Pendleton Woolen Mills.

Startup profile
Founders: Megan and Akbar Chisti
Founded: April 2011
Products: Tartan golf accessories, primarily golf head covers
Available: Bandon Dunes, Chambers Bay, Pumpkin Ridge in the Northwest, and about two dozen other private and public clubs across the country
Website: seamusgolf.com
Seed funding: $5,000
Revenue: Undisclosed
Number of staff: Six employees, plus a few contractors
2013 goals: Grow presence in U.S. Canada, Japan, and South Korea
In their words: "Seamus is the name of the family Irish Terrier. He has an incredible sense of humor, and shows this daily through his routine defiance and playful approach to everything in life. Somehow, he carries himself with a fairly dignified presence through all of this." -- Akbar Chisti, on the inspiration behind the company's name

Even the leather labels, which burnish to a darker hue with age, are handmade in the Chisti's production headquarters -- the garage of their Beaverton home.

In June, the company will also unveil a new golf bag made in collaboration with Jones Golf Bags.  

The head covers -- which are used to protect the clubs -- range from $45 to $85. The golf bag will run $299.

"The colors and fabrics they choose and how they put it all together is unique," says Cathi Zerba,  the buyer and merchandise manager at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, which carries the Seamus line. "I don't think there's another company doing head covers like them. Their personalization with the leather and logo. Plus they're local."

Seamus is carried by about 30 golf clubs around the country, including Bandon Dunes; Chambers Bay in Tacoma, which will be the site of the 2015 U.S. Open; Ballyneal in Colorado; and Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles.

The couple's budding golf business wasn't part of their professional life plan.

The couple married five years ago. Akbar Chisti, 30,  works as an accountant for a local real estate developer. Megan, 28,  was an apparel designer for Pendleton. Both play the game, but he's more avid -- and has a single-digit handicap.

A few years ago, his favorite head cover -- made of Scottish wool -- was falling apart. Megan Chisti not only mended it but started to make her own just for fun, using material from various sources, including Pendleton. Soon enough -- this was in 2009 -- the tartan head covers began to circulate among friends and others through word of mouth.

"She's the enabler, the driver," Akbar Chisti said. "She had the expertise."

In 2011, Seamus incorporated. Later that year, the startup landed its first client -- Bandon Dunes, where Akbar Chisti once worked, and regarded as one of the best golf resorts in the world. Megan Chisti and her aunt cut all the fabric and did all of the sewing for the order.

Once the Bandon order came through, Megan Chisti quit her job. Only a handful of clubs carried Seamus products when Golf Digest highlighted the startup in its June 2012 issue.

That's when the "website blew up," Akbar Chisti said, and other golf clubs began calling.

Seamus had to hire more seamstresses to keep up production. It also began to source wool material from Scotland in addition to Pendleton.

Though wool products are spendy, the Chistis say that hasn't hurt business. They've noticed the golf apparel and accessories industry has become more adventurous the past 20 years, with more people willing to spend money on singular designs. The golf equipment market, which includes apparel and accessories, is a more than $10 billion market, with leading companies being Callaway, Ping, Titleist and TaylorMade.

Many golfers also want to embrace the sport's early, sartorial roots, a trend that's helped the company, the Chistis say.

This year, Seamus entered the Canadian market. Roughly 40 private and public clubs carry its head covers. And it's also just entered the market in Japan, with South Korea follow later.

The growth excites the Chistis. Akbar is now phasing out of his accounting job. Seamus is making revenue but the Chistis won't disclose how much.

Pumpkin Ridge's Zerba says expansion can be tricky for a company that doesn't outsource anything and relies on personal attention.

"It's a Catch-22," Zerba says. "You want to grow the business, but you want to keep control of it. That's tough. It's going to change the business -- the sewing, the suppliers, etc. It's harder to keep the level of quality they have if you become a national or global company. It doesn't mean you won't sell well. It just means you lose some of that intimacy."

Even as more orders arrive, the couple is adamant they can figure out a way to keep true to the company's roots.

From the outset, "we wanted this to be a special place," Akbar says. "Not just a knick-knack company."

D.K. Row: 503-294-7654; drow@oregonian.com