Meet Bob Parsons: War vet, dot-com billionaire, golf visionary

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Renee Parsons’ eyes widen and then, ever-so-slightly, roll with playful sarcasm at the recollection. “Oh my God,” she says with what appears to be mock indignation. “Our house was full of them. Bag upon bag upon bag. Honestly, some days, it felt like you couldn’t move there was so many of them.”

Sitting next to her at the dinner table, Renee’s husband Bob is grinning from ear to ear. “Where was I ‘sposed to put ‘em?” he says in his unmistakable Maryland ‘Cockney English’ drawl, adding a shrug for good effect.

Renee smiles and shakes her head. You get the feeling they’ve had this conversation before, and more than once.

They’re discussing Parsons’ vice. Every man has one, right? For dot-com entrepreneur Parsons, it was, for a very long time, golf equipment.

 “I’ve got buddies who drive fancy cars,” he says. “Well, I drive Chevys. I’ve got other buddies who are big gamblers and spend all of their time and a lot of their money in Vegas. One of my friends, Vegas sends a jet down to get him every now and again. Now, do you think they do that because he never loses? Nah. But I was never interested in that. I just spent my money on golf clubs.”

He reckons that he could easily blow $300,000 per year on equipment. Every club, every shaft, every grip, everything - you name it he bought it.

“I could usually tell within a few swings whether or not it delivered on its big marketing promise,” he adds. “If it didn’t, I gave it away. If I thought it was good, I tweaked it and played with it to get it just right.”

Trouble was, he never could find anything that was exactly right. So, he did what nobody else would do. He started his own golf equipment company.

Parsons Xtreme Golf. PXG for short. “Nobody makes clubs the way we do,” he says, echoing the company’s slogan. That’s for sure. But we’ll come to that soon enough. 

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IN APRIL THIS YEAR, Forbes magazine estimated Bob Parsons’ fortune at $2.6billion, making him the 290th richest man in the world - a far cry from his most humble of beginnings.

Robert Ralph Parsons was born on November 27, 1950, in Baltimore, Maryland. “I grew up poor as a church rat,” he says. “My mum and dad were blue collar workers and they were gamblers. And when you don’t make much money and you gamble, let me tell you, you’ve got no money.”

By his own admission, he was a terrible student at school. Had it not been for an administration blunder, he would have been forced to repeat the fifth grade. It was in his senior year, “when I was failing most subjects except for gym and lunch”, that the direction of Parsons’ life started to change.

“I had two friends of mine approach me in the locker room one day after gym,” he says. “They asked me, ‘Hey Robert, whatcha gonna do when we’re finished high school?’ I said, ‘I’ll probably still be here’. They said, ‘Well, we’re going to talk to a recruiter from the US Marine Corp. Why don’t you come down with us?’”

And so he did. It was 1968 and the US was in the middle of the Vietnam War. By early 1969, Parsons was dispatched to the Far East to join the conflict, serving with the rifle company. That first tour ended after only a month when he hit a trip wire whilst on patrol one evening and was badly wounded. He was med-evacuated out to Japan from where, after recovering from his injuries, he was sent back to Vietnam and reassigned to Marine Corps Intelligence as a courier.

Parsons left the Marine Corps and soon took a job at a steel mill. He lasted six months there before he decided to go back to school. At that time, there was a programme whereby ex-military personnel could go to college, not worry about grades or entrance exams, and have their fees paid for by the Government. Consequently, Parsons enrolled at the University of Baltimore. Just one problem - he had no idea what he wanted to study.

“I walked into the registrar’s office and they asked me what I wanted to major in,” he says. “I didn’t have a clue. I was the only person in my family who had ever been to college so, I got the book [of courses], opened it up and picked the first major I saw - accountancy. I like to think that if I’d opened it from the back I’d have been a zoologist.”

Parsons went to college a changed man thanks to his experiences in the military. “When I went into the Marine Corps, I was pretty aimless,” he adds. “When I came out, I understood discipline, responsibility, honour. All those things. The Marine Corps taught me that ‘pretty clean’ is dirty.” Consequently, he studied hard and ultimately graduated ‘magna cum laude’ (‘with great distinction’). “None of my friends could believe it,” he grins.

Parsons went on to take the US equivalent of a chartered accountant’s exam before taking a number of different jobs in the accountancy field.

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In the mid-1970s, fate once again contrived to point his career in a new direction. During a visit to Los Angeles to evaluate a client on behalf of the firm he was working for, Parsons found himself with 12 hours to kill before catching his flight home and so paid a visit to the Stanford University campus. “I ended up going to the bookstore,” he says. “This was when personal computers were just beginning and I bought a book on how to program computers using the BASIC programming language. I read the book before I got on the plane and wrote my first computer program on the five-hour flight back to Baltimore.” It quickly became one of his favourite hobbies and he would spend his downtime at work writing simple programs on a spare computer terminal. 1979, he bought an Apple IIc and developed a program to do his family finances.

In 1980, he sold the Apple and bought an IBM and developed a piece of software - “I called it ‘MoneyCounts’” - that he decided to bring to market. He took his $15,000 savings and ploughed it into his first company, Parsons Technology, which operated out of his basement. It proved to be a rude awakening. “When you go into business for the first time,” he says, “and particularly when you don’t have any people guiding you, you’re kind of like a young guy walking into jail for the first time - you learn a lot of lessons. That first year, I priced my software in line with what everybody else was selling theirs for, something like $129. Lost my whole $15,000. The next year, from what I had on a credit card, from my tax loss and from the bonus I got from my day job, I had $25,000. I put all that into the business again and dropped the price to $49. Lost it all again.”

Year three proved to be third time lucky. A computer magazine from Fort Dodge in Iowa contacted him to offer him their front page advert. The rate card for the ad would typically have commanded between $15,000 and $17,000 but they offered to sell it to Parsons for $5,000 because he was a good customer who always paid his bills on time. He took the deal and had an advert made up that said, ‘MoneyCounts - but it only costs twelve bucks’. That was the masterstroke. He dropped the price of his software to $12. Not only that, he waived the copy protection and licencing requirements on it, allowing people to share it with as many people as they wanted to. “I basically said do anything you want with it. Just send me 12 bucks,” he recalls.

It worked. He doubled his money and reinvested some of his profits in bigger and better adverts. That year, 1984, he made $287,000, quit his real job and starting working full-time at Parsons Technology. A decade later, with the company holding a 4% market share in North America and employing 1,000 people, he sold it for $64million to a rival tech firm. “I would have taken forty,” he laughs.

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WHILST A GOOD START, $60million isn’t enough money to launch and, more to the point, sustain a golf equipment company. Certainly not the kind of golf equipment company Parsons would have in mind and even less so after he gave away a large chunk of his fortune when he and his first wife divorced.

Newly-single, he relocated to Arizona where he concentrated all of his time, money and effort on cracking the internet, which was, at the time, in its infancy as a business platform. “All I knew was that I wanted to be involved in it,” he says. “I just didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. My idea was to hire some smart people and try a bunch of different things. The things that worked, we’d keep on doing. The things that didn’t, we’d quit.”

But nothing’s ever that easy and although they settled on a viable product - software that would allow people to customise their own websites using tools and templates created for them by Parsons’ Jomax Technologies team - they found that the dot-com boom stifled rather than nourished them. “We couldn’t buy advertising,” he says. “It was a crazy time. Businesses were paying $400 in return for one customer. So, we found ourselves with a great product but we weren’t able to get it in front of anybody.”

Their response was to do two things. One, start selling domain names as part of their package. Two, change the name of the company to something less corporate and more memorable. The domain names was the easy part; the name far less so. “We were kicking around some ideas one night and, after a while, well you get stupid, dontcha?” says Parsons. “We were about 500 names deep, and a little bourbon had been consumed, when we started just blurting out random stuff. ‘How about Fat Daddy?’ Taken. ‘How about Big Daddy’. Taken. Then the word ‘Go’ came up. ‘How about Go Daddy?’ Available. I bought it as a joke but it stuck.”

Today, GoDaddy is one of the biggest names in the online industry but it struggled to establish itself initially. All the while, Parsons’ personal fortune was taking a hammering. The $35million he had in the bank when he started the company quickly turned into $30million. That $30million turned into $25million. Then $20million, $15million, $10million, $8million. When he found himself down to his last $6million, Parsons decided, against his better judgement, to liquidate the company but not before a planned vacation in Hawaii. It was there that he had an epiphany. 

“I noticed the valet who was parking my car in the resort where I was staying,” he remembers. “He was about the same age as me and was happy as a lark, twirling the keys on his finger, singing to himself. Loving life. I thought to myself, ‘Okay, Bob. What’s wrong with this picture?’ You’ve got this guy, parking cars for a living, as happy as can be. Meanwhile, I’ve got $6million in the bank and I’m miserable. And then it occurred to me that, you know, if this thing goes wrong, I can always park cars. Or maybe be a stick man at a craps table, or something.”

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Re-energised, he returned to Arizona and, as he puts it, “strapped myself to the mast and waited for the ship to go down and me with it”. Only that didn’t happen. Instead, something else did: the dot-com bubble burst. And when it did, GoDaddy was born.

“Everybody we were competing with for advertising all disappeared,” he recalls. “Dot-com company after dot-com company folded. We’d be doing business with somebody and - BAM! - they weren’t there anymore. So, when it came to buying advertising, I had people standing in line to give it to me. I suddenly had more friends than I thought. We turned the corner that October and, since then, the company hasn’t missed a month of being profitable.”

Another serendipitous moment came during the 2005 Super Bowl when GoDaddy’s planned television debut - using the $10million war chest Parsons had set aside for just such an occasion - was pulled at the very last minute by nervous television executives for being too risqué.

“My staff were all stomping around, saying ‘How dare they do this’ and this sort of thing,” he recalls. “I saw it differently. I turned to my chief operating guy and said, ‘Can we be this lucky to have this happen?’”

Overnight, the ‘Too Hot For TV Super Bowl ad’, and more importantly the company behind it, was the talk of the internet and news desks around the world. Almost at a stroke, GoDaddy’s market share went from 16% to 25% - and held. The next year, it went to 34%. Then to 46%. At this moment in time, its market share is over 70% worldwide.

In 2011, Parsons sold approximately 70% of GoDaddy to a private equity consortium, banking over $2.25bn in the process. “I had no debt and about 30 employees who had been with me from the get-go,” he says. “They each got over a million bucks. One of the girls who helped me come up with the name ‘GoDaddy’, she got over $200m. It’s kind of a happy story.

*  *  * 

THE THING ABOUT SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE is that they never truly retire, so it surprised nobody when Parsons, whilst remaining on the board of GoDaddy, designed to start investing in other things. He launched YAM Worldwide - it stands for “You’re A Mess”, a popular Baltimore expression - out of his Scottsdale base in 2012.

“Amongst other things, we own shopping malls, provide business loans, have a big advertising agency, a movie recording studio and four large motorcycle dealerships,” he says. One of those motorcycle dealerships is the largest Harley-Davidson dealership in the world. It occupies a whopping 150,000sq/ft space and includes a wedding chapel - Parsons, naturally, officiated at the first wedding there after getting ordained online for $5 - as well as a tattoo and piercing studio, a lingerie boutique, a movie theatre, photography studio. “It also sells motorcycles,” he laughs.

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He also gives generously to the Marine Corps through the Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation he established with his second wife. “Everything I’ve ever accomplished, I owe to the United States Marine Corps,” he says. “For as long as I’ve got a dime, they’ve got a nickel.” In reality, they’ve got considerably more than that. It’s reckoned Parsons gives as much as $10m a year to charities and organisations for injured US military personnel.

One of his most recent ventures, however, is PXG. “It’s perhaps our fastest-growing business,” he smiles proudly.

Parsons founded the company in September 2014 and quickly recruited two of the leading club designers from Ping, Mike Nicolette and Brad Schweigert. “They had to honour a one-year non-compete clause with Ping before they could get to work on club-making for me,” says Parsons, “so I had them try some other stuff in that first year. They looked at making a golf ball but, after a lot of research and testing, we discovered that the greatest golf ball on Earth is the Titleist Pro V1x. I don’t care what Costco says. They also looked at 3D printing and things like that. One day I said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and they said, ‘We’re trying to see how far you can hit a golf ball off a three-foot tee with a frying pan at the end of a six-foot pipe’. The answer’s 400 yards, by the way.”

When the year was up, they got down to the real business of making Parsons’ dream irons.

“I remember they came into my office with these yellow pads and said, ‘Alright Bob, why don’t you give us some direction’. I said, ‘Okay, I want an iron that looks like a blade, that has little offset, is a little larger, is very sexy to look at. It should hit the ball further without being jacked-up. It ought to go higher, feel wonderful, have a huge sweetspot and be incredibly forgiving.’ They went, ‘Is that it?’ and immediately went to work.”

A number of prototypes and 100 international patents later, the clubs - with their distinctive monochromatic colouring, eye-catching logo and even more eye-catching sequence of small weights distributed around their perimeter - were finally ready to put in the hands of golfers. 

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Ryan Moore was one of the first PGA Tour players to try them.

“I knew some of the guys involved in it, and they kind of asked me to look at some prototypes and sets to try,” Moore is on record as saying. “They sent me some, and I tried them and I really liked them. From the second I hit them, I couldn’t put them down.”

Moore’s commitment in early 2015 to a deal to play PXG clubs raised eyebrows in the industry. Not only was the American putting his faith in a completely new and untested brand, he was also signing an endorsement with an equipment company - a move he had resisted for the most part of his pro career up to that point, preferring to play the clubs he liked as opposed to the clubs he was paid to like.

The following year, 2016, Moore was joined in the ‘PXG Troops’ line-up by the reigning Open champion Zach Johnson, Chris Kirk, Beatriz Recari and Billy Horschel. “We want to prove that Bob is not crazy,” said Horschel recently. “People might think he is but he’s not. He’s a brilliant guy and cares for us as people.”

In more recent times, the likes of Charl Schwartzel, Charles Howell III, Alison Lee and Lydia Ko have joined the ever-increasing number of top players gaming the brand’s distinctive clubs. What’s more, according to Parsons, they all came to him.

“My dad told me when I was a young guy and I first started dating, the only thing you want to look for in a girlfriend is one that likes you,” he says. “All our tour pros have come to us and liked our clubs. There was nobody that didn’t like our clubs that we tried to persuade to like them. Most of the people we signed, we pay them less than they were making elsewhere.”

Of course, with Parsons’ billions bank-rolling the business, PXG can afford to do that. This isn’t a brand that is dependent on mass manufacturing to stay afloat and so it doesn’t need to get involved in a bidding war for the world’s top players.

“If we were at the bottom or the middle of the market, to have a superstar like Rory or Jason Day or Jon Rahm or Tiger as he was, it would maybe make sense,” notes Parsons. “But we sell only to the top of the mark. We’re in a different market to the other equipment companies so it doesn’t make sense to get caught in that battle. When our guys win, our sales are the same as when they don’t win. Only difference is I’m a little happier.”

He adds: “We’ll never be the No.1 brand in golf. That’s because we’re a boutique firm. So, whilst I think we’ll be successful, we won’t do the volumes that the other big companies do.

“What is very important to us is the sanctity and integrity of our brand. First, we’ll never allow our brand to be compromised. You’ll never see our products for sale at a discount outlet. Second, when we release our products, they will be everything that we have led our customers to believe they will be. When we release a product, it will be the best product that is available and certainly way better than anything else we do. It won’t just be better, it will be noticeably better. That’s our promise to our customers and one we’re going to uphold. So long as we continue to do that and have the discipline to that, I don’t see how we can fail.

“You know, one thing people always say to me is ‘How will I know that your irons are worth the money you’re asking for them?’ You just gotta hit ‘em. Hit ‘em and you’ll see they’re the duck’s nuts.”

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