For most Inland Northwest golf courses, the playing season is coming to a close, but for Spokane golfing merchandise inventor and veteran entrepreneur Jim Schoenleber, the selling season is just getting into full swing.
Schoenleber owns The Golfmen, a business he launched about a year ago to market a range of golf accessories he's developed, and as Christmas approaches, he's hoping to see sales rise as sharply as a well-struck tee shot.
The products he's invented range from angled plastic TurboTEEs and a water-dispensing ball cleaner tool called The Scrubby to a combination ball marker and green repair tool called The Spotter and a club grip cleaner called The Grippy.
Schoenleber says he's about to introduce his 25th product, threaded plastic cleats that can be screwed easily by hand into the soles of virtually any athletic shoes, and is working on a golf ball shagging stick that will be his 26th. He's secured patents on five of his products so far, and says he'll be seeking more.
"We've absolutely turned into a product-generating machine," Schoenleber says, referring to the small team of people here who have helped him get his latest venture off the ground. Asked about the company's revenues in its first year, he doesn't disclose any specific numbers, but says, " We're right now at a break-even point."
The Golfmen products are designed to be sturdy, yet priced low enoughranging mostly from $2 to $17to be appealing to golfing enthusiasts even in the midst of this tough economy, Schoenleber says. He adds, though, "The stuff I sell, it would be fun to give it away," just to watch the recipients "light up."
For now, he's having the products made in China by MERI China, a contract design and manufacturing business that has its U.S. headquarters in Spokane Valley. He says he's operating the business mostly by himself, but with some help from his wife and one other person, out of a 4,000-square-foot warehouse space in the Spokane Business & Industrial Park, at 3808 N. Sullivan.
He's selling his products mostly through his website, at www.thegolfmen.com, as well as at The Fairways Golf Course golf course on the West Plains, where he's friends with golf director Jerry Zink. He says, though, that he's been in talks with some major retail chains, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp., about getting them to carry his products and hopes to transition eventually into more of a distributor than retailer.
Early this year, Schoenleber took some of his products to a Professional Golfers' Association convention in Orlando, Fla., where he says he received a lot of positive feedback. He now is focused, he says, on trying to introduce a new product or two every few months to further broaden his inventory and keep it fresh.
Schoenleber, 65, characterizes the enterprise somewhat as a hobby that he took up because he couldn't stand being retired, but his past business credentials here lend support to its potential to become something larger.
A former cop, he built a security-guard business here into a 2,000-employee regional powerhouse before selling it to retire to a fishing lodge. He then came out of retirement about 4 1/2 years ago to launch a dot-com venture that helps consumers know if someone else is using their Social Security number.
That venture, CheckMySSN.com, uses a website to offer consumers an instant online report showing how their Social Security numbers have been used. People visiting the website can pay a small fee for a report that provides just enough information to know if someone is using their Social Security number, but not enough for the report itself to be used fraudulently, Schoenleber told the Journal shortly after the website went live.
He said he got the idea for the business from work that was being done by Argus-Search Inc., an arm of his former Argus Services Inc. business that he sold off in pieces in late 2003. He sold many of the assets of Argus Services' security-guard business to Securitas Security Services USA Inc., a unit of Swedish conglomerate Securitas AB, but separately sold Argus-Search, which does pre-employment background checks for employers, to its manager, Jeannene Kurtz. He later married Kurtz, now Jeannene Schoenleber, and the two run Argus-Search together. That company is located at 18303 E. Corbin Place, in Spokane Valley.
Schoenleber said he noticed that a surprising number of the people Argus-Search did background checks on turned out to have multiple names attached to their Social Security number or whose names didn't match the Social Security number they provided. He then studied 1,000 such searches the company had done and said he found that 28 percent of them showed such discrepancies.
More recently, Schoenleber says he also has been helping his wife as needed at La Belle Vie, an event center that the couple opened about two years ago in the former Argus Services offices at 18507 E. Appleway and that she manages.
The couple regained possession of the building there in 2010 after selling it in 2006, and decided there was a need for an event center in that area, so they spent that summer renovating it. Schoenleber says the center is staying busy, and his wife is enjoying managing it.
An animated ex-detective and former fishing guide who also enjoys bow hunting and other outdoor sports, Schoenleber bought Argus Services here in 1987, and it had just 35 employees at the time. By the time he dismantled it in 2003, though, it had grown to roughly 2,000 workers at 26 offices in eight Western states, and annual revenues of more than $20 million.
He sold off the pieces of Argus Services, which in addition to the security-guard business and Argus-Search included a division that sold security surveillance equipment, largely because he was having heart problems at the time. He quit smoking, though, and got in shape, and now appears spry and energetic for someone hitting what for many is retirement age.
Initially after the sale, Schoenleber retreated to a former fishing lodge on the Rogue River in Oregon, which he later personally rebuilt and now uses for himself and friends, rather than operating it as a business.
An avid golfer who confesses he likes to play "whenever I can" and "wherever I can," he says his idea for The Golfmen venture arose from a discussion he had with a neighbor near his Oregon lodge who has a four-hole golf course on his property. That discussion led to him coming up with his first product, the previously mentioned grip cleaner, followed by the first of his angled tees, which are designed to swivel to the side when the ball is struck.
Another example typical of the 24 products he currently is marketing is The Flip Towel, which is a microfiber club grip- and hand-drying towel folded inside a protective weather jacket that includes a sponge in one of its two pockets.
Like virtually all of Schoenleber's products or product packaging, the protective cover is adorned with The Golfmen logo, featuring the silhouette of a golfer inside the letter G, shaped to look like the swooping curvature of the golfer's just completed swing. Amy Cox, of Amy Cox Designs, of Spokane, created all of his packaging designs, he says.
Also among the logo-emblazoned products he's developed and begun marketing are retractable lanyards for attaching tools to a golf bag, a Jug-or-Not water bottle, a silicon smartphone case, andplaying off a current health-related fadnegative ion-charged wrist bands, tags, and combination elbow brace-swing aids.
"This is the first time I've ever done retail," he says. "I've always been in the service industry. It's been a wake-up call." He adds, though, that he's been enjoying every minute of it.
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