Antigua’s old-fashioned approach to customer service keeps it sailing in highly competitive world of apparel.

The Antigua Group reached a major milestone last year when it celebrated 35 years in the sports apparel business. In an industry known for its dog-eat-dog competition, that is a phenomenal track record for Antigua, which is based in Peoria, AZ.

How can Antigua, who some might call a David-like company, compete against Goliaths such as Nike and UnderArmour? Antigua’s CEO and president, Ron McPherson, attributes his company’s longevity to a strong sales force, fabric innovation and design, as well as “unbelievable customer service.”

That might sound like a simple explanation, but operational roadblocks in free enterprise are frequent, and branding efforts are extremely difficult when Nike can spend millions on endorsements by athletes like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie, to name a few. Antigua’s pockets are not as deep, yet pros approach them because they like the product.

The late Payne Stewart was the perfect role model for Antigua. His stars-and-stripes shirt worn originally at the British Open sold over a million pieces. Steve Stricker also wore Antigua and made it quite successful before he sold the left side of his chest to a bigger bidder. McPherson still remembers the hand-written note Stricker sent him explaining his business decision and expressing appreciation for the past relationship with Antigua.

antigua_w-boltThese days, the biggest stars for Antigua are the stars of the LPGA, as women’s golf apparel is one of Antigua’s fastest-growing segments. Stacy Lewis, considered among the top three players in the world on everybody’s list, recently signed another three-year contract with Antigua. And while Nike and Adidas require head-to-toe endorsements, Lewis and her agent maintain a loyal strategy with an array of sponsors like KPMG, Marathon Oil, and Mizuno. Or as McPherson spun it: “Nike is happy to sell you the Swoosh; we are happy to provide your own logo.”

McPherson was Antigua’s first employee when Antigua owner Tom Dooley hired him in 1979. Initially they focused on logoed golf accessories and apparel, but found that embroidery machines were often idle in the off-peak seasons. Always a resourceful one, McPherson noticed that the Arizona State football team was doing well at the time and so he approached the coach and sold significant product to the Sun Devils. Other colleges followed suit, and then major sports organizations joined Antigua’s apparel parade.

By the early 1990s, Antigua secured licenses for the NCAA, NFL, NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball, which naturally kept those colorful, spools of thread spinning. Licensing now comprises 50 percent of Antigua’s business, with Corporate America joining in during recent times. Tennis apparel rounds out Antigua’s repertoire.

Only NFL apparel tops golf, which brings in approximately one-third of Antigua’s revenue. That is a smaller overall percentage than in the past, not because golf has shrunk, but because other sports have grown dramatically.

“The NFL is fairly powerful and that business went through the roof,” McPherson noted, pointing out that Antigua is one of four brands that are annually licensed for the Super Bowl.

Naturally, not everything has been smooth sailing for Antigua, which weathered some down periods after 9-11 in 2001 and the recession of 2008, which pared the company’s workforce from 325 to 230 employees. On the brighter side, McPherson hired New York designer Sean Gregg during that decade, and Gregg radically transformed styles with brilliant colors and ultra-light fabrics, meaning Antigua is back at full steam.

“When we introduced our sales force to Desert Dry fabric technology, they thought they never would get a paycheck again,” McPherson recalled. “Oh my gosh, you’re not going with cotton? It was a big turn for us, a very important transition.”

Gregg said there are a couple of other critical reasons as to why Antigua has stayed competitive with the big boys in the industry.

“We really intend to appeal to people 20 (years old) to 70 with a whole performance collection,” said Gregg, giving a tip of the cap to his one-time assistant, Danielle Dellios.

The Arizona-born Dellios is now Antigua’s head designer for the women’s line. Her flirty and functional cinch skort was inspired by funky swimwear, and her Gem polo has turned out to be the jewel of the collection. Gregg and Dellios are so in sync that they finish each other’s sentences while elevating Antigua’s game in every department.

Operationally, Antigua maintains a niche position by not requiring companies to place large orders but rather selling and reselling smaller orders to thousands of shops. Its website also keeps item counts up to the second, so customers know what can be delivered and how quickly. Excess inventory is put into Antigua’s customer “Attic” at discount, and selected styles sell in their own outlet stores in Peoria.

Fierce competition remains the biggest challenge for Antigua, McPherson said, and is “always an obstacle to future success.”

“The wisdom of the name Antigua is that it has a ring to it,” McPherson pointed out. “It also begins with (the letter) A, so we’re first in line as payables. Confusion with the island, however, is a minor downfall for branding.”

Antigua also conjures up the world “trust.” For instance, when Turning Stone pro Robert Todd is asked about the company, he gives an answer that is all too familiar from Antigua’s perspective.

“I’ve never been there,” quips Todd, who has been the golf pro at the prestigious New York resort along with other stops at world-class retreats like La Costa and La Quinta in Southern California, and Grand Traverse Resort in Michigan.

No matter where he has been, Todd said, he carries Antigua apparel because of “the margins and the quality.“

“I always look at (clothing) after you wash and dry and they need ironing. The collars don’t curl up. The colors are cool,” Todd said. “It is one of the better selling lines. You don’t see advertisements for (Antigua) except in the PGA magazine and they’re always in the ‘What’s Hot’ feature there.”

Kelly Azama, the director of retail at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, also likes Antigua.

“Companies like Nike are big, and the consumer demands them because of their advertising, but with Antigua, it’s the relationship,” Azama said. “We love Ron; he has been there forever.

“In our high-end facility, their price point is lower but their quality is higher and they do their own thing with styles. They turn product around very quickly and will do just about anything you ask.”

It’s why Antigua fares well against competitors, supplying green grass shops and events, be it major events like the Ryder Cup, PGA Championship and Solheim Cup, or local club mixers.

“We care a great deal more about our customers because we have to,” McPherson said of Antigua’s old-fashioned way of doing business. “That is our niche.”

– Alice and Danny Scott