THE MISSION: get the top brass at Pride Manufacturing, the country's largest maker of golf tees, to talk. It wasn't going to be easy. Located somewhere west of Bangor, Maine, Pride was turning out to be as difficult to locate as Salman Rushdie, and its executives as forthcoming as Greta Garbo.
Reporter in New York: "So how many tees do you actually make in a year?"
Pride plant manager in Maine: "Well, I can't say exactly."
Reporter: "You mean you're not sure?"
Plant manager: "Nope, I mean I can't say. It's secret."
Secret? Would a leak to the press revealing the number of tees produced in the U.S. undermine national security? We were talking about golf tees, weren't we? Not the Pentagon Papers, not the location of the White House bomb shelter, not even an Oliver Stone movie, just those little sticks of wood that often come packaged 12 for a buck and are used for everything from holding up golf balls to removing mud from spikes to, yes, even cleaning teeth. Bob Pride, the family-owned company's fourth-generation president, tried to explain the company's need for secrecy. "We just like to be low-profile," he said. "We prefer not to talk about it, just to do it."
In the spirit of just doing it, here's what Pride Manufacturing does, even though Bob Pride wouldn't tell us: It is the largest manufacturer of golf tees in the U.S., with a worldwide distribution of close to a half billion tees a year. What you will learn in this story directly from Pride Manufacturing is this: how and when the company first started making golf tees; how many sizes, as well as colors, their tees come in; and how the wood is milled (but not how it's shaped—"It's a secret," says Bob Pride).
When Scott Tilton, the head of Pride's sales and marketing department, says the plant is impossible to find without directions, he is wrong. It is impossible to find with directions. Somehow this does not seem surprising. Four feet of snow, a wind-chill of-35� and a narrow winding road along which most of the signs read ATTENTION! MOOSE CROSSING NEXT FIVE MILES aren't making the search any easier. After passing a Mac's Market and a thrift shop that, in this part of the world, could double as a town, it seems prudent to stop and ask for help. In answer to the question of whether Burnham, where Pride's largest manufacturing plant is located, has already been passed, an old Down-Easter, stacking cordwood by the side of the road, answers, "Yup. Ya must've blinked, I guess." Sure enough, there is a deserted-looking yellow-and-green warehouse sitting so quietly in a field about a quarter mile back that you would think it was actually holding its breath. The only sign, posted on the front door, reads ANYONE ENTERING THE MILL DURING NON-PRODUCTION HOURS OR ON A HOLIDAY MUST SIGN IN. ANY QUESTIONS MAY BE DIRECTED TO THE SUPERVISOR.
In this case all questions are directed to Pride and Tilton, who, it turns out, are not so much paranoid as protective, in an intensely territorial way, about their product. What they say—although none too convincingly—is that they are protecting their clients. When asked who those clients are, Pride answers, "Well, we talked about saying who, but we just don't want to offend anyone by leaving them out." The issue, really, is that Bob Pride just doesn't want to give away any information he doesn't have to. Pride Manufacturing is one of only a handful of companies in the U.S. that together produce some 700 million tees annually, but the fact is the golf tee business is not exactly a gold mine. It comes as no surprise, then, that Pride jealously guards the financial stake his company has in the market. Of his competition he simply says, "We prefer not to say who they are."
When Pride Manufacturing was formed in 1930 by Bob Pride's great-grandfather, Fletcher, it made wooden cigar tips. The Pride factory was originally located in Tampa, hence the name of the company to which Pride sells cigar tips: Have-a- Tampa. In 1957, flushed with success, Gene Pride, Fletcher's son, decided to expand into the golf tee market and moved the operation to Maine to be closer to the white birch and rock maple from which both his tips and his tees are made.