"The golf business," says LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem, "has been an alien world for women." Charles Gore, a longtime golf marketing guru and president of his own New York advertising agency, agrees. "Nobody in this business has ever taken women seriously," he says. "That's why there has never been one female who has had anything like a major management-level position."
Meet Jan Thompson, since September the vice president and general manager of Wilson's golf division (1,400 employees, about $200 million in sales) and the highest ranking woman in the golf business. Of her success in a man's world she says, "The main thing is, I know when it's time to leave. I feel natural and comfortable around men, but I am not one of the guys. So there is a time for me to be there and a time to let boys be boys."
And that is the essence of Thompson. She keeps things simple: "What I want to do is sell more clubs and balls." She talks straight: "Wilson owned golf, and we let it go. We forgot how to innovate. We failed to understand the dogs ain't eatin' the dog food." She talks sense: "I don't look at things the same way as men because I'm not a man. But I market to men and women, and I don't see any difference." And she has some advice for women executive wannabes: "If you don't play golf, you'll end up in charge of lunch."
Indeed Thompson, 44, is solid no-nonsense. Her hair is cut short, she wears sensible shoes, and she gets instantly to the point. She looks you straight in the eye and doesn't blink. "Jan always has fact-based information," says LPGA star Meg Mallon. "She does not blow sunshine up your skirt."
Thompson works from dawn to exhaustion, and then a little bit more. For relaxation, she works. Her office at Wilson headquarters near Chicago-O'Hare airport is spare, ordinary, a hard-core working enclave. If she has a yellow legal pad and a pen in her hands, she is in her element. Small talk makes her eyes glaze.
"Her work is her life," says brother Dan, an air traffic controller in Kalamazoo, Mich. Thompson, who has never married, doesn't dispute that and says, "You have to be passionate about what you do and go with it. I am passionate about two things—cars and golf. If you feel like you're working too hard, then maybe the work isn't any good."
Hard work was part of Thompson's upbringing as one of five children (three boys, two girls) in a happy, middle-class Catholic family in Detroit. As soon as she could talk, she would say, "Do it my own self." Her mother, Mary Jane, a nurse, says, "She was always very independent, a goer supreme. She taught the other kids how to climb the backyard fence."
Dan was the one with the paper route, but his little sister was more than an adequate replacement. "I knew his route, I knew everybody on it," Jan says. "I could collect—and I got bigger tips."
She attended an all-girls Catholic high school, then went on to Western Michigan University. Originally she thought she might be an English teacher, but during one summer she got a job selling encyclopedias. Right away she sold a set and collected a $100 commission. Thompson's eyes were suddenly opened to new possibilities. Her dad, George, a manufacturer's sales rep, cautioned her, "Don't get too carried away." But Thompson was already carried away. "That experience taught me to have confidence in myself," she says. "That was when I came into my own. I discovered I was not afraid to sell."