The future is bright when you are looking Ahead

It’s hard to believe, but a nondescript building at the end of the road in the New Bedford Industrial Park – next to the city’s landfill – houses one of golf’s most innovative and successful companies.

Ahead Inc., now 11 years old, was twice named to Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing private firms and once its No. 1 “inner-city” company.

With sales of more than $50 million a year (exact figures are not available), Ahead has become a fixture on the golf scene – and in closets all around the world. Founder/President/CEO Ken Shwartz says millions of people own Ahead hats.

Barry Westall certainly is a believer. The head golf professional at Newport Country Club, he said Ahead’s hats and apparel sell – and the company services his shop well, with just a two-week turnaround between order placement and product delivery. That is very quick in the golf industry, for customized products.

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Ahead began as a hat company because Shwartz knows hats; his family has been making headgear in New Bedford for nearly a century.

Founded in 1995, Ahead first made its name by offering options the staid golf market had never seen. It’s hats came in a wide range of colors, and sported eye-catching embroidered logos. Soon, other hat makers had followed suit.

When the company offered retail customers an inscribing machine (in essence, a programmed sewing machine to put names and logos on hats – while customers waited), competitors again responded.

Next, Ahead started producing “shoulder season” apparel – fleece pullovers, for example – that used the same ornamentation philosophy as its headwear: many choices and many colors, but relatively easy to manufacture. The company calls it “standardized customization.”

Other innovations included a line of women’s hats; basic apparel; and golf accessories, including gift boxes, billfolds and bag tags, all with the company’s trademark ornamentation in embroidery, woven appliqués or metals.

The growth and proliferation of products seem to have come without much pain – Ahead has been profitable every year, said Shwartz, and it isn’t done growing.

Although all the products are sourced overseas – the ornamentation is done in New Bedford, by about 300 employees. Shwartz wants to expand at his current location, but he’s not sure he can work out the terms with the city.

Wherever the company ends up, Shwartz insists he will not forget what brought him there – a team of creative, committed people. The corporate culture is geared to attracting and keeping such individuals. Visitors to Ahead are greeted at the lobby with a three-foot pair of plywood shears, emblazoned with the words “No Tie Zone.”

“This is not an 8-to-5 with an hour for lunch atmosphere,” said Shwartz. “We find fun in creating things.” He added that sometimes, “you have to work 60 to 70 hours in a week,” but it’s still an atmosphere in which employees thrive.

After a mid-summer slowdown, the company gears up for the start of its sales season in August. With 6,000 to 7,000 retail customers, it’s a very busy time, as most product lines ship in late winter in time for spring retail sales.

There’s no real off-season for the creative folks who design the products, however. And there’s no telling when a breakthrough concept will go from the drawing board to the bottom line.

Earlier this year, Ahead introduced a lifestyle line called GIL, for Golf Is Life. The company expects the collection to push itself out of the golf category, and into the broader market, much as the Boston-based “Life Is Good” line has taken the lifestyle category by storm.
The truth is, no one knows exactly what will catch fire with the consumer.
That’s why “for every product you see, five, six, seven don’t get off the desk,” said Shwartz.

But somehow, through all the vagaries of an ever-changing market, Ahead has found success. Newport Country Club’s Westall said it is a simple matter of getting the basics right: “Ahead has a great brand name, and people look for it.”

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