You already know about the "Utah Arm" and the "Utah Heart" (he Jarvik-7), two of the biomedical industry's high-tech breakthroughs that have helped earn Salt Lake City the label "Bionic Valley."
Soon, if a group of local entrepreneurs have their way, you'll be hearing about the "Utah Head."No, not Frankenstein. There are no mad scientists at the University of Utah attempting artificial head transplants; we're talking about a different kind of head: the kind found on the end of golf clubs.
"The latest advance in golf isn't a gimmick . . . it's a miracle," is the way Salt Lake-based Bullo International immodestly announced its new Perflex TCD driver last June with a $30,000 full-page ad in Golf Digest.
Realizing that the Digest's jaded readers have seen hundreds of golf "miracles" come and go ever since Bobby Jones traded in his hickory mashie niblick for a steel-shaft seven iron, Bullo added a breathless subhead to its ad: "While a nation slept, the world of golf changed forever."
The real miracle, chuckles Bullo president James R. Jeppson, is that he had the nerve to run the ad in the first place.
Yes, the Perflex is revolutionary in an industry in which change is measured in tiny, agonizingly debated increments; yes, Jeppson believes the Perflex will one day achieve the acceptance that metal woods (n oxymoron if there ever was one) now enjoy with traditional persimmon and maple; yes, independent lab tests give the vividly colored plastic Perflex clubs performance ratings that rival or better the top-ranked metal and graphite models.
The thing is, admits Jeppson, when the Digest ad ran, Bullo International didn't have any golf clubs to sell.
For seven years, while he was with Salt Lake-based Dynatec Systems - the company that hit it big with the Softalk telephone rest - Jeppson spent his days looking at new inventions and trying to figure out whether there was a market for them. Sometimes, as with his Velcro blow-gun - a kid's harmless toy unless the kids decided to put pins in the darts - Jeppson saw a "sure thing" go down the tube, taking a lot of R&D and promotion money with it.
"The buying public is fickle," reflects Jeppson. "You just never know what will take off."
Not wanting to make that mistake with Perflex, he and his associates at Bullo bought the ad in Golf Digest and sat back to see if anyone would call their toll-free number and order the driver. AT $149 each, the clubs were not exactly impulse items, so Jeppson decided to do things backward: sell first and manufacture later.
Well, the story has a happy ending, sort of. More than 600 orders were taken in the days after the ad appeared; then all Bullo International had to do was make the clubs.
"We had all kinds of problems getting production up to meet the demand," recalls Jeppson. "We just didn't have the capacity. To be honest, I doubt we would have gone into it if we had known then about the technical difficulties, but that's the way it usually is with a start-up business. We did it anyway."
Somehow, the orders were filled and customers were given a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee if the Perflex didn't hit the ball longer and straighter than what they were currently using. Only 6 percent sent them back.
Now, production is up to 100 per day and demand still exceeds supply with word-of-mouth doing most of the marketing. The next step, says Jeppson, is to try to link up with one of the big names in golf equipment, a Spalding or a Slot Line, that will give tiny Bullo a large, international marketing and distribution organization and the ability to vastly increase production.
"We are prepared to go the long, slow route," said Jeppson, "but it would be much better to cut short the long process of developing markets by hooking up with a top manufacturer. We now know how to make it right and we can gear up to make any quantity we need."
To that end, Bullo has at least one heavy hitter in the golfing world taking the point for them in negotiations with some large golf equipment manufacturers. (ost big-name pro golfers have sponsor contracts that preclude their names being used in connection with competing products. Thus, the people working behind the scenes for Bullo cannot be mentioned here.)
Jeppson first saw what would become the Perflex TCD (otal compression driver) in his last month at Dynatec. Farmington inventor Ken Whiting had for several years been working on a new plastic compound that was an offshoot of the aerospace industry. Originally, he had a new bowling ball in mind and then a new golf ball. Neither worked out but Whiting thought the material - later named Vexlar by Bullo - might make a good golf club head.
Jeppson ran into Whiting at a local golf course where the club pro was asked to hit a few balls with it. When his first shot hit the back fence of the driving range, the pro uttered a word sweet to Jeppson's entrepreneurial ears: "Yeeaaahhhh!" Jeppson signed a royalty agreement with Whiting (ho later sold his rights to a third party) to develop and manufacture the new clubs.
Jeppson then took the clubs to Los Angeles where they were tested by five pro golfers, all of whom agreed that he was on to something.
From there, Jeppson and several partners started a small subsidiary company in the back room of Bullough Insulation & Supply Co., a 65-year-old firm at 50 S. Eighth West. The eight partners were mostly Bullough employees, but Bullough's owners soon decided that golf equipment really didn't fit with their business. Thus, the partners bought the fledgling golf business from Bullough Insulation and shortened the name to Bullo.
Meanwhile, the R&D goes on, led by production manager Martin Numbers. Jeppson credits Numbers with developing the "very tricky" techniques for making flawless Vexlar
golf clubs. Currently Bullo makes only a 1 wood (river), 3 wood and 41/2 wood. In the research stage are a 7 wood and a putter. Perhaps even a full set of "irons" may be developed.
"More than 80 percent of our orders are for custom clubs . . . swing, lie weighting, and so forth," said Jeppson as he picked up a personalized driver ordered by PGA tour professional Raymond Floyd.
Other clubs bear the logos of various companies which order them as premium incentives for customers and employees. "We've had inquiries from some 200 major corporations, and we've signed 643 dealers," said Jeppson, although the clubs cannot yet be found in golf pro shops.
Jeppson sees Japan - where golfers pay up to $300 per round and wait several months for a tee time - as a natural market for the clubs, and Bullo is in negotiations with several Japanese firms for licensing the technology. "Over there," said Jeppson, "paying $200 to $600 for a single club is normal."
In this country, at $150 for a steel shaft and $169 for a graphite shaft, Jeppson ranks Perflex in the upper middle price category; not the priciest around, but very much in the upper ranks. "We want to market at the high end, along with the top-line clubs boasting the newest technology," he said.
In the golfing world, a fine line must be walked between acceptable advances in technology and being labeled a golfing gimmick. Happily, said Jeppson, the USGA confirms that Perflex conforms to the accepted rules of golf.
That's no small feat considering that they don't look like any other club on the market. The natural color of Vexlar is a creamy mother-of-pearl shade, but the material can be tinted to virtually any color. One thing's sure, they don't look like any other golf club.
As for performance, that's a very subjective thing, but last May Bullo took their clubs to an independent testing lab in San Diego. The clubs were put up against two other top brands on the famous "Iron Byron" golfing machine. To Jeppson's delight, the Perflex had 32 percent less dispersion (ighter grouping of shots) than one top brand, and 57 percent less than the other. (he testing lab does not allow the brand names of the other clubs to be published without Bullo paying a stiff promotional fee.)
On distance tests, Perflex equaled or slightly bettered the other two.