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INDUSTRY LEADER SAYS FAIRWAYS ARE THE PATH TO MORE DEALS

Slovaks making business sense of golf

"Golf is like English in the business world - a necessary tool of communication," claims Vladimír Soták, general director of central Slovak metals plant Železiarne Podbrezová.
Introduced to golf during a language course in England five years ago, Soták has been pushing ever since to get more and more businesses in Slovakia turned onto the world sport, and more and more courses built in his home country.
Sure of the fact that golf plays an effective role in business negotiation, he has swung dog-legs and marched up fairways around the world with foreign partners, cementing, he says, some of the export deals for the 65% of his company's production that heads out of Slovakia.


Slovakia's Golf Union believes the opening of the country's first 18 hole course next year will help business.
photo: TASR

"Golf is like English in the business world - a necessary tool of communication," claims Vladimír Soták, general director of central Slovak metals plant Železiarne Podbrezová.

Introduced to golf during a language course in England five years ago, Soták has been pushing ever since to get more and more businesses in Slovakia turned onto the world sport, and more and more courses built in his home country.

Sure of the fact that golf plays an effective role in business negotiation, he has swung dog-legs and marched up fairways around the world with foreign partners, cementing, he says, some of the export deals for the 65% of his company's production that heads out of Slovakia.

He says he wants to bring more foreign businessmen out onto courses in Slovakia to allow businessmen "to get right to the subjects involved in a negotiation process".

Golf courses in the West are often packed seven days a week not just with aspiring Tiger Woods, but with management executives concentrating as much on their corporate deals as their swings. Soták is a firm believer that this is the kind of approach that more Slovak businessmen should be taking.

His thinking, says the Slovak Golf Union (SGÚ), is likely to pay off. "Golf, as well as tennis, is the kind of sport used for reaching a mutual goal in business. It enables you to spend a whole uninterrupted four hours with your partner," said Ľudmila Soókyová, a marketing manager at the SGÚ.

"In many [Slovak] firms golf plays an important role in their marketing activities, and they support it at an international level."

However, despite having a golfing history that extends back to the first nine-hole course in Tatranská Lomnica in 1908, Slovakia has only three nine-hole courses - in Bernolákovo, Košice and Lomnica.

The SGÚ says that this has stopped firms using the links to their best business advantage.

"Not having a standard [18-hole] course here yet has prevented some companies from establishing potential partnerships," explained Soókyová.

Podbrezová's daughter firm, the joint-stock company Tále, is finishing off Slovakia's first standard 18-hole playground at the Low Tatras' recreation centre Tále, and will open it next year. "This playground will attract businessmen into the country," says Soták.

Management at some of the largest firms in the country - Motorola, Eurotel, Sun Microsystems, and the Slovak gas utility Slovenský Plynárenský Priemysel (SPP) - have been seen on the country's courses. Eurotel, which has even gone as far as to start organising annual pro-am golf tournaments, sees a business benefit to taking potential partners out for a round.

"Golf is one of the few sports that provides not just a chance to relax, but at the same time a chance to talk in a more relaxed atmosphere with customers and business partners," said Denisa Šulcová, of Eurotel's PR department.

But the SGÚ and sociologists are divided on what more golf courses could really offer Slovakia's business community.

"In America, a country where golf is hugely popular among company managers, there is a saying that 'before you build a factory you build a golf course'. Similar rules apply here," said the SGÚ's Soókyová, adding that new golf courses should go hand-in-hand with investments.

Peter Gál, president of the SGÚ's senior golf association, added that golf was an ideal tool for increasing a company's image and reputation. He also acknowledged that more than half of the SGÚ's 1000 playing members are businessmen. "There are families, children and students, but our membership is mainly tied to the business sector."

However Ivan Dianiška, sociologist with the Focus polling agency, argued that while golf's worldwide popularity is bound to eventually be matched in Slovakia, to say that business deals will be forged on a fairway and not in a boardroom may be presumptuous.

"There's no reason why golf won't be [more of a] part of our society. It's just a question of how many people it can attract and what purposes it will serve here," said Dianiška, "People on a golf course often hold a certain status. However, while golf may enable some people better to achieve business goals, others might prefer a more direct approach. It's just a different style of forging relationships and negotiations in business," Dianiška added.

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