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Building a better golf ball: Ex-First Niagara CEO's new venture

John Koelmel has never been afraid to think big.

He turned a sleepy local thrift, Lockport Savings Bank, into one of the nation's 30-biggest banks through a series of bold acquisitions, only to see his biggest deal fall flat and lead to his ouster at First Niagara Financial Group. He then took over as president of HarborCenter, the $200 million hotel and entertainment complex Buffalo Sabres and Bills owners Kim and Terry Pegula built downtown next to the KeyCenter.

But once Koelmel left HarborCenter in the summer of 2015, he's been thinking smaller. He's invested in several fledgling businesses over the last two years, including OnCore Golf, a Buffalo golf ball manufacturer that has developed a pair of golf balls that it believes have technological advantages over conventional balls, and next month will introduce a third ball aimed at low-scoring golfers and tour players.

And in February, Koelmel, who once ran a bank with thousands of employees, took over as president of a sporting goods company that employs less than 10.

Q: What was it that you saw in OnCore when you first invested in it a year-and-a-half ago, and now as you become president?

A: I'm focused more on who, rather than what. I've got a half a dozen things that I'm involved with. I'm looking for bright, talented, principled passionate people. That box isn't as easy to check as it may sound. I've learned that the hard way in 40 years. Ultimately, who you work with and who you work for is the difference maker.

It comes back to having the right mix of products and services. They've been able to differentiate. Now it's how do you leverage that differentiation and make it sustainable and scalable.

I'm an avid golfer. I'm reasonably proficient. It's the Number One sport for me. So there's a little bit of that alignment for me at this age, stage and circumstance. I'm looking to do things that are fun and gratifying. I haven't been looking for a job, don't consider it to be a job. I have a role and a position, but I don't think of it as my next job. It's part of the portfolio of interest and opportunities I'm pursuing.

I'm where I think I can make a difference, where I can be additive. I'm looking to invest my time, talent, treasure where I can be impactful and have some fun and gratification doing it.

Q: That's pretty much been your focus since you left HarborCenter. Do you like it?

A: I'm having a ball. It's been great. Whether it's through the broader-based community stuff that I've done, 43North and the Power Authority. But in the last year-and-a-half in particular, I've progressively gotten more immersed with it, and I'm blown away.

I say to people I've embraced the "60 is the new 40." It makes you feel a little bit younger. It's really energizing to see the intellectual capital around the community that I'm confident will be the economic driver in many significant ways.

OnCore Golf co-founder Steve Coulton at the Innovation Center in Buffalo in October 2014. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News file photo)

As terrific as 43North has been for bringing in more intellectual capital, there's a lot of home-grown talent. I'm a big fan of enabling and supporting and creating the opportunity. It's been a hoot. I really have enjoyed it.

Q: George Chamoun, the founder of Synacor, is doing the same thing you're doing. He took over as president at online auto auction company ACV Auctions.

A: I've gotten to know George over the last few years. There are a lot of parallels in terms of the stage and circumstance in the age and individuals. Not that I'm a young guy like George.

OnCore is ready to move to the next level, ready to take off. As I've been saying here for a bit, it's time to go vertical, rather than just continue the incremental growth path. Now's the time to pop. We're well positioned to do that, so you need to bolster the organization in multiple ways. You start with team and talent. I'll throw myself in the hopper, as well.

It brings a level of maturity and sophistication to an organization like this that otherwise hasn't existed, just because of the circumstances.  (Co-founders) Steve (Coulton) and Bret (Blakely) have done a great job of putting the parts and pieces together, or enabling the pieces to be bundled.

ACV is the same kind of thing. George comes over. Visibility and credibility are enhanced. Execution is that much better. It helps with raising capital. It's good stuff.

We need to start stringing a few of these together.

Q: What do you bring to OnCore?

A: Who knows. I like to think I'm bringing  broad-based business expertise and experience, maybe more experience than expertise.

It's not my first rodeo. I can help this organization mature a little faster, quicker, more effectively and efficiently. Hopefully I'm bringing some credibility to who they are and the fact that they're very much on the right path. There's some affirmation associated with it.

This is a company with real products and real sales.  We're not just chasing ideas. It's not just in the development stage. I'm looking to give them that boost and be part of the surge factor, or energize the surge that we're ready to undertake.

I've tried to guide as an investor and board member. Now we're at the point where we think it can be additive to help with the new OnCore, or the liftoff of the new and improved OnCore.

Q: Do you view yourself as being the big picture guy or someone taking a more hands-on approach?

A:  In this type of environment, it's all of the above. You can't be isolated. There are no independent roles. It's still a very small team.

You need to bring that discipline and the focus. Every organization needs it. I don't care what evolutionary stage they're at, but in their early going, it's easy to be distracted.

There's only one measure of success: We're selling golf balls and we need to sell a lot more of them. That's what we're focused on doing. That's our filter for what we're doing, how we deploy our capital and how we allocate resources and identify needs: What's going to help us sell more golf balls.

Cross-section of the new metal-cored golf ball, right, by On Core Golf, a Buffalo company. (Buffalo News file photo)

They've done a great job of creating and energizing, differentiating branding and the look and feel. Now it's all about execution.

Q: You also have a lot of contacts in the business community. How does that help as the new president of OnCore.

A: I want to help build connectivity to the local community and beyond. They've established an international base. It's not like it's just a little start-up company in Buffalo that sells its products in Wegmans and a couple other shops. We're selling our products - and have for the last two or three years - around the world. We just need to do a lot more of that.

Develop the talent that's here. The core talent is very strong and passionate and energetic. It just needs some mentoring. Partner with (CEO) Keith (Blakely) to guide the ship and steer it forward. Identify and engage the investor community. Fuel the train.

Q: Did your involvement in 43North push you down this path, or did you have it in the back of your head already?

A: All of the above. Here, Keith reached out to me in the summer of 2015, when it was announced I was leaving HarborCenter.

At the time, he had a lot of balls in the air, no pun intended. So we talked about a variety of different things he was doing and where I could potentially help him. But OnCore always jumped to the top of the list as a golfer and all the rest of that.

Q: How does a little company from Buffalo compete against Titleist and the other giants of the golf industry?

A: We think we have a very good sales and distribution plan. We've got a priority focus on online distribution, direct to the consumer, either directly to the consumer or through a subscription program or through some of the resellers. We're confident half of our revenue can be done that way.

On the other hand, golf is a see it, touch it, feel comfortable with it type of product, so people are reliant on their club pros or others in the pro shops and specialty shops. We've got to focus there as well. Internationally, we think there's huge opportunities. Our expectations have been that international distribution will be significant.

It's all about execution. It's broadening the sales force. It's upgrading the website. It's expanding our relationships. It's national TV advertising. I'm confident you'll see player endorsements progressively built.

Golf's time consuming. It's expensive. We're trying to deliver a value proposition.

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