His father said, “Don’t go to work for the family.”
Ely Callaway was told by his father, “Don’t go to work for the family.” It seemed like strange advice at the time, since practically everyone else in La Grange, Georgia, worked for one or another of his Uncle Abner’s businesses. But the young man, a recent graduate of Emory University who had studied history and been president of his class, took his father’s advice and began to carve his own niche in the business world…and what a niche it is.
Joining the U.S. Army Reserve, Callaway found himself at the Philadelphia quartermaster depot, the Army’s Central Apparel Procurement Headquarters since 1776. During World War II, he was the sole purchasing and contracting officer responsible for the Army’s procurement of cotton clothing. Perhaps more important, he became friends with Levi Strauss, Hart Schaffner & Marx, and executives at the Arrow Shirt Co. After the war, he went to work for Deering, Milliken & Company, a giant textile supplier, figuring that “the best thing I can do is get a job selling to the people I’ve been dealing with.”
Leaving Deering, Milliken & Company in 1954, Callaway joined forces with a 1978 inductee into Babson’s Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs, Royal Little, founder and chairman of Textron. While at Textron, Callaway oversaw the merger of American Woolen and Robbins Mills. Later, when Textron sold Little’s division to Burlington Industries, Callaway went along, too. By 1968, he had become president of Burlington, “the biggest textile company on earth,” he would proudly proclaim.
Callaway’s goal at Burlington, however, was the chairmanship – nothing less would do – and when this was not forthcoming five years later, he left Burlington and went west, to California, to make wine. Callaway gambled his own money (“I wanted to keep my friends,” he explains) and began raising grapes in an area that was considered by many to be nothing more than desert. His risk paid off in spectacular fashion in 1981 when he sold his successful vineyard and winery to Hiram Walker for $14 million.
When he was past 60, Ely Callaway turned his attention to golf, one of his favorite pastimes – he had been a tournament champion in his youth. Unable to keep his restless entrepreneurial spirit under control, Callaway founded The Callaway Golf Company in 1983. As with every venture with which he had ever been involved, Ely Callaway made a total commitment to his new venture. Incorporating the company’s patented design concept, Callaway introduced the golfing world to Big Berth Metal Woods, Big Bertha War Bird, Big Bertha Irons, and the new line of Great Big Bertha Drivers and Fairway Woods. Today, Callaway Golf is the industry sales leader, and Ely Callaway is a master entrepreneur who has turned his dream into reality – “mainly due to sweat and lots of luck,” he says.