Reading the Green

Acushnet’s legal leader played an unusual course that prepared him well for his role with the golf manufacturer—now a newly public company

Joe Nauman’s distinguished law career began in the unlikeliest of places—a blue-collar job in the same Iowa town where he grew up. His father worked at the local John Deere factory for nearly forty years, and Nauman followed suit after graduating from high school.

After several other factory floor jobs, he moved into purchasing, then landed in sales at the Colorado Chemical Company in Denver. While there, he drafted company policies and conducted market surveys working with outside counsel. “I liked what I was doing in terms of establishing relationships with people, gaining people’s trust, and solving people’s problems,” Nauman recalls. “But I thought that I could do it at a higher intellectual level.”

Exposure to the legal-oriented work at Colorado Chemical inspired in him the idea that he might be able to do that as a lawyer. But first, he needed a college degree. For the next two years, Nauman would spend nights and weekends completing his undergraduate degree through an extension of Columbia College of Missouri.

Then, at 32 years old, the Iowan faced opportunities to attend some of the most prestigious law schools in the United States. He chose New York University and honed his vision to practice law as a corporate lawyer. Yet Nauman realized that his unusual start in the field necessitated experience at a large law firm first. He found training and exposure with several notable companies through associate work at Chadbourne & Parke during his third year of law school. He continued working at the New York firm after graduation, focusing on M&A, securities, and governance work for top clients such as consumer products giant Fortune Brands.

His eighteen-month long rotation acting as in-house counsel at Fortune Brands turned into full-time employment in 1992. As senior counsel, he split his time between corporate work for the global holding company and its subsidiaries—one of which being Acushnet, a manufacturer of golf equipment and accessories. “I’ve played golf since I was nine, and I love the game, so having that connection was really important,” says Nauman, whose favorite golf course is the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. “It’s critical for job satisfaction to have an affinity for what your company does and to really understand how the organization operates and its culture.”

His passion translated well with Acushnet CEO Walter Uihlein, who requested Nauman narrow his scope at Fortune Brands to focus solely on the subsidiary. At the time, Fortune Brands only had a centralized legal department and no lawyers in any subsidiary operation. Yet Nauman says Fortune Brands’ leadership became persuaded that it was the right thing to do, and after a few years working on-site in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Acushnet officially hired Nauman in 2000 to develop its own legal function.

“It’s critical for job satisfaction to have an affinity for what your company does and to really understand how the organization operates and its culture.”

As vice president and general counsel (not to mention the company’s only lawyer), Nauman got to work expanding the department and developing one of its core competencies: intellectual property (IP). Today, the in-house team comprises thirteen lawyers and seven legal personnel, while nine of its lawyers focus on patents. “I built the legal staff to be very heavily weighted to the patent side,” says Nauman, who cites the golf industry’s clustered IP landscape as the driving force. “They’re integrated into the R&D functions, working very closely with the engineers who are creating the innovation, so that we capture the inventions appropriately in patent drafting.”

In the past twenty years, Acushnet has received more than 1,700 patents across its five brands: Titleist, FootJoy, Vokey Design, Scotty Cameron, and Pinnacle. From multilayer golf balls to adjustable drivers, Acushnet innovators haven’t slowed down since the company started making golf balls in 1933. While outside counsel are entrusted with the litigation aspect of Acushnet’s IP, Nauman seeks out similar values and dynamics. “We’re not scorched-earth; we’re not out there demanding a win,” he explains. “We’re trying to get the right result, and we only hire counsel that have a similar philosophy.”

More than a decade after Nauman’s hiring at Acushnet, Fortune Brands decided to dissolve and sold Acushnet through an auction process to a consortium of Korean investors led by Fila Korea. This was in 2011, and the revered golf manufacturer set plans for its initial public offering (IPO) in motion three years later.

In the fall of 2014, Acushnet’s CEO looked to Nauman to spearhead the IPO process. “I think he felt comfortable that I was the right person to lead the company effort,” Nauman says. “We’ve had this long-standing relationship that’s been built over twenty-five years. Over time, he has come to value my business acumen and judgment, as well as my legal abilities.” Uihlein’s faith was well-founded. Nauman hit the ground running.

He hired an outside adviser and counsel, then managed the underwriter selection through a “bake-off” process (a competition to choose the investment banker syndicate). He managed each ancillary step, such as drafting the S-1 registration statement and the road show presentation leading up to the stock trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Nauman’s efforts resulted in his promotion to EVP and chief legal and administrative officer and secretary in August 2016. Acushnet’s successful public launch would happen just a few months later on October 28.

According to Nauman, the biggest challenge during the IPO was aligning the interests of all of the different parties. He simultaneously addressed the needs of the exiting shareholders and investment bankers, as well as a shareholder who sought increased ownership in the company. “It was really a matter of spending candid time with the stakeholders and making clear what our objectives and capabilities were as the process played out,” Nauman says.

Internally, going public required a new facet of Nauman’s team: investor relations (IR). The function materialized last year, and Nauman formed an IR team bringing in an investor relations officer. “As a public company, you need to have somebody that communicates with the investment community and the public generally,” he says. “We elected to create that capability in house rather than depend on outside resources.” This was in keeping with Nauman’s hiring philosophy. “You walk before you run,” he continues. “You have to justify bringing work in-house both from an economic point of view and from a results orientation.”

While Nauman built Acushnet’s legal team from scratch, he remains committed to growing the team as the company’s needs evolve. He has seen the value added firsthand with in-house lawyers entrenched in the business. “You build a lot of equity there and a knowledge base and relationships that you can’t replicate on the outside,” he says. “The work that we have brought in-house not only saves us money, but also increases efficiency and delivers a better product.”

“As a public company, you need to have somebody that communicates with the investment community and the public generally. We elected to create that capability in house rather than depend on outside resources.”

This year, Nauman is focusing on getting the legal team up to speed on the nuances of operating publicly. “It’s a whole different world now from a disclosure and trading point of view,” he says. “The quarterly reporting and shareholder base is all new to us here. We’re spending a lot of time reading, training at conferences, and working with outside advisers during this transition. We are also training other people in the organization on these issues.”

As chair of Acushnet’s compliance committee, Nauman is well versed in communicating policies, from code of conduct to confidentiality, across the company. He initiated the role and continues to lead its messaging with strong support from the CEO. The company has established a robust compliance culture, and the homegrown training program is refreshed in three- to four-year cycles to remind employees through online curricula and live presentations. “If you’ve got senior people in your organization willing to travel and take the time to develop and deliver the presentations, that sends a very strong message,” says Nauman, who has delivered compliance presentations directly to all of Acushnet’s markets around the world.

Nauman’s career demonstrates a deep-rooted understanding of Acushnet’s ever-evolving needs. His twenty-five-year legacy of asking the right questions and forming sound judgments has helped carry the golf manufacturer into the public limelight. But for the legal leader, it all starts with listening and ends with building the right team. “Be willing to delegate to that team, not micromanage, and empower people to take responsibility,” he says. “That has borne fruit here at Acushnet.”


1984–1987: Joe Nauman set out to achieve his goals of practicing law as a corporate lawyer by attending New York University School of Law.

1987–1992: Upon graduation, Nauman joined Chadbourne & Parke as an associate, where he also worked during his third year of attending law school.

1992–1999: Nauman went on to become senior counsel for Fortune Brands, where he focused on M&A, securities, and governance.

2000–Present: For seventeen years, Nauman has enjoyed a successful tenure at Acushnet Holdings. Up until 2016, Nauman was the VP and general counsel, as well as EVP of corporate and legal. In 2016, he became EVP, chief legal and administrative officer, and secretary.