Images: Tim Pannell for Forbes
Bob Parsons ambles up to the first tee of the 18-hole course at his lavish, multimillion-dollar Arizona golf club, Scottsdale National. The stocky 66-year-old is wearing a pea-green shirt, untucked, with ‘US Marine Corps’ over the left breast. In his left ear is a large black earring that’s etched with the letters ‘PXG’, the acronym for his golf equipment brand, Parsons Xtreme Golf. He tees up his ball and turns to his playing partner for the day, Ryann O’Toole, a 30-year-old LPGA pro who is sponsored by PXG.
“Ryann, sweetheart,” he says in a gruff voice that booms across the desert. “I hope you brought your wallet.” And with that, his curt but effective swing sends the ball straight down the fairway.
Parsons, the founder of the internet domain-name registrar GoDaddy, did not reach his station in life by being subtle. He is, after all, the man who put GoDaddy on the map in the mid-2000s with racy Super Bowl ads, featuring Playboy model Candice Michelle and Nascar driver Danica Patrick. (When he first met Michelle years ago, Parsons asked, “Are they real?” Michelle, without missing a beat, answered, “Yes. Real expensive.”)
Parsons has been called zany, outlandish and a renegade—none of which he disputes. But he is much more than that. Scratch below the surface and you’ll find a self-made billionaire who is also outrageous in his generosity.
Except on the golf course.
Parsons and O’Toole are playing ‘Sweat’ today, a skins-like game that he co-created. With $400 on the line, O’Toole has given Parsons, a 10-handicapper, 14 strokes—something he takes full advantage of on the front nine, building a solid lead. Hustling, as it turns out, is something Parsons has been doing from a young age.
He grew up poor in inner-city Baltimore. His mother was a homemaker, his father a furniture salesman for Montgomery Ward. Both parents were hard-core gamblers. “Cards, horses, bingo—you name it,” Parsons says. “You don’t have a lot of money if you’re a gambler, particularly if you don’t start with lots of it.”
When Parsons needed something—a ball, a baseball glove—he had to figure out how to buy it. One of his most successful schemes involved selling newspapers in an unconventional way. At a popular bus stop, he would arrive early, pop a quarter into the newspaper vending machine and take all of the papers. When the bus arrived, he’d sell those papers—at a markup—to the passengers. Once he sold out, he’d pocket the profit and put the rest of the money back into the vending machine.
Serious green: Parsons says he will invest $250 million in Scottsdale National, including the construction of a new clubhouse and villas
School was not exactly a refuge from his home life. So while failing 12th grade, Parsons enlisted in the Marines. He was sent to Vietnam in 1969 during the height of the war. On his first day there, at a treacherous spot called Hill 190, he sat on a wall and gazed at the valley below, certain he was going to die. “I made two decisions sitting there,” he recalls. “I was going to do everything I could to do a good job, and I was going to do everything I could to make it to mail call the next day.”
Parsons ended up with a Combat Action Ribbon, a Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and a Purple Heart. He credits his time in the Marines for all the success that followed. “It taught me to believe in myself and be responsible and disciplined,” he says. “When you’re in the middle of nowhere and you see something moving in the jungle, you’re forced to become a creative problem solver.”
After he returned, he worked briefly in a Bethlehem Steel plant and then enrolled at the University of Baltimore, where he majored in accounting and graduated magna cum laude. He eventually got his CPA license and joined the commercial credit unit of the computer firm Control Data. Shortly thereafter, he was writing code. “It was a hobby,” he says, “but I got really good at it.”
That led to the 1984 founding of Parsons Technology, which produced money-management software. By 1994 the company, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had 1,000 employees and $100 million in revenues. Then Parsons decided to walk away. “I didn’t think there was much of a future in shrink-wrapped software,” he says. He sold the company that year to Intuit for $64 million.
Parsons moved to Arizona with no real plans. “I played a lot of golf with guys in funny clothes,” he says. All those rounds seem to have paid off. By the 12th hole, Parsons has stretched his lead over O’Toole and he’s in a celebratory mood. In the fairway, he taps the ‘lost club’ tab on the interactive screen on his golf cart, which is code for “The boss needs a margarita.” One stroke later, Parsons stands over a long birdie putt. “Ryann, I think I’m going to make this,” he says, and then drains the 20-footer.
Parsons grew restless in the desert. In 1997, he founded Jomax Technologies, whose main business was designing websites. “The problem with that is that it doesn’t scale,” he says. “I learned that if you want to make money, you’ve got to make it when you sleep.”
Soldier of good fortune: Many of Parsons’s motorcycles pay homage to his service in the Marines, including the code ‘0311’—for rifleman
Parsons changed the name of the company to GoDaddy and expanded its focus to selling domain names. GoDaddy sold its first name—ghettojustice.com—to a local Arizona man in 2000 but had trouble gaining traction. Then the dot-com bubble burst and tech companies began to go under. But not GoDaddy. “We happened to be the only guys paying our bills,” Parsons says. “We didn’t do anything different, but, baby, we were born.”
GoDaddy’s growth was slow but steady until 2005, when Parsons devised a marketing masterpiece. That year the company aired its first Super Bowl ad, starring Candice Michelle and spoofing the infamous Janet Jackson halftime ‘wardrobe malfunction’ from the year before. The ad was supposed to run twice, but Fox, which was broadcasting the game, decided it was too racy and nixed the second airing. That only created more interest—GoDaddy’s global share of the domain-name registry market went from 16 percent to 25 percent the following week.
And the renegade CEO image was created. Though Parsons says his company was not some alcohol-fuelled Animal House, he does concede that his reputation wasn’t entirely unearned. “We entered a business that was as exciting as sawdust and made it fun—and I turned it into $2 billion.”
That money came starting in 2011, when he sold 72 percent of GoDaddy to several private equity firms (including KKR and Silver Lake Partners). His remaining 28 percent skyrocketed in value when the company went public in 2015. The wealth, he swears, hasn’t changed him. He still cuts his own close-cropped gray hair and goatee. When a cap on his tooth fell out a few months ago, he temporarily fixed it himself with Super Glue. “I still see myself as that meathead kid in Baltimore, hustling,” he says.
What the money has done, though, is allow Parsons to embark on an entirely new career path in 15 different businesses with 700 employees, all held under the banner of YAM Worldwide. (The YAM acronym stands for ‘You’re a Mess’, an old Baltimore term of endearment from his youth.) Those businesses include a commercial real estate firm, an ad agency and a film studio. But Parsons’s first post-GoDaddy venture focussed on one of his passions: Motorcycles. He now owns two Harley-Davidson dealerships (one in Scottsdale and one in Mississippi) and two more that sell nine other brands, which generate $90 million in annual revenue. The Scottsdale Harley dealership, at 150,000 square feet, is the largest in the world and displays examples of Parsons’s showmanship: Inside the store, there is also a biker lingerie department, a tattoo and piercing parlour, a 55-seat theater and a wedding chapel (where Parsons, an internet-ordained minister, has officiated).
The next venture focussed on his other love: Golf. Parsons started playing the game seriously in his 30s in Cedar Rapids and obsessively tinkered with his equipment: He claims that in one year he spent $350,000 on golf-club technology without ever finding the perfect fit. PXG was the solution. Parsons poached two designers from Ping and gave them a simple mandate: Take as long as you want to create something truly special. In 2015, PXG released its first clubs and did $2.7 million in business. This year, it expects to have revenues approaching $80 million.
Despite the growth, PXG was not designed to be a mass-market company. A set of clubs costs $5,000 and is entirely bespoke, sold only through custom fittings, including one known as ‘The Xperience’, which is an elaborate session done at Scottsdale National and includes meals and drinks, lodging and 45 holes of golf (including 18 with the master fitter after you get your clubs). The Xperience starts at $17,500, and thus far, 122 people have opted for it.
The secret to the clubs is a patented thermoplastic elastomer designed by Parsons’s engineers that’s incorporated in all PXG clubheads, providing improved feel and extra distance.
Today the clubs appear to be working for Parsons, who has played flawlessly against O’Toole. With a deft up-and-down on the 16th hole, he matches O’Toole’s par and effectively ends the match. O’Toole seems at peace with the result. Granted, Parsons talks his share of smack, but in quieter moments he gives O’Toole a pep talk about her game and life. The pair likely would be playing the next day if Parsons weren’t scheduled to get a tattoo with the winning bidder of a motorcycle he’s auctioned off at a Make-a-Wish Foundation event (he added the new ink as an incentive).
That organisation is only one of the beneficiaries of Parsons’s philanthropy. In the past five years, he has given away $133 million through the foundation he runs with his wife, Renee. His biggest philanthropic gesture was a 2013 announcement that he would sign the Giving Pledge, vowing to donate at least half of his fortune, which Forbes
estimates at $2.6 billion.
His other legacy, he hopes, is Scottsdale National. Parsons bought the troubled private club (then known as the Golf Club of Scottsdale) in 2013 for the relatively paltry price of $600,000 and immediately shook things up. He quickly realised that the members who played the most golf spent the least amount of money. In a letter that was leaked to the media, he lambasted these members and laid out his plans for the future. The club came with an 18-hole course, which he named Mineshaft. Parsons added a second 18-hole course (cheekily deemed The Other Course) and a brutal par-3 course known as The Bad Little Nine. He also did away with stuffy rules: Members could do pretty much whatever they wanted (wear denim, listen to music in their carts) as long as it didn’t impinge on the fun of fellow members. And he offered a full refund of initiation fees, up to $110,000, to those who wanted out. Of the 176 members, 84 left. (A few who took the buyout subsequently tried to get back in. “That’s not going to happen,” he says.) Initiation fees are now $150,000 and annual dues are $36,000. Parsons says his goal is to create an exclusive place for “accomplished people” to play golf and relax. “I built this as a gift for my great-great-great-grandchildren,” he says.
The club may eventually be for his descendants, but for now it’s his, and it brings out the best in his game. By the 18th hole, with the match over, Parsons decides to bend the rules and give O’Toole one last chance to erase her debt. “If you make that,” he says, pointing to her 30-foot putt for birdie, “we’re even.”
O’Toole hits the putt confidently. The speed and line are spot on … until the very end, when the ball trickles to the right of the cup. She has shot a 70, two under par. Parsons has carded an 81. But because of the strokes—and the vagaries of the game of Sweat—he is now worth $2,600,000,400.
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(This story appears in the 08 December, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)