Bob Parsons’ life journey from inner-city Baltimore to billionaire inspiration
Before graduating high school, Parsons joined the Marines and got his orders to report to Vietnam. “I showed mine to all my teachers. A number of them teared up. They knew what I was headed for.”
“I bought an Apple when the first IIC came out in 1984 (Apple’s first portable computer) and taught myself how to program on that.”
BY REID CREAGER
The acronym in Bob Parsons’ YAM Worldwide stands for “You’re a Mess.” The shorthand for his Arizona-based stable of entrepreneurial operations captures the self-effacing personality of a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who seldom takes himself seriously, the subject of a seriously fascinating and inspirational life story.
The 69-year-old business owner, best known for founding GoDaddy, has a relaxed disposition that’s as engaging as his palpable passion for excellence. One of his latest ventures—PXG (Parsons Xtreme Golf)—offers a full lineup of custom golf clubs that are used and endorsed by some of the sport’s biggest names. It reflects that intensity even in the context of what Mark Twain called “a good walk spoiled.”
There seems to be no halfway for Bob Parsons. Not when it comes to standards. Not when it comes to determination. Not when it comes to giving. Not when it comes to fun. Not even when it comes to failure.
And not when it comes to gratitude for the turning point in a made-for-TV-movie life.
Early failing, flailing
The son of a homemaker and Montgomery Ward furniture salesman in the inner-city East Baltimore neighborhood of Highlandtown, “I was terrible at school,” he said. “If I were a kid in school today, I would be pumped full of Ritalin.”
He failed the fifth grade at St. Elizabeth’s of Hungary. At the end of the school year, “I didn’t hang around waiting for Sister to come back and pronounce me dead. I took off and told my parents I passed, and the school never got in touch with them.
“All summer long, I died about a thousand deaths thinking about it. The first day of school, I went and got in line with the sixth-graders. … The sister who had my class, Sister Saint Thomas, pulled me out of line and told me: ‘The other sister told me you failed but didn’t wait around for her to take care of it, and she didn’t know what to do. So she passed you!’”
Young Bob had escaped his parents’ displeasure, but he knew his lucky break was a Band-Aid ready to peel off.
“I went into sixth grade with fourth-grade skills, and it was like that most of the time. Senior year of high school I was failing everything except gym. This is back in ’68 at the height of the Vietnam War.
“I had two buddies who said they were going to join the Marine Corps … I joined with them. We all got our orders. I showed mine to all my teachers. A number of them teared up. They knew what I was headed for.”
‘A different guy’
Parsons graduated high school—“They changed all my grades to slightly passing; emphasis on slightly passing”—and reported to Parris Island. He was assigned to the 26th Marine Corps Regiment, part of the 1st Marine Division.
In 1969, Parsons served with Delta Company of the 1st Battalion in the Quảng Nam Province. He was wounded and evacuated.
His service earned the Purple Heart Medal, Combat Action Ribbon and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. But like so many other Vietnam veterans, his talk about the war is brief: “I was wounded in combat and eventually rotated home.”
He worked for about a year as a laborer in a steel mill, then attended the University of Baltimore because it had a deal for veterans under the GI Bill.
Amazingly, his struggles in school were gone.
“I surprised everybody and graduated magna cum laude” with an accounting degree in 1975. “Took the CPA exam, passed it the first time.
“I was a different guy.”
Parsons credits a singular force for his transformation from addled, directionless young adult to driven, mature young man. Rather than talk about what the war did to him, he likes to talk about what the Marine Corps did for him.
“I owe everything I’ve ever accomplished to the Marine Corps,” he said.
“The Marine Corps, they taught me discipline—and not discipline in the form of punishment, although there was plenty of that,” he said with a laugh. “They taught me the importance of responsibility and commitment. If you have something that you’re committed to do, you need to see it through. You don’t have to like it or be comfortable doing it, but you definitely have to do it.
“They taught me I have a right to be proud, that I could accomplish way more than I ever dreamed I could. The Marine Corps molded me. Had I not been in the Marine Corps, I would have accomplished none of this.”
Ahead of his time
“This” began not long after graduating college. Parsons used his newfound dedication and relentless curiosity to unforeseen advantage while the computer revolution was in its infancy.
He taught himself how to program a computer. His professional life would never be the same.
“I had 12 hours to kill after one of my accounting jobs in Redwood City, California, and bought a book called ‘Programming in the BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) Language.’ I wrote my first program or two on the flight back. It just so happened that the company I worked for, Commercial Credit, was owned by Control Data, one of the first computer data companies.”
Parsons was hooked. He bought an IBM personal computer in 1980 and wrote a program to do money management. “And I bought an Apple when the first IIC came out in 1984 (Apple’s first portable computer) and taught myself how to program on that. I got to be pretty good at that.”
Good enough that in 1984, he started software company Parsons Technology in his basement. Now the former Marine was the one giving the marching orders—and his accounting and computer acumen drove some spectacular results.
When Parsons Technology was sold to Intuit, Inc. in 1994 for $64 million, the company had nearly 1,000 employees, $100 million in annual revenue and 3 million customers. “I had about 40 grand in it,” Parsons said.
A high-profile Go
In 1997, Parsons started Jomax Technologies “for something to do” and changed the name to GoDaddy in 2000. With the help of some high-profile and controversial Super Bowl commercials beginning in 2005, the company became a household name and is now the world’s largest domain registrar.
Parsons’ personal fortunes soared as well. He re-married in 2009; his wife, Renee, had extensive experience working in hospitality and sales for some of the United States’ premier hoteliers. She joined GoDaddy and launched its corporate events department. In 2010, she built and led the company’s corporate giving program.
Parsons sold a majority stake in GoDaddy in 2011, a deal that valued the company about $2.3 billion. “I made about $4 billion on that,” he said. He resigned from the GoDaddy board last year.
He and his wife founded The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation in 2012. It has awarded more than 364 grants to charitable organizations.
Meanwhile, Parsons has remained active in entrepreneurial pursuits that include shopping malls, motorcycle dealerships, an ad agency and Parsons Xtreme Golf, his most recent passion. He has spent nearly $600 million buying up real estate in Arizona.
“We always knew we would get there,” Parsons said of his unlikely rise to celebrated achievement, fortune and generosity. “We just didn’t know when. But it’s finally there.”
Occupation: Entrepreneur, philanthropist
Born: Baltimore, Maryland
Home: Scottsdale, Arizona
Married: Renee, 2009
College: University of Baltimore, graduated magna cum laude
Businesses: PXG, Scottsdale National Golf Club, YAM Properties, YAM Capital, The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, Harley-Davidson of Scottsdale, GoAZ Motorcycles, GoAZ West, GoAZ Cottonwood, GoAZ Flagstaff, BigYAM, The Parsons Agency, Sneaky Big Studios, Spooky Fast, Southern Thunder Harley-Davidson, YAMWood Foundry, Hedge Fund
Military service: United States Marine Corps, Vietnam War veteran
Service awards: Purple Heart, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, Combat Action Ribbon
Honors: “A Marine for Life,” by Manhattan’s only Marine Corps Ball
Hobbies: Golf, motorcycles, reading
Favorite movie: “Summer of ’42”
GoDaddy’s Super Serendipity
Bob Parsons says GoDaddy.com became an industry leader thanks to unrivaled customer support, fair policies and strong pricing.
But the company’s greatest visibility came via its provocative Super Bowl ads. Its first one resulted in a “wild lucky break” that was instrumental in growing the brand and helping turn the game’s commercials into an annual attraction.
Parsons said that in late 2004 “We had a 16 percent market share worldwide, but we weren’t growing. I hired a market research company and they told me what I needed to know: ‘People don’t know who you are.’ I had a $10 million war chest, so I bought my first Super Bowl ad (30 seconds for a reported $2.4 million).”
Given the usual penchant back then for people to take a break during commercials during the game, “I knew I needed an ad that people would remember and want to act on.” One night he saw a provocative TV commercial for Mike’s Hard Limeade. Parsons hired the company that produced it (New York-based the Ad Store).
The plan was to spoof the famous Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction of the previous year’s Super Bowl. Given the newly cautious climate, the commercial was heavily vetted so as not to be too revealing.
“So it’s finally approved, and a week before the Super Bowl we got a call asking if we wanted to run another spot. The first one was in the first quarter, and the second time we ran it, it would be up against the 2-minute warning. We got a deal on it.
“The ad (which features a woman whose tank top strap breaks in front of a congressional committee but reveals nothing), shows and the building shakes, but it doesn’t fall down.”
The GoDaddy team was excited about seeing it again near the end of the game. When the time came—and viewership at a peak during a close game between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles—a Fox Network promo for “The Simpsons” was shown instead.
The GoDaddy ad did not reappear. NFL executives objected to running the ad again.
An angry Parsons called Fox the next morning and came to an agreement: Not only would he not have to pay for the ad that wasn’t shown, he got his money back for the one that aired. He only had to pay production costs, an estimated $1 million.
Parsons put the ad on his blog, and the ad was picked up everywhere “over and over and over again. I did interviews that whole next week from before sun-up till long after sundown.
“The ad value was zillions, and we hadn’t paid for any of it. Our market share went from 16 percent to 25 percent in a week—and held.”
So Parsons and GoDaddy.com got an estimated $12 million in free publicity because of a decision to censor an ad that was making fun of censorship.
‘We Deal in Hope’
Parsons credits all of his success to the United States Marines. He pays this forward in his typically spectacular way.
On February 26, Semper Fi Fund and America’s Fund (the Fund) announced its annual Double Down for Veterans campaign raised more than $20 million – including a $10 million matching contribution from The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation. It was the eighth straight year the Parsons foundation matched donations to the annual campaign.
The foundation also donates $1 million annually to Headstrong, which provides cost-free mental health treatment to post-9-11 victims and their families, and $1.2 million a year to the families of policemen who fall in the line of duty.
“We’re moving to charity $1 million every 14 days,” Bob Parsons said. He and his wife, Renee, have given away more than $190 million to charities since 2012.
In 2013, Parsons cut the ribbon on The Bob Parsons Veteran Center at the University of Baltimore, his alma mater. It offers academic advising, guidance on financial aid and counseling to veterans at the university. He donated $1 million to fund the project.
And when a U.S. tax relief plan was signed into law in late December 2017 that would cut the corporate rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, Parsons wasted no time in sharing those gains. He announced that he would give his 725 YAM Worldwide employees a total of $1.3 million in additional bonuses.
PXG marries elite design and technology in golf clubs
The hallmark of the company’s flagship product, its 0311 irons, is a high-performance core coupled with the world’s thinnest club face (0.058 inches thick) designed to deliver incredible ball speeds and more distance without sacrificing feel, sound and accuracy.
BY REID CREAGER
Displaying a deftness that belies his imposing frame, Bob Parsons says chipping and putting are the strengths of his golf game. Overall, the 13-handicap golfer says he is “slightly better than middle of the road.”
Problem is, the detail-oriented billionaire entrepreneur is not good friends with middle of the road. They aren’t even on speaking terms.
So his latest passion is a snug fit for the game he loves. PXG (Parsons Xtreme Golf), the company Parsons launched in 2014, created unprecedented state-of-the-art golf clubs that have an all-star cast of PGA and LPGA pros as endorsees.
As sports inventions go, the PXG clubs—designed by Parsons with engineers Mike Nicolette and Brad Schweigert—are a hole-in-one of futuristic technology, easy comfort and confident power in your hands. Given Parsons’ lifelong love for the game and his unrelenting standards, the only question is why the clubs were so long in coming.
He started playing as a young child at Clifton Park in Baltimore. “My father was a golfer, and he used to take me and my brother to the range. I knew enough where I knew how to swing and grip a club, but I could not really hit it much.
“When I was in my 30s and I got successful with technology, I started playing a lot of golf.” So the elite businessman’s merging of these two elements was as organic and inevitable as clear spring sunshine and Augusta.
An easy, folksy storyteller, Parsons remembers when his design collaborator Nicolette sent some PXG clubs to PGA Tour star Ryan Moore. This story is short and succinct.
“He asked Moore, ‘So what do you think of the clubs?’ Ryan answered, ‘I put them in my bag, and they are not coming out.’”
Parsons said this love affair is triggered by the clubs’ unique design. In the original PXG 0311 GEN1 irons, the key feature developed by the PXG CEO and senior engineers Nicolette and Schweigert was a thermoplastic elastomer, a kind of synthetic rubber injected into the hollow-bodied iron. This resulted in the club’s hallmark: a high-performance core coupled with the world’s thinnest club face (0.058 inches thick) designed to deliver incredible ball speeds and more distance without sacrificing feel, sound and accuracy.
The elastomer is “the butter on the bun,” Parsons says. “It did three things for us: It made it feel good. It made it feel soft. It allowed us to introduce the thinnest club face in golf.
“We are the only guys who have this technology in golf. The face will not collapse. It is reinforced by the elastomer.”
Quality par for the course
As with many high-quality products, PXG’s exclusive features are about attention to detail. Little wonder that PXG has more than 360 globally issued patents.
The company’s commitment to innovation is especially evident in PXG 0311 GEN3 Irons, PXG’s third and latest generation. GEN3 Irons hit the market in January 2020. They are powered by a new, patented Impact Reactor Technology and DualCOR system.
The DualCOR system fuses a high-strength polymer outer core for structural stability with a soft polymer inner core that delivers maximum energy to the ball at impact.
GEN3 Irons are made from top-quality 8620 soft carbon steel, forged five times to tighten the grain structure and form the club head. The back of the club head is then CNC milled to create a precise body design.
“Our competitors say their club is forged, but for most of them only the face is forged,” Parsons says. “For us, the whole thing is forged. And to boot, we also mill it for accuracy. Nobody does that.
“If you cut our clubs open, the workmanship is astonishing. With our competitors you don’t see that as much.”
Parsons spent $350,000 on clubs one year in his quest to study and deliver the perfect club. He’s not afraid to spend money on excellence; he and his wife, Renee LaBelle Parsons, purchased what is now Scottsdale National Golf Club in 2013 and renovated to make it one of the world’s most exclusive golf properties. He estimated he has put about $300 million into Scottsdale National.
Asked who was the most important person in PXG’s final design, the man who wears a diamond-stud earring with PXG lettering says: “Me.”
He told senior engineers Nicolette and Schweigert “exactly what I wanted and how I wanted it. … It was definitely a three-way collaboration. If any one of us wasn’t there, the club would not have happened.”
Parsons said it took the better part of a year to finalize the prototyping process, after several iterations. The first prototype in particular was not pretty. “A lot of the time you don’t know where the prince is, but you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs.”
The first-production, custom-fitted clubs were sold in June 2015. It didn’t take long for novice and professional golfers to notice.
“What they comment most about it is how they feel, how forgiving they are,” Parsons says. “And how far they go.”
Many golf club makers engineer the product to meet a specific price. Not here. The goal was unconditional, uncompromising performance.
“This was the main thing we did differently,” Parsons says. “When you do that, the cost of the club is significantly more. After paying for research and development, overhead numbers, how to sell it and distribute it, et cetera, it worked out to about four and a quarter ($425) per GEN3 iron (about $3,400 for a set).
“They are custom fitted, of course. We believe we are making the finest golf club there is.”
He would get no argument from 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson, who told USA Today in 2016: “I felt like it was love at first sight, if you will, with a little bit of lust there, too, if you will—but you have to still work at it. And the love has continued to grow. To me, the key is the driver.”
LPGA star Gerina Piller was so set on her clubs that her agent talked her into trying the PXG clubs. After hitting fewer than 10 balls, she was sold.
“They are pretty amazing,” she said in the same USA Today story. “I was actually blown away and impressed by how I hit them. I love how they go through the turf. My chipping has improved, like night and day. They are awesome.”
Another female player who stands behind the clubs is Parsons’ wife, Renee. She’s the president and driving force behind the design and development of PXG Apparel.
In late 2018, she helped lead a collaboration with PXG’s Korean partners to form PXG Apparel Worldwide. Her vision is to create a style movement for golfers on and off the course that is edgy, performance-driven and modern.
She is also a force on the course, her husband says. “She is excellent, quite a player. Her nickname is the Shark. You don’t want to gamble with her.”
One more story
Despite all the Parsons’ other business holdings, PXG is not a lark. They take it very seriously, as does the business world.
Last year, PXG made Inc magazine’s list of “Fastest-Growing Privately Held Companies.” It was Bob Parsons’ third business to make the list; Parsons Technology and GoDaddy were earlier entries.
Meanwhile, the innovating and storytelling continue.
“I had a guy come into town on business,” Bob Parsons says. “He struck a deal with a jewelry store for an engagement ring for his fiancée.
“When he got here, the jewelry store wasn’t open yet that day. He came in and got fit and started hitting our clubs and took the jewelry store money and bought a set of PXGs. Canceled the ring, broke off with his girlfriend, and now he’s happy as can be.”
PXG Professional Staff
The roster includes many of golf’s biggest stars: Zach Johnson, Pat Perez, Ryan Moore, James Hahn, Wyndham Clark, Jason Kokrak, Joel Dahmen, Scott Langley, Lydia Ko, Anna Nordqvist, Brittany Lang, Celine Boutier, Austin Ernst, Christina Kim, Katherine Kirk, Haley Moore, Ryann O’Toole, Gerina Piller, Jennifer Song, and Linnea Strom.
PXG for Heroes™ is designed to provide the world’s finest golf equipment and gear to the men and women of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Law Enforcement, Firefighters, and EMTs. All current and past military, veterans and first-responders are invited to purchase PXG clubs at a very special price
The clubs are named after Marine Corps job codes, Parsons’ nod to the military branch that changed his life. For instance, the irons were christened 0311, code for rifleman—his position in the Marines.