As a teenager, Jim Starr earned 10 cents per ball diving for golf balls, but he quickly learned that he could build his own business, reclaiming sunken golf balls on courses across Michigan. With a start-up loan from his father, he quickly built a profitable business collecting submerged golf balls during summer vacations. After graduation from high school, Jim left his business to serve his country and joined the Marines.
After service in the Marines and Air Force overseas, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, a non-combat-related accident left him with limited use of his legs. Potential employers were reluctant to hire a semi-disabled veteran.
When he could not find a job, he decided to go back to a profession he knew and rebuild his golf ball-reclamation business. Since then, Starr has built one of the largest golf ball-reclamation businesses in the country. With a recent expansion, GolfBallDivers.com is currently handling 6 million golf balls annually and expects the number to reach over 10 million per year in the near future.
A major part of Starr's business model and mission is to provide jobs for previously unemployable individuals due to physical or mental challenges.
Once a pond is swept for golf balls, they are shipped to a centralized processing facility in Lapeer, Mich. They must be sorted -- by type, model and quality -- plus cleaned and packaged, before being shipped to the consumer. A high percentage of the retrieved balls are not re-useable and must be culled. It's not easy separating Titleist ProV1s, ProV1Xs, NXTs, Tour Softs, six different Callaway varieties, as well as, Taylormade, Srixon, TopFlite, Bridgestone and countless other brands.
Understanding the pain of not being able to be employable, Starr began working with Lapeer Teamwork Inc, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that employs and trains physically and mentally challenged individuals. Lapeer Team Work’s mission is to train and integrate people with barriers to employment, to reach their maximum employment potential in the community. Starr’s company contracts Lapeer Team Work to recondition, sort and package the reclaimed golf balls to be resold to the golfing public.
“I love working in the golf ball business and am gratified that our company can play an important role in helping physically and mentally challenged individuals develop work skills that they can use to fully integrate into the business community," Starr said.
At Starr’s urging and with his assistance, Lapeer Team Work completely customized their factory to receive, sort, recondition and box the thousands of balls, which they receive daily. The people that work in the Lapeer Team Work facility are happy to contribute to the effort, plus enjoy providing a valuable service to the company. Being employed and contributing as part of the team gives them a purpose they look forward to every day, and there's the added benefit of on-the-job training that will help them find a more permanent job.
“I want to help everyone find a job," Starr said. "I love what Lapeer Team Work is doing to help everyone learn a skill and the opportunities they are providing for these individuals that need the help.”
There are issues, however. Congress continually decreases the amount of funding for these types of on-the-job-training for the physically and mentally challenged.
Ann Marie Zettle, the Executive Director for Lapeer Team Work Inc, has been involved with the Lapeer program for more than seven years and is passionate about preparing individuals with barriers to employment reach their true potential.
“With government funding constantly in a state of flux, it is mandatory that we continue to seek out partners such as Jim Starr and GolfBallDivers.com to assure a steady flow of income to the business," Zettle said. "Because we are a 501(c)(3) non-profit, all revenues can be reinvested back into the business to help train more physically and mentally challenged individuals to reach their full potential and find rewarding employment.”
At Lapeer Team Work, trainees gain skills to advance their full-time employment opportunities and success rate once they enter the job market. One such program prepares trainees to work in retail by teaching customer service, computer operation, pricing, preparing displays, as well as, re-stocking duties.
Lapeer Team Work operates in partnership with the Michigan Rehabilitation, the Intermediate School District and Lapeer County Community Mental Health Service to provide this service for individuals with barriers to gain employment. On-the-job evaluation and job coaching are also part of their program.
Tammy Vanderford, the Employment Placement Manager for Lapeer Team Work spends her time working closely with the trainees.
“By working closely with the trainees at Lapeer Team Work and getting to know them personally, we can better place them into jobs in the business community, so they can be successful and become a valued employee," she said.
Anyone who talks with Jim Starr, can immediately see how important, helping these individuals and the work that they do at Lapeer Team Work, is to him. Supporting this operation to improve the lives of the people that come to work here every day, is one of the core tenets for his golf ball business.
With an increasing funding need for the factory, Starr has embarked on a new approach to help keep these individuals employed. In an effort to increase the funds available to Lapeer Team Work, he is currently asking country clubs and high-end public courses to donate the balls from their ponds to Lapeer Team Work.
GolfBallDivers.com will collect the balls and pay Lapeer for the finished product. The course receives a tax deduction for an item that was never a big revenue item and Lapeer Team Work receives additional income to keep their workforce employed, and more importantly, they can reach more individuals that need help.
Whether you are a scratch golfer with a higher swing speed or a casual golfer with a higher handicap and slower swing, GolfBallDivers.com has your favorite ball at a reduced price.
The next time you lose a ball into the murky waters at your local club, don’t consider it $3 down the drain. Your donation to the ‘Golfing Gods’ is actually helping a physically or mentally challenged individual learn a trade and job skills that will allow them to contribute more fully to the community. And you can always stock up with lower-cost reclaimed golf balls from GolfBallDivers.com. You can also find these balls at Amazon, eBay, Newegg, Overstocked.com, Sears and Kmart.
We read every day about a golf ball company’s new golf balls that fly higher and farther than the competitor’s brand. GolfBallDivers.com balls can back up that claim, because their used golf balls provide jobs for people, that otherwise would not be able to find employment.
As Ann Marie Zettle said as we were leaving the Lapeer Team Work facility, “Keep losing those golf balls!”
This story first appeared in the September 2018 edition of Ohio Golf Journal. Reprinted with permission.