Column: Bob Hampton, a tennis lifer
We sat down with Bob Hampton for a question and answer session about his life in tennis. Here is an edited transcript from the interview.
How did you and your wife land in Prescott?
BH: A couple of years ago we retired and were living out east. We missed the west and wanted to spend most of our time enjoying the sun & “no shoveling”.... many of our friends from Boulder Colorado were moving to Arizona and encouraged us to look at Prescott, so we took their advice and made the plunge....so far we love it here!
Tell the readers a little about how tennis became a big part of your life:
BH: I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada....I got into tennis when I was 12 years old. Every day on my way to school I passed by a tall wooden fence and didn’t know what was on the other side of it.....one day I worked up the nerve to open the gate and peered inside. An older gentleman motioned to me to come in so I did. He asked me if I wanted to learn how to play tennis. The club offered young juniors very inexpensive memberships and they had quite a few other kids involved. The courts were red clay and we could earn some extra money to buy racquets, balls, shoes, etc., by helping maintain them.
My tennis instructor, Gordon North, would arrange for us to play inside in the local school gymnasium every weekend throughout the winter. During the summers he would arrange for some of the better adults at the club to play with us, He would take a bunch of us kids to tournaments all over western Canada in his camper truck. He was a retired train engineer and occasionally he would talk his train engineer friends into taking us up in the engine on trips through Banff and the rocky mountains.....what a thrill!.....One of the great things about Gordon was that he never charged us a cent for all the lessons, equipment and travel costs. He was quite a remarkable man. A week before he passed I discovered that he was one of the British soldiers that liberated the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen at the end of WW11.
When I was fourteen I won the Alberta Jr. Championships (14 & under) and was ranked in the top ten in Canada in my age group.In the next few years I won a number of tournaments and was offered a tennis scholarship at Penn State. Unfortunately I got hurt playing football in high school.
Throughout high school I would teach tennis and then in the early 70’s the tennis boom hit North America and I started teaching tennis full time at a 10 court indoor tennis facility. Within a couple of years I had become the Head Pro and Manager of the club. A couple of years later, with a few business partners, I became an owner and manager of a tennis, squash, handball and racquetball club in Winnipeg, Canada.
One of the members of the club had a sporting goods distribution business. He was a good friend of the President of Colgate Palmolive and in that era Colgate owned Leach Racquetball, Bancroft Tennis and Squash and Ram Golf. My member friend asked me to join his company and become the Marketing and Sales Vice President. He moved me to Toronto and that was the beginning of my business equipment career in the tennis, squash, racquetball and golf world. Four years later I was approached by Dunlop & Slazenger to head up their tennis division in Canada.
This was a big promotion for me because Dunlop & Slazenger had approximately 70% of the tennis, squash and racquetball market-share in Canada. Five years later I was transferred to Greenville South Carolina to become President of the Racquets Division of Dunlop/Slazenger North America.
It was exciting times at Dunlop as we had players like John McEnroe and Steffi Graff. We also had numerous manufacturing plants in the USA and throughout the world and I got to travel to each of them.
At what point did you go to HEAD - and what was your management style?
BH: I was approached by HEAD in 1992 and moved to Boulder Colorado to be a Vice President of the Racquets Division. In those days HEAD was a major player in the tennis, squash and racquetball world. Our strategy at HEAD was to sign the best and as many players in the top 100 in the world as possible. We thought that this strategy would influence the better player who in turn would influence the weekend player.....our marketing department came up with the slogan "HEAD RULES".....along with our new launch of titanium racquets we jumped from a distant third to a very close #2 in the fiercely competitive tennis racquet equipment industry. Just after I started we were fortunate enough to sign a brash very talented kid by the name of Andre Agassi. He turned out to be both a great player and a good spokesmen and certainly one of the best player investments we ever made.
Just after we signed Andre we lost one of the greatest and most beloved ambassadors at HEAD and in the entire tennis industry with the untimely passing of Arthur Ashe. Arthur was a class act and every employee at HEAD had on their desk, an autographed picture of them with Arthur. He would travel to Boulder frequently and drop in and shake hands with everyone. It was surprising how he would remember not only the names of the employees but also the names of their kids and spouses.
My management style was very simple and straight forward. I hired the best people I could and then gave them lots of room to be creative but at the end of the day we were all held accountable. They had to be good players, love tennis, be good family men and women and be willing to put in long hours! If we weren't capable of outspending our competitors we would simply out work them. I lead by example, we were all fiercely competitive and didn't like losing, we all loved tennis and didn't want to work in any other industry. Many of the guys I hired are still in the business and are CEO'S of tennis companies.
I later was promoted to President of HEAD for all of NORTH America, I got to oversee the USA and Canadian hard goods & soft goods business's. At the time HEAD was a major player in the ski, racquets and scuba business (with the brand, MARES).
What well-known people and players did you get to know?
BH: I rubbed shoulders with some of tennis, squash and racquetball's great players and coaches.....Some jobs have perks but being able to attend most of the grand slam events and being able to mix with the players was a great thrill. In racquetball my favorite player was Marty Hogan, In squash it was the Khan family dynasty. In tennis Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf were incredible people and athletes and I am so happy that they are married and seem very content. Some of my favorite players were the older guys that started a group called "The Legends",guys like - Rosewall, Laver, Emerson, Stockton, Stolle, Becker, Connors were all remarkable players and enjoyable to be around. Sitting in the Slazenger box besides the "royals" at Wimbledon, having lunch with Steffi after her win against Sabatini at Wimbledon and being with all the past US Open champions at the opening of Arthur Ashe stadium in New York are a few of my really good memories.
Your path to such heights was due to?
BH: Looking back I must say that I was very fortunate. Most of what I learned was the result of having a really good dad, lots of good mentors and bosses who were tough, demanding but patient. Many of them have passed on but for those that are still around I still call or email on a regular basis.
How does the concept of a new racquet go from idea to reality?
BH: In tennis companies that I have worked for, most of the ideas for new products began by listening to advisory staff (tennis coaches, players and focus groups). Most were average tennis players that wanted to improve their games and have more fun as "weekend warriors." The Prince oversize (Howard Head) and the Head Titanium are good examples of racquets that helped the average player play better! Of course you need good engineers, model shops and in house production helps with good quality control. Then you need a good marketing staff and of course good sales people. Having experienced executives and owners that are willing to invest and take chances - you inevitably need lots of swings at the plate before you hit a home run!
What were your favorite racquets sold during your time at Head?
BH: At Dunlop the Maxply & Max 200G were my favorites! We sold literally hundreds of thousands of them and some of the best players in the world played and won with them. At Head the Ashe Competition, the Red Head and of course the Titanium series were my favorites and helped my staff and me earn full bonus every year!
What part of this industry did you like the most and what wasn't fun?
BH: There wasn't much about the tennis business I didn't like! I loved the people, the travel, the comradery. Even most of our competitors were good people and fun to be around. Throughout most of my tennis career I would work long hours but I always looked forward to getting up and going to work. If you enjoy what you do it doesn't seem like work! Probably the toughest part of the tennis business was the litigious side. I spent a great deal of time either fighting or defending patents.....very expensive, unproductive, negative and pretty unrewarding.
One of the best stories I have about the tennis business and one that I have never revealed publicly before now happened in the early 90's when I was with Dunlop. We had a tennis ball plant in Hartwell Georgia and Wilson had their tennis ball plant in Fountain Head South Carolina (not all that far away from each other)....Dunlop and Wilson were bitter enemies! I was in charge of the racquets division at the time and used to drive down from Greenville to visit the plant once or twice a week. One night I got a call from the plant manager telling me that our Schon cutter (tool that cuts the felt cloth into figure eights) had broken and that it would take at least a week to ten days to secure another one from Germany. This was devastating news because this meant that the plant wouldn't be able to produce any balls for at least two weeks resulting in loss of sales, employees not being paid (most were paid by the hour)...pretty bleak outlook!
The next day I got a call from the plant manager. He was a wonderful southern gentleman. He said, "Sir" would it be too much to ask if you wouldn't come down to see us for the next couple of days. I was a little taken aback but agreed not to visit the plant until I got the "all clear call" which came two days later. I drove down and was surprised to see the plant fully operating. What had happen? I was politely told not to ask too many questions but I quickly realized that hard working middle class American people look after each o We were tough competitors but when it came down to whether people were going to suffer hardship and young families would not be able to have food on the table, other "priorities" took precedence. I think if "senior management" from either company would have gotten involved things wouldn't have happened the way they did. I don't think I ever forgot the lesson I learned from that incident and somehow I don't think this was the only time the factories had exchanged "pleasantries."
How do you feel about most manufacturing of tennis equipment no over-seas?
BH: When I was with both Dunlop & HEAD we did a lot of in house manufacturing in the USA and in our factories in the UK (Dunlop) and Austria (HEAD). There is a lot of pressure to have products made well but at the best possible price. Investors want to make a return on their investments. Professional athletes, marketing, product development and innovation is expensive.... all this overhead adds up and if you can take costs out of a business and not raise prices to a savvy consumer then you have no choice but to seek the factories that offer good quality and low prices. If Americans want American made products then the products will have to be innovative and likely a little more pricey. Like many of us, I prefer American made products but today I think we need to think more globally. Quality at a fair price seems to be the preference.
Your thoughts on the trends of tennis in today’s world and its products?
BH: I'm excited about the innovative products I see in the marketplace! The use of carbon, lightweight materials primarily developed for the aerospace industry is exciting. Also the footwear industry is coming out with unique products that make it easier on the joints and may keep us on the courts for a few more years.
Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.