For 30 years, Peter Burwash and Peter Burwash International have been providing unrivaled service to players, vacationers, facilities, and their own employees.
Peter Burwash gave me my first formal tennis lesson.
It happened 17 years ago at Seabrook Island Resort in South Carolina. And I was intrigued — by Burwash himself, by his pros, by his teaching methods, by his whole positive outlook toward life and tennis.
I think Burwash would be happy to know that now, after having taken lessons from many different pros over the years, I still remember — and more importantly, still use — at least two key Peter Burwash teaching points: On the serve, “hit up, snap down” (I remember him sitting cross-legged on the court at the baseline and “snapping” the ball over the net and into the service court), and, in the ready position, hold the throat of your racquet with your non-racquet hand, with your index finger on the strings to help “set” the direction of the head for the next shot.
When everything else starts falling apart during a match, these two simple tips help me regain my balance. Then I remember what a great time I had that long weekend 17 years ago and how much I learned about playing and enjoying the game. And I consider how lucky I was to have my introduction to tennis be from someone who has such a huge passion for the game.
It was 30 years ago this past February when Burwash started Peter Burwash International, which manages the tennis operations at some of the world’s most exclusive resorts and clubs. In 1975, Burwash, who grew up in Canada and was living in Hawaii at the time, was fresh off the pro tour, having played professionally since 1967, winning 19 singles and doubles titles.
“When I was on the tour, playing at clubs and resorts around the world, I saw how a lot of tennis operations were set up,” says Burwash, “and three things struck me. First, in those days, there were a lot of tourneys at resorts, and I’d interact with resort managers and they’d be looking for a pro. So I thought, maybe there’s room for a management company to supply pros to resorts.
“Second, living in Hawaii, I’d hear from people who said they had visited three or four different islands and would get different instruction from each pro, with no consistency from one to the next.
“Third, I just had an incredible life on the tour and had a chance to play in 74 countries. I thought, it would be nice if people could have this travel experience even if they weren’t able to play on the pro tour.
“I thought a tennis management company was a brilliant idea. I didn’t realize that by 1975, there were 16 others doing the same thing,” he says. “Right now, of those original 17, we’re the survivors. We’re the one still standing. And it’s been very gratifying.”
Currently, PBI manages the tennis at 69 sites around the world, and there are 101 tennis professionals in the company.
“I’ve personally interviewed 10,586 pros,” says Burwash. “And these are long interviews — 10 to 14 hours. I believe that the president of the company should do most of the interviews and take time with them, so you get it right. I’m stymied today with how many people do one- or two-hour interviews. You can’t really learn that much in that time.”
Pros who survive the interview process still have a long way to go, however — 450 hours of training, crammed into one month of 15-hour days. Prospective PBI pros spend 130 of those training hours on court, learning about basic teaching methods, how to give private and group lessons, and various on-court programs. But, says Burwash, “We don’t teach systems; we teach individuals. We teach a setup concept and terminology that will allow customers to go from one PBI facility to another. That consistency and continuity of communication is very important and leads to very loyal customers.”
The other 320 hours of training are off the court and in the classroom, where PBI pros learn about the business. But they don’t just learn about their little area of tennis; PBI pros are schooled in all aspects of the resort and club business.
“We have courses about what a hotel manager does, what convention bookers and meeting planners do, how each department in a hotel fits into the whole scheme of things, classes in writing, understanding the media, how to put together a press release, how to take photos, budgeting, court construction, lighting, court maintenance, computers, and much more,” says Burwash. “It’s very intensive.”
The idea behind the training is to make the PBI tennis pro a partner with the host facility, with an understanding about what these resorts and clubs deal with daily and how they can become more profitable.
“We can put together a tournament to help generate room business, and we help bring meetings to these facilities,” says Burwash, adding that it was his suggestion that brought the USTA Annual Meeting to the Westin Rio Mar Resort & Casino last year, a PBI facility in Puerto Rico.
“We train our guys to be proactive,” says Burwash. “Originally, we were just service people. Now we’re service/management people to help the fiscal health of the property along. While our pros are not employees at these resorts, they are department heads. The resorts know that we’re in the business to help them sell rooms.”
PBI pros also go through a 150-item checklist regularly on how to take care of the tennis courts and equipment. “All these details ensure that we remain fiscally responsible” to the resort or club, says Burwash.
“But,” he adds, “no decision on our part is going to be based on dollars; it’s going to be on, can we deliver the service. The first day of training, we say to pros, ‘You’re coming into the service business, not the tennis business.’”
Dressing for Success
And that brings up another key distinction of PBI pros. “We look at how we are being perceived,” says Burwash. “The image of the average tennis pro is extremely poor. If a pro comes out with his shirt hanging out, looking like a slob, I’m not going to have a lot of faith that this guy knows what he’s talking about.
“I was doing a conference last year and the general manager at the resort said to me, ‘Why do tennis pros have to dress like such slobs? Look at the golf pros — they’re all dressed well and clean-shaven. What is it with you guys?’” says Burwash. “That’s what I hear. Owners don’t want to put money into tennis because it’s perceived like such a slobbish sport. They can’t get past that perception to see that the purpose of the courts is to generate room revenue.
“One of the major complaints is that pros either miss lessons or show up late to them,” he adds. “Tennis has it over golf in practically every segment, but what golf has over us is a much higher degree of professionalism. This lack of professionalism in tennis pros drives me crazy.
“To me, it’s just common sense on how you dress, how you act, and how you present yourself,” says Burwash. “Most of our properties, they’d throw us out if we presented ourselves that way.”
While PBI is installed at 69 sites in 32 countries to date, “We’ve turned down quite a few over the years,” says Burwash. “The No. 1 reason is for a lack of service mentality — the owner or manager doesn’t really see service as critical. No. 2 would be security. We’ve had offers to go to different places that aren’t really safe. No. 3 is that we’ve carved out a niche of being in five-star operations, so our customers have come to expect that. We generate customers who trust us.”
And for 30 years, the customer is what PBI is all about. “We have a strong corporate policy of never charging if the customer doesn’t get it,” says Burwash. “I expect all of our pros, if they don’t succeed in a lesson, to give the lesson for free. Also, if we are one minute late, we give the lesson for free, and the pro pays a $50 fine to the [host] company. The customer is the winner. I wish more service businesses would do that — if you don’t get the job done, don’t charge.
“I would average 20 to 25 letters a week commending the excellent service,” he adds. “I think we’ve had two negative letters in the 30 years, and they were both our fault and we ended up covering the cost.”
Communication within the PBI organization is also key, both for serving the customer and serving the host facility. Burwash sends out a message to all his pros two or three times a week, he says. Also, every PBI pro must send out a newsletter at least four times a year to all the other pros, sharing information about their successes and failures.
“We’re very conscientious about sharing where we go wrong,” says Burwash. “If you don’t communicate your mistakes, they continue to happen.”
With PBI pros, the rigorous interview process, the intensive training, and the constant communication pay off big. Burwash says he’s never laid off anyone in his company over the 30 years. Ten of his pros have been with him since day one, and the most junior person at PBI headquarters at The Woodlands in Texas has been with him for 24 years.
Pro Dan Aubuchon joined PBI 26 years ago, when he graduated from college, and now is the tennis director at the Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, Calif. “There are two things that Peter did that really keep people in the company,” he says. “One is that the challenge is always changing and moving. Whatever you want to get into, Peter will help you. I’ve gotten into consulting and design work, coaching pro players, running clinics for new PBI coaches.
“The other thing is the people,” Aubuchon says. “The people you spend time with are incredible. I’m as close to these people as I am to my family.”
Adds Chris Dwyer, PBI’s executive vice president and COO, “Peter’s enthusiasm is contagious. It keeps you going. He keeps challenging and encouraging. He gives you a lot of freedom to take the initiative.” Dwyer, whose main job is matching pros to resorts, has known Burwash since his days living in Canada.
Burwash’s respect for his pros also runs deep. “I’ve never taken a penny from another pro; I’ve never received one cent from the company,” Burwash says. “I have no salary. I make my money on speaking engagements, books, articles.
“For me, loyalty is a two-way street,” he adds. “Today, employers are not loyal to their employees, yet they want their employees to be loyal to them. I’ve always felt that if your employees are happy, that’s going to be truly reflected in how they treat the customer.
“I speak to major corporations, and I find that one of the reasons they’re struggling today is that the president is so focused on the bottom line that they spend all their time worrying about that instead of taking care of the employees,” says Burwash. “You’d better make it a neat environment to come to work in. Everyone has my direct line and e-mail and can contact me any time. I spend three to four hours a day just talking to the pros individually.”
Home and Away
Burwash’s speaking engagements take him around the world, addressing such companies as American Express, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Chemical Bank, the American Cancer Society, Cornell University, Pacific Asia Travel Association, the USPTA, and the USTA. His topics can range from leadership, to motivation, to health and fitness, to service, to tennis, and more.
For nearly 25 years he spent more than 300 days a year on the road, averaging about 264,000 air-travel miles annually. But, he says, “I’m trying to get smarter.” For the last eight or nine years, he says he’s averaged about 150 days on the road, packing more into each trip so he’s able to spend less time away from his family — wife Lynn and adopted daughters Kimberly, 14, and Skyler, 9.
Home for Burwash now is Carmel Valley, Calif., where the family moved from Hawaii in 1999. “We came to buy the Gardiner Tennis Ranch,” says Burwash. “When John Gardiner wanted to sell, he called me and said I was the only one he trusted the property to. I raised the money in 24 hours, then there was a zoning dispute and my lead investor panicked, then prices rose and it didn’t happen.”
Now Burwash runs the 12-court (10 hard, two clay) Carmel Valley Ranch. The director of tennis at Carmel Valley Ranch is Bruce Haase, who has been a pillar of the PBI organization since its founding, says Burwash.
Burwash also has written 10 books, including the still popular “Tennis for Life.” But only two of his books are about tennis; the others are on life and motivation. His latest book is “Dear Teenager,” which deals with teen suicide and getting through the tough teenage years.
Among his many successes on court, Burwash started wheelchair tennis. “In February 1975 we founded the nonprofit International Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis,” he says. “We put down the first rules and had the first tournaments. When Brad Parks formed the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis, we felt he would be a better spokesman for the sport.”
Burwash also started a tennis program for prisoners at the Hawaii State Prison. “In 18 years, of all the guys in our program, only one returned to prison after being let out,” says Burwash. “They were absolutely my favorite group to teach; they were truly the most appreciative, and their deportment on the court was impeccable. I still keep in touch with some of them.” The program ended in 1993 when the prison needed the court space to build more cells.
But community service remains a key for PBI today. “I ask all of our pros to give two to four hours a week of community service on behalf of the sport,” says Burwash. “If they can’t, then PBI isn’t for them.”
For Burwash, though, and for the three-decades-long success story of PBI, it comes down to one very simple business philosophy. “My No. 1 role is to take care of the employees,” he says. “The employees’ No. 1 role is to take care of the customers. And, magically, the customer takes care of the bottom line.
“We’ve made money for 30 years with that philosophy.”
See all articles by Peter Francesconi
About the Author
Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.