Bob Lee: The King of Clay Courts
When a player slides on a court to make a shot, chances are he or she has Bob Lee to thank. Any time the pro turns a knob to water the court from underneath, or drives a roller across the surface, there’s Bob Lee to thank for that, too.
Lee, who founded Lee Tennis Court Products, did much to advance the science of the game, but he wasn’t a renowned player. He was an engineer, a builder and an inventor, and he actually launched his career in the sport in order to get out of something he didn’t like doing: setting off explosive charges in mines.
The year was 1952, and Lee was working with the Funkhouser Company in Hagerstown, Md. Funkhouser made roofing granules. Lee’s job was to go into the mines, ascertain where a blast was likely to yield the most usable material, and then detonate the appropriate charges.
"It was very dangerous work," recalls John Welborn, Lee’s son-in-law. "But that’s what he was doing every day."
When stone was processed, a byproduct ensued: fine particles that couldn’t be used in the roofing operation. Over time, officials at Funkhouser were persuaded to try the stone dust as a tennis court surface. The result was successful, and the surface became known as Har-Tru. Eventually, the company owner, Richard Funkhouser Sr., wanted to market it to a wider audience, and asked Lee to head up the effort.
"I think, really, to get out of what he was in, he would have jumped on just about anything," laughs Welborn.
Funkhouser gave Lee and his early co-workers an edict: "He said, ‘I’m not going to watch your costs or what you spend, but I don’t want any callbacks. I want those courts perfect.’" Lee, always detail-oriented, went to work engineering and building perfect courts. His meticulous work paid off, and before long, Har-Tru facilities were in demand nationwide.
"To me, that was the secret," says Welborn. "Because he had the mindset of doing it right every time, he would stay until he had all the courts all checked out. That was why the business took off."
By 1964, Lee had tired of the constant travel for Har-Tru and left the company, moving to Charlottesville, Va., and starting his own firm, Lee Tennis. In his travels, he had met the Luck family, who owned a quarry locally. The Luck stone was perfect for Lee’s work, and the ensuing partnership resulted in a new competitor for Lee’s former company, Har-Tru. Lee indulged his love of tinkering and inventing, as well as his curiosity about new technology, furthering his company’s interests and revolutionizing the soft-court industry.
Lee Tennis purchased the patent rights to HydroCourt, the underground watering system, in 1990, and with it, expanded the accessibility of soft courts. (The system was eventually installed under several courts at Wimbledon).
"I would say the development of the underground watering system was very important," said Carl Paylor, Lee’s longtime friend and former Har-Tru colleague. "That really brought a lot of desert areas into the clay-court market."
Lee also marketed a ride-on roller that made maintenance easier, and eventually, launched a line of court upkeep products, and later, lighting, that now accounts for nearly one-third of the company’s business. When the tennis boom began to subside in the 1980s, the company expanded its marketing reach, offering new products as well as seminars and hands-on service.
In 1998, Bob Lee retired, selling the company to Luck Stone. In 1999, Lee Tennis purchased the Har-Tru name and continued to use it as the brand name. The company is now officially known as Har-Tru Sports, a Division of Luck Stone. Welborn, currently the director of business development, says his father-in-law (who passed away in April 2010) would have been happy.
"That’s where he started out, and that’s where it has evolved," said Welborn. "I guess you could say it came full circle."
Paylor and Welborn love to tell stories about Lee himself. Once, he built a boat in his basement and then couldn’t get it out. "He had to knock down a wall to fix that," says Paylor. Welborn just laughs, remembering Lee’s obsession with the boat in general.
"He spent more time tuning up that boat than riding in it," Welborn says. "He would drive me crazy on weekends; he would invite me over and I’d be ready to go boating and he’d just be cleaning up the boat all day. He loved having a project. He was happiest when he was pounding nails into something."
"Pioneers in Tennis," an occasional column in RSI, draws attention to trailblazers in the sport. Have someone to suggest? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.