Pioneers of Tennis: Bob Caldwell
A Leader in Acrylic Surfacing
When Bob Caldwell made the jump from stucco to sports surfacing, it might have been a logical progression for a man whose colleagues hailed him as a visionary. "Oh, he always was. Bob Caldwell is the reason I originally wanted to work at California Products," says Art Tucker, vice president of the company.
It was in the early 1950s that Caldwell made his first business venture, buying a 25-year-old company called California Stucco Products of New England. The company was trying to develop a stucco that would not fade in the sunlight. It was a challenging endeavor, and the geographic area — Massachusetts and surrounding states — was not a great market for the product.
"Stucco really was not a money-maker in this area," notes Joe Junkin, a company director (and Caldwell’s son-in-law). ”It was just dusty, dirty stuff."
Caldwell was willing to look at other options, and he encouraged his chemists when they began experimenting with acrylic paint. The paint, the chemists noted, was bright and durable. They applied it to a playground surface to see what would happen.
"The kids really liked it," says Junkin. "And then the chemist woke up one night and said, ‘If I can put this on a playground, why don’t I try it on a tennis court?’" Caldwell was in favor of the idea, and a well-known Boston businessman agreed to apply the finished product to his private court.
"After a rigorous three-month period of research and development, they put it down on his court," says Tucker. The product was a success, but a measured one. The company moved into the paint and coatings business, ultimately becoming known as Plexipave, and leaving stucco behind. There were plenty of challenges.
"They were not counting sales in the thousands of gallons," says Tucker dryly.
"It was very hard to promote this product effectively since we didn’t deal directly with consumers in most cases," Caldwell noted. "The practical core of the market lay in the hands of the coaches, the athletic directors, the club pros and the tournament directors."
The tennis boom had yet to occur, and few (if any) business-to-business publications existed in sports. Caldwell realized he had to reach the builders of tennis courts who would ultimately be using the product. In 1965, he worked with a group of others in the industry to found, fund and launch the U.S. Tennis Court & Track Builders Association, which would later become the American Sports Builders Association. And while it served his networking needs, it also improved the industry as a whole.
"He wanted people to be able to exchange construction ideas so that you ended up with a better product at the end of the day," notes Junkin. "He believed if you kept the standards high, you had a better industry."
Caldwell continued to listen to what his customers wanted, and the company grew. "He was so passionate about what he did," says Tucker. "He was always trying to bring out products to meet the needs of contractors. A lot of the old products — the asphalt emulsions and other things — weren’t contractor-friendly, and between Caldwell’s vision and a really innovative chemist, the company came up with some pretty good products."
Caldwell’s passion translated into high standards for customer loyalty and technical competence. Working with him could be challenging, says Tucker, but he was an excellent mentor. "He was a greater risk-taker than you might find in a corporate environment, and like any innovator, he made plenty of mistakes. He was bullheaded, but when he finally saw something was a mistake, he knew to stop."
He didn’t mince words, either. "We had this intercom system," says Tucker, "and periodically, you’d get called in. He could dress you down pretty well, but you knew it wasn’t personal. Still, I would hear this voice: ‘Tucker! My office! Now!’ Oh, God, my stomach just churns thinking of that."
In the late 1980s, Caldwell, now 98, retired from the company, now known as the Plexipave Sport Surfacing Systems division of California Products Corp. The business has continued to flourish, and both Junkin and Tucker say Caldwell’s presence remains.
"There’s a loyalty that has transcended Mr. Caldwell himself, and it still resides in our company," says Tucker. "His name is still evoked: ‘Is that what Bob Caldwell would do?’"
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.