Pioneers in Tennis: Jerry Douglas, ‘A True Leader’
It’s no secret in tennis that an unexpected bounce can turn out to be a game-changer. This particular bounce occurred in the early 1970s when a man named Joe Douglas was the owner of an Iowa company that made industrial fabrics, such as tarpaulins. Douglas Industries Inc., which had been in operation since 1967, one day got a call from a local business.
“A fitness center was on the phone,” says purchasing manager Kelly Montgomery, one of the company’s longtime employees, “and they said they needed curtains. The company said, ‘Sure, we can do that.’”
Soon, Douglas Industries was making backdrop curtains for the booming indoor tennis market, and finding it a lucrative endeavor. Joe Douglas’ sons, Jerry, Dave and Joe Jr., began pursuing this avenue of growth. “We started making tennis nets and windscreens,” says Jerry Douglas, “and we continued to add a lot of things to our product line.”
Douglas Industries expanded its reach into the sports market, adding more products and more sports. Eventually, it left behind the industrial fabric business. Today, the company manufactures and sells products for baseball, basketball, golf, hockey, badminton, soccer, volleyball and more. Its tennis market, the genesis of all its sports endeavors, includes nets, posts, windscreen, backdrop curtains, divider netting, and more.
In general, much corporate growth has to do with being in the right place at the right time, and doing the right things. But Douglas Industries employees are quick to note that Jerry Douglas, who took full control of the company in the 1990s, has been a key player in helping to establish the company’s identity in the market and beyond.
“He’s amazed me with what he’s done with the company,” says Montgomery. “He’s a true leader. And when it comes to his customers, there has never been a ‘no’ answer. If we didn’t have a part that someone ordered, he would call around until we found what was needed and then he would have it shipped to the customer directly. Or he would figure out how to cut something up and make what he needed. He always had a Plan A, and a Plan B, but there was also always a Plan C, D, E, and F. He’s just like that.”
In addition, says Chris Rickerl, Douglas’ vice president of operations, until his retirement from the everyday aspect of the business several years ago, Douglas routinely made customer service not just a habit, but the next best thing to a religion.
“We had a customer in Indiana who had a problem with some tennis posts, and Jerry got in the car and drove eight hours to go see them,” says Rickerl. “He’s gotten on a plane and gone down to Texas or Florida just to go support a contractor whose windscreen has blown down. He has the freedom to do or not do that kind of thing, but he does it. That’s just Jerry.”
And the customers have never forgotten.
“If you get a call, you always hear, ‘Oh, how’s Jerry?’ and ‘Say hi to Jerry,’” says Montgomery. “They remember him. He has taught me so much over the years about how to work with people.”
In addition to his hands-on role in the company, where he interacted with employees on a daily basis, and with his customers and vendors as often as possible, Douglas has also been a key figure in the industry. He served on the board of directors of the American Sports Builders Association, eventually becoming the president of what later became the organization’s Supplier Division. For years, he was a constant presence at industry conventions and trade shows, meeting and greeting his customers, as well as his competitors and colleagues, on the show floor.
“His personality is larger than life,” says Rickerl. “He’s almost legendary.”
These days, Jerry Douglas spends his time happily retired, relaxing and in his words, “just enjoying life.” His son, John Douglas, is CEO. But still, say company personnel, Jerry leaves a lasting impression on the industry and is all but a visible presence.
“Oh,” laughs Kaufman, “it’s like he’s still here. Sometimes I’ll be on the phone with someone, and I’ll give them a price — and of course it’s a fair price; Jerry wouldn’t have it any other way — but the person will say, ‘What? Are you kidding me? I’ve known Jerry for 40 years and Jerry would never make me pay that.’”
“He made a big impression on people,” says Rickerl, “and he still does.”
“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.