Value Added: From Tennis Teacher To Running The Club

Gary Henkin's immersion into the business side of the fitness craze reminds me of the advice one of my former editors, Doug Feaver, once gave me. Feaver, who was one of the kinder and smarter editors I was privileged to work for, said if I wanted to be an effective reporter, I ought to find a vacuum and fill it. In other words, find an uncovered topic and mine it.

Henkin did the same thing in business.

If you play tennis at a country club or public facility in the Washington region, or you've had a facial at someplace like the Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia or at K. Hovnanian Four Seasons at Historic Virginia, chances are you have put some cash in Henkin's pocket.

Henkin, 63, founded and is president of WTS International, a Rockville company that designs and runs tennis and fitness centers, and spas throughout the country.

Gary Henkin. Photo: WTS International

WTS has around 2,000 employees, with 50 or so based right here in Montgomery County. The rest are scattered around the country, doing everything from running pro shops and giving tennis lessons to designing spa floor plans or running the accounting for a hotel's fitness center.

The company generates tens of millions of dollars in annual revenues, and it has made Henkin and his wife, Annette, who is vice president, very comfortable.

I caught up with Henkin on the telephone while he was driving down Route 5 from Los Angeles to San Diego for a business meeting the other day.

He is a rare Washington specie: a District native. He attended Calvin Coolidge High School and the University of Maryland. He tried to follow in his obstetrician father's footsteps and studied to be a doctor, but organic chemistry and comparative anatomy sent him toward tennis instruction instead. He was a highly popular tennis instructor, working at places like Wheaton Region Park and Shirley Racquet Club, when his business eye noticed things weren't quite right.

"I felt there was really not a logical approach to managing a tennis complex," he said. "It was very much hit and miss. And very much dependent upon whomever it was who was in the role of tennis director. And many tennis directors were great players and great teachers, but notoriously poor business people. There was really not a businesslike approach to managing tennis facilities. I felt there might be a good niche to do that and create a more systematic approach to not only hiring and training of staff, but also to the other areas of tennis management -- the pro shop, the operations, program development, accounting and financial services, retail development, marketing and maintenance. There was really very little consistency or standards in terms of how tennis facilities operated. There was no model to go on. No one had done this."

Henkin wrote the first operating manual on how to run a tennis club. He couldn't have timed it more beautifully. Tennis was taking off in the 1960s and 1970s, and so was the fitness craze.

Henkin found his vacuum and he filled it.

He incorporated Washington Tennis Services in 1973 and business poured in for the next 17 years. He was 28.

"It turned out to be the right time and the right kind of service and it grew pretty rapidly," he said.

His first big break came when he was hired to run the tennis grounds at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, site of several U.S. Open golf tournaments. Word of mouth spread and Washington Tennis was soon running other tennis courts and pro shops across the country.
This was the business: Henkin would sign a contract with a hotel, country club or resort to operate its tennis facility, including maintaining the courts, providing instructors, scheduling sessions, running the accounting, even operating the pro shop. He made money nearly every year, but sometimes it was tough.

Henkin worked the business. He and Annette attended conferences, met with general managers of golf courses and became known through word of mouth. There was very limited advertising. Revenue grew over the first 17 years to nearly $3 million.

In the 1980s, Washington Tennis expanded to include health and fitness facilities, providing personnel, promotion and management to health centers typically associated with office buildings, residential development, private clubs and hotels.

"We took the tennis business model, and tweaked it or massaged it to fit the fitness facility scenario and that business started to take off," said Henkin. "We got in front of the fitness craze and saw the marketing coming at us and found another niche for ourselves in the mid- to late 80s."

Clients started asking him to design their health centers, working with architects and interior designers. No longer limited to tennis, the company was renamed WTS International and now has offices in Los Angeles and even Dubai.

WTS recently got two big contracts to run spas for Donald Trump in his Chicago and Los Angeles towers. WTS just opened a spa in Colonial Williamsburg.

Henkin said he has sunk most of his profits back into WTS, which he and his wife own outright.

They have taken some money out and invested it in some real estate and mutual funds, mostly U.S. stocks and bonds, with some international exposure. But most of the net worth is in the company. He used to buy stocks, but he doesn't have the time to follow them anymore.

"We tend to plow back significant amounts of capital into our company every year," Henkin said. "It's why the company is growing geometrically."

The Henkins now live in Kensington, only nine minutes from the office. But Gary bristles when I say his is a family business.

"It's not a family business. It's owned by two members of a family, but it's a burgeoning, growing enterprise. We are rockin' and rollin'."

I asked him if he were looking to sell and earn a big payday.

"We have had people approach us, particularly over the past few years. So far, I'm still having a whole lot of fun. I am very happy right now. If you had to describe me, it would be as a very hard-working entrepreneur."

An entrepreneur who has found his niche.

By Dan Beyers  |  April 29, 2008; 12:55 PM ET  | Category:  Value Added
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Who knew this kind of micro-niche could be so successful considering how tennis has waned in popularity---just shows you a well run organization can dominate any category--kudos for transferring the blue print and recognizing the emerging fitness craze in the 90's!

Posted by: Jeffrey | April 29, 2008 3:23 PM

Interesting story about identifying business opportunities but I would have loved to read what some of the challenges were. What were his costs when he started? How did he obtain capital to grow his business? Is there good margins?

I enjoy these profiles Mr. Heath.

Posted by: Mackey Drubs | April 29, 2008 5:17 PM

As an avid tennis player, I appreciate a well run facility. Tennis has been perceived to be a low yielding business model by many of the club owners, when in fact, tennis players are very loyal and long-term patrons. It is great to see the love of the game can be transferred into a thriving business model, especially during a period when tennis was varying in popularity. Thanks for an uplifting story in a challenging business.

Posted by: David Evinger | April 29, 2008 5:45 PM

Living in a suburb that is still very true to Tennis and tradition, it's nice to see the revitalization of the sport among the mainstream. and what a great piece to give people their options!

Posted by: ALD | April 29, 2008 7:45 PM

"organic chemistry and comparative anatomy"

Nicely played!

Posted by: Georgetwoner | April 29, 2008 10:29 PM

I really enjoy reading this column. Heath does a great job of quickly getting to the core of how each business operates, and how the entrepreneur has become successful. The writing is brisk and entertaining, too.

I like getting an up-close look at different entrepreneurs (and their businesses) who make up the broader Washington metro area economy.

Posted by: David Sutton | May 1, 2008 11:08 AM

I can still remember playing tennis with my brothers and grand parents when I was a kid. It was always such a thrill to get that ball over the net. This great piece does much to prove that my own children will get to enjoy some of the same experiences. Too often we forget that before they were Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf at Center Court, they were playing at clubs like these as little kids honing their skills.

Bravo for a great piece of writing.

Posted by: seth weiner | May 1, 2008 9:47 PM

Each of these well-written profiles is inspiring: individuals who recognize an opportunity, have the nerve and entrepreneurial spirit to seize the day and the talent, work ethic and probably some good luck to succeed. While I am sure there are hundreds of failures for each success, hopefully these stories will inspire others to take a chance to go for the gold. For Gary Henkin it was game-set-match! Fun story to read; thanks.

Posted by: Cooper | May 1, 2008 10:04 PM

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