Passion, Positivity and Culture: A Conversation with Don Henderson
Cliff Drysdale Tennis takes immense pride in our incredibly talented staff. Each of them has their own story, and their own methods. Each month we take you behind the curtain to learn more about those that make the #UltimateTennisExperience possible. Today we’re talking with Don Henderson, the CEO and Co-Founder of Cliff Drysdale Tennis.
Cliff Drysdale Tennis: Don, you’ve obviously had a lot of experience in our industry, but I want to take you back to the beginning of your career. When did you know that you wanted to make tennis your career? Did it fall into your lap or were you intentional about it?
Don Henderson: When I was in high school I had no idea what I wanted to do. I played for a junior college and was playing a lot, then took a summer job as a tennis coach. That’s when I started really liking teaching people. After college I went to the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch where I felt like I could develop my skills, and that’s really where it all started.
CDT: So you were teaching part time; what made you give full commitment to being a tennis pro at that age? DH: Well I loved tennis and I wanted to around the sport, first off. I tried to play tournaments for about five years across the U.S. and Europe, and when I realized I wasn’t good enough to make money playing, that’s when I committed to start teaching full time and actually learning that craft.
CDT: When Cliff asked you to come lead a new tennis program at The Ritz-Calrton Key Biscayne, Miami, how was the transition into your first real leadership role?
DH: I was Program Director at the Ranch, but there were people above me, and I wasn’t really in charge of hiring staff. The program had been in existence for many years, so I didn’t really have to worry about too many administrative things. Cliff offered me the job as Director of Tennis at the Ritz in 1997, and to be honest I probably wasn’t totally prepared to be a Director. I certainly didn’t have anywhere near the training our PTU employees have today. It was a brand new club, which I think was lucky for me. As they were developing processes, I was learning. I think I would have had a lot more difficulty going into an already established club.
CDT: Looking at the Tennis Garden on Key Biscayne today, it’s practically an institution, busy all the time and one of the premier places to play in all of Miami. How did you build the program from the ground up to have the reputation it now holds?
DH: Well it definitely didn’t happen right away. And we weren’t the only game in town; Key Biscayne has more courts per capita than any place in the world. We were in a highly competitive environment and we started with just two courts and a trailer. I flat out think we gave clinics and programming that was just better than everyone else and we did it with more energy every single day. I think we set a tone that if you come to the Ritz, you’re going to get an upbeat clinic that was very intense. We as pros wanted to be there just as much if not more than the players did, and that had a huge impact.
CDT: So as you build this stellar reputation, and have more courts with players and pros, you must have had to do a lot more hiring. How did you get your staff to prescribe to the way you delivered the tennis experience?
DH: That was definitely the biggest challenge early on, trying to bring on good people. I didn’t yet have enough business to tell a prospective pro that they could have a bunch of hours right away, so it was tough to attract quality people. And early on I didn’t hire the right people, I ended up having some quite negative staff members and that really led to a negative culture at the club. There was a period of time where I didn’t even want to come to work. I cleaned house and finally realized that I just needed positive pros; that was what made the culture of our program so strong.
CDT: You definitely figured that one out as there’s now a huge staff at the Ritz and there’s been a number of different people there, all of them upholding the resort’s brand. When you decided to bring Cliff Drysdale Tennis to other facilities, you had to trust other people to be leaders at their respective locations and uphold the brand. How did you approach that expansion and what were the lessons learned?
DH: Early on my strategy was quite simple; hire the best possible director of tennis and let them do their thing. We didn’t really have enough staff internally that could control everything. Right now our company is a thousand times better in training, branding and consistency. Back then, we really just relied on promoting our best people who had worked under me at the Ritz to new clubs as we acquired them.
CDT: I would say that one of our company's strengths is that we do have so many different perspectives and personalities in our company, and you’ve really allowed people to work in the areas they are passionate about. Is that something you did consciously?
DH: Yeah I definitely think that’s my style, whether I meant it or not. My management style is to trust people. I think it’s worked really well for me; I don’t dictate when people need to be in the office or how many hours they work. I trust people to work hard, and positive people tend to work hard. And that’s really been the key to our company’s growth; the positive culture has never left. Anyone negative in our culture really just doesn’t work and so they filter their way out. Positive people hire other positive people.
CDT: For people that are curious about what an average day in the life of a tennis pros would be, is there anything you think they might not expect to be part of the job?
DH: I think that planning and being organized is something that takes up a lot of time, especially for directors. A lot of people know how to teach, but most don’t know how to plan a clinic, organize a schedule and manage a staff. The key to growing a program is not you as a pro teaching more; it’s creating more hours for everyone, and that takes planning.
CDT: Finally, when you look at applicants and interviews, what are the qualities you want to see in someone? What would help somebody impress you?
DH: For me it’s pretty apparent when you’re interviewing someone if they are passionate about tennis. One of the questions I always ask is ‘what are your aspirations’? A lot of people don’t say ‘I want to be a director of tennis and I want to be in the tennis business’. That right away scares me. So I would say just make sure that you love tennis and make that clear. And you can also tell as an interviewer if somebody is positive. We try to weed out the negative, so I think being optimistic is an absolute must.