A FIRST PERSON ACCOUNT OF RUNNING A SMALL BUSINESS
Norman Sanoff builds tennis courts for the wealthy. He founded Great American Backyard 24 years ago and now works all over Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, running the business from an office on Robertson Boulevard near the Santa Monica (10) Freeway. Jennifer Smith spoke with Sanoff about the business and the increased demand for tennis and other courts sparked by the booming economy and its new class of techie millionaires.
“When I started the business in 1976, I didn’t know how much of a specialty it was compared to regular construction. I hired people in the business, and I learned as I went.
“I directly employ about nine people to do the concrete, leveling and forming for the courts. The electrical and fencing goes out to subcontractors. They’re not the cheapest, but I want experts in each field. A good court can last for 40, 50, 60 years, so you want to do it right.
“The bulk of my work is tennis, multi-purpose and basketball courts for individuals or homeowner associations in Santa Clarita and Palos Verdes. We do a lot of smaller jobs as well, like half-courts for basketball and paddle tennis. We’ve suddenly started doing a lot of shuffleboard courts no one else was doing it, so we became the ‘experts.’
“We’re in 41 different Yellow Pages, and we mail out brochures on request. Mass mailing doesn’t work because you’re dealing with a more affluent group.
“Not only do you have to be able to afford the court, you must have the land. An average court is 7,200 square feet, and the average lot in Los Angeles is only 6,000.
“For top-end stuff we have very little competition. It will cost anywhere from $35,000 to $40,000 for a well-done court, depending on the amenities. We once did a cantilevered court built over a hillside for $600,000. We had to bring in outside engineers for that one.
“In the past two or three years there has been a dramatic increase in luxury items like tennis courts. Many of my customers are in their 30s and 40s. They’re high-profile people in the entertainment industry or the new techies who made money off their Internet IPOs.
“Nobody needs a court. They’re not going to die if they don’t get it. But when my customers start to make money, they become as a group more like their parents. They want the same toys, like tennis courts. And if their friends have it, they want it.”