“If we are enjoying so much progress, why is everyone so worn out? “
-Dr. Richard A. Swenson, M.D.
Age with wisdom can be a wonderful thing. I look back now on some of the hardest experiences in my life and realize how they helped me grow. My leap from college at the U into tennis club management embodies this dynamic.
I left Utah with degree in hand and landed at the Rusty Pelican Restaurant in Newport Beach to ease my transition into responsible living. Ha! Waiting tables almost became my career. I was stuffing my safe deposit box with gold Krugerrands to manage all the cash from tips, surfing (or playing tennis) all day, and arriving at work just in time to eat (on the Rusty Pelican’s dime). It could easily have become a lifestyle …
Somehow, I got back on plan when I was hired as general manager of the Covina Hills Racquet Club (CHRC) in southern California. CHRC was the full package tennis club, with thirteen tennis courts, two racquetball courts, weights/aerobics room, pro shop, snack bar, jacuzzi/sauna, and an outdoor pool. I was now in charge of directing the “leisure society” members, who were spending their free time (and disposable income) at our club. My professor Dr. Rockwood would have been proud; it was textbook.
Or so I thought.
I was immediately overwhelmed. Work/life balance went out the window, even though I was wearing tennis clothes and working on my sunta. I had a staff of twenty employees and two tenants (pro shop and snack bar) who needed constant attention. The hotel which owned CHRC (Granada Royale Hometels) expected a tennis club to be as immaculately clean and orderly as a newly arrived hotel room. Inspections from the hotel staff were constant.
I soon realized CHRC was in a serious negative cash flow position with membership growth on the decline. Then we had a pink eye outbreak in the pool which threw the members into a tizzy. Upon inspecting the pump room to investigate, I found my maintenance man sitting in a chair smoking pot. I didn’t have to ask about the connection there…
This part was not in the textbook!
All of the sudden, my workdays at CHRC were from opening to closing almost every day of the week. To make matters worse, the times when all of my friends were off work (weeknights, weekends, and holidays) were exactly when I was busiest at the club. I dropped off social calendars, gave up surfing, and watched my tennis game disappear. It was as if I was out surfing with a wave interval of two seconds. No matter how hard I paddled I didn’t have a chance to get out.
The tide began to turn for me when I hired our first head tennis pro, Barry Friedman. CHRC members immediately took to Barry’s style and personality as he rallied (pun intended) members into activities that raised morale and got everyone out to play. Barry awakened the tennis community at CHRC while giving me the abiliity to get ahead of our day to day operational issues so I could get home at a decent hour at the end of the day.
Looking back now, there were two important lessons I learned from CHRC:
- Members (people) are generally happy if they have a tennis pro (leader) who they like and who can improve their game. Barry taught me a lot in that area.
- Relationships matter. It took just one letter from a disgruntled member to nearly cost me my job. I survived, but vowed not to ever allow that to happen again.
When Granada Royale Hometels announced their shocking decision to close CHRC two years later in 1984, I took a leap of faith to join a new telecommunications firm from Silicon Valley called ROLM (where my sister Terry was working). ROLM hired me as a customer support advisor in their Irvine, California branch sales office to help drive maintenance contract revenue for their telecommunications systems, which were just coming off warranty.
I was a deer in headlights. One day I was literally counting tennis ball cans in the CHRC pro shop and the next day I was counting ports on a printed circuit board inside a ROLM Computer Branch Exchange (CBX). Of course, I first had to learn what a “port” was!
Up to the early eighties, AT&T had a monopoly of analog telephone service in the U.S. As the U.S. government mandated the breakup of this monopoly in 1982, companies like ROLM emerged to computerize the telephone and long-distance service for businesses. ROLM was investing heavily in technical training of their workforce to get a jump on this new opportunity. It was as if I was going back to college, but getting paid to do it!
Best of all, I met the love of my life at ROLM; Marla was in a customer support role when we first met at the Irvine sales office. An friendship immediately developed. Marla was smart as a whip (USC graduate), beautiful, fun, easy to talk to, and liked to laugh. When I first announced my interest in her, my co-worker Al Walker snapped back,
“Mulkey, she’s got legs as long as you are!”
I won the jackpot when Marla agreed to marry me in Newport Beach in 1991. We moved north to ROLM’s headquarters in Santa Clara where we planted our roots, raised two children (Marisa and Matthew), and began to call Mountain View home, leaving behind the warm beaches of southern California.
Selling a ROLM Computerized Branch Exchange (CBX) required a great deal of technical sales support. My timing was perfect to gain entry into a program where I received twelve months of technical training classes to become certified as a ROLM systems engineer. It was an exciting time to be on the leading edge of a Silicon Valley company like ROLM. I was in classes as much as I was on the job.
I immediately took to ROLM’s CEO, Ken Oshman, and his philosophy of “GPW” (Great Place To Work). In-between training classes and field sales calls, I was back on the tennis courts or taking time out for a jacuzzi or steam bath during breaks at work. The ROLM campus featured recreation facilities that rivaled CHRC; they were even featured on CBS 60 Minutes because of it. It truly was a great place to work!
Marla and I were both enjoying the excitement of our jobs at ROLM, but were also starting to realize that there was not much free time to hang out at the beach like we were used to in southern California. Silicon Valley was emerging as the global center of innovation for computer technology, so it seemed reasonable that work became the priority. The computer was entering our lives in ways we never could have anticipated in the 1970s. If I read this wave correctly, Dr. Rockwood’s leisure society was seeming to be in jeopardy.
The information revolution explosion which soon followed happened so quickly that nobody had time to study the potential dangers that came with it. Alvin Toffler wrote about this in his book Future Shock (1970), arguing that that the information overload to come would overwhelm society and result in a “future shock” because of our inability to handle it all. The more I saw of Silicon Valley, the more I believed he was on to something. There was a wave coming and it was big.
In the midst of all this, it took me five years to brave the cold water in Santa Cruz and go surfing. It was a long dry spell! Some blame was due to the work culture in Silicon Valley, but mostly it was my fear of the frigid northern California currents. New wetsuit technology from O’Neill finally got me to break the ice (literally!) at Steamer Lane (“the lane”) in 1996. I quickly realized I had found an escape valve from the Silicon Valley pace, less than an hour from my doorstep in Mountain View.
The lane on a big winter swell is not for the faint of heart. Both the leash and wetsuit were spawned there for good reason. The rock cliffs are gnarly, and the water is numbing. It is a world-class reef/point break that is thick and powerful and can rip for several hundred yards into Cowell’s beach (on a low tide). It rivals any break I have surfed in California.
Paddling out can challenge even the best surfers, as the currents are strong, the waves often too humongous to duck under, and there are four different breaks to navigate (indicators, middle-peak, the slot, and the point). I like to sit at middle-peak on big days when it can top triple overhead further outside at the point. However, waiting for a wave can get spooky. Middle-peak can jack up to double overhead out of nowhere and get you diving for abalone faster than a boat anchor if you can’t get over it. The longer your board, the more difficult that can be. Middle-peak waves often move sideways as fast (or faster) than they are moving in, so positioning for the take-off can be quite tricky and involve a bit of luck.
I caught the biggest wave of my life on a winter storm-swell day at middle-peak. The sensation was completely alien. The wave unexpectedly appeared and came at me like a freight train out of a dark tunnel, whistle howling. As I paddled for it the ocean picked me up like a tsunami and began moving with me. It was as if all of Monterey Bay was caught up in this wave. I was instantly moving with the wave and rapidly dropping in, whether I wanted to or not! The wave had caught me.
I quickly got to my feet in a crouched position as I raced down the face, noticing a couple of surfers diving for the bottom off to my side. The drop was sensational, akin to jumping off a cliff. As I started a sweeping right turn, the enormity of the wave and the amount of water moving with me was exhilarating! I felt like Franz Klammer at the 1976 Olympics, racing with abandon to stay ahead of the crashing lip, ignoring all sense of form. I had never gone so fast.
Over my shoulder, I could see the wave breaking behind me in apparent slow motion. Surfers sneaking over the lip looked back down at me as I excitedly banked off the face with water spraying high into the crisp Santa Cruz air like a snowboarder coming off a half-pipe lip. My Doug Haut surfboard tracked onto the face of the wave as if it were the Santa Cruz boardwalk roller coaster, dropping and climbing as the face continued to build in front of me without any sign of letting up. The force of it allowed me to sweep further out of the section without any danger of losing momentum back into the wave. I was flying!
This went on continuously until I finally kicked out at Cowell’s beach on the inside as the wave broke in front of me. Cresting over the lip I fell off the back of my board and floated on my back to soak in the memory of what had just happened. I released a light laugh and then slowly climbed on my board and paddled back out, reliving every part of that wave. Like one good shot on a round of golf, it carried me for many, many waves after. It had been a gift from God.