Saving the local lawn tennis club
Break point: Frinton-on-Sea's historic lawn tennis club opened in 1899 © James Max

Wimbledon, Pimm’s and strawberries are about to punctuate the British summer for a few glorious weeks. Yet lawn tennis has been dominating both my work and social schedules for far longer than that. It all started in July last year with a phone call from my mother.

She suggested (well, insisted) that I stand for the committee of our local lawn tennis club in Frinton-on-Sea. She wasn’t the only person who urged me to put my name forward. The club’s president got in touch; so did the main benefactor, his wife and some life members. It was turning into quite an arm-twisting exercise.

At no stage had I contemplated standing. I have been a member for over 40 years, but I play tennis once a year, frequent the bar on occasion and turn up at the odd function to show support. The club has needed more members and more money for as long as I can remember — but this was not the kind of ‘rich people’s problem’ I was necessarily qualified to resolve.

I did, however, put my name on the list and was duly elected, along with a number of other rookie recruits, all none the wiser as to what we were letting ourselves in for. Until, that is, the first meeting of the board. All thoughts of strawberries and Pimm’s went out of the window.

Our historic club opened in 1899. With 16 grass tennis courts, 8 hard courts, an outdoor heated swimming pool, two covered and heated squash courts and a fully kitted out gym, it also has a thatched clubhouse, bar and ballroom. In the winter, two of the courts are covered by a “bubble” which allows for covered play. Truly amazing resources. The courts are some of the best in the country, thanks to some dedicated work by our groundsman. So why wasn’t it a compelling offer to potential members — especially as the David Lloyd Club some 30 minutes drive away with no grass courts costs twice as much to join?

The club’s finances were in a terrible state. A whole host of refurbishments had been carried out, at great expense, and a hoped-for grant from the Lawn Tennis Association had never materialised. We were facing closure.

Worse, some members thought the ‘improvements’ detracted from the club. For many, the refurbished bar was soulless. The club’s honours boards with cup winners and visitors, all gone. A club whose heritage included being the destination of choice for the then Prince of Wales, Winston Churchill and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Saving the local lawn tennis club
Top seed: grass courts in great shape

In more recent years, Virginia Wade, Ilie Năstase, Andrew Castle and even Sir Cliff Richard had played on its courts. The tournaments, visitors, social events and history are the stuff of legend. And here we were, left with a bar that looked like the reception of a budget 90s hotel and a declining membership.

But that was a minor problem compared to the accounts. On asking the chairman how he proposed to fill the black hole, he suggested that’s why we’d been elected — to help find a solution. Unlike in the working world where you have to actually want the job, seemingly in clubland, the person who least wants the post is selected. And in this case, that was me — thankfully assisted by a very able board and committee.

In August, on day two of my tenure as chairman, I received an ace first email from the club’s manager: “We’ve just received an invoice for £15,000 but haven’t got enough money in the bank. What would you like to do?”

Day two was a little early to give up. On day three, it got worse. A deluge of emails, unpaid bills and a litany of issues to be resolved. Setting aside one member who was furious that I had taken over as chairman (sadly, I was too busy to deal with that particular problem).

We had to raise money. And fast. So £10,000 went from my bank to the tennis club’s account. Money I may never see again. But how can you ask others to donate if you aren’t prepared to lead by example?

In order to fix things, you need to work out what’s going wrong. Not put sticking plasters over gaping wounds. Of course the holes in the roof had to be sorted, the failing electrics fixed, the conked out boilers repaired, machinery that cuts the grass and the ice machine replaced. Then the fridge packed up, the dishwasher didn’t wash dishes and the oven didn’t heat up.

Saving the local lawn tennis club
Double fault: the club's thatched roof and swimming pool

And so the list went on . . . and on. A long to-do list is symptomatic of a businesses that doesn’t have enough money to plan ahead and budget — ostensibly because the membership fees were too low, and there weren’t enough members (and guests) to turn a profit. Dwindling subscriptions were not covering the fixed costs. But new members will not join up unless there is a compelling offer.

But before we could think about the future, we had to fix the present. We had 60 days to raise £60,000 to stop the club from going under. Everyone said this was impossible. But we raised the money.

Avoiding going bust won’t move you forward — as many retailers are finding out the hard way. At a packed club meeting, I served up the turnround strategy. We had to raise more money to fund a rebranding exercise, build a new website, fix broken stuff, and pay for an architectural practice to draw up proper refurbishment plans. That will be £47,500, please!

Again, people said this was impossible. But we did it in 15 days. This time, the majority of the cash came from people who were connected to the club but no longer members.

Since then, the board has appointed a brilliant head coach, rebranded and reinstated the old colours, drawn up a programme of tournaments and — under my direct supervision — overhauled the bar menu and wine list. Having Pimm’s on tap is a revelation!

Anyway, one member asked why I’d bother to chair the club given how bad I am at tennis. You don’t have to be good at tennis to enjoy a game. Last week, as the sun shone, I decided to play for the first time this year. The courts were amazing. If you’ve never experienced playing on grass, I’d strongly recommend it. The spring underfoot, the smell of the lawn and the exhilaration of the speed of play (the divots have been filled in now).

Everyone involved has not just invested money, but countless hours of their time to preserve the legacy of our historic club — hopefully for generations to come. Arguably the rich person’s problem is not what you can spend your money on, but how much time you can devote to projects and causes that matter to you. Sipping an ice cold Pimm’s at the club on a sunny Saturday in June after being mercilessly thrashed in a game of doubles — surely there is no better return on an investment.

James Max is a property expert and radio presenter. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax. If you have a problem for James, contact him at richpeoplesproblems@ft.com

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