Peter Burwash: The Innovation Interview

Peter Burwash, Founder & President of Peter Burwash International, the world’s largest tennis management company operating in 32 countries, shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and the future of tennis.

Prior to founding Peter Burwash International, Peter competed on the ATP Professional Tennis Tour 1967-1974 in which he won 19 International Singles & Doubles Titles. He is a former Canadian #1 & Davis Cup Player who was named one the One Hundred Most Influential Forces in Twentieth Century Tennis.

In 2004 Peter was inducted into the University of Toronto Sports Hall of Fame and in 2010 he was inducted into the Northern California Tennis Hall of Fame.

Peter has coached and played tennis in 135 Countries and he has flown an average of 264,000 miles per year for 40 years. He is a featured international speaker who is one of the most highly sought-after speakers for Fortune 500 companies with more than 100 speeches and events annually.

PBI was named “One of the Ten Best-Managed Companies in America” by author James O’Toole, in Vanguard Management.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

I think it’s coming up with something new and better in response to what people need and what people want – sometimes before they even know they want or need it. Like Steve Jobs’ innovations – who knew they would want or need an iPhone?

Closer to home for me was seeing that the established set of tennis teaching concepts needed innovating. I looked at all the common phrases that I heard tennis coaches constantly spewing out like, Watch the Ball, Turn Sideways, Racket Back. Watch the ball? Players are already watching the ball — otherwise they wouldn’t swing at it.

You will never see a ball come to someone’s forehand and they swing on the backhand side. Even the klutziest of players swing on the correct side. So what I tried to do was take an established situation and be very creative and innovative – using something that really made sense and was practical for the student.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

One of my innovative heroes is Richard Branson and I’ve been very fortunate to teach him tennis and to get to know him over the years. I just love the way he goes about things.

He is always trying to come up with something new or exciting and I think the airline industry definitely need to have that. Times have changed and much of the innovation that has come about in the airline industry is at the expense of the well-being of the customer. It seems the philosophy of most of the American carriers these days is what less can we do for you? How can we charge you for an aisle seat? How can we charge you to board ahead of time? How can we charge you for pillows and soft drinks and everything else?

It’s become a situation where they have innovated but it hasn’t been for the benefit of the customer and I see that as very much a negative approach. More people are traveling than ever before. So therefore why aren’t they making innovations with the customer in mind as well? That’s why I prefer an airline like Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, or Singapore Airlines.

Changi Airport in Singapore is a great example of tremendous innovation. There is absolutely nothing in the United States that is even remotely close to the quality of the design and the facility of Changi Airport.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

Laurance Rockefeller and I were having dinner at Caneel Bay and he said something very poignant that has stuck with me. He said you will have matured in life when you understand that the highest position you will ever obtain is that of a servant.

He said I know people don’t like the word servant, but if you think about it, you get up in the morning and you will serve your dog by feeding it or taking it for a walk, you serve your husband or your wife or your kids, you go to school and you serve your teachers, you go to work and you serve your boss, your manager, your customers. You may go into the military, you may do community service — but we are all servants, and that is the highest honor we can have.

That really stuck with me and has sort of been one of the most important pillars of my life — to realize I am just a servant to everybody and however I can help them out — that will fulfill my day.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

A very simple answer — understanding the importance humility.

Humility is the ground floor and it is your final achievement in life. It is to be humble… whatever you succeed in, there’s no need to brag about it. Without humility, life will always be a challenge, because if you are humble then you’ll listen. If you listen, you will learn and if you learn, you can serve and teach.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Physical. You know, instead of having a piece of metal in my hand I would rather have a tree.

I just know the other thing is that I like to read books and underline in red and notate the pages and everything. I know you can do all of that on the Kindles and other devices, but still…

How did you first discover tennis and why did you choose to make it your career?

It was in Montreal, Canada where my dad had been transferred as a bank manager. My mom and I had a little argument, I was twelve years of age, and she said, “Go down to the tennis court and amuse yourself.”

The lady across the street had given her a racket out of their closet and so I got on my bike and went down to the courts. They had three people in the under 13 tournament. Because that was my age division at the time, they asked if I wanted to play and make it four people.

We had two semi-finals to go into the final and I said “I don’t know how to play” and the lady in charge, Mrs. Ambundak, said, “I’ll do the scoring for you.” So I finally played this match and figured out the weird scoring system and where I was supposed to go and everything.

And I won the match. By then I could do the finals on my own without the assistance of Mrs. Ambundak. I ended up winning the tournament and they presented the trophy to me. I got on my bike and I raced home said to my mom. “Look what I won, Mom!” She wouldn’t believe it and so she called Mrs. Ambundak and said, “I think my son has stolen your trophy.”

A week later I won the whole sectional and a week after that I won the provincial tournament, and went on to play in the National Championships about three or four weeks later.

That could not be done, by the way, today. There is just too much physical raw athletic talent out there. So I was just very fortunate to have that year.

Who do you feel is the most innovative company developing and manufacturing tennis equipment today and why?

I’ve got to qualify that we (Peter Burwash international) are with Wilson, but I follow them carefully all the way back to Jim Baugh days. They had the best R&D by far, so no question — Wilson. They are the leaders and it shows in the sales and the market share and even at the top players’ level.

With companies such as Wilson and Prince opening Innovation Labs, what do you think will be the next great innovation in tennis and why?

You know, I can’t answer that because it is just my hope is that we don’t create more technology that will make the game go faster.

Due to the speed of the game, almost 100% of the players on the men’s and women’s tours are players are injured … it’s just a question of the degree of injury. The body was never geared to handle the way that players play today. There are a few exceptions, like Roger Federer, who happens to have a nice one-handed backhand. The two-handed backhand contributes to the injury factor and you know how many players play with two hands now.

Having a two-handed backhand does not hurt your back by itself … the problem is that hitting the ball late with two hands puts added stress on the lower back. That’s why we teach two-handed players to also use a one-handed backhand, which gives them more flexibility and takes the pressure off the back. The two-handed backhand limits a player’s flexibility, variety, and potentially compromises their health, and therefore limits their future.

Whatever we do in the technological arena, I hope it will make the game easier on the body so that more people can enjoy it and play longer. The development of softer court surfaces and the expanded use of clay courts is great for the game. The greatest players of all time all learned to play on clay.

What are your thoughts on Head’s Graphene technology and how do you feel it will impact the game of tennis?

I am under contract with Wilson, so I can’t really comment on Head’s technology.

What is the one tip you would like to share that would pretty much help anyone’s tennis game?

If you read Tennis For Life or if you’ve had a lesson from a PBI professional, you may have heard this – but it would be to understand that tennis is a game of emergencies. And how well you deal with those emergencies is going to determine how the match turns out.

So we teach people first and foremost how to deal with and get out of an emergency situation. Just like a driving instructor makes darn sure that the student knows where the brake is and how to use it, we show our students how they can get every and any ball back in the court, by understanding how to control their racquet and to use their wrist to ”rescue” themselves. At that point, it’s not about form or looking good, it’s about being practical and staying in the point. You need a defensive foundation first, then your offense is built upon that.