John A. “Lex” Kessler’s ties to tennis, both business and personal, are abundantly evident in his one-man office in North Salem.
There’s the artful US Open poster that hangs in the lobby. There’s the hall of rackets – wall mountings that trace the evolution of the sporting weapon that Kessler watched Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams winningly wield at Forest Hills this month.
In the owner’s inner sanctum at Indoor Courts of America, tennis ball cans are stacked in one corner near a wire basket brimming with official US Open balls. Kessler, a former chairman of the U.S. Tennis Association’s technical committee, built the ball-testing lab at the USTA’s Platinum Mile headquarters in Harrison.
There’s the bright-orange collection of Wheaties boxes, the breakfast, or supplemental meal ticket, of box-cover champions like Pete Sampras, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Andre Agassi.
Beside his desk, there’s a framed signed photo of Agassi raising his racket in victory at the French Open. An autographed racket that Agassi carried in his bag that day overlays the portrait.
Speaking of Arthur Ashe: Kessler’s ICA company designed and built the USTA’s $65 million, 12-court indoor facility at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens. It’s one of several construction projects for which Kessler’s ICA company has won awards from manufacturers, builders associations and the USTA in a career that spans 30 years and the miles that separate Westchester County, where Kessler resides in Somers, from ICA headquarters in Olathe, Kansas. The plaques line a hallway wall of the ICA East office in North Salem.
This month, the 51-year-old Kessler added to his standing in the sports construction industry when the USTA recognized Sportime Randall’s Island, a city-owned public tennis facility in Manhattan that is home to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, with its Outstanding Tennis Facility award. Kessler partnered as design-builder on the $19 million project with the facility’s operator, Long Island-based Sportime.
Kessler expects that a current project of his, an indoor tennis facility at Trump National Golf Club in Washington, D.C., will win the USTA award next year. It is the Trump company’s first indoor tennis facility.
“I happen to be the only guy in the entire world who has made an adult career and living on just building these indoor tennis facilities,” said Kessler, who also is sole owner of Sports and Wellness L.L.C., which operates an indoor tennis club in Old Mystic, Conn., and a tennis and fitness club in Danbury. “We can do them anywhere in the world less expensively than a local guy.”
He estimated that Indoor Courts of America has done about 500 design-build jobs, including about 50 new facilities. His list of completed projects in Westchester alone reads like a Yellow Pages directory of tennis clubs and indoor facilities available here.
“New York’s the number-one indoor tennis market in the world,” he said. “Within about two hours of New York (City), there are over 300 indoor tennis facilities.” The nation’s next largest market for Kessler’s business, metropolitan Chicago, has about half that number.
“I design-build,” he said. “That’s what I do. But I’m purely an entrepreneur. I’m not an architect. I’m not a designer. I’m not a construction manager.”
“I’m closer and more connected to the client than an architect or engineer or contractor could ever be.” Working through the concept, design, budgeting, permitting and construction management stages of a facility renovation or new development, “I’m constantly viewing the process from the clients’ eyes,” he said. ICA’s fee is 10 percent of project cost.
Growing up in suburban Kansas City, Kessler showed entrepreneurial skills at an early age. At 12, he started a neighborhood lawn and landscaping business with five employees. He got out of the business after about two years.
“When I could get my license, I went into house painting,” employing “about a dozen guys.” With savings from that, he bought his first house after moving out of his parents’ home at 17. The bank, though, would not close on his loan until he turned 18.
“I had less than zero interest in being in school,” he said. A day job at a bank for which he received high school credits “was my ticket out of school. It was like a work-release program.”
He started but soon dropped out of a community college in Kansas. “I was bored to death,” said Kessler, whose wall of awards includes a plaque from Mensa, the international society of people with high IQs.
The entrepreneur went to work as a roving installer for the insulation business owned by his father, who had patented an insulation system. After three years, Kessler left to start his own installation business and add products from major manufacturers.
“When the beer companies in the ’80s started temperature-controlling their warehouses, we went on a run,” he said. His company, Insulation Corp. of America, also renovated “a couple hundred” AMC movie theaters. “We had these different runs when we started working for owners rather than for general contractors.”
Kessler’s specialty design-build company began in the early ’80s when he met the owner of indoor soccer teams in Kansas City and on Long Island. He traveled to New York to convert a tennis building into an indoor soccer field for the New York Cosmos in the short-lived North American Soccer league.
While here, Kessler was hired to renovate a tennis club on Cape Cod that needed a ceiling replaced in the wake of a fire. “That’s what began the back and forth from new York and Kansas City, those two jobs,” he said.
The entrepreneur decided to market his services to other indoor tennis facilities. “Every job we did, we’d get like two more,” he recalled. “It was like mushrooms.”
“There’s a magic about great insulated ceilings and tennis courts,” Kessler said. Recognizing that magic, in the early ’90s he patented a system for bouncing light off the ceilings his company insulated to cast more light for players on the face of an approaching ball.
“Fast-forward 20, 30 years, we’re on our third-generation lighting system,” he said.
With the advent of air conditioning in tennis facilities, he later patented a system for ventilating the cavity above the insulated ceiling in a Butler building to eliminate the roof’s solar heat load, which lowers air conditioning costs by about 75 percent, he said.
With his businesses prospering, Kessler “semi-retired” at 40 and became a stay-at-home single dad to his son and daughter. But the recession and lingering economic malaise and the bankruptcy of the two Connecticut clubs in which he was a partner sent him back to work.
“I’m currently working 70 to 80 hours a week, and I will be for at least another year,” he said.
“From 1990 until 2009, we had a nice run.” But design-build jobs slowed after lenders tightened commercial credit about five years ago.
“That hasn’t changed. We’re getting some nice clients, but it’s not what we were doing 20 years ago. Now you have to be gold-plated to get in the indoor tennis business.”
Kessler and his partners in Sport & Wellness L.L.C. in 2009 filed for bankruptcy protection for their Connecticut clubs, Mystic Indoor Tennis and Danbury Sport and Wellness. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 with Kessler as sole owner.
“After three years, this is the first year we’re in the black,” he said. “It was starting over from scratch. That was after being in business for 10 years.”
The entrepreneur apparently hasn’t lost his touch since emerging from semi-retirement. From 2010 to this year, membership at the clubs has grown from about 300 to 1,255, he said.
“We’re a success story in Danbury because of this three-year recovery,” Kessler said.
As someone who is very familiar with Kessler and his journey. I can tell by this article that the author, Ms. Golden, wrote this story without doing much if any research. It is obvious to those that know what the last 20 years have really been like for ICA that Kessler just provided “a story” and it was printed. The media should be a shame at what it has become with very few true “reporters” who take time to understand the whole story and most importantly the true story before sending it to print for people to read.