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Lessons learned from tennis help entrepreneur in business, life

Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013



MANHATTAN -- The secret to finding success, whether in school, sports or the business world?

A Kansas State University graduate has the answer: Find something you love to do because you'll work hard at it.

It's advice that has served Kris James -- or "KJ" -- well on the tennis courts, in earning his college degree and in the corporate world. It's also behind James' decision to start his own business in the Phoenix metro area, ScottsdaleTennisLessons.com, and help promising young tennis players reach the next level.

Tennis took center court in James' life when he was 10 and began to play the game, advancing to become the No. 1 ranked junior player in Oklahoma -- he's originally from Tulsa -- and one of the top 100 junior players in the country by the time he was 18. Then it was time to pick a college. He was heavily recruited by the former schools of the Big 8 Conference for their men's tennis teams. He chose Kansas State, where he was a four-year tennis team member.

"I just fell in love with K-State," he said. "There was something so unique and special about going to Manhattan on a recruiting trip. It was such a friendly and warm campus."

Then it came time to choose a major, and James followed his own advice about picking something he loved and working hard at it -- geology. His family spent many vacations going to national parks, where James said he was always curious to know how the different landforms and other natural wonders came to be. He graduated No. 1 in his geology class in 1986 with a Bachelor of Science and began thinking about his career, although tennis was always in the back of his mind.

As a geology major, he was a little surprised when Kansas City-based Marion Labs -- the company owned by Kansas City icon Ewing Kauffman -- showed interest in him. The man who recruited him told James that the hard work and dedication it took to complete such a science-heavy major would come in handy in the pharmaceutical business.

It did. James stayed 25 years with the company, which through several mergers and acquisitions became Sanofi, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

"I was promoted six different times, which resulted in me moving straight from the K-State campus in Manhattan to Corpus Christi, Houston, Kansas City, Chicago, Denver and then to Phoenix," James said. "Each position was in a different role with increasing responsibilities. I primarily worked in human resources, spending my last 10 years in recruiting, staffing and talent management."

James got the chance to retire early from Sanofi three years ago and he took the opportunity to get back into his first love: tennis. He had never stopped playing since leaving Kansas State, even playing in some pro tournaments and earning a world ranking of 385.

"After my career at Sanofi, I really wanted to give something back to the sport that gave me so much confidence and direction in my life," James said. "So I established ScottsdaleTennisLessons.com. Instead of giving my company a unique, sexy or trendy name, I decided I'm going to tell people what I do and where I do it. It really bridged from there."

Now James is a certified teaching tennis professional and specializes in '"10-and-under" youth tennis all the way up to nationally ranked junior tennis players who aspire to play at the collegiate level.

"My pathway to K-State led me back to this opportunity to teach kids and help get them to college," he said.

James also serves as one of the few teaching professionals in the nation who is certified as both a tennis umpire and a referee. He spends his weekends from January through late April officiating professional and collegiate matches, especially for nearby Arizona State University and several other Pac 12 Conference schools. On the professional side, he's officiated matches involving eight players who achieved No. 1 world rankings, including tennis greats John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin.

James credits the game he loves with much of his success in life, and hopes that's what he's teaching his young players.

"Tennis has provided tremendous self-esteem and confidence in my own ability," he said. "It was knowing that when I went on the court, it was me performing, using all my abilities, mental toughness and extensive training in a setting that was one-on-one. Often in life you have to use similar strategies to make decisions and find harmony and balance in life."

Which brings James back to the advice he follows and gives his junior players ready for college: "Pick a major you love, don't pick a major to get a job. Find something you love because you'll never mind studying the subject and it will help you become a great student. And the rest will take care of itself."


Kris James



News tip

Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., and Tulsa, Okla.


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 Kris James on the tennis court

Written by

Beth Bohn

At a glance

Former Kansas State University men's tennis player Kris James now teaches the sport, specializing in teaching young players who aspire to play at the college level.

Notable quote

"My pathway to K-State led me back to this opportunity to teach kids and help get them to college."