It was only five years ago that Jim Dobmeier's company, A-Turf of Cheektowaga, laid its first synthetic athletic field, in Hershey, Pa. Some 200 installations later, I guess you could say business has been brisk.
"It really has," Dobmeier said by phone from a trade show in Baltimore. "It's been a great run for the last five years or so."
A-Turf isn't everywhere, it only seems that way. Canisius College, Buffalo State and Niagara all had fields installed before the fall season. So did nine area high schools: Orchard Park, St. Joe's, Canisius, North Collins, Pioneer, Southwestern, Warsaw, Perry and Bolivar. Those followed previous installations at Amherst, All High Stadium, Lew-Port, Nichols (two), UB and Alfred.
Athletic departments far and wide are latching on to the premise that the grass is greener, more durable and easier to maintain if it isn't grass at all.
Dobmeier, a graduate of the defunct Bishop Neumann High with an MBA from UB, knew there was a market out there for high-grade synthetic fields when he founded A-Turf in 2002. He's been in the sports and recreation business since the early 1980s and in 1993 started a company that installed playgrounds and gym floors. He could see the industry trends developing. What he didn't envision is the robust demand on the high school end, with districts willing to trade up-front costs for long-term savings.
"You always hope for such activity at the high school level because the markets are so big and because quite frankly it makes a lot of sense," Dobmeier said. "The utility these high schools get out of one field is incredible. I didn't anticipate it, but I always hoped for it.
"But overall, it's been a combination of things. Some good marketing, trade shows, direct mail . . . and of course word of mouth. In this business saying what you're going to do and doing it and being there for the client is a huge plus. We kind of built the business from that model, treating people that way you want to be treated. It's nothing sophisticated but it is the honest truth."
A-Turf's synthetic fields have a life expectancy of 12-15 years. There could be repeat business down the road when the fields of today need replacing, but is there enough demand to sustain the company until that point? The answer is yes, for two reasons. Although most of its work is done in the Northeast, A-Turf has installed fields in the Midwest and as far away as California. Moreover, a recent agreement with Game Time Sports Systems of Chicago makes A-Turf the official synthetic field of the Louisville Slugger brand, and the deal couldn't have been struck at a more opportune time.
"The athletic field business has always been oriented more toward what we call the oval- or rectangular-type fields for football and lacrosse and soccer and field hockey or what not, and we just see a big push for baseball," Dobmeier said. "We think that baseball in general as a market is the next big move in the synthetic field building industry."
A-Turf has taken Dobmeier down memory lane. While at Bishop Neumann he played on some of the natural grass fields A-Turf has replaced. You have to figure the day is coming when sons are asking their fathers, "You mean you used to play on real grass?"
"The end result is the athletes are playing on a surface that is perfectly uniform from day to day regardless of temperature and weather conditions," Dobmeier said. "These fields drain very well, you don't get the puddling, the footing remains outstanding. You don't get to those big games in late October and early November that are so famous in the Buffalo area where you got the best teams left or the biggest teams and you're playing in a mud bowl."