Michael Lehrer, 48, used to be a successful accountant with a bad golf habit. In 1993 he tore apart his backyard in Armonk, N.Y., and built a 2,000-square-foot putting green. His neighbors thought he was crazy. A year later, though, some were asking him to tear up their yards, too. Now Lehrer's $1 million company, Home Green Advantage, builds 40 greens a year in places from lush suburbia to Manhattan rooftops. The greens run from about $25,000 to $35,000.
In the early 90s, I was working as an accountant, and my wife, now ex-wife, and I had just had a kid. I was changing my son's bib and thought, this thing is crap. Every time he spit up or drooled I'd have to change it, wash it, get a new one. So I thought, why don't we make a bib with interchangeable pieces and swap out the dirty part? I learned about cutting and sewing and manufacturing and launched Better Baby Products. We sold our Double Dribble bib to FAO Baby and some other big retailers. They cost $8-$10 to make, but that's what I was selling it for, so it wasn't profitable.
But the baby bib business gave me the confidence to think anything was possible. I was a terrible golfer, but I fell in love with the game and had tons of ideas. I had just opened my own accounting practice and was sitting in the conference room when the name "Fairway to Heaven" struck me. I knew the clothing business because of the bibs, so I designed a logo that looked like a little fairway stretching into the clouds, and started a business embroidering different things, like golf shirts and hats.
Then I built the green at my house. I had to shape the land, create bowls, and make holes that allowed for shots from 360 degrees. It's a huge green, and it was all natural. I blew $30,000 on it. Eventually, I replaced it with a synthetic green because it's impossible to maintain a natural green. My neighbors' jaws dropped when they saw it, but they started asking me to build greens at their homes. They let themselves be guinea pigs.
I didn't drop my accounting business right away, but slowly started letting clients go. I incorporated Home Green Advantage in 1996. I got my first paying client, George Lewis, a top executive at Philip Morris, through a referral from the Metropolitan Golf Assn. I did the green for George for $5,000, and he busted my you-know-whats the whole time. In the end he was thrilled. Now I've built greens for 10 of his buddies. My business just kept growing from referrals.
I love working with avid golfers. As a CPA, you get clients who are happy about saving money, but it's not the same as being really passionate about this game. Some clients have insane requests. I built one green at a lake house in upstate New York in the shape of a trout. I built one that looked like a turkey, called "Turkey Shoot," because the guy was a game hunter. Now I can select my clients, which is good. I want to convey a golf hole at a prestigious country club, not windmills and clown faces.
I want to be personally involved in everything about the business. I know this is the one that's going to stick, because I just love it. I thought I'd be like every other accountant during tax season, with bags under my eyes drooping down to my chin. But it wasn't satisfying to do the same thing over and over again. Now, each project is unique and rewarding. I can put my mark on something.
As told to Amy S. Choi