Friends' work is offering ultimate backyards to city

Longtime friends Lance Pierce and Brent Carleton realize most people will get their first look at the pair's new business, Backyard Specialists, while zooming by on Wichita's Northeast Expressway.

But they're hoping their outdoor smorgasbord of recreational amenities displayed just west of K-96 and Rock Road will entice potential customers to stop by and explore.

A sample of Backyard Specialists' products — play sets and playhouses, basketball courts and synthetic putting greens — sits on a half-acre lot Pierce and Carleton leased next to Carrabba's Italian Grill.

"The whole concept is anything to do with your backyard," said Pierce, "Whether it's landscaping, fencing, recreational amenities, whatever. We're trying to do things that make people's backyards more inviting, more appealing and more entertaining."

Backyard Specialists, which held its grand opening last weekend, has roots in its owners' prior business ventures.

Pierce, an avid golfer, started United Turf Industries in 1998. The synthetic turf business, which blossomed into a network of franchises worldwide, produced SofTrak putting greens. The product's owners include professional golfers Bruce Lietzke, Fred Couples and Chris DiMarco.

Carleton, who, like Pierce, studied mechanical engineering at Wichita State University, joined UTI in 2003. The company soon added synthetic sport courts to its product line. In 2005, UTI merged with VersaSport International to reflect its multisport identity.

Two years ago, Pierce sold proprietary rights to the turf side of his business, and he and Carleton became partners in VersaSport of Kansas. The SofTrak greens and the synthetic courts, known as VersaCourt, are available at Backyard Specialists.

Backyard Specialists also opened as the local dealer of Rainbow Play Systems, a redwood play set manufacturer. Pierce and Carleton are collaborating with Ground Force, a local landscaping company, and Sturdi-Bilt, a Hutchinson-based builder of log cabins, gazebos, playhouses and storage buildings, to supplement their options.

While their work with United Turf Industries and VersaSport presented frequent travel opportunities, the men hope Backyard Specialists will keep them closer to home.

"Lance and I still go out and do a lot of jobs, putting in putting greens and game courts and training other installers," Carleton said. "But one of the motivations we had was to get more business here in Wichita so we wouldn't have to travel as much."

Pierce said other inspiration came from a local customer who focused on creating a backyard oasis while his house was being built. Pierce and Carleton worked with a landscaper and contributed to the project by installing a putting green and basketball court.

"The owner wanted to incorporate a swimming pool, putting green, fire pit, patio area, all of it...," Pierce said. "Anybody that would see it would say, 'We've got to have this.'

"We started referring to that as the ultimate backyard. We started thinking, 'What if we could build the ultimate backyard in a place with high visibility? Then we could show our stuff.' "