At age 15, John Benko begged for a job at Olympic Bowl in Rochester, N.Y., to help pay for his private high school tuition. From spraying rental shoes and sweeping floors to stocking empty beer bottles, he learned the business, ultimately advancing to the managerial ranks and later becoming Brunswick’s youngest-ever district manager at age 26. He joined General Bowling Corp in 1980 as its supervisor of Virginia centers, overseeing the operations of the Alexandria and Annandale establishments locally, as well as Ten Pin Coliseum in Richmond. Two years later, he earned his present title—vice president—and obtained what he originally desired: part ownership and complete input into the decision-making at all levels of the corporation.
After a recent local industry relations meeting, Benko, 45, an NCABA Hall of Famer since 1989, appropriately enough discussed the bowling industry—past, present, and future—and other topics with BOWL Magazine Editor Bob Cosgrove.
What are the main responsibilities of your current job?
We’re a very non-bureaucratic company. The three Virginia houses are my responsibility, whatever that means—physical plants, the maintenance of our leases, the renegotiation of same when such comes about, plans for capital expenditures, the complete selections and recruitment of personnel. The only thing I don’t have complete say over is corporate policy, which is primarily the president of the company, but he never enacts corporate policy without input and concurrence from the few beneath him. So I guess you’d say that my responsibilities are all-encompassing in terms of managing and supervising the three Virginia bowling centers.
I have some responsibilities beyond that, and I have other non-bowling-related responsibilities.
How has your job changed through the years?
In terms of the structure of my job from the company’s point of view—no—it hasn’t changed at all. In terms of the demands on my job and where I’m able to focus my time, that’s changed dramatically over the years. That’s probably what is really frustrating over how this industry has changed.
In my first five or six years here in Virginia, I felt that I could spend a lot of what I called "concourse time." And I consider at the management level—and that’s any management level in a bowling center—terribly valuable time. It’s almost impossible to put a measurement on the productivity of that time at the time you’re doing it. But the payoff comes down the road, so that if you can spend a lot of time on the firing line today, learn from that and have a positive influence on what’s going on, six months from then, a year from then, plans and programs that you enact, whatever you enact as a result of that concourse time, pays off. So that what you’re doing today on the concourse is not so much for today as it is for tomorrow.
Where it has a positive influence at the time is that your customers tend to appreciate occasional elbow-rubbing with key decision-makers. League officers especially and our regulars feel good if they know they know they have a direct line or a conduit to the people who make decisions.
There’s nothing worse than being a customer experiencing a problem and getting the picture from the employee, "That’s not my job; I only work here. You’ll have to take that up elsewhere via telephone tomorrow." That’s a frustrating experience, and we try to make sure that doesn’t happen. But I don’t get to do that anymore. When I do, it’s rare. I miss that. I think it hurts me, and I lose the positive effect it has in the bowling center when I used to do it.
But I also say that managers can’t do it as much as they used to, nor can the shift managers. There are just unbelievably so many demands on the time of people who work those positions, and our industry has always been slow to change in coming up with the answers, and how to fix it is not easy.
I used to believe in my own mind that I was an expert in a lot of that stuff, and at the time, I guess, if you were to measure some of the successes I had, you could say, well, I was pretty good. Today, I’m not an expert anymore! I might know more than I used to, but I need to be a lot smarter and a lot better than I am today to feel like an expert again.
A cute example: I had a fellow who worked with us for several years as a counter person, a part-time shift manager, and then he eventually joined us as an assistant manager, and then we transferred him and made him a manager. One night, in the oiling application of the lanes just before a league, someone did not check the lane machine and a mechanism which causes the buffer wheel to turn was broken, so they oiled the entire house putting out no oil. All the buffer did was push the oil further down the lane. The result was the most horrible lane condition you could possibly imagine, and it was about to become a horrible experience for 40 teams of bowlers.
As soon as the lanes were turned on for shadow bowling, it was realized, Oh my gawd, we’ve got a major problem here!
The young man panicked—it was his first real crisis. Instead of immediately taking control and immediately making a decision, he just for 10 or 15 minutes didn’t know what to do. People had started and now were in their third, fourth, and fifth frames, and they just want to hang him!
So he made the decision that everyone’s bowling that night was free. Plus, he and everybody would personally serve them pitchers of Coke, beer, and pizzas. So the entire evening was free, and we also served them food and drink.
When I heard about it, he said, "I’ve got to tell you what occurred tonight, and I also want you to know that I’m submitting my resignation." I laughed, where many chains would have terminated him.
I said, "Let’s just talk about when one’s in a tight situation, the difference between panicking and hesitation verses taking quick control." Inside, I was just laughing; of course, I also was crying because I lost about $2,000-$3,000!
I ran through a scenario where, hey, you’ve got a situation where you can’t possibly allow these people to start, and you know it—they’re in practice—without them knowing what’s going on and without giving them the opportunity to make a decision. And it’s obvious real fast: You got less than five minutes to act because the moment practice is done, you don’t have any more time!
I said, "There’s your only mistake. If you would have acted within that five minutes, you could have made all kinds of offers:
"Bowl, it’s a horrible experience, what can you do? I’ll compensate you somehow.
"Postpone, and those who want to stay and bowl on this lousy condition for fun, do it.
"Three, wait 30 minutes and I will oil your lanes. Where those lanes have a second shift, well, we’ll have to work something else out.
"But you had choices you could have offered them. It would have made them feel better."
Here’s what actually happened: You gave away the whole store! Besides that, I want to know how the people left after you gave them the store.
He said, "They still left angry, still left furious, and still are threatening to boycott and quit."
"So see," I said, "you gain nothing by giving away the store. When you give away the store, you should gain!"
It was a very expensive lesson for this young man, but it was a good one. How much business we lost, I’ll never know for sure!
What’s the toughest part of your job?
The toughest part of the job today is putting that puzzle together of different people and personalities in their positions in the bowling center—preventing their hands from being tied, preventing them from being focused on narrow objectives to where they are free and they have the time and they are motivated to do positive things that result in happier customers, a better plant, and an upward trend in the business cycle.
That used to be a thing that was not difficult to do for me. Today, it is extremely difficult.
Just as an example, I’ve done some light staff restructuring on the surface at Annandale recently, and my objectives and goals are no secret to the key people involved. One of the goals is to free the hands and the time of a certain person in that building so that more time and effort can be dedicated to certain things that would benefit both our customers and us.
We’ve been in about the fourth month of this, and that person right now is working about 47 to 60 hours per week at a phenomenal pace and can’t get all done what needs to get done just in the scope of what that person thinks her job is—and she has even hired a 30-hour [per week] assistant.
Center managers at times have been known to avoid hosting scratch events because players have been known to gripe loudly about lane conditions as well as not drink beer or boost snack bar revenue. How important is the scratch bowler to your business?
Before I actually answer that, They don’t drink beer and spend a lot at the snack bar … that’s true, but that does not figure into our equation when we attempt to recruit or attempt to provide a product for that particular bowler. Also, in terms of managers becoming contemptuous of the scratch bowler, I think all management has acquired feelings like you just described towards a segment of the higher-average bowlers, and deservedly so.
In private, my people are allowed to vent all they wish about that segment of the market. But what we never lose sight of is that it’s only a small segment of that market. It’s very unfair to generalize and characterize any group; in business, you can never lose sight of that.
When you’re talking about the higher-average bowler or the scratch bowler, there are people in that bracket who make it very difficult for people to go about and do their business or perform their function, and they do harm. They often are a nuisance on the concourse; they cause people who were just out to have fun to lose sight of having fun. They wear and tear considerably on management and staff. They force more focus than is achievable on the conditioning of lanes. They have a view that any idiot can condition lanes and the result being high scores.
Today, the ability to condition lanes and the result of high scores is nowhere close to what it used to be. It is almost becoming a science in which there are factors that were never involved, that were totally meaningless. Today, there are factors we have never even thought of.
The so-called experts—none of them are real, true experts—might be an expert on this lane surface, with this lane oil, with this lane cleaner, with this type of equipment, in this particular environment, with these types of bowling balls. Change a few of those variables and they’re not experts anymore.
We as an industry are responsible for what happens. We created this, and we’re living with it, and we’re paying the price. It’s because our industry has always been fragmented in terms of the decision-making, whether that be bowling ball manufacturers, ABC/WIBC, the proprietors … we’re going to continue to experience problems because there is no unified voice. Let’s just hope that the goal of Bowling Inc. really is a realizable objective because we need it.
What actions in the bowling industry would you like to redo?
If you put this in print, I’ll probably be stoned! Right now, looking at what’s happened in the last 10 years, two things—both of them controversial.
One is that we should have listened to Bill Taylor.
Two, if I could have, I would have prevented the price wars that have just absolutely, tremendously damaged our industry and its ability to improve itself.
Why should the industry have listened to Bill Taylor?
Back then, Bill Taylor was a radical, a national radical. I’ve always been branded a radical, but more on regional or local levels, and I did not agree with Bill Taylor back then. But Bill Taylor had some basic messages, and his basic messages were, We’re ruining this industry because of how we’re allowing us to be focused on short-term, immediate results and short-term, immediate responses to small segments of our customers. In essence, we were giving them what they wanted when we knew what they wanted was bad for them and bad for us. He felt we were hurting the sport, and we were going to kill league bowling as it existed 10, 12, 13 years ago because people weren’t going to want to buy the product.
Well, he’s right about what occurred, and he also was right about some of the things that caused it—the things within our control.
He advocated back then that the best fix for lane conditions would have been his concept of oil-less lanes, a lane finish that required just a very small coating of oil on the first few feet so that everything beyond that was the skill of the bowler. The bowler would have to buy the ball to work for them, and oil would not be an influence and they either learn to bowl well or they didn’t bowl well.
I can’t imagine any proprietor today in hindsight not saying, "Boy, why didn’t we come up with a way of accomplishing that?" And now, the lanes have gone synthetic, so we wouldn’t be able to go to that concept if we wanted to unless we changed the synthetics to covers.
So [we were dealing with] that basic issue and all of the things surrounding it in terms of how we were focusing on higher and higher scores, higher and higher prize funds. [Meanwhile, we were] taking away the focus on personal accomplishment and personal achievement in getting better—becoming a better athlete and learning more about this game as a skill and becoming more knowledgeable.
That focus dropped to where there are so few in this country today who truly understand how to bowl. There are very, very, very few, yet there are an awful lot of them who think they know how because in this moment in their life they are athletically strong, they’re coordinated, they’ve got the right ball, they’ve got the right speed, and all they’ve got to do is hit a right lane condition. Take away that right lane condition, and they can’t bowl. Change their bowling ball, they can’t bowl.
So in hindsight, Bill Taylor had some pretty good warnings and some pretty good messages.
How would you describe your typical customer today?
There’s never been a typical bowling customer. Again, I’m one who has always tried never to generalize, but I can tell you there are trends within customers that are different today than in the past.
Some of those trends that are significantly different are that the consumer today has actually been educated—by "60 Minutes," "Dateline NBC," government brochures, kids going to school, in the newspaper, CNN…. They continually are bombarded with segments on how to deal with a business.
Ten or 15 years ago, many people were tolerant of a bowling center and a certain frequency of small mistakes. In a business like bowling, you’re selling many thousands of games, each game consisting of 10 frames. When you view it as unit sales, there are so many unit sales at such a low price—15 to 30 cents a frame—there are going to be a tremendous frequency of mistakes on everyone’s part—on customer-customer interaction, on league officer-to-league bowler interaction, on employee- to-employee interaction, on management-to- employee interaction, on customer-to-management-to-employee, on the preparation of the physical plant and the preparation of the food part and the distribution of same, there are going to be many, many, many mistakes. The goal that you have is to minimize those mistakes, and when you do make a mistake to do what you can to satisfy and to continue then in operation.
Today, the expectation of what we are supposed to provide is so much greater than what it used to be. At the same time, the view of our product, the value of our product, the price that people should pay for it is actually less than it was 10 years ago.
You combine those two, and it requires one heck of a business person to continue to succeed. What really hurts is that in any customer-driven business, one aspect of compensation that has been critical to every level, from ownership on down, has been the personal reward you feel from people who appreciate what you’ve done and make you feel good. You don’t need the tip, even though the low-level employees appreciate that. You need the "thank you," the sincere smile, the occasional pat on the back, the "nice job," the rah-rah-rah. That’s just as important as the paycheck.
When you go home feeling good, you sleep well, you interact well with your family, you like getting up and going to work. That element isn’t there as much as it used to be. It’s very rare today.
Instead, each and every mistake is often met by a customer who realizes or believes that if I make a scene, the more I stand up, the more I fight, the more I accuse them of, the more I’ll get this problem fixed, when all that isn’t necessary. That, in essence, is a real emotional pay cut. And that pay cut is real expensive.
It was really good in the old days when you still get your people to feel good about getting up and going to work. They walk in with a smile of their faces, and they’re having fun, and that fun and that enthusiasm just permeates through the bowling center, and everybody really has fun.
But when they don’t want to go to work, or when they’ve had a bad experience the day before, or 10 bad experiences, that not-positive or negative feeling also permeates. At my level, I’ve got to figure out more and more ways to rejuvenate them to get them to deal with that stress, to get them to just overcome it and forget it and realize it’s not personal when it occurs. And that’s what hurts us—that they take things personally. They take the compliment personally, but they also take the negative personally. We don’t have an easy fix for that.
Name something your company does differently today in an attempt to satisfy the so-called more demanding customer.
I’d like to believe that we’re always ahead of the trendy curve in our business, and I’d like to feel that we empower our employees with more than other chains. I know that when I came here in 1980, I empowered my managers and my mechanics with more than any bowling company I’ve ever seen.
As an example, almost all chains give their mechanics budgets to operate their pinpotters. We have never given them a budget. Our instructions to them are spend whatever you need to spend, order whatever you need to order, to operate the most effective pinspotters that you can.
There are many factors, but if someone is overspending because they lack the training skills to properly put things into motion so that our parts don’t wear out, then we try to get them help so they know how to do it. But we never say, "Don’t buy." And I’ve known chains that have actually refused a mechanic a parts order because it exceeded budget. We’ve just never done that.
Then on the bowling operations/management side, my mangers have always had the instruction when in doubt on a problem situation to do whatever you feel is necessary to do, and then we’ll discuss it later if you are wrong, but you’re not going to get heavily penalized.
What’s one thing you do today that you could have never imagined doing in 1985?
Two things, really. One, focusing so much on price—How low do we have to go at certain times to get customers in? I never dreamed that would be such a strong factor in decisions to sell a product. If you believe in a product, then it should have a quality value, and you should be proud to sell it for that value, and your customer should feel good about buying it.
That’s probably one of the biggest things that hurts—and the biggest thing that scares me about my own future as a businessman. Everything that I really own, other than a little equity in my home and a small IRA account, is invested in the bowling industry. And unless the industry turns, what I own will have not have much value when it’s time for me to slow down or to pass something down to my kids. That’s a fear! I have no pension—small businessmen normally don’t. You can’t put enough in the IRA because the income isn’t there. So the key is to make the business that we own valuable to where that’s what our nest egg will be. That’s a frightening thought.
The other thing that I never dreamed I could possibly do as I’m doing is allowing so much focus on the actual physical lane beds themselves—in terms of how perfect they need to be, the conditioning process, and the equipment that relates to same. To satisfy a small segment of the market takes an inordinately high percentage of management time. That has to change, and I don’t know how to make it change, but we’ll figure it out.
Can Bowling Inc. be of major benefit to the industry?
The best thing it could accomplish would be to accomplish its initial objectives, which were very basic and simple: to unify the various segment—fragments, as Phil Knisely [formerly of AMF] once said—of the bowling industry. Unite them, to where there is commonality of goal in an interest into where as certain segments venture into particular directions, there is consideration for impact on the others. If such were accomplished, there could be an awful lot that we could achieve.
As an example, we knew in the early 1980s that we needed as an industry to create what we called the Superfund, where, as the milk industry does and as other industries do, they pool dollars and allow one agency to generically advertise the product across the country so that people maintain a positive image about it. The dairy industry does it all the time.
Regionally, in this market, you see Cal Ripken drinking milk; in other markets, it’s another star. And then there also are generic commercials that go on everywhere for milk.
In the early 1980s, they were spending $28 million a year just on advertising the value of drinking milk. And there are others that do the same thing.
We had this wonderful goal of trying to find ways to tax various integers of ourselves, the manufacturers, etc., to come up with a Superfund which would create a positive picture of bowling and keep bowling in the forefront and in minds of people when they want to recreate. The best we were able to come up with was $2.5 million.
When it came time to laying out the dollar bills, too many people backed out. Then, when it came on how to agree on how to spend it, that’s when we really became fragmented. When the simple objective of just positively, generically telling about our product would have worked, too many people started to stick their hands in and say, "I’m not putting my money up unless it says this message, this message, unless it’s measurable…." And it continually fell apart—it never succeeded.
Bowling Inc. is the only possibility of rejuvenating a Superfund. I don’t even know if it’s on their agenda. But it most certainly would be a goal if they succeeded in the organization because it would have to be one of the objectives if they stick with their basic objectives.
Now this Strike Ten Entertainment division of Bowling Inc. does have potential to help. It certainly won’t be a savior, but it will be a method of getting more positive exposures to the American people regarding bowling as a fun pastime. So I hope they are successful.
It will be a long time before the jury is in on Bowling Inc.
What are the biggest obstacles facing the industry in the next three to five years?
A continuance of the same, but possibly getting worse with all the problems we’ve experienced without considerable relief. We could go on and on about and talk about the obstacles we’ve met that have hurt us. It started socially on things we couldn’t control. You go back to the 1970s and the first oil embargo, and then the second one had a dramatic effect on us.
We were hit with the insurance crisis at the same time that the market segments we sold to were dramatically changing. From 1970 to, say, 1980, bowling centers were filled daytimes with housewives who were mothers who brought their kids into the playroom. In less than a decade, 75 percent of these women were working, and those leagues shrunk to almost nothing.
Of course, with the expansion of technology, more and more alternatives are taking place for people to choose for things to do. There are movements away from joining groups. There’s the Internet. There’s the fear factor of being out at night. There are so many social changes that we can’t control. We can do things to combat, but we can’t control. You combine continuing those things that are changing that we can’t control, and they’re happening faster than our ability to combat them.
At the same time, internally, we have great problems as an industry. We just have horrible problems in that all of the leadership buries their heads in the sand regarding what’s happening in bowling balls, and in lane conditionings, and in scoring, and in the actual structure of league play, in terms of what that product is—how it is just simply a product that the majority of Americans would have no desire to buy.
You’re talking a 35-week, round-robin, poorly-handicapped system to where the cream will rise to the top. And not only will they rise to the top and dominate the winnings of that program, they also are the ones who make most of the leadership decisions and decide what the playing rules will be and how much money will go to the top. A lot of people have gotten smart over the years and have said, "I don’t want to be part of that."
You combine other issues with it, such as smoking, which is a tremendous detriment to us bringing in new blood and families and young kids. You can’t change until, as [Bob Cosgrove has said], it becomes a national non-smoking policy in bowling centers and there are major announcements that bowling is non-smoking. Then, when it does occur, we’re going to down for a few years before we come up again.
So all these factors that have been causing us to decline are not improving, from our point of view. You add to it the price wars that are taking place, and what they’ve done to the value of the product, or perceived value of the product, and it’s a tough road to hoe.
And the best measure of a business, in terms of how viable it is as a business and what is the short-term potential, is very simply: Are others willing to invest dollars into building new businesses of the same? They’ll still building McDonald’s, they’re still building Wendy’s, they’re still building all these other fast-food outlets, and if you look in a lot of the shopping centers that spring up, they’re still building some of these specialty shops that sell different products.
But when somebody tries to come up with the resources, the financing of the money to build a bowling center in the United States, the experienced proprietors turn their heads and say, "Boy, are they going to be sorry!" And it isn’t long after they open that they are very, very sorry they did it.
Domestically in this country, one has to be very, very, very good to build a bowling center and get a return on the investment. Go to Korea, go to China, go to Japan, go to South America—you can do it! But you’re also going to get four dollars a game.
What does that tell you about the current state of the industry when it’s not a good investment in this country?
What’s the biggest complaint you hear from customers today?
It’s lane conditions, and that won’t change because that’s the thing league bowlers will have the greatest exposure to because every time there, they all want to do well. The pace of life today is much faster, the demands on us today are much more. If we’re out to recreate, it better be fast-paced, and it better be right! If I’m not bowling well, there’s got to be something wrong. It’s real quick to assume that it’s the lane—and it very well may be the lane. Of course, there may not be anything wrong with the lane, it’s just that the lane may not be conditioned right for the particular bowling ball that you use or the speed at which you roll it or the line which you are playing or the number of revolutions which you have. And one pair over, the guy who has the right ball, the right speed, the right revolutions, and is releasing it on a correct line is shooting 240s and 270s. But you say, "I don’t play that line; it should work on my line, too—it should work for my speed, too!"
It’s impossible today to let everybody score on those components. It’s also impossible to get that message across and to educate efficiently and sufficiently to where people will know how or be willing to make such adjustments.
I should never use the term "impossible" in terms of when it comes to reaching customers, but we don’t know how to do it. We’ve made effort and attempt, and we find that the majority of people don’t want to be involved and don’t want to know.
We’ve offered small, semi-mini-clinics free, we’ve offered segments before play and after, we brought in one expert, Jerry Francomano, and a few years ago we brought in Mo Pinel, who’s really a super-expert in terms relative to what’s changing to give people more factual knowledge to where they’re better at making judgements. The majority don’t want to be bothered with it. They just want to come in and score.
Will credit cards generate more income in the future as their acceptance becomes more expected?
It will continue to be more of a necessity. Again, I think cash obviously will be something people carry less of.
We do need improved alternative methods of payment—for not only the open-play customer but for the league customer. And I view that one as a more critical and difficult issue.
If you really sit and look at a league of any size in terms of the amount of work necessary to do the treasury work, especially during play, it’s phenomenal—and it’s ridiculous. With technology what it is today, there should be a mechanical method of billing to where that is eliminated.
I’ve put this out to so many people in the industry and gotten zero back, saying, "We can’t do that; the people just won’t put up with it." But I can tell you one thing: I wouldn’t want to be a league treasurer.
We do the treasury work for three leagues in our centers, and it takes two people a lot of time, both during the time the league is playing and afterwards on the computer to do the job right. I can’t see how someone can possibly bowl with 16-to-20 teams and handle that money and do it right.
Can you think of any other sport or any other recreation or any other frequent thing that you do to on a scheduled basis where you don’t handle it through billing? If you’re a country club member, which I’m not, I’m sure billing is handled on a monthly basis.
If you’re going to book time at a tennis court through tennis leagues, I’m sure you pay in mass. We looked at volleyball one time, and volleyball leagues were 10-week seasons. They’re four consecutive seasons, and you had to pay for all 10 weeks up front—the whole team. There is no treasury service in any of these other natures, and yet in bowling, it’s on the concourse, dealing in cash, dealing in checks, dealing in quarters—and somebody’s evening is ruined.
We as an industry never catch up with technology.
How have the use of credit cards in your centers affected business?
It’s not a big positive in terms of increasing sales; it’s merely a convenience. You’ll have many situations to where one person is intending to pick up the tab, and let’s face it, carrying a lot of cash today is not high recommended, and credit cards give people an easy out.
It’s especially helpful for birthday parties when the bill is anywhere from $50 to $125. It could be a corporate party where the person in charge pays with a credit card. Or it could be simply a Saturday night where a group of four is out on a date, and one guy agrees to pay the tab and the others pay him back. With four people bowling three games with some pizza, maybe that bill is $30, $40, $50, $60—it’s convenient to pay by credit card.
It’s a very small portion of our business, but again, it’s a customer service item. We’re getting ready to test an ATM machine at one center in Long Island … we’re always looking at things that if we can do them and manage them easily that makes it easier and better for our customers, then we’d like to try it. But we’re very slow and cautious before we try it. We like being that way—we think we make fewer major mistakes.
It’s the year 2007. What changes have happened in bowling?
Fifteen years ago and 10 years ago, I used to think that I had great vision to the future and could tell how things were going to change and what they would look like. Well, what I can tell you with certainty today is that no one knows exactly what it’s going to look like, but it will not look like what it looks like today.
If I were to guess about bowling in the future, say 2007, every succeeding bowling center in a quality market will have bumpers on every lane that easily come up and down so that young kids could bowl easily. The house balls in those centers would look completely different than they do today. It would be a very user-friendly system to where you go bowling one time, and by color code and by some other code, you know exactly what size and weight to choose—I’m a small and I’m a pink or I’m a medium and I’m a blue, and then every medium/blue is the same and fits your hand and works good.
The majority of business would come from managed programs, and those programs would be targeted to many different segments of the marketplace. Technology, current for 2007, would be built into the center—whatever that means, whether or not it means the continual evolving of the cosmic bowling concept to new innovative games that are not scored anything like the current 10-frame game of bowling.
I think long-term there will be very good things for bowling. I just hope that the small proprietor will still have a piece of that when that happens.
Food and beverage departments will be different. We’re not going to have restaurants, but we’re going to have the ability to book and reserve lanes in small groups and order off of some party-type menu, to where my group of eight gets a pair of lanes from this time to that time and we order, let’s say, the round sandwich for 10 and two pitchers of soda, and it’s all part of the package for $79 or $99 or whatever it is, and boom, it’s all handled by credit card. And if we wanted any optional extras, they’re there.
Also, when we book this little outing, we have additional options to choose from the center as part of the package. Like, do we want to give little token prizes to give to each other? And there’s going to be recommended pass-outs that we’re going to already know that will say that you can play this game or that game—you don’t just have to play the 10-[frame] game of bowling. The computers will treat it differently as to where there are choices on the part of the customer. I think there will be a large segment of people who will be playing games different than 10 frames to try to shoot 300.
The cosmic concept will go to kids, and I think youth league bowling will be totally different than what it is today. And again, I’m just telling you what I think of the future. The key message here is that things will change.
As an example, Saturday mornings have notoriously been youth league times—that will be a thing of the past. There will be youth leagues; they won’t be on Saturdays. They’ll be after school during the week or at alternative times because Saturday will be Kids Day. And it will be focused not on getting a narrow group of kids in and bowling league-style in league competition and learning from A-to-Z, it will be just get the masses of kids in a quality environment—it could be lights, it could be Bozo the Clown for the young kids, and it could be something else for the teen-agers.
However it will be priced, and however it will be managed will be different in different bowling centers, but the thing is going to be, "It’s a great place to go."—like Chuck E. Cheese was seven, eight, 10 years ago. The kids had to go there because it was a varying environment in which kids of all ages could just have a ball, and mom and dad could go sit in the corner and nibble on pizza and sip sodas or coffee.
The bowling center will be all-encompassing for kids—and that will be Saturdays, and maybe it will be different days during the week in the summer. It will be a great time for kids, and what will happen is they will feel good about bowling eventually. The environment is what draws them—not the bowling, not the knocking down pins, but after so many exposures, they’re going to say, "Hey, I want to try this game with the lights regular and me against Joe or me against Sally." And then eventually, they will become bowlers besides people enjoying the environment.
The lure to get people to try the same basic game will become target spokes in different directions in terms of what frills, what changes, what adjustments to get a ball down the lane to hit pins, eventually wanting to compete on the 10-frame, shoot-300-if-I-can goal against somebody else.
Are there any industry leaders you admire?
I’d certainly be in trouble if I said no!
I admire most of the people, both as individuals and for their character and their integrity, who are in strong leadership positions in this industry.
I have great admiration for the people who go through the chairs at BPAA at great risk to their own family businesses because they have a goal of wanting to be good for the whole as well as themselves. And let’s face it: If you’re going to go through the chairs in a trade association, you’re not going to be devoting much of your time to your own personal affairs and your own personal business. Whatever motivations are there should be admired and encouraged.
Now in terms of admiration for our leadership collectively and the results, it’s no secret locally on how I feel. I feel that anytime a group of good people get together to accomplish a result, the result should be synergistic. In other words, the sum of the efforts of the parts should be greater than if you just measure each individual contribution. And we in this industry get negative synergy—and we do it time and time again.
Somebody’s got to learn some lessons, and hopefully the effort of Bowling Inc. will be to step in the right direction. And as I said earlier, the jury’s out, and it will be a while before it’s in.
If you were named commissioner of bowling today with ultimate authority, what three things would you do?
I would end the scoring dilemma by having a dramatic change on bowling balls and oiling procedures. I’d just end it, even though it would cost us.
Two, I would eliminate smoke from bowling centers, even though I’m a heavy smoker and it’s the biggest failure of my life. I would only allow smoking in small, smoking cubicles that would be designed. If you wanted to put them on the concourse where a bowler could puff a cigarette or half a cigarette, put it out and come out, that would be the only place. There would be no smoking elsewhere.
Three, I would develop a system of networking for both all customers and all bowling management personnel to where every single brainstorm and attempted idea in terms of how to offer the product and what people like about the product or promotional experiences or practices could filter through to this physical plant or place to where people would then segment and group these together and pass them all back out.
So that’s what I’d do real quick.
What do you do to get away from bowling?
For the first 14 years of my marriage, my wife and I never took a vacation, with the exception of visiting family. We then decided to take a real vacation for ourselves, and we became scuba divers. I’ve always been someone who likes to escape via the dare-devil and the explorer route. Once or twice a year, we take a very unusual trip to a very remote area that’s not real expensive because there are not the best of accommodations, and we explore tropical jungles and under the water.
We just got back from a trip where we spent seven days, 30 miles off the coast of Belize in Central America on a small boat with a few of our friends going around small, lava-rock islands and exploring the reef under water. We had zero contact with the outside world. The only thing we were able to get on a daily basis from somewhere was meteorological information so that the captain could compile it and do a weather forecast.
For many years, I have been involved in umpiring, coaching, and teaching amateur youth baseball, from T-ball through the collegiate level. In addition, I’ve developed a fund raising system I soon will market that aids any "12 and under" program in meeting all of their financial needs—a turnkey package with which I have helped raise over $1.5 million in the last five years.
Any closing thoughts?
Our industry domestically is in the doldrums, and in certain parts of the world it’s doing great. But I think long-term there will be very good things for bowling. I just hope that the small proprietor will still have a piece of that when that happens.
But in a nutshell: When we are able to design both physical plant changes, employee changes, product changes, and program changes that will allow the bowling experience to be more fun more frequently, we’re going to do very, very well.
You have things right now going on where, on occasion, people have an absolute ball. It’s one of the most enjoyable experiences they’ve had in a long time. We haven’t figured out how to bottle those experiences and convert them to the greater number of participants coming in. When we do, we’ll be moving again.
Self-portrait: I’ve always for many years felt I was doing everything right and proper and the way I should. Today, at this stage in my life, I’m beginning to wonder.
TV habits: I watch almost no network television, with the exception of news programs on occasion; sports, such as the Redskins. I do watch a considerable deal of late-night Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, and the History Channel, and I try to catch "The Simpsons." I love Homer, and I love Bart.
Favorite Movie: I’m the kind of guy who sees a move purely for escape and entertainment, which means I’m capable of re-watching it six months later because I forgot everything about it. If I watch a movie on TV and somebody asks me the name of the movie I’m watching, I will usually have to look it up. All I’m doing is being entertained. I love science fiction in movies well done, such as in Independence Day—a great movie just because it’s pure entertainment. Some things in there couldn’t possibly occur, but it was wonderful entertainment. I loved Star Trek, especially the Second Generation movies. I just want pure entertainment; I don’t want to go and have to get a message; I don’t want to have to go and learn—I do that on my own time. That’s escape.
Reading habits: My reading is the opposite of my movies. I do not read for entertainment; therefore, there are a lot of novels that I won’t attempt to read. I read to learn. I read mostly trade journals, business journals, financials. I read about current events, periodicals. I terms of a book, if I feel I can learn something, I read it. You can probably count on my hands the number of novels I’ve read in my life written for a human message or just a human story.
Favorite magazines: International Bowling Industry. I love the Kiplinger Letters. I like Louis Rukeyser’s report.
Greatest influences: My dad was the greatest influence on my life. He always preached certain life issues, principles. He was a man who I think was successful at life; he never made much money, he always just scraped by, but he sure gave everything he could to the family in terms of time and attention. Every nickel went to the family; he never had a luxury in his life. In terms of a business principle that you can apply whether you’re the lowest-level employee or anywhere in between or the owner of the company is always do your best, always be completely honest and sincere and keep in mind the interests of all. He said, "If you life by that, it doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, you’ll succeed. The only way you can possibly fail is if you’re with a bunch of idiots or crooks or thieves or horrible people, and then the best thing that would happen is if you left.
Nobody can live by that 100 percent of the time—we’re all human, we’re emotional, we’re going to get angry and not live by that, we’re going to be tempted and not live by that, but if you can say to yourself that with your best effort you’ve lived by those statements, you’re going to sleep well at night.
The second greatest influence on my life is my current boss and partner, Reuben Dankoff, a truly remarkable man. To give you the insight into his influence on me as it continues with my father’s influence, when I first got here to General Bowl, someone approached one of my employees with a particular item that was of great value—it had to do with pinspotters. He offered a lot of them for sale at a very, very ridiculously low price. I didn’t even ask any questions. So I called Reuben and said, "I can get X number of these for this price." He said, "No way!" and I told him that a mechanic wanted to sell them to us. He then said, "John, if a mechanic is selling them, they have to be stolen. If they’re stolen, that means if we buy them, we’ll be doing something wrong, and if I do something wrong, then I won’t sleep well at night. There is nothing—no amount of money that I can imagine that’s worth it—to make me lose sleep at night. So you tell that mechanic to go to hell."