Bowling for Dollars
Even as bowling alleys struggle to attract new customers, an equipment manufacturer in Lake Wales outperforms the industry.
Today, for example, Kegel makes Fizzion, a brand of dissolving tablets used to clean bowling lanes that can also remove pet stains and odors from other surfaces. Fizzion is sold in Publix and PetSmart.
Since 2003, Kegel has operated from more than 100,000 square feet in a Lake Wales business park. With Davis as his mentor, Chartrand became president in 2010 and is now CEO. In 2013, John Davis died of a heart attack at 64. Two years ago, Linda Davis sold her stake in the company to Mitchell, making him sole owner.
Mark Davis, now Kegel’s executive vice president of mechanical product development and support, says John Davis always wanted to be a good employer — stemming from his days working in Sebring for bosses he didn’t like. “For the most part,” says Mark, “we want people to enjoy working for us.”
With about 100 employees, Kegel offers a range of benefits, including on-site biweekly chiropractic care, paid time off for a child’s first day of school and subsidized meals at the company’s deli-style canteen.
Bowling, since the height of its popularity in John Davis’ youth, has struggled to retain participants. Nationwide, the number of people who bowl in a league is less than a fourth of what it was in 1980.
As league play has declined, bowling alleys have added arcades, restaurants and laser tag in attempts to court casual bowlers. Chartrand says Kegel is sticking to core bowling products, however. “We’ve stayed true to what we care about, which is the competitive side of bowling,” he says.
For the moment, the firm is outperforming its industry. Kegel sells about $20 million a year in lane maintenance machines, parts and chemicals. About 40% of its sales are overseas. “Outside the U.S., the two healthiest markets are Japan and Korea,” Chartrand says. “Korea right now is absolutely on fire. Of all the lane machines we ship this year, just under 20% will go to Korea.” Kegel’s sales overall are on track to grow 10% for the year, he says.
Kegel also operates a training center for competitive bowlers in Lake Wales, with 12 adjustable lanes that can be made depressed or crowned to represent some bowling alley flaws. An all-day training session costs $600.
Kegel continues to introduce new products, including a sensor-enabled ball tracking system called Specto that it sells to bowling alleys for $13,500. Each Specto sensor covers six lanes and measures ball motion in 6-inch increments from the foul line to the pin deck; bowlers then get detailed information about each shot via a mobile app, helping them improve their accuracy and consistency.
“While some of our competitors are talking about selling you laser tag in a bowling center, we’re talking about how fast your ball is going with an app,” Chartrand says. “It’s all about bowling.”
On a recent weekday morning, Lucy Sandelin, a Hall of Fame bowler from Tampa, practiced at the Kegel training center next to a young family from Ohio. “We just had groups here from Puerto Rico and Singapore,” Chartrand says.
Chartrand believes the number of league bowlers in the U.S. will stabilize during the next few years because “bowling as a competitive activity is just very unique,” he says. “It’s something people can do at 5 or at 80.”