- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

Bowl America Inc. Chief Executive Les Goldberg has a reputation as a frugal money manager.

But a former employee provides the best example of its corporate shrewdness. Isabel Darby worked as the company’s bookkeeper when a salesman caught her years ago fiddling with a roll of adding machine tape.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Turning it around to use the other side,” she replied.

Profligate spending is not in vogue at Bowl America, which has operated bowling centers throughout the eastern United States since 1958.

The company has no debt, its corporate office in Alexandria is an addition attached to its Edsall Road bowling alley, and it owns nearly all of its bowling centers, arguing that it’s easier to manage the costs of its own property than it is to control the rent on leased buildings.

“We tend not to think in terms of extravagance,” said Mr. Goldberg, an original investor in Bowl America and the company’s single largest shareholder.

Under Mr. Goldberg’s guidance, Bowl America has become the nation’s fourth-largest operator of bowling alleys and is benefiting from renewed interest in the activity.

AMF Bowling Worldwide Inc., a privately held firm with 383 U.S. bowling centers, and Brunswick Corp., the operator of about 125 U.S. centers, dominate the $4 billion industry.

Bowl America has 18 centers with 716 lanes, but even small companies are making money because more people are participating in the sport.

“Independent proprietors are doing OK,” said Jim Dressel, editor of Bowlers Journal International, a magazine based in Chicago.

The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association found that 55 million people age 6 and older bowled at least once last year, up from 53.2 million a year earlier. Although the number of league bowlers is declining, the number of recreational bowlers continues to grow.

Bowl America and other bowling centers are bringing back recreational bowlers through programs such as bowling under laser lights or the use of glow-in-the-dark bowling balls. It also has improved food and made centers more inviting to families by expanding prohibitions on smoking, bowling industry analyst Sandy Hansell said.

Bowl America’s revenue fell 1 percent to $8.7 million and net earnings rose modestly from $1.64 million to $1.7 million for its fiscal third quarter, which ended March 28. Bowl America closed Friday at $14.15 a share on the American Stock Exchange. The stock has moved little in a year, reaching a 52-week high of $15.15 on Feb. 23.

A 2002 study by the Bowling Proprietors Association of America concluded that bowling centers earned an average of $35,100 in operating revenue per lane. Bowl America made an estimated $41,000 per lane during fiscal 2003.

Attendance is higher at Bowl America alleys because the company has good locations and clean, well-maintained centers, Mr. Hansell said.

When the company issued quarterly earnings this month, Bowl America indicated it will open its first new center in 10 years. The company spent $1.9 million to buy four acres in Henrico County, Va. Mr. Goldberg estimates it will cost another $5 million to build the center.

Bowl America has 10 centers in metropolitan Washington, four in Florida, three in Henrico County and one in Baltimore. The new center will be in the back yard of AMF, which is based in Richmond.

Edward Goldberg, Sollie Katzman, Samuel Sobkov and Samuel Higger founded Bowl America in 1958. Forty-six years later, their heirs control the company. Mr. Goldberg, Merle Fabian, who is Mr. Goldberg’s sister, Stanley Katzman, Ruth Macklin, who is Mr. Goldberg’s cousin, and Joseph Levy all are on the company’s board of directors and are direct descendants of the founders or are married to their children.

The five heirs own 33 percent of the outstanding shares of common stock and 79 percent of the company’s Class B stock, which carries most of the voting rights.

The average age of the second-generation owners is 69, and the three remaining board members all are older than 70.

Despite their ages, there are no signs the five heirs of the family business are prepared to slow down or reduce their involvement, Mr. Hansell said.

They all remain engaged in the business, said Mr. Goldberg, who is 74, and the group is likely to help guide the company’s growth while decisions are made about financing even more new bowling centers.

“You never want to be totally satisfied or you stop being eager to improve,” he said.

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