Could Bowling Strike It Big in Times Square?
In 1997, Tom Shannon dropped $3,000 of his own money and $2 million cobbled together from business loans to buy a 60-year-old Greenwich Village bowling alley. A little more than a decade later, he's standing in what was once The New York Times newsroom, contemplating a far bigger bet: a $23 million, 50-lane bowling alley where he hopes corporate partygoers, tourists, and locals will spend loads of time and money.
As he gears up for a mid-November opening, the balding, gregarious Shannon leads a tour of what is still very much a construction site. He points out a sign featuring the alley's new 25-foot-tall neon mascot, "Bowlmor Bob," who will hang above 44th Street swinging a three-foot bowling ball back and forth. Once inside, customers will traverse a staircase built to resemble the Brooklyn Bridge to reach seven distinct areas representing various New York neighborhoods or themes. There's Central Park, with stone arches and trellises; a series of seedy storefronts that evoke the old Times Square; and a handful of black-floored lanes in the "Warhol" zone. There's plenty of detail, from the giant gong for Chinatown to the fake rats in the subway section.
A native of the Washington (D.C.) area, Shannon veered away from a planned career as an academic or diplomat to earn an MBA and nurture his entrepreneurial streak. Arriving in New York in 1993, he muddled through by selling gym memberships and doing odd jobs. "I moved to the city as a single guy with no job," he says. "I didn't really have much downside risk to failure because I was already broke."
In the mid-1990s, Shannon discovered the original Bowlmor, a family-owned alley in New York's Greenwich Village. When he got word that the family wanted to sell the unprofitable operation, Shannon pounced. Once in charge, he raised prices on shoes and games and began an overhaul that quadrupled in cost, to $2 million, leaving the company with little working capital. "We renovated during the day, we cleaned up, and we opened for business at 5 o'clock the first 18 months," he says.
The lanes quickly became profitable, drawing locals along with law firms, investment banks, and other companies that used it for parties. Today, half the revenues from the Greenwich Village lanes come from corporate events. Shannon opened five more branches in California and elsewhere, but he always had his eye on a bigger Manhattan location. In 2008 he sold a minority interest in Bowlmor to private equity firm Goode Partners for $15 million. Shannon used the cash in part to fund his long-planned incursion into Times Square, which he expects will push the company's revenues north of $60 million in 2011, from about $40 million this year. The new location "is going to take the bowling experience to a whole different level," says Goode co-founder David Oddi.
Shannon has thrown his share of gutter balls. A business school colleague hired as Bowlmor's first chief financial officer chafed at the startup's restricted resources and left after about six months of what Shannon calls "pervasive friction." And Shannon took on debt for a Bowlmor that was too upscale for its Long Island location, requiring a refinancing that ultimately cost the company about $20 million.
He expects no such mismatch in Times Square. The complex is sort of an Epcot of tenpins whose sections mimic the bustle of New York in a neighborhood that some say shed its own authenticity with its transformation into a mecca for tourists. "Before I embarked on this project, I hated Times Square," he says, recalling the sight of police officers with guns drawn when he first ventured there in the early 1990s. His disdain grew when Times Square went to the opposite extreme, becoming home to the likes of M&M's, Disney, and Olive Garden (DRI). He sees Bowlmor as a return to the neighborhood's heyday of vaudeville, cabaret, and burlesque. "We're taking our place," he says, "in the history of that spectacle."
The bottom line: Entrepreneur Tom Shannon is betting a $23 million bowling alley in Times Square will become a hot location for corporate events.