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Missile Munitions Center and School for the U.S. Defense Department
Bracy's Vending Inc.
Alabama Operator Paul Bracy Brings A Down-Home Personality - And Crisp Military Professionalism , To His 5-State Games Route | Articles | Music & Games Features | Vending Times
HUNTSVILLE, AL - Don't tell Paul Bracy that running a music and games route isn't rocket science.He's done both and, in some ways, he finds operating equally challenging, and also more rewarding. Bracy, who recently became a board member of the Amusement and Music Operators Association, founded Bracy's Vending Inc. here more than 20 years ago, while still serving in a civilian capacity for the Missile Munitions Center and School for the U.S. Defense Department.During the day, Bracy was providing training and briefings on some of America's most sophisticated weapons systems to U.S. personnel plus military staff from 40 allied countries.On his own time, he opened the Ebony Club (Butler, AL) in 1971 and soon found himself becoming an operator by default when his machine provider failed to do the job. When other location owners asked him to handle their machines and service, Bracy plunged into the operating business.Blending a friendly, down-to-earth personality with a highly professional business philosophy, he was a solid success.Within a decade Bracy was providing machines to street routes and college arcades across half the South.BVI was incorporated in 1981. In building his operation, Bracy largely concentrated on such historical black schools as his alma mater Tuskegee University, plus Tennessee State, Alabama State, Jackson State, Grambling State, Mississippi Valley State and others (at one time BVI had 15 college accounts).Bracy said he made sure to provide the "latest and greatest" equipment, which he believes may have helped recruit prospective students and keep freshmen on campus. Bracy is a firm believer in buying new equipment, yet says a tough economy and uncertain legal environment are forcing him to cut back and rely more on older equipment and staples that were paid for long ago. "Because of the types of locations we service over a five state area, we focus on the latest and greatest to avoid maintenance headaches," Bracy said."We have many operators who take an unserious approach to this industry, investing $600 in an old machine and make $15 to $20 per week.To stay current, you've got to buy the latest equipment." CAPITAL STRATEGIES At the same time, Bracy admits he has been obliged , reluctantly , to reduce his own company's new investment budget."Our new equipment purchases have dropped more than 50% compared to 18 months ago," he conceded."My focus now is to decrease debt as much as possible," Bracy explained, "because I don't want to get caught with a lot of debt and no income" if eight-liners are shut down on a statewide basis.In recent years, adult redemption games have provided a very significant portion of BVI's revenues but their legal status is cloudy , and getting cloudier. "While we are allowed to run noncash redemption games and gray area games in certain parts of the state, we are not in other parts," he said."They are the ones that make the money in adult locations.Back in 1996 our legislature passed a non-cash redemption bill that allowed us to have eight liners.But as time went on people went crazy with them.You are not supposed to pay off in cash. "Our state association had an agreement that we operators would restrict ourselves to four machines per location," Bracy added."Operators came in from out of state and set up casino type game rooms with up to 300 machines.You had a little Las Vegas with big lights and that appearance is deadly.The state attorney general issued unfavorable opinions and certain counties and municipalities decided to shut them down despite the 1996 law.Now many jurisdictions are saying they will not act one way or the other until there is a definitive ruling by the state courts." Some cities that permit adult redemption have slapped hefty fees on the devices, Bracy observes."Here in Huntsville the normal fee was $50 per machine," he pointed out.Bracy noted that some operators are running a major risk by assuming that the gray area market will continue forever."We still have some operators out here surviving on gray area games and nothing else," he said."When those machines go away, you'll see a lot more operators go out of business.They don't have any pool tables, jukeboxes, or amusement video games." He most emphatically does not intend to be caught in that situation.For BVI, classic staple games remain profitable in tavern locations."Business is coming back this fall after being terribly soft during the summer," Bracy reported."I think we are down 30% to 40% for 2002 compared to 2001.We are just now beginning to see a resurgence of income.But I'm pleased to report that the old basics are always profitable: countertops, pool, and music." As the U.S. national defense budget increases, some of those defense contracts and higher military spending dollars are now flowing once again into Huntsville.Bracy says his locations are beginning to reflect better times.He also notes that demand for amusement equipment is strong enough that he can afford to be selective. "We get anywhere from five to 10 calls a week from prospective new locations," he said.Like many of the best operators, Bracy finds himself educating new location owners about the realities of two businesses: his, and their own."I meet many dreamers who think they can get rich overnight, or who think two pool tables will allow them to pay off $100,000 debt in two months," he smiled."We approach our customers with the idea of improving their situation, of course.But we also believe strongly in educating them on what they have, what's available now, and how any particular machine would best be suited in their unique location to improve income and generate more traffic , whether it be teenagers, young adults, or the grown up market.I always tell my customers if you tell me what you would like to earn and it's realistic, I'll put forth a concerted effort to make it happen."He adds, "I truly like seeing them make the money from amusements to help subsidize their operation." Somehow , perhaps because of his easygoing and even fatherly personality , Bracy manages to convince many location owners to trust his judgment."Nine times out of 10, when a location owner calls and asks about a specific piece of equipment, it's because they heard that machine was good," he noted."But the application that machine is being used for by their friend may not be the best application for the person asking.We don't sugarcoat the picture but present the facts as we see them." Thanks to his honest but constructive advice, Bracy creates very strong bonds with his location owners."I look at it as a joint venture: that means we have to work together," he said.While cautioning locations that amusements can't work miracles, Bracy does stress that a professional operating company can make a solid contribution to the bottom line."My philosophy is quality products and quality service," he said."We have grown the business to a point where we provide state of the art equipment if we take a location.Then we have on-time service: if somebody calls with a problem, we have somebody there within eight to 24 hours, allowing for travel and distance." For BVI, as for the U.S. industry generally, "Pool is our biggest money-maker," Bracy said."I have CD players only and refuse to go into downloading because of the percentage of income the customer would get," Bracy declared.Depending on customer tastes, Bracy's team provides locations with blues, rock, R&B, country, some jazz, and dance music. Addressing the modern-day video staple for tavern accounts, Bracy is brief and to the point: "Countertops do very well; we love them." Pinball, on the other hand, evokes a degree of ambivalence from Bracy.He likes the high resale value, but looks askance at relatively low weekly earnings and frequent maintenance demands."We mostly place pinballs in our college game rooms," he said."Today's video games are not as attractive as they were a few years ago because most of the college kids have PCs in their rooms; they can play games on the Internet for free," Bracy said.Bracy's sales resistance to video is in fact fairly high."Manufacturers will have to lower their prices," he said simply.Bracy is investigating the possibility of installing a "PC bang" facility on one or more of his college campuses."At last fall's AMOA Expo," he explains, "I saw a local area network (LAN) setup that allows players to play games online with computers.This idea intrigues me because it capitalizes on something the kids are already doing and, once you pay for the hardware, the cost of upgrading the software to keep it current might be relatively low." PROVEN EQUIPMENT In contrast with his critical take on here-today-gone-tomorrow video games, Bracy extols the long-lived virtues of coin-operated vending equipment.Washers and dryers are a natural for BVI, particularly in college market