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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 6 years ago

Ride 'em, cowboy

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A company that straddles the entertainment and manufacturing industries has boosted sales 55% since 2011. Now it targets more fun, and more growth.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Robin Whincup is one entrepreneur who doesn't take any bull.

He sells it instead.

Mechanical bulls, that is, through Galaxy Multi Rides. The Port Charlotte-based company, which Whincup runs with his son, Mike Whincup, is a unique Florida business: It manufactures and sells a variety of mechanical bulls, inflatable games and obstacle courses to a host of clients that include bars, traveling carnivals and theme parks. The firm's rides can be customized and designed to match a client's specific needs, and go beyond the standard country and western wannabe cowboy bull ride. Think mechanical bull-like machines that look like a sneaker, a bulldog, a beer bottle, or even a Buffalo chicken wing.

And it turns out mechanical bulls are a growth ride, at least the way the Whincups run the business, through a combination of creative products and say-yes customer service. “I didn't invent the mechanical bull,” says the British-born Whincup, “but I did invent it to be a safe machine.”

Sales at Galaxy, run out of a 10,000-square-foot factory in rural north Charlotte County, are up 55% since 2011, from $2 million to $3.1 million last year. Revenues are up more than fivefold since 2008, when the company had around $600,000 in sales.

Even better: Galaxy killed it at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions trade show in Orlando in November, when it booked $1 million in new business. “I can't believe how much we have grown,” says Whincup. “It's been amazing.”

Galaxy, with 20 employees, outgrew its leased facility several months ago. It's currently in negotiations with the landlord to buy the building and an adjacent property to expand by at least 5,000 square feet. The firm is hiring, too. Open positions vary from welder to seamstress.

That's a long ride from Harrogate, England, where Robin Whincup founded the business in 1990, back when it only sold bounce houses. He moved his family, and the firm, to Port Charlotte in 2008, both to go after more North American customers and find a more business-friendly climate. In England, says Whincup, the do-it-on-your-own business spirit isn't a popular career choice. “One of the things that I love about the U.S,” he says, “is people celebrate you for entrepreneurial success.”

Of course, after five years of being in business stateside, the Whincups discovered an American executive pastime: confusion and consternation over taxes and regulations.

One specific irritation, says Mike Whincup, is Charlotte County sign rules that make an out-of-the-way building even harder to find. Robin Whincup's dismay is over a part of Florida's now-repealed fixed assets intangibles tax. The tax was in effect when he moved the firm, so he paid a levy on computers and phones brought from England.

“I do find it quite ironic that America fought the British over taxes,” quips Whincup, “and now you are one of the most taxed countries on the planet.”

'Different things'
Despite the anti-tax chatter, the Whincups wear the made in the U.S.A. label proudly.

The company maintains a showroom in England, but the U.S. is where the work is done. The key to the company's products, says Robin Whincup, is the rides are lightweight, portable and can be assembled in 20 minutes by a one- or two-man crew. The average Galaxy mechanical ride costs about $16,000, though some run up to $30,000. A few Galaxy Multi Rides products cost more than $60,000.

The mechanical rides are made of fiberglass and a foam head, which are melded around the motor of the mechanical machine. A vinyl cover is also placed over the ride, both for style and safety. The fiberglass can be shaped into nearly any object, which his how Galaxy flexes its customization muscles. The bulldog-shaped mechanical bull, for instance, was for BBC America's publicity tent at a music festival in Austin, Texas. Brooks Sports requested a ride shaped like sneaker for a promotional tour.

That flexibility has led Galaxy into other areas of the ride entertainment industry.

One example is the Toxic Rampage, what the firm's marketing materials call “the world's first portable modular obstacle course with the perfect blend of challenging mechanical elements.” It's 100 feet long, broken up into seven sections. A person (read: someone who buys a ticket) can charge through the course in about 70 seconds, says Whincup.

That kind of efficiency is a big selling point for carnival and amusement park operators because the Toxic Rampage sells for about $60,000. “We are not going to sell three or four a week,” Robin Whincup says, “but for the customer that buys one they could make a lot of money of it.”

Another new product is an animated ride booth that utilizes a green screen and a video camera. The customer can pick from a variety of imaginary rides, go on an adventure and even get a DVD copy of the experience. Galaxy plans to showcase the animated ride booth during a trade show in Las Vegas in April. “We don't rest on our laurels,” says Whincup. “We are quite innovative. We try to do different things without diversifying too much.”

Coming to America
From a customer service standpoint, meanwhile, Whincup always seeks a way to complete an order — no matter how wacky. “Usually my answer to anything is yes,” says Whincup. “The priority is that has to be safe, but if it is, we will do it.”

While Whincup currently breeds passion for the industry, he wasn't born into the mechanical bull business. His first company, back in England in the early 1980s, sold furniture and drapes. He bought a bounce house for a side rental business in the late 1980s, and within two years he had 200 bounce houses for rent in and around Yorkshire. “It really exploded,” he says.

Then Whincup expanded. He came up with the design for the Galaxy mechanical bull in a bar, over a few beers with a friend who was an engineer. He wanted something safe, portable and light enough for two guys to lift.

They built a prototype, with the idea that it would complement the bounce house rental business. A few months later an executive with a company from Holland saw the prototype at a trade show and asked for 40. That's when Whincup realized he had a big business opportunity.

Whincup began doing business in the U.S. in 1999. By 2007 he was ready to move it stateside. Whincup says he invested at least $2 million to move the company and get going in Charlotte County.

Big calls
Whincup has more recently made several other decisions he hopes will foster more growth.

In late 2012, for example, Whincup introduced Six Sigma manufacturing principles and techniques into Galaxy's daily processes. The impetus for Six Sigma, he says, was a discovery that the firm was sitting on $500,000 of storage, tools, equipment and inventory.

Galaxy is about two-thirds through the training program, and Whincup says “it's made us much more efficient.” The crux of the training is everything has a place, from a hammer to a box of nails, so employees know where to find things, fast. There's even a designated place for a garbage can.

Another key decision, says Whincup, was to move more of the manufacturing supply chain in-house. For example, the company recently spent $40,000 on a wide format printer and a liquid laminator. The liquid laminator coats a variety of fabrics used on mechanical bulls.

The company also recently shifted its sales strategy, to renew relationships from leads generated at trade shows and other venues. The Whincups bought a salesforce.com software package to help sort through the best leads. “Instead of chasing new business through wasting money,” says Mike Whincup, “we decided to use our database.”

With its customized product list, efficient factory and sales reinforcement behind it, Robin Whincup projects Galaxy will surpass $5 million in annual sales by 2016 or 2017. In the meantime, he does what any entrepreneur who runs a place that sells mechanical bulls should do: He has fun.

“I don't see this as a job or just a place to come to work,” Whincup says. “It's a way of life.”

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