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  • | 6:27 p.m. November 25, 2009
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Fresh out of the Air Force in 1970, Patrick Ciniello remembers the day he told his parents he had been hired as an assistant manager at a New Jersey bowling alley.

Let's just say the news went over like dropping a 16-pound bowling ball on their big toes.

“My father and mother were furious. They had struggled to put me through college,” Ciniello recalls. “My father said I was going to be a pin boy.”

As it turned out, Ciniello went from pin boy to king pin.

Today, Ciniello is the president of QubicaAMF Worldwide, one of the world's largest manufacturers of bowling equipment with $115 million in revenues in 2008.

From his unassuming offices tucked off U.S. 41 in Bonita Springs, Ciniello also oversees six bowling alleys and an equipment-repair operation in the Fort Myers-Naples area that ring up $10 million in annual sales.

Ciniello, 64, is a legend in bowling circles, widely recognized by peers and trade journals as one of the most influential bowling executives in the world. He is the current president and chairman of the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame that is building a 50,000-square-foot shrine to the sport in Arlington, Texas that will open in January.

Ciniello has a simple reason for his success: “It's much easier to do something you love,” he says. He fell in love with the game at age 12 at Roosevelt Lanes in Jersey City, N.J., where he cleaned bowling balls in exchange for free games. “I used to bowl 20 games a day,” says Ciniello, who bowled competitively through high school and college.

People who know Ciniello say he has an uncanny ability to spot opportunities and take advantage of them quickly. “I liken him to the guy who climbs up the high dive and asks: 'Did they fill the pool yet'?” says longtime business partner Richard Albright. “If there's something he thinks is going to work, he does his due diligence but it doesn't take long for him to make a decision.”

Ciniello's gut instinct comes from knowing exactly what his customers want. He has hired a team of software developers he calls on to dissect his operations, producing income statements and balance sheets at the click of a button. “I can tell you how many hamburgers we sold this past Tuesday and compare that with last Tuesday,” he says. “I'm crazy about figures.”

Brunswick to Naples
From that assistant-manager position in 1970, Ciniello quickly climbed up the corporate ladder at Brunswick, a bowling-center operator. He became a manager within eight months and became known as a talented manager with a knack for turning around struggling bowling centers.

Ciniello learned every job in a bowling center, from cleaning the bathrooms to running a food-and-beverage operation. “My dream was always to own bowling centers,” he says.

While on vacation in Naples in 1978, Ciniello and a business associate came across a bowling alley for sale. They each put in $17,500, assumed the previous owner's loan and acquired Beacon Bowl on U.S. 41 in Naples in 1980. “I fell in love with Naples,” Ciniello says. “I saw such opportunity and loved the climate.”

Southwest Florida was just starting to grow in earnest. Ciniello's father, who by then had acknowledged his son's management abilities, came to visit and never left, Ciniello chuckles.

The sweet deal Ciniello and his partner got on that first profitable bowling alley in Naples generated the cash and leverage to expand. “That's our baby,” he says.

While Ciniello was growing his bowling-alley empire, he started a company called Purrfect Score that bought used scoring systems, refurbished them and sold them to bowling alleys around the world. These included consoles, monitors and camera systems that tracked the number of pins bowlers knocked down. “We became the experts,” Ciniello says.

Viva Qubica
Connections he had made with Purrfect Score led him to Italy. In 1994, Ciniello traveled to Bologna, Italy, to see what three young Italian computer engineers were doing in a cigarette-smoke-filled workshop.

The Italian engineers had devised a system that dramatically simplified the installation and upkeep of scoring systems. Instead of running huge cables, their system involved just four thin wires. Plus, the software let bowling-center operators track all sorts of data they hadn't been able to previously. “These guys really didn't know about bowling,” Ciniello chuckles. “They were software guys.”

But Ciniello, a self-acknowledged gadget lover, recognized the software's potential right away and acquired the rights to sell the systems in North and South America under the Qubica name. He wasn't concerned that bowling giants AMF and Brunswick controlled the scoring-equipment market.

“At the time I didn't think there was room for a small, ankle biting company to challenge AMF and Brunswick,” says Albright, Ciniello's partner.

But in what Albright says Harvard University should now consider a textbook-case study, Ciniello built Qubica into a major player using the Italian software.

Ciniello's secret: “We listened to the customer,” he says.

For example, when a customer needed to program special scoring instructions for a tournament, Qubica's software designers made it happen while competitors ignored them.

As a bowling-center operator, Ciniello thought like his customers. “I needed to know what my bowling centers were doing,” he says. For example, the Qubica software allowed data from the lanes to be imported into QuickBooks, the accounting software.

Not surprisingly, Qubica grew from biting ankles to chopping limbs. Competitors took note as Qubica's scoring system reached 20,000 lanes. “All of a sudden they started paying attention to who we were,” Ciniello says.

After several years of negotiations, Qubica and AMF formed a joint venture in 2005 in which each owned a 50% stake in the combined company. Even though AMF is more widely known, Ciniello is particularly proud of the fact that Qubica's name comes first in the new company.

“We were a very profitable company,” Ciniello says. “We went into this with very little debt.” In fact, by Dec. 31, QubicaAMF will be debt free and Ciniello expects the company's revenues to hit $135 million in 2009, up 17% from 2008.

Recession survivor
Bowling has survived the recession better than many other sports, with many centers reporting sales drops in the single-digit annual percentage rates. “We're still economical recreation,” Ciniello says.

Still, Ciniello says lowering costs has been imperative to remaining profitable. To do that at his bowling centers, he encouraged employees to find ways for the company to save $10 a day and shares a percentage of the savings with them. “Everybody got the fever,” Ciniello says.

The savings that employees suggested offset the 5% decline in revenues this year. They included getting lower-cost Internet services with Comcast, renegotiating garbage hauling and doing some tasks in-house that had been hired out before. “We became better business people,” Ciniello says.

Key to controlling costs is monitoring operations on a day-to-day basis. “You can't wait until the end of the month,” Ciniello says. His software developers can produce financial statements instantly.

All those savings will boost profits when the economy rebounds. Ciniello says he's not sure when that will happen, though he's started to see some signs of recovery that he hopes will take hold by the second quarter of 2010. “Unemployment is really crushing us,” he says.

When the economy does rebound, you can expect Ciniello to grow with it. “None of us plans to retire,” he says.

Entrepreneur. Patrick Ciniello
Industry. Bowling
Key. Listen to your customers and don't dawdle to make decisions.

Jean Gruss covers the Lee-Collier region. He can be reached at [email protected], or at 239-415-4422.


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