Gary Stern and future of pinball
"My father started me at age 16 working summers in the Williams stockroom. I learned that in a small-margin manufacturing business like pinball, material control is where you make or lose the money. If you order too much, you waste money. If you don't order enough or you lose parts, you waste labor waiting for expensive added parts to be ordered and received. That Bill of Material drives the whole process...."
The 16-year-old kid in this story grew up to be Gary Stern, now owner of the amusement industry's only active pinball factory. He is a remarkably calm and confident man these days and the reason is simple. Under the tutelage of his father and other old pinball pros (like the legendary Harry Williams), he learned endless lessons about what makes flipper games profitable...and fun. Today, Gary believes his factory - Stern Pinball, Inc. - can ensure that the silver ball remains both a moneymaker and solidly entertaining.
"We see some upswing in the pinball market in this country," Gary declared. "There are very few used pinball machines. Production in the last number of years is down. Older games are getting very tired. There is need for games - not at 1992 levels, but at current levels. As we make the right mechanical action games, we can interest more casual players without intimidating them, increasing that level."
It's good to hear such confidence coming from the Stern factory, particularly since (as Gary himself admits) the pinball market is going through one of its toughest eras of the past 60 years. From a 1992 high of 100,000 units built collectively by several factories, this year's worldwide demand is probably 12,000 units, Gary estimates. But big or small, it's his market and it remains a viable market.
"We are completely committed to pinball as our core product," Gary stated. "We intend to continue making pinball, modifying our business and cost structure to be able to continue. And most important we will continue to provide technical service and parts for the product we manufacture over the product's reasonable life. Without that commitment, our efforts would not help operators, and our pinball business would not continue to exist. As difficult as it may be, designing pinball games is only a small portion of the task one must take on to be a pinball manufacturer."
The trade has proven supportive of Stern's mission. "Operators and distributors like pinball as a game, and they like it as an historical part of our business. Operators need pinball games. At the same time, we understand that pinball is only one of many products those in our industry can and must choose among. We are not so cocky to think that pinball is the most necessary product for our business, and we know our customers could survive without pinball. There are many other products for them, and we are aware of that. So we strive to make the best-earning, best-working (and factory-supported) game for the operators, and to create a good resale value to the secondary - home - market."
Stern Pinball segued into its current incarnation after Sega sold its pinball division to Gary last fall. (Sega had originally purchased the business several years earlier from Data East.) Since buying the company in 1999, Gary and his team have built South Park, Harley-Davidson and Striker Xtreme. They're consolidating into their 40,000 sq. ft. building (they once worked in two 20,000 sq. ft. buildings, so this setup is more efficient). They've got some new blood, too, having added former WMS designers Dwight Sullivan and Keith Johnson to the accomplished Stern team.
Has pinball got a long, healthy future in an era of video, video and more video' You bet - and the word that explains why is "retro." Old-fashioned is in, from the renaissance of the VW Bug to the flowering of the Restoration Hardware Store chain...and pinball fits right into the times. The big challenge now is to make pinballs that please the current base of players and attract new ones. To that end, said Gary, he never forgets the motto of Harry Williams that "the ball is wild." Watching the pinball slam around and make things happen under glass is the basic, unchanging appeal of the game; Stern Pinball designs games that will deliver that experience. It means casual and even first-time players can walk up to a game, hit the flippers without any particular skill or strategy, and still make things happen, score points, and have a good time. Meanwhile, almost camouflaged inside this simple game is a more sophisticated level of gameplay which skilled shooters can appreciate.
Said Gary: "Our design philosophy changed with South Park. We make more and more of what we call a 'Mechanical Action Pinball.' That is, casual players see mechanical things happen, they see drop targets fall when hit. They see Kenny fall over dead in South Park; they see the Harley do wheelies when hit in Harley-Davidson, and they see the goal made when they shoot past the goalie in Striker Xtreme. But they don't perceive deep rules that we have in our games for enthusiasts. They don't see a light coming on when they hit a stand-up target. But it's there."
Another secret to expanding the pinball player base is paying attention to America's changing demographics. With 10% of the U.S. population identifying itself as Hispanic...a slice that grows every day...a soccer-themed game like Striker finds an appreciative audience not only in Europe and South America, but also in new markets right here in the USA. Said Gary: "Players love to hear the announcer scream 'goal,' in English or in available Spanish for Hispanic locations such as in Chicago, New York, Texas, California or elsewhere. We have a game on test here in an Hispanic location, and for the first time pinball is doing great."
Stern & Co. are taking some other unusual steps to beef up their market. Harley and South Park are going back into production in July, for small runs whose size is precisely dictated by distributor orders. (They've also sold some more Harley games to Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealers.) "The old rules are all by the wayside," Gary explained of this unprecedented move. "We do what we must to survive in the difficult market. In the past we would not have made small runs of older games."
Yet another unusual step by Stern is building a game that can support modem-networked tournaments, in cooperation with Incredible Technologies. "We tested the network communications systems with Golden Cue, which we had at a number of shows and in a number of tournaments," Gary said. "We are now completing Sharkey's Shootout featuring the ESPN-famous pool champion Jeanette Lee." A limited number will be built this summer, with more coming for fall.
Beyond pinball, Stern continues to support its redemption line and will be adding more titles to that stable downstream. Meanwhile, the industry's only pinball maker sums up his position in simple yet powerful words: "I have spent my business life learning the pinball manufacturing business and making pinballs. I intend to continue."
Pinball Tops In Home Market
Pinball is enjoying a noticeable surge of popularity among today's consumers, who are buying huge quantities of flipper machines, new and used, and installing them in private homes. The day this story was written, for example, hundreds of pins were for sale on www.ebay.com. Stern sales veep Jolly Backer said the demand for used pins helps ensure the value of new equipment. "The fun aspect about the pinball business right now is how used sales are affecting the total market," he explained. "I must get a couple a calls a week from our distributors wanting to buy quantities of used pinballs. Most of the used pinballs are coming from Europe. What really blows my mind, is when I look in the back of your magazine at the Blue Pages and see four or five year old pinball games advertised for $1,895! No wonder the distributors want to get their hands on the used pins. This tells another great story about pinball: the resale value is great, therefore pinballs are a great buy."
Gary's Allstars: The Stern Pinball Team
Gary Stern is immensely proud of his team, and with good reason. "Our superbly gifted administrator Shelley Sax has been with us since 1979; if you ask her job description she says 'I'm Mom' and that's just about right - she keeps the place running smoothly and we depend on her for everything! Jolly Backer is our talented and experienced sales vice president; he was with Data East when it was our original owner, handling pinball sales along with video, and he also rep'd pinball for Bally in the old days. Our design staff has many experienced pinball designers, with varied backgrounds. Lonnie Ropp is in charge of software design, having been with Stern for a long time following a stint with Incredible Technologies, when they programmed the first Data East pinballs. Our mechanical engineering/designers are headed up by Ray Tanzer, with years of experience at Gottlieb and at Grand Products."
Gary added: "We have two fine playfield designer/mechanical engineers, Joe Balcer and John Borg. Both have been with us for a long time, and both worked for Gottlieb. John Norris, a former Gottlieb pinball designer has been working with us for a number of years, contributing to many good Stern pinball games. Others in our design area include Phillis Rosenthal, who worked with me at Williams in the early 1970s, and Jay Dominak who does some of our game and advertising art and a lot of dot matrix art. He is now assisted by Mark Galvez.
"Mike O'Donnell is VP/controller and operations manager," Gary continued. "He's been here since 1987 and he is our right hand! In today's world you need computerized manufacturing, CAD systems and much more so you need top computer people; Shah Jahan is tops with me. Bob Karegianes creates and keeps our Bills of Material, or parts listings, up to date.Joe Blackwell, who heads our technical service department, is the best I have ever worked with. His technician, Jim Thornton, is second generation in this game business, his father having headed Atlas service and his mother still at Atlas. Jim started here years ago as a production line worker. Also starting and working his way up from our production line is Chas Siddiqi, now doing PCB repair. Jay Alfer writes and illustrates an absolutely fantastic manual. Susan Molitor heads the parts order area under Joe, and Patricia Schraps is Joe's forewoman running the stockroom filling the orders. All of these wonderful people really care about the quality of service and product they provide."