Photo: Kris Kathmann
Strikes, Spares & Splits
North Mankato couple develops regional $7 million family entertainment center Wow! Zone in Mankato.
Business is like bowling. It’s all about strikes, spares, and splits.
On any given day, you knock down business projects first roll, leave various miscues for mopping up or face tough situations that seem impossible to overcome.
Doug and Pam DeMarce are bowling experts. Their business and private lives together have involved rolling stellar 300 games to leaving ultra-tough 7-10 splits. Like other business owners. Like other people.
After modest beginnings with Victory Bowl and Mickey’s Sports Bar & Grill in Mankato, the DeMarces in 2008 added on $7 million, 80-employee, family entertainment center Wow! Zone on Adams Street near River Hills Mall. It was a risk worth taking. It was southern Minnesota’s first family entertainment center—and still the only.
The DeMarces, particularly Pam, have been industry and community pillars. Doug has been involved with the Twin Valley Boy Scouts board, the Bowling Proprietors Association of Minnesota executive board, Minnesota Valley Civitan, and the Brunswick Customer Forum.
But serial joiner Pam—get ready—has connections with the American Cancer Society (current state leadership council), Business and Professional Women (former state president), Women Executives in Business (member), Minnesota Valley Civitan (past president), Greater Mankato Optimist Club (past president), United Church of Christ (trustee board), Sunrise Lions (past president), Greater Mankato Area Rotary (past president), Lasting Imprint (current board), Small Business Peer Council (member), Bowling Proprietor’s Association of America (social media committee), United Way (past campaign chair), Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program (board member), SURGE Youth Leadership Program (fundraising committee member), BNI (member), and MRCI Foundation (former board member).
Together in 2013, the DeMarces rolled a thunderous strike when Wow! Zone earned the Bowling Proprietors Association of Minnesota “Proprietor of the Year Award.” Like the rest of us, they also have left plenty of spares and splits in their business and private lives. You be the judge.
CONNECT: How did you two meet?
Pam: While starting at MSU, I began working at (what is today) Taylor Corporation and after working there seven years I took a second job as a waitress at Victory Bowl a couple nights a week. I wanted to be out with new people because my work at Taylor Corporation was pretty consuming.
Doug: She caught me on a night I was working—a Saturday night. By then, I was owner of Victory Bowl. During a mixed doubles league in 1979, I was working the bowling counter and she was the lane waitress. We made small talk and mentioned the possibility of dating. We married in 1982.
CONNECT: What about your upbringing?
Pam: My family was important, and my parents were really good at shielding us from the bad things in life. We went to church. We did things together as a family. Sunday was family day, which was the day we visited cousins and played all day. It was all about family and showing unconditional love.
Doug: Pam has a twin sister, Pat Thompson, who recently retired as a special education teacher in St. Clair.
Pam: We are alike in what we think and do, and in our support of each other. If you marry a twin, you end up marrying both twins. So Larry, Pat’s husband, deals with the same issues as Doug. Being a twin is awesome.
Because of Pat being (emotionally) close to us, Doug and I are like parents to her daughter and grandparents to her grandchild, Landon. Pat and I both do lots of volunteer work, both attend the United Church of Christ in Mankato, and both like dancing. We often think the same things at the same time. We have three much older siblings.
CONNECT: What did mom and dad do for work?
Pam: My dad was a hard-working laborer who never made a lot of money. His last job, which he loved the most, was with Farm Systems. We’d had a farm at one time in Minnesota Lake before moving into town when I was five. My mother sold Avon and Amway, which got her out with people. She was well liked. My parents were giving people and heavily involved in the community of Minnesota Lake, mostly through church. A lot of people came for their funerals. It was a tribute to who they were. If there was anyone in town needing anything, my folks were always there to offer help, even though they had so little to give. Life wasn’t about “things” with them and how much you had. It was about people. Doug and I married in October 1982, and a month later my dad died, and 18 months later my mom. After that, Doug’s mother became my mother. If ever needing anything, I know I can go to her.
CONNECT: And you, Doug?
Doug: My grandfather, dad, and two uncles at one time were in the bowling business. My dad ran a bowling business in Albert Lea in the late ‘50s to about 1961, a period in which the union struck at the Wilson Food plant. The strike was violent. The governor called in the National Guard and soldiers lined our streets. It tore our community apart. You were either pro-union or not. It divided the churches, schools, and even our bowling leagues. My mom and dad wanted a more peaceful life. So he cashed out of the bowling alley in 1961 to buy a 100-acre farm between North Mankato and Nicollet along Highway 14. It’s a chicken farm today. For school, while working on the farm, I started at age 10 at Holy Rosary in North Mankato and later, Loyola. We had dairy cattle, hogs, and near the end of my dad’s career, egg production.
CONNECT: Given where you lived, the distance to Loyola, and your farm chores, you couldn’t have had much free time.
Doug: We lived inside the Nicollet school district by a half-mile. We often were the first ones on the bus and the last off. It made for a long day. After getting home, I had to change clothes, get to the silo, and throw down silage. Upon graduating high school at the peak of the Vietnam War, I drew No. 42 in the draft lottery and so I went to the Navy recruiting office at the Post Office in Mankato to enlist. While I was in the Navy, my dad came down with emphysema, a lung disease, which he had contracted from the feather and feed dust in the chicken coops. The Navy gave me a hardship discharge in 1972 so I could help run the farm, which I had intended to do anyway. Dad’s health didn’t get better.
Just like Pam when she started working at Victory Bowl, just for something to do, I started at Jerry Dutler’s Double Deuce Bowl in Mankato working a couple nights a week at the counter. Two nights turned into three and four, and then assistant manager, and then manager at Victory Bowl, which Jerry Dutler owned.
In 1974, I was managing Victory Bowl one day when Jerry came in saying he had almost sold the business. A potential buyer had died of a heart attack two days before the scheduled closing date, he said. He then asked if I wanted to buy it. I was only 23 and didn’t have a nickel to my name, so my parents helped with the down payment and the rest came from a bank loan. Eventually, they sold their 100 acres because of dad’s declining health. I took over Victory Bowl the day after Thanksgiving 1974. My grandpa had helped his sons get into the bowling business and my parents helped me.
Grandpa gave me one piece of memorable advice. He said you always needed to keep your place up-to-date so someone coming in tomorrow to build a competing bowling center across the street wouldn’t have a place much nicer than yours. That’s one philosophy I have always followed at Victory Bowl. We are constantly updating, always wanting to be on the leading edge of technology, such as with scoring and synthetic lanes. I tell other proprietors that story—keep reinvesting in your business.
CONNECT: And your career, Pam?
Pam: I remember starting like it was yesterday. I began at Taylor Corporation in 1973 earning $1.63 an hour when Bill Carlson was still the owner. While attending MSU full-time, it wasn’t unusual for me to work 20-40 hours a week. After getting my elementary education degree, I had to choose between teaching and Taylor, and realized I didn’t want to teach and loved my work. I was disappointed I hadn’t changed my major to business along the way, but looking back, I got the best training in business anyway. When I met Doug in 1979, I told him on the first date I wasn’t interested in having any children. Having had a stay-at-home mom when I was young, I didn’t see how my career and having children would be good for our children. We both felt the same. We always have been committed to our careers.
Doug: We were DINKS: double income, no kids. We have never had kids, but have a “grandchild” through a niece.
CONNECT: In many respects, it would appear you both did end up having “children” anyway—they are your customers at Wow! Zone.
Pam: Yes, I’ve been a “grandmother” to many kids. I have kids running up to hug me all the time. I know Doug would have the same happening if he were here more. He’s not an on-site person anymore. But when Doug was younger, and they had junior bowling, the kids did the same.
Doug: I love kids, and probably watched three generations come through our junior bowling programs.
Pam: My (Taylor Corporation) career was phenomenal. Just this morning, I was in a small business peer counseling meeting and a lady there mentioned an article that claimed only 25 percent of people love their jobs. Only 25 percent. I am lucky to have had 35 years at Taylor Corporation at a job I enjoyed.
CONNECT: Give examples of what you enjoyed.
Pam: Last night, I went to a movie with a bunch of girlfriends I had from Taylor Corporation, such as Linda Danielson, who I worked with more than 15 years only desks apart. The time I worked as Brad Schreier’s assistant was when she and I were closest. Brad (who later became Taylor Corporation chief executive officer) was a very smart man, and a great person to learn business from, not to mention Glen Taylor, Bill Kozitza, and Al Fallenstein.
As for Al, I work with his daughter now on the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention board. I don’t necessarily miss the work, just the people.
In 2000, Brad was close to retiring, and I knew his replacement would want to pick their own assistant. Rather than wait for Brad to retire, I wanted to do something different. I went into sales and called on Office Depot locations around the country to train their employees on Taylor Corporation programs involving business cards, stationery, stamps, banners—whatever. My last year, 2008, I was on the road more than home. I left on July 11, 2008, and four months later helped start Wow! Zone.
CONNECT: And you, Doug, more about your career?
Doug: I’d be remiss not mentioning my two right-hand men who have been with me at Victory Bowl for many years, Mike Rose and Jim Kopischke. They are also stockholders in Wow! Zone. We all kind of run around like chickens with our heads cut off wherever we’re needed. Right now, we operate Victory Bowl on a limited basis, not opening until four in the afternoon.
Pam: Our intent was to close the facility and sell the building when Wow! Zone became up and running.
Doug: That was our intent, but at the start of the recession the commercial real estate market tanked, so there really was no chance to sell the building at a good price. We have positive cash flow there, though.
Pam: As a new business, we were so busy here on Friday night (at Wow! Zone) we had to move the Friday night league back to Victory Bowl. Friday and Saturday was open play here. Our Friday leagues were tying up lanes.
CONNECT: What do you two like best about the business right now?
Doug: I’m the builder and like projects, such as remodeling. I like the financial end. That’s different from 1974 when I was the front person.
Pam: I’m disappointed about what has happened with our relationship, but it is what it is. We are separated and seeking a divorce. This was something we both put our whole life’s earnings into and soon won’t be able to work as a (married) couple. The biggest issue is Doug is ready to retire and doesn’t want to be involved in the day-to-day business. To be fair, he did tell me all that throughout the process of building Wow! Zone, but either I wasn’t hearing him or believing him. That aside, I’m having fun doing this business because it’s a people business and I’m a people person.
Doug: Pam’s strength is in sales and customer service, which comes from her Taylor Corporation background and natural personality.
CONNECT: Given your pending divorce, how do you make things work?
Doug: We just do it. It’s a better situation now than a year ago (when we made the decision). I have my job, and she has hers, and there isn’t a lot of time we’re in meetings together.
Pam: My life right now is this business. I have more than 80 employees and have made a commitment in order to help make this business succeed. I am trying to stay focused. I need to figure out how to make this (business) work with our not being married. We are going to have to figure it out.
Doug: There is no talk of selling out in the near horizon.
Pam: We can’t let what is going on personally affect the business. I’ve done a pretty good job of that, but it’s hard.
Doug: Initially, a year ago, I could feel the tension among employees. It’s better. It may not be ideal, but it’s better.
Pam: I’m honest about our divorce, and not quiet about it. All my friends know.
Doug: Even our league bowlers know. Part of it is our personalities. She is the social person with a big circle of friends and I’m more the loner, with a small handful of close friends.
CONNECT: Why start Wow! Zone?
Doug: We just had an opportunity to grow and give our employees opportunity. Mankato was becoming a regional hub. Victory Bowl had only 12 lanes. If we didn’t act, I could see someone opening a competing, stand-alone bowling center. Also, we realized league bowling wasn’t going to be the cornerstone of a successful bowling business moving forward. League participation nationwide has been declining slightly every year, down 50 percent from its peak.
Because of being active with the state bowling proprietors association and visiting national conventions, I had been following the trend for years of the “family entertainment center.” That was the new model being developed. A traditional bowling center is a seasonal business, doing well only eight months of the year, but a family entertainment center like Wow! Zone can do well year around. For example, Wow! Zone does five times the business of Victory Bowl in summer months.
CONNECT: But it wasn’t like you could drive around Mankato to find a template. Your family entertainment center was the first in southern Minnesota.
Doug: During national conventions, manufacturers took us to nearby showplace centers where we picked up ideas. We learned from them. In building Wow! Zone, we also involved key national players. Brunswick has done a thousand of these facilities it seems. We used one of the top three architects in the nation for this facility, Dynamic Design. (As for constructing the building, we used Gosewisch Construction, a local company.) For the game room, we hired a top national consultant. Having all that knowledge helped. It was a huge capital investment.
CONNECT: Can you say how much?
Doug: This project was in excess of $7 million.
Pam: It had been Doug’s dream for a long time.
Doug: Expansion had been on my mind. At one time in the early ‘80s we had an option on four acres of land where the old Mankato drive-in theater site was near Mankato Ford. We were going to build a 24-lane center there, but interest rates were 15 percent.
Pam: About a year into this project, Doug got a telephone call from someone in town who had contacted Brunswick about constructing a family entertainment center in Mankato. Once he found out we were as far into the project as we were, he moved on to another business.
CONNECT: Your timing was uncanny.
Doug: Yes, but then the economy tanked. To move forward, we were lucky to have financing in place involving a letter of commitment from a bank and SBA approval. I know many proprietors in my circle of friends nationally that had projects pulled out from under them then. They had already purchased land and in some cases poured concrete when their bank pulled out. We worked locally with First National Bank Minnesota (and Mankato Branch President Ken Kuehner) and 504 Corporation. It helped us knowing Doug Anderson (Holiday Inn) was building across the street.
CONNECT: One thing that could boost your business would be a completed Walmart distribution center.
Doug: Yes, and we’re also waiting for completion of a 184-unit apartment complex across the street. Also, I heard Pat Hentges (Mankato city manager) talk in July about extending Adams Street east to County Road 12. That would be key, too. The City of Mankato has been struggling with traffic control on Adams Street.
They desperately need another outlet for traffic in that area, which includes Hy-Vee, Applebee’s, Holiday Inn, Office Max, and Gander Mountain.
CONNECT: At Wow! Zone you have a very young workforce.
Pam: This is the first job for many of our employees. We help them understand how to work and give them opportunities to learn customer service.
CONNECT: In other words, this is a 2013 version of what Carlson Craft was for many young Mankatoans 40 years ago.
Doug: And part of having a young workforce means we pay many employees minimum wage. We are worried sick about the state increase in minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour. I wrote a letter to all three of our local representatives at the state level to show them the math. I wrote State Sen. Kathy Sheran, for one. I bring her up because I sent email to all three at the same time, and heard back from her in 20 minutes. We corresponded back and forth many times. I didn’t get the same response from the other two.
Here is what I told her: In round numbers, we have a payroll of $600,000 a year, and two-thirds comes from paying minimum wage. That’s $400,000. Those minimum wage employees generally are either high school students on their first job or wait staff or bartenders making much more with tips. The minimum wage is going from $7.25 to $9.50. This will increase our payroll more than $100,000. Due to our large initial investment, and the economy, we have only so much money left over in terms of positive cash flow. Either we will have to lay off people or raise prices. Since we are already down to a bare minimum crew, we can’t cut employees. The DFL didn’t think this through on how this impacts small businesses and consumers.
This is what I think should be done to fix the situation: First off, Minnesota needs a tip credit. I’m not talking about lowering the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour plus tips and taking it down to $2.13 plus tips like in South Dakota. I’m talking about freezing it at $7.25 rather than increasing it to $9.50. If the minimum wage does go to $9.50 an hour, I’d like seeing a two-tiered minimum wage system, with the lowest tier for young people. The DFL says nobody can live off the current minimum wage. But the fact is nobody with us has to live off just what they earn. This is a part-time second job for many of our bartenders and servers, and the rest of our employees are kids living at home. Target can pay $9.50 an hour easier than Wow! Zone. For us, this minimum wage increase is a killer. It’s a knife in the back. I don’t know where we’re going to come up with an extra $100,000 a year.
Pam: I struggle with it, too. This will raise the cost of living of everyone spending money here. The average person paying more will have to tell politicians.
Doug: The looming increase in minimum wage is our number one problem. Unfortunately, the people in control of our legislature have never had to make a payroll. They don’t have any idea of what it’s like to actually run a business.
Pam: We haven’t raised rates as it is since three years ago. Yet I struggle with it because I don’t think the general public is making that much more the way the economy is now. And then this.
CONNECT: And will you also have to provide health insurance because of Obamacare? Do you have more than 50 full-timers?
Doug: No, but I don’t think we’re that far off. Our accountants have done an analysis.
CONNECT: What would happen if you had to go from 49 to 50 full-time employees?
Pam: We wouldn’t. I was in a meeting this morning with other small business owners. They said the same thing.
Doug: We were recently at our national convention. Many bowling proprietors are replacing their full-time retiring employees with two 25-hour-a-week part-timers.
CONNECT: Pam, I’ve been editor of this magazine 17 years and haven’t yet seen a resume that can match your amount of community involvement. What drives you?
Pam: There are so many important societal pieces that need working on. In volunteering, I receive more back than what I give in terms of time and money. I want to be busy and active. Life is meant to be lived. If an organization coming to me expresses a need, and if I can’t help, I will put them in touch with someone who can. I try to say yes to the things that touch my heart.
CONNECT: You have been heavily involved with Business and Professional Women.
Pam: Young businesswomen of today have a different life. They generally aren’t joiners. They aren’t as engaged with organizations, even though by being engaged they could grow professionally. They are so busy. Since our (marital) separation, I’ve realized I need to take more time for me. My core group of young managers can handle the business now without me. As young women, they are doing things most of us businesswomen would never have the chance to do. They have their families and try not making the same mistakes others might have made 20 years ago in trying to do it all. It’s still a man’s world. When Doug and I are out together, people almost always address him first. That’s the way society is.
Doug: I haven’t noticed that.
Pam: At bowling conventions, when the two of us greet someone at a booth, vendors always look at and talk to him first. I’ve worked in a man’s world and know I’m not thought of as equal. We’ll get there one day.
CONNECT: Without any children, what is your succession plan?
Doug: Our niece, Allison. I have two nephews, but they aren’t around or in the business.
Pam: I’ve heard people say the only reason people start a business is to sell it. But that’s not why I started this business. It was Doug’s dream and I was willing to support him. I had also been at Taylor Corporation 35 years and was ready for something new.
Doug: And the job description here fit her 100 percent.
Pam: I do believe God has put me here at this time for a reason. If I’m this happy working here, I must be doing the right thing.
CONNECT: And yet you are both moving forward with your businesses, even though you’re moving apart privately.
Pam: Our communication will be key. We will have to figure out how to make it work. The most important thing I know about business is you need to have good communication. If you don’t have it, you shouldn’t be in business together. So that’s what we’re going to have to work on.
Smoke On The Water
CONNECT: Doug, on August 1, 2005, Victory Bowl went smoke-free. Nine months later, you reported to the Mankato City Council that your sales had fallen 7.5 percent and net profit 50 percent, inferring the smoke free designation had played a part. You said a Mankato ban on smoking in restaurants would be disastrous. Was it?
Doug: My fight against the proposed smoking ban was because it was limited to Mankato. Many people in the hospitality industry were supportive of a ban at the state level because then everyone would be playing by the same ground rules. Years before, we had eliminated smoking in the bowling center and moved all smoking into the bar. I recognize the health benefits of being smoke-free—I stopped smoking myself in 1982 before getting married. When saying “disastrous,” I meant disastrous to the businesses in the city. Customers wanting to smoke would just go to other establishments in North Mankato or elsewhere. I never understood why the City thought it had to be on the leading edge of this movement. Everybody knew a ban eventually would span statewide.
Pam: Our customers love it now.
Big Foot Sighting
Years ago, the Minnesota Vikings organization informed Victory Bowl that some of their players would be bowling during Vikings Training Camp. Doug DeMarce was happy about the extra business, but reluctant to purchase Size 22 bowling shoes for one player because the largest he had ever rented out previously was Size 17. What would he do with the shoes after Training Camp? The Vikings told DeMarce not to worry about it and they promptly paid the invoice. Today, those giant-sized 22 bowling shoes still are at Victory Bowl, in the original boxes, after having been used only once.
Getting to know you: Doug Demarce
Born: June 4, 1951.
From: near Walnut Grove, Minnesota
Education: Mankato Loyola High School ‘69, and attended Minnesota State.
Getting to know you: Pam Demarce
Born November 10, 1954.
From: Minnesota Lake, Minnesota
Education: Minnesota Lake High School ‘72, and Minnesota State ‘76, majoring in elementary education.
Address: 2030 Adams Street