Lawrence company strikes success

Cosmic bowling, other changes help boost sales at Jayhawk Bowling Supply

Glow-in-the-dark bowling lanes certainly brightened up the life of Jayhawk Bowling Supply vice president John Hardman.

During much of the 1980s Hardman didn’t feel too optimistic about the future of the Lawrence-based business that his dad, Chuck Hardman, founded in 1962.

The popularity of the sport he had grown up with had begun to decline, and interest rates were so high that many bowling alley owners were unable to borrow the money necessary to upgrade their centers with the new bowling equipment that Hardman’s company sold.

“It wasn’t a fun time,” Hardman said. “We were just in survival mode for a lot of years.”

The company kept rolling along though, in large part, because it was able to tap into new markets, like China, which bought large numbers of the company’s patented machines that drill holes in bowling bowls.

Now, Hardman is optimistic about the future of bowling in the United States. The reason has a lot to do with the changes in the industry, including glow-in-the-dark lanes, computerized scoring machines that display cartoons, and bumpers that make it impossible to throw a gutter ball.

“Lots of bowling centers have been wildly successful lately, but they’ve done it by doing new things,” Hardman said. “They’re doing a lot of this cosmic bowling, where the lanes and the balls glow in the dark. It is just different and fun. It makes for a more exciting atmosphere, and it attracts the younger people.”

It has been good for Hardman’s business. The company, which employs 15 people at its facility at 355 N. Iowa St., is in the business of remodeling bowling centers and selling a variety of equipment and products for bowling alleys.

For example, the business sells the special oils and lighting that turn ordinary bowling lanes into glow-in-the-dark lanes. It also has crews that do the necessary sanding and refinishing to create the cosmic effect.

The company continues to operate its manufacturing business that produces the drills. The company also is the exclusive Brunswick bowling equipment dealer in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and western Iowa.

Renewed interest in the sport produced a record sales year in 2002, Hardman said, although the privately owned company doesn’t release sales totals. He said the company did partial renovations of about 30 bowling centers and about four renovations “where we basically gutted the whole place.”

Hardman said the new-wave look was the shot in the arm the industry needed. He said it had become obvious that it was difficult for a bowling center to survive on its league business, which had been the traditional bread and butter of bowling alleys for a half century.

John Hardman's collection of bowling items and memorabilia demonstrates Hardman's enthusiasm for the sport's history. But for Hardman, the vice president of Jayhawk Bowling Supply, Lawrence, a major distributor of bowling equipment, his eye is also on the future of the game and changes in the bowling industry that could benefit his business.

“The traditional bowling business has been in a steady decline for 15 years, and I don’t see that turning around,” Hardman said. “People don’t commit to marriages for 36 weeks sometimes, let alone commit to bowling every Tuesday night for 36 weeks.”

Hardman admits, though, that not everyone thinks the changes in the game have been positive.

“There is a lot of disagreement about whether it has been for the better,” Hardman said. “The older more traditional people think bowling is just a sport.”

Hardman, though, thinks the disagreement may actually help his business in future years. He thinks a major trend in the industry will be the remodeling of bowling centers to create separate areas for the traditional sporting bowlers and the less traditional cosmic bowlers.

What hasn’t helped the business, though, has been the war in Iraq. Hardman said 2003 hadn’t produced the record-type sales of last year.

“The last four months of business have been poor, but I think it has been that way for a lot of businesses,” Hardman said. “I think for us, part of it is that people don’t feel like buying something like an automatic scoring machine with cartoons after going home and seeing on TV American service men and women fighting overseas.”