Skee-Ball family lets the good times roll

Tour of the Skee Ball factory in Chalfont, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. From left are Michael Sladek, VP , nephew Joey Graham, 2 and his mother Director of Marketing, Eilleen Graham, daugther of owner. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Tour of the Skee Ball factory in Chalfont, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. From left are Michael Sladek, VP , nephew Joey Graham, 2 and his mother Director of Marketing, Eilleen Graham, daugther of owner. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer) (DN)
Posted: May 19, 2011

IF YOU WANT to be the happiest guy on earth, here is what to do:

Quit your high-powered accounting job and buy a local company that makes people smile whenever you say its name, blissing out like kids with cotton candy because the name of your company brings back fond memories of vacations down the Shore.

Be like Joe Sladek of Berwyn, and buy Skee-Ball.

"That's the kind of stuff that I really enjoy: old-memory-type things," Sladek said. "Nobody I know has bad memories of Skee-Ball."

Buy and hold for 26 years (and counting).

"I'm in charge of everything," he said. "That's the way to go."

Do not outsource Skee-Ball to China.

"Out of the country? No! Absolutely not. It'll never work. Trying to play Skee-Ball on a Skee-Ball machine made in Guangzhou is like stealing something. It's just not right."

His golden ticket

Sladek left the finance rat race for the slow roll up the wooden alley in 1985 when he purchased the great boardwalk heritage brand and its Lansdale factory from another local guy, who'd bought it from Wurlitzer Co., who'd bought it from the family of Skee-Ball's inventor, Philadelphia's own J.D. Estes. He sold the first Skee-Ball machines to amusement arcades in 1914.

At the Jersey Shore today, every barrier island from Cape May to Long Beach Island has at least a handful of Skee-Ball machines waiting to swallow your quarters in some arcade somewhere, said Sladek's son Michael, vice president of Skee-Ball Inc. All told, there are roughly 1,000.

The Wildwood Boardwalk has the most: A quick census count by tourism officials last week turned up 87 Skee-Ball alleys lined up and waiting to dispense prize tickets to high rollers this summer. And that's just among the arcades that happened to be open in the preseason.

(Note that the average Skee-Ball score is 260, and any score above 200 is completely respectable, according to Skee-Ball marketing director Eilleen Graham, who happens to be Sladek's daughter. Even after a lifetime of Skee-Balling, her dad is in the 180 range.)

In any given year, Skee-Ball manufactures a few thousand new machines, now at a big factory in Chalfont, Pa., that Sladek traded up to after he bought the firm. "We have to remember that it's an international situation," Sladek noted. "It's not just the Jersey Shore. It's Europe, it's the Middle East, it's Eastern Europe. . . . People in South America really, really, really like Skee-Ball."

Beyond our shore

Here and abroad, more than 100,000 Skee-Ball machines challenge midway patrons from Sea Isle City to Dubai. "One of the sheiks of Saudi Arabia has three Skee-Balls on his personal yacht," Sladek said.

Pro basketball stars Latrell Sprewell and Michael Jordan have two apiece.

And you know that warm, nostalgic glow that comes over you when you think of Skee-Ball? That sense memory of the weight of a wooden ball in your hand? Sladek described it as universal.

"No matter if I'm talking with somebody down the Shore or I happen to be on my trips internationally to Moscow, Russia, everybody has some type of a Skee-Ball story," he said.

His own Skee-Ball sense memory, circa 1964, carries a taste of defeat: "It was a big focal point when my wife and I first started dating back in high school. We'd go down to the shore in Ocean City, and we'd play Skee-Ball together. And she would always beat the heck out of me."

Despite the shellackings, he proposed. He and his wife, also named Eilleen, have been married for 42 years.

To the arcade born

As CEO of Skee-Ball Inc., Sladek's plan of succession is as follows: Grow your own.

As teenagers, the three Sladek children worked summer jobs at the plant during the late 1980s and early '90s - "electronics shop, rough assembly, final assembly, shipping," Michael recalled.

In May, when Sladek and his wife like to get away together to the Caribbean, Michael and the younger Eilleen hold down the fort at the factory. On a guided tour early this month, they ably explained the sundry shop-floor processes that it takes to build a mighty Skee-Ball machine, starting from a humble stack of plywood. (Never particle board, which would bloat in the beachside humidity.)

The Chalfont factory in an office park just off County Line Road is more Santa's workshop than assembly line. Workers painstakingly hand-stain the oak veneer for high-end collector's models ($6,000 retail), route grooves to hold the Skee-Ball hardware, spray-paint assemblies with custom Skee-Ball Red, and wire up and test the electronic sensors that track the balls and keep score. Except for the electronics, all Skee-Ball components are made in the USA.

Graham's son Joey was also on hand for the tour, representing the Skee-Ball family's third generation. One of five Sladek grandchildren, he's already practicing his factory-foreman moves when he visits company headquarters with his mom.

"Joey's 2 years old and he has safety glasses," Sladek said in a phone interview, laughing. "He likes to go out into the plant, and of course production has to stop because they don't want to hurt Joey. And he walks around like he owns it. He probably will some day."

Eat. Pray. Roll.

So what more could a guy hope for, Sladek asks, than to work for himself running Skee-Ball alongside two of his grown children and the occasional grandchild?

"It's been a very, very good run," he said.

"My oldest son in a vice president for Sherwin-Williams, the paint company. He's not in the business, and he probably kicks himself every night," the patriarch said. "He has to go out there every day and deal with the real world."

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