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Posted on Tue, Jan. 30, 2006

The big score: shuffleboard tables
Kelye Stites owns Champion Shuffleboard in Richland Hills.

Special to the Star-Telegram

RICHLAND HILLS -- An expert shuffleboard player knows a good trick when he sees one, and Kelye Stites, president of Champion Shuffleboard, has seen plenty.

One uses a dime placed on an empty, overturned beer bottle set on top of two stacked shuffleboard pucks. With good aim and a blessing from physics, a player can shoot a puck, knock the bottom puck from underneath the stack and flip the dime without sending the whole thing crashing down.

It's enough to get plenty of oohs and ahhs from a crowd of enthusiasts.

And, if successful, almost guaranteed to win a $20 bet if not more, he said.

To Stites, a longtime shuffleboard player, the game isn't a hustle anymore, but a gamble -- one that, by all accounts, has paid off.

Champion, a quiet company, is responsible for about 95 percent of shuffleboard sales in the United States, which means if you've seen a shuffleboard table in any home or tavern, chances are it was made by Champion.

The company targets home sales, which, in the course of the housing boom, has been big business. Since 2002, homeowners have been buying larger houses with bigger game rooms, large enough for shuffleboard and pool tables.

Shuffleboard sales are still lower than those for pool and billiard tables.

For every 10 pool tables sold, game distributors in the Metroplex said, they sell two shuffleboard tables. But Stites and his distributors say interest is growing.

"We've been seeing double-digit growth for the past four years," Stites said, though he declined to discuss revenue or estimates. "2005 was one of our best years ever."

The company traces its success to 1998, when Stites shifted focus from the coin-operated business to home sales, which now make up 90 percent of Champion's business.

A huge wind filled the company's sail in 2003 as the economy was rebounding and lending rates remained low. More had the money to buy custom homes.

In 2005, 14 percent of residential building money in the Dallas-Fort Worth market -- about $3 billion -- was spent on custom homes, among the highest levels yet for this industry niche, said Jack Murray, senior vice president of Residential Strategies, a Dallas-based residential analyst company.

One in six homes built in 2005 was in the $300,000 to $1 million range, he said.

Indoor game distributors look to home sales as a barometer for success.

"Home building helps us tremendously," said Albert Trujillo, co-owner of Fort Worth Billiard Supply, a distributor of indoor games. "Fewer people are interested in going out these days because of things like high gas prices."

Still, with the bulkiness of shuffleboards, about 22 feet long, and their price -- anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 -- it's enough to discourage the casual gamer. Thus Champion has worked to promote shuffleboards, asking distributors to display them in showrooms, which has sparked greater interest.

Since 2001, the company has worked with the Dallas-based high definition television network HDNet to sponsor an annual shuffleboard tournament.

Champion deals mostly through distributors, although once in a while a call trickles through from a celebrity who has heard of Champion shuffleboards or seen one in a friend's home. The company has crafted tables for Bill Gates, Andre Agassi, Terry Bradshaw and the entire Chicago Bulls basketball team.

Stites, 47, has come far since his college days at Texas A&M University. Grades and school took a back seat to shuffleboard antics as he and his buddies would cruise bars looking to hustle out-of-towners. In those days, shuffleboard wasn't a weekend thing. It was an everyday thing.

"Pabst Blue Ribbon was what we drank; that's how we paid for our beer," Stites said.

After graduating, Stites worked eight years for a Japanese bank until his father-in-law, in the pool table business, asked him to design a shuffleboard table.

"No one was really doing shuffleboard tables back then. It was a craftsman's game," he said.

Stites quit the finance business and opened his company in 1988 with a partner. His secret was a special method for making shuffleboards, which the company still uses. Every shuffleboard table is coated with a clear polymer that, when dry, is virtually impervious to wear and tear. This coating saves owners from having to have the tables refinished.

The polymer recipe is secret, said Chance Pack, Champion's vice president of operations.

"You know how Colonel Sanders doesn't tell anyone what's in his secret recipe? It's kind of like that," he said.

As a business leader, Champion hardly utters a peep. It appeared once on the HDNet TV network but generally doesn't seek publicity. Larger game companies, hungry for a piece of the action, have approached Stites with offers to buy. But he's turned them down, expecting more growth ahead.

The company bought its main competitor, American Shuffleboard, in 2002 and still keeps the name. The company also controls the Sun-Glo Shuffleboard line of accessories, such as powders, sand and salts, which are sprinkled on the table to control the speed of the puck.

Champion employs 35 at its Richland Hills headquarters and stocks warehouses in Texas, California, Michigan, Kansas and New Jersey.