Every Bowler’s Dream – An interview with Jeff Taylor by Dave Grainger.

I was like every other bowler I know in wanting to own my own bowling centre. The dream came true in 1997 when I opened Go Bowling Shipley Lanes. After 18 relatively successful years I felt my dream had come to an end and that someone else was needed to take things forward.

Enter Jeff Taylor. a bowler of long standing and someone who had the same dream as myself.  Jeff took over the reigns and engaged on a modernisation and updating program to take Shipley Lanes to a new level, here we take you through Jeff’s career and his thoughts for the future of bowling.

Q: Just to lay down some background can you give us a brief resume of your working life.

A: Uni in Nottingham and Loughborough, joined police in Notts 1982, then worked in Harrogate for the Home Office until 1995 then Herts Police until 2013.

I am also an electrician, so I run a bowl and electrical business and a property company…… The property company also has a 50 acre farm!!!

Q: You have been involved and are still involved in your family business and a have had a long career in the Police Service what made you go into bowling.

A: I love my bowling always have. Tried to get a pro-shop in 1981 to be told they have one at Sheffield why would Nottingham want one!! When I retired I did so to help look after my mum and dad, following their passing I went back to my dream, I looked at many centres.  Out of the blue the BTBA phoned me and said Shipley was up for sale. ……. Where ???

Q: Well Jeff here we are after over 3 years in bowling management tell me how you first got involved in our Sport and what path your bowling career has taken.

A: started in 1968 at Hoddesdon. Some absolute greats of the sport were there. Dave Pond (and the rest of the Ponds), John Wyndham, Billy Bullock, Tommy Owen, Harry Meighan, Colin Presland, Simon Brown, Alan Weall, Del Rowe to mention but a few.

Played there for many years and then progressed to playing in the fives at Harrow, then Streatham. I also played the PTBCs (down south you know)

Later I went onto Uni bowling and working at the 48 lane Nottingham bowl until I joined the police.

In the mid 1980’s I was the first person to average 200 at Nottingham (and on both floors!). Up to 2003 I was the only person to win 3 tour stops in a row.. Strikers, Ilkeston and Sheffield (beat the great Ronnie O in the last game when he missed a six ten, collector’s item that)

Q; How have you seen bowling evolving over the years and has it been for the best, and how do you see it going forward?

A: It has been cyclical with owners going thru the loop of getting greedy with kicking out leagues only for bowls to fail in harder times. In my view, some of the proprietors fail to understand they have a big expensive asset that can be utilised for the sport during the day when lets face it many are at work. You just have to price the product (using CEO speak there) at the right point but most importantly have staff who understand the sport, without that daytime bowling nearly always fails. Just having the right price does not work there must be a willingness to prepare the centre for sport play, it costs virtually nothing as most centres prepare the lanes daily anyway.

Just in the last few weeks one of the biggest chains has kicked out leagues on Mondays and Thursdays so the leagues can only play Tuesday and Wednesday. Whilst every centre is different I visit two centres on retail parks not far from me, they rarely have more than a few lanes going on any day Monday thru Thursday. There is an unrealistic belief that the public will flow thru the doors on weekdays paying open play prices… There is room for the boutique bowls, the big chains and the independents. Some are good for the sport, others not, those that are based in the sport will survive a recession others might not.

Let me give an analogy with our property business. We have good quality properties that we rent out. We never charge the market rent as we want long-term tenants who look after the place, we have virtually no void periods and often the tenants want to do their own internal decoration. Bowling is no different, league bowlers are my long-term tenants, they do care and look after the place, they wear bowling shoes which do not damage the approaches, they have their own kit, they don’t hit sweeps and need less general support than open play, that keeps your staff costs down.

Management and Leadership by senior staff. It is simple but you need managers who lead, not sit in offices. I remember Jean Ferguson, Alf Flower and Bruce Ford never in the office always on the floor. I know of one manager who you never see, never returns messages and that bowl is currently going downhill, no leadership, such a shame for what was a great bowl. How many people regularly see and know of their bowl manager?

We will come out of the cycle of kicking leagues out as people will need to sell their offer and product during the day to make their very expensive retail park property pay. They may not be able to rely on arcade machines now the Government is set on dealing with the gambling issues. Rents must eventually come down which will help, retail is largely dead on its feet, online is becoming bigger business and those occupying expensive retail places are having to diversify their offer to meet with better and more customer service, bowling will do the same and guess what, league bowling at non peak times will enter the fray again.

Conversely League bowlers have to understand that bowling revenue is often weak in the summer, the concept of leagues wanting preferential treatment in the heavy demand periods and not supporting bowls by playing all year round cannot last. For league bowling to succeed there needs to be a culture change both by bowlers and owners. Many bowls have leagues that go 52 weeks a year, I have quite a few of those but a culture of not running the YBC and the league over a summer needs to change. As a business once you have people in a habit of playing you need to keep them there. We nearly lost a very very good junior as the YBC scaled down over the summer, we were fortunate that the parents encouraged the individual to return and that person progressed rapidly.

Q: Is there anything that particularly bugs you about being a bowling proprietor or indeed about the industry and sport?

A: The lack of true managers, people who are passionate about bowling. They make the best managers and advocates for our sport. Too many have come from Bars. Clubs and the leisure industry with no understanding of bowling. They have short-term maximising profit goals (and they are paid that way), long-term sustainability does not seem to matter. Poor business practice in my view.

Q: How do you view the introduction of String machines and does it have an effect on our Sport?

A: They have no or very little place in our sport, holiday camps maybe but not proper bowls, some even have shortened lanes. This is a race to the bottom where centres no longer keep the lanes prepared for bowling, often a tech is only there occasionally. The lane conditions are inevitably poor at nearly every string centre, I know of only one where that is not the case of course there could be other but I remain to be convinced. The pins should be rotated as the 1, 2 and 3 take the brunt of the hit, I doubt this happens. I have played some string centres, normally the best way is to have a look turn round and walk out and go to a proper bowl. Generally they are poor for the sport but good for making money, just as holiday destinations at the seaside are.  I understand why a small 4 lane centre with high overheads would want to go that way but I do not see them as bowls they are bars with a small bowl attached and unlikely to contribute to the sport. I know this is a strident view within the proprietors’ association but it fits what goes on.

Q: Is two handed the way forward?

A: Yes and No. The high rev rates help but there are plenty of single-handed bowlers still winning (Dom Barrett to name one). Bowling Ball technology has kept way ahead of conditioner technology but I think this will start to change with the new generation of lane conditioners. They are non-Newtonian fluids i.e the viscosity changes in a non-linear way and will play differently. The classic way to experiment with a non-Newtonian fluid is corn starch and water. The harder you hit the fluid the more it acts to resit the impact. This will impact bowling by bringing high speed and rev rates to react more like lower revs and speed. You can also look at it the other way round. This will give more hook to lower rev rate bowlers. So to answer your question the lane conditioner will reduce the advantage or perceived advantage two handers have. Time will tell along with the Physics.

Q: Shipley has always been run as a bowler’s club with a healthy league and tournament program and you have developed this further with an arrangement with the BTBA, can you outline how this works and do you think other centres or in fact chains could adopt something similar.

A: We have affiliated Shipley Bowlers Club (SBC) to the BTBA. We pay for this membership and all our league and public members become associate members of the BTBA. In essence they get all the normal benefits of the BTBA, sanctioned 300’s etc without the league having to be sanctioned. They also get a £5 refund on standard or Gold membership. They can play in any league or SBC tournament at Shipley as though they were full BTBA members. The BTBA benefits in terms of membership numbers as it tries to increase numbers to get funding for Sports Authorities.

There was a long standing issue of reducing the opportunities for Team England bowlers to play in tournaments and leagues by restricting them to sanctioned only events. This arcane rule has now gone at Shipley meaning Team England bowlers can participate in a wide range of events particularly as most leagues are no longer sanctioned. Our leagues are now all governed by the BTBA without the formal sanction process. The centre itself has a Gold sanction. Perhaps it is time for a sanction beyond Gold where playing conditions are also taken into account.

Q: You are one of the first proprietors to purchase a Flex lane machine, you have installed only the 2nd SPECTO training system in the UK, you have installed a new POS and lane management system and now replaced the lanes with a more sport synthetic lane, do you have any more changed up your sleeve?

A: What do bowlers want and need

Good reliable machines with automatic scoring and bumpers

Good lane conditions with a variety of patterns to make you get better

Clean approaches with a good slide (not beaten up, dirty and dangerous after use with street shoes)

A good food and drink offer

The ability to train and be helped with training

They get all this at Shipley (and a few other bowls)

They have everything here with the exception of quality camera playback, way out of my budget people.

The short answer is we have worked on the important issues Machine reliability, Lanes and customer service. In due course we will make it look a little more pretty but that is secondary to the main things.

Q: Finally what plans have you for expanding your bowling empire and will these be based on the Shipley model?

A: Just wait.

Thanks Jeff, keep up the good work and here’s to many more successful years at Shipley and elsewhere if the opportunity arises. With more proprietors like Jeff Taylor the Sport would be in a much better position, I firmly believe the Sport was at its best when the Proprietors were promoting the Sport in their centres and encouraging leagues and competition. The model works, particularly for smaller independent centres, let’s hope more proprietors begin to see the benefits and start to invest in our Sport.

David Grainger