THIBODAUX, LA -- "Do you have a direct, personal interest in determining the future of your business and your industry? If so, then you have a strong, personal reason to join the Amusement and Music Operators Association." That, in essence, is what Donovan Fremin of Delta Music Inc. plans to say to operators after he steps up to become president of AMOA in March.
PHOTO: GET WITH THE PROGRAM -- Amusement and Music Operators Association president-elect Donovan Fremin, Delta Music Inc. (Thibodaux, LA), speaking at 2010 AMOA membership meet, urged everyone to join and support the association. He takes office in March.
Fremin said he has thought a great deal about how to retain existing members and lure nonmembers into the fold. He is well aware that today's AMOA membership is down more than 25% from its peak of some 1,800 in 2004 and 2005. Boosting the association's member rolls will be his top priority, he told VT.
The third-generation amusement and music vendor believes several hundred potential member operators are out there. They just need to hear the right pitch, Fremin said.
Rather than talking up AMOA member programs -- the traditional approach -- Fremin said he will stress enlightened self-interest, with a decidedly political and economic slant.
"We need to get word out to operators everywhere that without us, their business model would be much different from what it is now," he said.
"For example, if the association were not at the table negotiating the Jukebox Licensing Agreement, paying for music copyrights to operate CD jukeboxes would be much, much more expensive than it is now.
"If AMOA were not there to fight against proposed state laws to ban youths' access to 'violent' videogames, operators might have to place many videogames in a separate room apart from other amusements," he said.
Citing these and other examples, Fremin drew a simple but powerful lesson. "Nonmembers may not realize it," he said, "but AMOA has been fighting to defend their businesses from the first day this association was founded."
For operators, Fremin said, simple self-interest merges with "doing your patriotic duty" to the industry.
He explained, "Lots of people don't realize that because AMOA is often the industry 'spokesperson' before Congress, federal agencies and in the courts, its actions and policies have a direct, material impact on all operators -- whether they choose to be part of the organization or not.
"So if you're an operator," he said, "AMOA will be making decisions about the fate of your industry and that means it will be impacting your business, with or without your input … and we think it's much better with you!"
As Fremin warmed to his theme, his basic premise almost sounded Kennedyesque. He could have said it this way: "Ask not what your association can do for you; ask what you can do for your association -- and, by implication, for yourself."
Beyond membership, President Fremin said he will focus on adding new member services, working with the American Amusement Machine Association to improve the Amusement Expo, and strengthening alliances with other trade associations like NVBA, IAAPA, NAMA -- and "hopefully others."
PHOTO: NEW SLATE -- Elected to lead the Amusement & Music Operators Association in 2011, from left, are president Donovan Fremin, Delta Music (Thibodaux, LA); vice-president Andy Shaffer, Shaffer Services Inc. (Columbus, OH); treasurer John Pascaretti, Wolverine American (Harrison Township, MI); and secretary Bobby Hogin, Hogin Amusement Co. (Dickson, TN). Their terms begin in March.
Fremin succeeds outgoing president Gary Brewer of Brewer Amusement (McMinnville, TN). Brewer has served an extended 18-month term in order to get AMOA into its new rhythm of holding annual conventions in the spring, coinciding with the Amusement Expo (March 1-3, Las Vegas).
"One word for Gary's term is 'amazing,'" Fremin said. "In fact, the association's past three presidents sacrificed a lot of time and effort above and beyond the level traditionally contributed by leaders of our association … Gary's dedication to AMOA is unsurpassed, keeping it strong despite a weak national economy and a demanding transition to a unified trade show."
As he rose through the officer chairs over the past three years, Fremin also assisted in the work of combining the fall AMOA International Expo with AAMA's spring Amusement Showcase International. It was a huge challenge for all concerned, he said.
"To make one show a reality, we had to eliminate all the misconceptions, animosities and doubts, among other issues, with AAMA," he said. "We were able to iron out our differences, but it took a lot of hard work."
WE'RE STILL HERE
The combined show is a notable success for the music and games operator association, Fremin said, but it has resulted in some unintended consequences.
Certain distributor staff, as well as some non-AMOA members who don't closely follow industry news, have labored under the mistaken impression that since AMOA Expo no longer exists as an independent show, AMOA itself no longer exists as an independent association.
In this regard, some confused industry members might be under the false assumption that AMOA has followed the same path as the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry, which merged with IAAPA in late 2009 and shortly afterward ended Fun Expo.
"Our members understand that AMOA will continue to serve the operator; we haven't gone anywhere," Fremin said. "But sometimes it's tough to get that message out to the rest of the industry."
Accordingly, AMOA's continuity is a second key message that Fremin will promulgate during his term, he said.
"We constantly remind people that we're here, we are stronger than ever, and we will continue to serve the operator," he said.
Fremin's vision of the association as prime defender of operators' interests may lead him to hear many questions that start, "What is AMOA going to do about …?" And first on that list is: what is AMOA going to do about NSM Music's plan to sell jukeboxes direct to locations?
Two years ago, the 63-year-old trade association was highly involved in pressuring Ecast Inc. to stop supplying a music delivery platform for a similar purpose to Jukes Direct, a direct-to-location jukebox sales company, which never launched, and now Powerhouse Vending (Orange, CA). The latter sells or leases downloading jukeboxes to locations. Its equipment is powered by Ecast.
When concern about Powerhouse Vending's business activity began to shake the operating community, AMOA worked both publicly and behind the scenes to motivate Ecast to dissociate itself from this business.
Now that NSM has announced a similar plan, AMOA's response is not as clear-cut. A recent email bulletin from the association's executive vice-president, Jack Kelleher, made it obvious that AMOA disapproves of direct sales programs. But Kelleher did not state what specific actions the association might be contemplating, in NSM's case.
Fremin was not yet AMOA's president at the time of his interview with VT and, therefore, was not the official spokesman for association policy. But his explanation of its stance closely echoed Kelleher's.
NSM's direct sales plan is "definitely a concern for us," said Fremin. Asked if direct sales to locations weaken the operator, he was unambiguous. "Yes," he said.
"AMOA will always be strenuously opposed to any manufacturer selling direct, no matter who they are and what equipment they build," he added. "That goes against its very being. That is why AMOA was founded: to strengthen operators in this country."
Not unlike Kelleher, the incoming president was cautious about what steps AMOA could and might take to defend operators' interests in this matter.
"I try not to jump to conclusions before we give all parties a chance to explain what their strategy will be," he said. "We have not yet had any contact with NSM about this. We are trying to sit down with them and obtain sufficient information before we move forward."
Beyond this hot-button issue, Fremin also provided numerous insights and facts about many other association issues, priorities and operator concerns. A few highlights:
- AMOA's financial strength remains solid, with nearly $3 million in its reserve fund.
- Operators should not fear growing competition from legalized gambling, he said. Citing his own company's positive experience in Louisiana, where video pokers are legal in street locations, Fremin said gaming and amusements can profitably coexist.
- AMOA has no plans to wade into lobbying or lawsuits to fight smoking bans at the state level, but it will continue to act as an information clearinghouse for operators and state associations, providing data to help them combat bans and proposals for them.
- AMOA recently hired a marketing and advertising firm with extensive experience in coin-op and entertainment. Brad Circone & Associates (Columbus, OH) will explore partnership and sponsorship opportunities, with the goal of offering greater value to AMOA members.
DELTA MUSIC AND COIN
Donovan Fremin is a hard worker, but conveys a relaxed, easygoing personality. He likes people and loves to tell stories. He comes by this gregariousness from a family that has been doing business with friends and neighbors in the same town and surrounding regions for 63 years.
Delta Music Inc. and Delta Coin Machines Inc. are family owned and operated companies based in Thibodaux (population 14,000), located about 65 miles southwest of New Orleans. DMI was founded in 1948 by Fremin's grandfather, Lester Fremin.
Delta Music was launched with two jukeboxes and a borrowed truck.
Lester Fremin and his partners also owned a large and successful nightclub. Their amusement and music operations in this club prompted other locations in town to ask them to provide and maintain equipment in their venues.
Eventually the route became as successful -- and as demanding -- as the nightclub. The partners decided to break the two businesses apart and divide the assets between them.
Lester Fremin took the route and let his partners have the club. "That bar has been closed 40 years now, so he made the right decision," Donovan Fremin quipped.
Fremin's father, Dale, and his two uncles, Francis and Barry, became involved in the route and continue to serve as president, vice-president and secretary, respectively.
Donovan's official title is executive assistant; he runs much of the day to day operations. His brother Darius and cousin Christina have the same title and also manage aspects of the route.
DMI serves about 200 locations in five parishes, mostly bars and nightclubs, with just a few locations as far as 200 miles from office. Although it is the area's largest route, DMI team members pride themselves on keeping the personal touch.
"We're hands-on," said Fremin. "We like to know all our customers' names. We like to give them the service and attention they deserve. That's what has made us successful."
DMI is also a full-service operation, Fremin said. "People trust us and know they can count on us, not only when it comes to supplying their equipment, but also helping them with the best advice or any material assistance we can -- from paperwork to loans, equipment rentals and the daily struggles of being a small business owner."
This commitment to partnering strongly with locations arises from the same win-win philosophy that drives Fremin's belief in AMOA: we're all in it together.
"The better they do, the better we do," he said of DMI's locations. "We try to come up with answers to help keep our customers in business. If we can't help them, they lose their business and we lose locations. So we go that extra mile for them."
DMI's sister company, Delta Coin Machines Inc., was established as an operator of gaming machines in 1988. Today, the two companies are owned and operated by the same management team.
Together, DMI and DCM employ approximately 60 full-time employees, operating more than 1,700 pieces. The business also owns several properties and restaurants.
Donovan Fremin used to drop by Delta Music after school, but never planned on entering the business. After earning his bachelor's degree in hospitality management, he spent four years working in restaurants -- and learned he disliked it intensely. He moved to Orlando, FL, and took a position with Disney World.
Soon after, Lousiana legalized operator-run video poker. Delta's small staff of 10 was overwhelmed with work that demanded 18-hour days, seven days a week. Fremin's father asked Donovan to come back home to work in the family business.
He returned home and quickly realized that working with location owners was something he enjoyed and was good at. "I loved it," Fremin said.
After a couple of years, he slowly moved into more managerial roles. Ten years ago, he joined the AMOA board, the first Delta employee to do so. He was elected secretary of the organization three and half years ago and has been moving up the ranks since.
Delta Music and its locations were spared any major flooding from Hurricane Katrina a few years ago. This good fortune may have reinforced Fremin's naturally optimistic outlook.
The new AMOA president is decidedly upbeat about the prospects for the amusement industry. "If history teaches us anything, it is that the next breakthrough in our industry is right around the corner," he said. "Courage is a factor. Every time our industry faces a tough situation, a game-changer has come along.
"I have confidence that we'll see something happen soon that takes the industry back to growth and strong prosperity," he said. "For example, digital jukeboxes helped our route tremendously. I think something similar is around the corner. So to my fellow operators, I say hang in there. Better times are ahead of us."
If former Secretary of State Colin Powell is right with his trademark motto that "Optimism is a force multiplier," it's just possible that Fremin will be a force with which to be reckoned.