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Bert Betti, Who Built Betson Enterprises Into A Distribution Powerhouse, Dies At 92

Posted On: 7/25/2011

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CUMMAQUID, MA -- Humbert (Bert) Betti, chairman emeritus of H. Betti Industries Inc., parent company of distribution giant Betson Enterprises, died on Sunday, July 24, in a hospital on Cape Cod where he lived. He was 92.

The cause was a heart attack, according to people close to the Betti family.

A pioneer in amusement, jukebox and vending machine distribution, Bert and his bothers -- Eddie, Lou and Hugh -- grew up in the on-street jukebox operation founded by their father, Humbert Betti Sr., who began a coin-op dynasty with the placement of a single jukebox in a Manhattan bar that he owned.

Recognizing the potential for jukebox music services in bars and restaurants, Humbert Sr. became a Wurlitzer operator and in 1934 formed H. Betti & Son, which was based in a small warehouse in Union City, NJ.

All four Betti boys served in World War II, and amazingly all four returned from duty. Bert served in the Army's Military Police. He and his brother Hugh, who died in 2005, would guide the company through different stages of growth after the war. The family business expanded into supply and distribution, and the distribution segment assumed its own identity as Betson Enterprises in the early 1960s.

Both a creative thinker and pragmatist, Bert Betti Jr. had a keen sense of how the industry must change to succeed in the future. He proclaimed, in 1967, that diversification was essential for operators and distributors to survive and progress in an increasingly competitive business environment. "Economics demand diversification. Defeatism must be replaced by enthusiasm. And operators must take pride in services they provide," he said in an interview with Billboard.

He also recognized the industry's public relations problem: it had no program for reversing a stigma of illegitimacy. He called for an industrywide campaign to destroy the industry's deprived public image. "We are in a great multibillion dollar business, but sometimes we act and do things in a manner justifiable only to a hotdog cart entrepreneur," he said. He viewed provincial thinking as the industry's most dangerous threat.

By the mid-1970s, Bert and Hugh were running the company, which was still mostly a regional operation. Humbert Sr. died in 1971, and brothers Eddie and Lou (who pursued his own interests in candy, coffee and tobacco distribution after the war) died later in the decade. Significant change came in 1978, when Betson acquired New Jersey's Runyon Sales, making it the largest equipment distributor in the New York metro area. Runyon had rights to market Bally pinball machines, one of the most coveted lines to represent in that era. In the 1980s, Bert, who was raised as a street operator, phased out the business's routes, which consisted of some 3,000 machines.

The company's expansion beyond metropolitan New York began almost two decades before its transition to dedicated distribution, when Betson opened its first office in California in 1968. Acquisitions and territory expansions were routine for Betson over the next four decades.

At the start of the 1990s, Betti had ceded increasing authority to the third generation and new blood. Peter Betti, Bert's oldest son, became chairman of the board, while a nonfamily member was installed as president of H. Betti Industries. Bert and Hugh retired in the '90s.

Bert was especially well known as a supplier of billiard tables, and other equipment and accessories for cue sports. He began to develop this business segment in 1952 under the name Eastern Novelty. By the late 1960s, the division was supplying slate to all major American pool table manufacturers and changed its name to Imperial Billiards to reflect its dominant standing. Today, this HBI division is known as Imperial International and stocks more than 10,000 items. Betson Imperial Parts & Service is a separate HBI division that supplies parts and support for vending, amusement, jukebox and money-handling equipment.

In 1988, the American Amusement Machine Association presented its Man of the Year award to Betti. The award not only recognized one of coin-op's most prominent and influential figures, it also revealed a humanitarian. The Betson organization rallied behind its chief executive and raised more than $100,000 for the AAMA awards program, sponsored by the association's charitable arm. His sense of community is widely regarded as the driving force behind the Betson organization's benevolent efforts, which have raised $1 million or more for different charities.

Humbert (Bert) Betti Jr. is survived by sons Peter and Robert; daughter Susan E. Betti-DiMotta; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. He is preceded in death by Eileen (Jane) Betti, his wife of 61 years.