Bowling hobby becomes livelihood for Polk Co. man

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From the parking lot, you hear a sound you might not expect in an industrial park in Lake Wales: the unmistakable crash of bowling pins.

When you walk through the sliding doors, you encounter what appears to be an ordinary bowling alley – albeit a bright and shiny one. There are a few people bowling.

And then you notice the young man on lane three is rolling strike after strike.

His name is Kris Sergejevas.

“They call me a ‘throw-bot’,” he says.  “I’m basically trying to improve your bowling experience.”

This bowling alley is essentially the showroom and testing lab for a company named Kegel. Kris is hard at work. He throws at least 300 balls per day, testing a new conditioner that coats the lane.

Kegel makes the conditioner.

More importantly, it makes the self-propelled machine that applies the conditioner. The current model of the machine is called “The Flex”. About the size of a very large suitcase, it moves autonomously down each lane, cleaning and oiling the surface from foul line to pins.

Think of it as a Roomba for bowling alleys. It has a sticker price comparable to that of a new Ford Mustang.

And for every Mustang, there’s a Henry Ford.

John Davis is the founder of Kegel. He was working at a bowling alley in Sebring in 1981 when he decided there had to be an easier way to clean the lanes. Back then, they cleaned the lanes by hand – with a rag and some good, old fashioned elbow grease.

“It was hard andtime-consumingg,” says Davis’s brother, Mark. “That’s why most bowling centers only cleaned the entire lanes about once a week.”

The result, he said, was a buildup of oils in certain areas of the lanes. And that affects how the ball rolls. Mark says his brother really loved the sport of bowling and wanted to find a way to make all lane surfaces as consistent as possible.

So he invented one.

In a car port outside that Sebring bowling alley, he created a tool: basically a terry cloth attached to two long, heavy rollers; the rollers connected to a long, hollow handle. Into the handle he poured a cup of hot water – which saturated the cloth on the rollers.

He named it The Key.

John took his invention on the road, demonstrating it for bowling alley operators all over the country.

“He’d push The Key down the foul line,” says Mark. “He’d pick it up, and there would be just black all across the bottom of it. It was an easy sell every time!”

And a profitable one. John sold his tool for $500 each. He got a patent and started making more, enlisting the help of his wife, Mark, and their friend, David Jennings.

They formed a company, naming it after the German word for bowling. Over the years, their cleaning tools evolved into motorized, electric machines. Their big break-through came in the early ‘90s when they built a machine they named “The Lane Walker”.

Battery powered, it moved from lane to lane by itself, applying precise amounts of oil. A couple years later came a version that cleaned and oiled simultaneously, the precursor to their current iteration which carries a price tag of about $30,000 and takes an entire team to assemble.

Behind the bright, shiny bowling alley at Kegel is the real heart of the company: the factory where workers hand assemble the machines and carefully test them before shipping them all over the globe.

Kegel is one of only three companies that makes lane conditioning machines. Many of them are going to southeast Asia.

“The South Korean market is going crazy for us right now,” says Chris Chartrand, CEO of Kegel. “There are a lot of new bowling centers being built there and in Japan.”

He says the sport has also seen a resurgence in the United States, with dozens of new, family-friendly entertainment centers being built across the country that include bowling alleys.

"It's the type of sport that, unlike a lot of sports, you can do when you're two or three years old, and you can continue to do it with your family until you're 80 or 90 years old,” says Chartrand.

Kegel now employs 100 people, most of them from Polk County. They not only build the machines, they also make and bottle the cleaning solution and oil that goes into the machines.

2016 was a record year for Kegel, with more than $20 million in profit. And the company is still on a roll in 2017: Chartrand says sales are up by 20 percent.

John Davis passed away four years ago. Mark likes to think his big brother is smiling down on the little company they started 36 years ago outside that bowling alley in Sebring.

“He’d be shaking his head like he always did,” says Mark. “Saying ‘I’m amazed’! I never thought it would turn into this!”

Like rolling one strike at a time, and looking up at the end to realize you’ve bowled a 300.

That’s the Kegel story.