Suburban pinball maker gives iconic game a replay

Company expansion makes Elk Grove the hub for iconic games

  • CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball shows off his company's AC/DC machine. Stern Pinball Inc. is moving to Elk Grove Village next month, making the suburb a global hub for the next generation of iconic pinball games.

      CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball shows off his company's AC/DC machine. Stern Pinball Inc. is moving to Elk Grove Village next month, making the suburb a global hub for the next generation of iconic pinball games. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Gary Stern

    Gary Stern

  • An employee works on wiring harnesses at Stern Pinball Inc., the world's only maker of arcade-quality pinball games.

    An employee works on wiring harnesses at Stern Pinball Inc., the world's only maker of arcade-quality pinball games. Bloomberg News Photo/2013

  • Gary Stern, president of Stern Pinball, inside his new plant in Elk Grove Village.

      Gary Stern, president of Stern Pinball, inside his new plant in Elk Grove Village. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball checks out the guts of his company's AC/DC machine. Stern says advances in technology have expanded the pinball market.

      CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball checks out the guts of his company's AC/DC machine. Stern says advances in technology have expanded the pinball market. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball with a life-size cutout of himself.

      CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball with a life-size cutout of himself. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball loses a game on the AC-DC machine.

      CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball loses a game on the AC-DC machine. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball playing his AC-DC machine.

      CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball playing his AC-DC machine. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball.

      CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball with a panel from his newest Legends of WrestleMania machine.

      CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball with a panel from his newest Legends of WrestleMania machine. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Stern Pinball Inc. in Melrose Park.

      Stern Pinball Inc. in Melrose Park. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball with his newest Legends of WrestleMania machine.

      CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball with his newest Legends of WrestleMania machine. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

Pinball machines, with their bells, lights and silver balls, hit their heyday decades ago. But now they're getting a replay, with a suburban company at the controls.

Stern Pinball Inc. is moving to Elk Grove Village next month, making the suburb a global hub for the next generation of iconic pinball games.

Believed to be the oldest and largest pinball company in the world, Stern is expanding to a 40,000-square-foot building in April that will consolidate its Melrose Park headquarters and a warehouse near O'Hare International Airport.

With about 250 employees, the company plans to hire workers, roll out new technology and pursue additional markets, including in China and India, executives said.

The company, whose policies include mandatory pinball playing for employees, has earned the high score when it comes to making the silver-ball-bumping games.

"Stern has been the king of production," said Mark Steinman, director of operations for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association, based in Pittsburgh. "Stern has been No. 1 in putting out new games. So what it does and says goes a long way. It defines the industry."

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Once a staple of American bowling alleys, bars and arcades, the machines have given way over the past two decades to the multibillion-dollar video-gaming industry.

The company has changed as much over the years as the style of the games.

While Stern Pinball dates back to the 1930s, it hit its stride during the 1950s through the 1990s. The dot-com bust, massive waves of layoffs, foreclosures and the Great Recession then hampered the industry. It was at this time when President Gary Stern put together an investment team, partnering with Barrington-based Hagerty Peterson & Co. LLC and a small group of investors led by Dave Peterson of Barrington. They infused an undisclosed amount of money to keep the company moving ahead.

Both Stern and Peterson said their investment plan is paying off. The company is making thousands of machines every year, revenues and profits are up, and the move into Elk Grove Village will herald a new era.

Stern's success was evident in January when the company showed off its latest games at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Among a number of new games, Stern introduced WWE WrestleMania pinball as wrestling legend Hulk Hogan autographed the limited edition. Stern and Ford Motor Co. also teamed up to create a Mustang pinball machine as part of the Mustang's 50th anniversary celebrations next year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We are definitely experiencing a resurgence, and there's growth in the game. And we anticipate even more," Stern said.

Over the years, the gameplay experience has been improved with the help of technology. For example, computer chip memory allows the game to remember where a player left off during a play. Digital electronics provide animation. Even the bells and chimes have been replaced with digital audio recordings. The Rolling Stones game, for example, features the music of the iconic rock band, and the "Family Guy" game has more than two hours of dialogue recorded by the TV show's creator, Seth MacFarlane.

New operating systems run the machines, and new LED lighting has been added to enhance the experience.

Pinball machines continue to be a staple at arcades and entertainment centers. The machines also have a presence in bar-cades, where the over-21 crowd can drink beer and play games. Sales are also increasing among individual enthusiasts and collectors who buy the games for their homes.

"We've now found our place in entertainment," Stern said.

New players

"We're finding more younger people are discovering pinball," Stern said. "We have been keeping the core players and experts, and they're introducing the game to the more casual players."

Prices can be steep. Many Stern pinball games have three versions: the pro, the limited edition and the premier. Prices range from $6,000 to $8,000, depending on the features and accessories, said Stern, 69.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Stern said his heart and soul remain with the company, despite the economic bumps it has encountered.

"I like to play. In fact, you must play at least 15 minutes a day in our company," Stern said. "If you don't like to play, you shouldn't be working at a pinball company."

Meanwhile, Dave Peterson, 57, wasn't so enthusiastic when first approached about investing in Stern Pinball. A mutual friend of Peterson and Stern arranged for the two to meet and talk about investing in the company. Their talks in 2008 led to a deal in late 2009.

"We were just concerned that this was going to be another 'buggy whip' company and wasn't going to last long," Peterson said. "Or it could have all the attributes of Harley-Davidson and come back and survive."

The term "buggy whip" refers to when Ford introduced the first automobile and the companies who made buggy whips were afraid they'd go out of business altogether. Surprisingly, several buggy whip companies still exist, Peterson said.

"There is a passionate group of people around the world who love pinball, and that's why we went ahead with this," Peterson said.

As with Harley-Davidson, a core group of enthusiasts just wouldn't let pinball die. So Peterson put together his own group of investors who partnered with Stern's group, Peterson said.

Since 2009, the company has grown and now the partners are focusing on the next generation of pinball.

"We plan to evolve pinball and take advantage of new technology to enhance the experience," Peterson said.

And while Stern Pinball has hit the right levers to maintain its business course, others have entered the field and boosted competition, Steinman said.

Stern sells the games globally, and more than half of the inventory is exported, he has said. The customer base is threefold: operators and distributors who place the games in entertainment venues; pinball enthusiasts and collectors; and the home entertainment market.

Stern said the in-home pinball market is fairly new as boomers who grew up with the games buy machines for the family. Stern pinball games are primarily sold to consumers through high-end home entertainment stores, although they can also be found online through retailers such as Amazon.com.

It's that very market that's creating a new generation of pinball wizards, Stern said.

"Stern is in better shape now than in a long time," Steinman said.

Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson sees more growth for the Stern as it settles into its new facility and buys parts from dozens of other local companies.

"I used to play pinball as a kid, so this is all kind of nostalgic," Johnson said.

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