Kings of Cranes
Many operators associate the idea of crane machines closely with the Belgian company responsible for launching the claw machine revolution in the U.S. more than 30 years ago. Elaut is a family owned company that has been overseen by the Verstraeten family since 1959.
Company founder Achiel Verstraeten was working as a young engineer repairing radios, amplifiers and televisions. As carnival people came to him for various technical problems on their equipment, he soon learned to know their world and needs.
In 1959, he started the company in Sint-Niklaas as a repair shop for bumper cars. From there he went on to develop the first automatic coin mechanism system for bumper cars. But, more importantly for the future of the company, he also began developing prototype models of what was eventually to become the electronic crane.
During its first seven years, Elaut concentrated on its bumper car business with the majority of the work centering on the company’s coin mechanisms and other electro-mechanical installations.
However, by 1966 lucrative returns from Elaut’s fledgling crane business were beginning to play an important role for the firm, and the company’s focus gradually shifted to cranes. During this period, the company also began using its current name, Electro Automaten Verstraeten, later shortened to Elaut.
The business flourished, and thanks to excellent relationships Achiel Verstraeten enjoyed with his customers – mostly traveling showmen and arcade operators – there was plenty of feedback to fuel new game ideas. In fact, a number of different Elaut games went into production during this period (shooting galleries with pictures, Bull Matic pushers, Balco’s rotary games and horse racing galleries).
In 1978, Elaut enjoyed a milestone year. The company produced its first freestanding Good Luck crane. The model took off in a big way. In fact, the Good Luck cranes were so successful that Achiel stopped all other production. Moreover, the substantial profits yielded by the Good Luck eventually paved the way for him to plan his next project, to export Elaut products to the U.S.
But schemes of this magnitude can never succeed without the benefit of considerable planning and effort, and it was not until the early 1980s that Elaut finally made its move. This proved to be the ideal time to enter the marketplace because the game sector in the U.S. was booming.
A number of factors contributed to smoothing Elaut’s way ahead in the U.S. market, and one of these was the favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the Belgian franc. (During this period, air flights to the U.S. were almost empty because travelling from Europe was extremely expensive.) For Americans, on the other hand, it was a pleasure to shop in Europe. A former secretary recalls that container loads of cranes aimed at the U.S. market went like hot cakes.
Elaut brought a wealth of experience to the U.S. market in terms of manufacturing expertise, and the factory partnered with Betson Enterprises as its U.S. distributor, a move that helped solidify the venture’s success.
Developed on the carnival circuit in Europe, the first coin-op cranes –– or diggers as they were called –– arrived on American shores in the 1920s. In the 1940s and 1950s, numerous American manufacturers produced a variety of electro-mechanical models that were most commonly found at fairgrounds and shoreline resort areas.
According to Elaut, much of the credit for the resurgence of cranes in America must go to Betson Enterprises, the distribution giant that began importing cranes from Belgium in the early 1980s. Betson met up with Achiel at an IAAPA convention in Dallas in the early 1980s. He was traveling at the time with a Royal Belgian Trade Mission, and they discussed Betson possibly marketing a unit Verstraeten was manufacturing for traveling showman in Europe.
Communications were strained at the time because Verstraeten’s English left a bit to be desired. He later recalled: “It was not easy to find the right people on a new market, but for some mysterious reason it felt right with the Betson people from the beginning. Up through today, the names of the Betti family and, Bob Geschine, Joe Cirillo, Neal Rosenberg and Art Warner, still remind me of a time of pleasant cooperation between the two companies. And at Elaut we are proud to say that 30 years later, the pleasure is still mutual on a personal level, but also business wise.”
Needless to say that Verstraeten’s English has improved rapidly in the intervening years.
To avoid confusion with the gambling market, the U.S.-bound Belgian cranes were baptized Big Choice. A steady stream of containers filled with Big Choice multi-player cranes began making their way across the Atlantic to the U.S. Later, street operators, who were experiencing a major drop off in video game revenue, embraced streamlined single-player units.
Beginning in 1993, Elaut manufactured for Betson a full line of Big Choice (including glitzy limited edition models) and Top Choice cranes, as well as a new Watch Crane. The factory also introduced a variety of other machines including MEGA, Mr. Claw, Giga, EX1 and The Big One.
Elaut further expanded its manufacturing capabilities through its formation of a sister company named Metaco. The facility is managed by Emmy Verstraeten and is responsible for all the metal and powder coating fabrication needs of the Elaut Group. Any remaining wood and glass elements are made by sister companies nearby, which work in conjunction with the rhythm of Elaut’s factory. To date, all R&D and assembly of Elaut products is done in the facilities in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium.
Achile Verstraeten propelled the fruits of his hard earned successes well into the millennium. With those fruits and the help of his son Eric and daughters Helga and Emmy, they expanded their family’s plan for the future. Their biggest decision was made to expand into the operations end of the industry. Their first introduction was created by the purchase of what was once Monduce Inc., a national operator of games in theme parks, which became their U.S. base in Lakewood, N.J.
From that purchase, Eric Verstraeten and his latest team have transformed Elaut USA into the nation’s largest theme park concessionaire. With this success, the Verstraetaen family continues to expand into theme parks spanning the globe through its company Elaut Leisure, which currently has machines in Spain, Germany, Holland and, of course, Belgium.
Furthering its commitments to the industry, company CEO Eric Verstraeten and his team of engineers set out to create a crane that would “take the industry by storm.” That product is now commonly known to everyone as the Elaut E-Claw crane line featuring LED and patented electronic and mechanical technologies.
If that wasn’t enough, Eric and his team brought new life to the quick coin market with the development of the Mistral self-contained coin pusher. This product is known in the U.S. as the Wizard of Oz redemption game. Elaut execs say Wizard of Oz has exceeded earnings expectations and continues to be the one of the highest earning games in just about any family entertainment center.
Manufacturing some of the world’s highest producing equipment doesn’t move from the manufacturing floor to customers thoughout the world without a great deal of sales planning. Helga Verstraeten handles those day-to-day responsibilities. Helga directs Elaut’s sales and advertising strategies across the globe. Her interactions with customers have proven vital to the progress of the Elaut product line. Even with all of her many responsibilities, she still finds time to communicate with over 18 distribution partners in 15 countries across the globe.
Today, some 55 years later, the Verstraeten family continues its commitment to the amusement industry worldwide. They admit there have been some bumps in the road along the way, but thankfully they were able to overcome them through innovation, customer relations and hard work. The Elaut Group is continually planning for consistent organic growth for the future, as well as possible new acquisitions of related companies. So stay tuned.
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