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“A Pretty Good Life”
40 Years With Larry Hilimire at the Helm of Stanton Automatics
In the early 1950s, a vending operator in the Finger Lakes region of Western New York State named Dick Hilimire was busy building two things at once: one was the Ace Automatics route he and his brother Lloyd ran out of Geneva, N.Y., while the other was his own family. And just like Ace Automatics was heavy on vending, Dick’s family was heavy on son –– five of them –– all of whom got sent out to load and clean the machines when they were old enough and who are all still in the coin-op industry today.
Four of those sons work on the vending side of the coin machine business while the fifth, Larry, concentrates strictly on jukeboxes and games. Today, Larry Hilimire’s brothers Jack and Tom own and operate the present version of the original Ace Automatics route, serving factories, hotels and even prisons with full line vending. They also maintain a food commissary as well as a flourishing food catering business. Brother Rick owns KEM Vending down in Athens, Ga. and with help from brother Jeff, also runs a full line vending operation. This leaves Larry himself as the family’s sole “jukebox and games guy.”
As the saying goes, Larry Hilimire was “vaccinated” with a jukebox stylus (i.e. the record-playing needle). Today, however, his sprawling Stanton Automatics route is over 99% (needle-free) digital when it comes to coin-op music. “I think a bar named Amy’s Checkered Flag in Waterloo, N.Y. is our only CD holdout,” he told RePlay (he was named TouchTunes’ Jukebox Operator of the Year in 2015.)
Larry originally cut his coin machine spurs in vending at Ace Automatics, and came sort of “green” to the jukebox and games trade in 1976 after his dad and uncle had purchased Stanton Automatics from Pearl Stanton, widow of operator, Ed Stanton. His job? Top spot! Manager! “I’ll admit it took me some time to get up to speed in this end of the business, but I learned pretty quick,” he recalls. “If you do the math, that means I’ve been doing the same job for 40 years now,” he admits rather proudly.
After adding in his years helping out part time and then for a while full time on the Ace route, that puts him at the 50 year “long timer” mark in coin-op! And thanks to a lot of location-scouting, referrals as well as his outright purchase of at least a half dozen other upstate routes during all those 40 Stanton years, Larry Hilimire’s company is about the most prominent music and games business in Western New York State today. (He’s been sole owner of Stanton Automatics for many years now.)
Bars and restaurants (lots of them) define Stanton Automatics. Apart from their large music and crane routes, Stanton’s pool and dart leagues serve as their main focus. They currently oversee 30-plus dart leagues and five pool leagues. They also run two mall arcades (all redemption machines are auto-prize, self-vending units) and operate games in a number of bowling centers, mostly on a normal partnership basis but some on a third party system with another operator.
Stanton started placing ATMs five years ago, Larry says, crediting the late Mark Whitelaw from Action Video in Buffalo for coaxing them into this “new area of business.” As far as a full-fledged FEC goes, “we haven’t found the right spot yet, but I do see that most of the games coming out these days are aimed at that part of the business,” he advised.
Larry Hilimire earned a business degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Then, as he puts it: “I sat in the accounting department at the Xerox plant in Rochester for one week and realized what I was going to do for the rest of my life. And it wasn’t Xerox! I guess you could say the coin machine bug got me at an early age!” And early it was.
“When I was a teenager, Dad gave my brother Jack and me a set of keys and sent us out to service the machines he had in various factories and businesses in and around the area,” Larry recalls. “It was kind of cool because we knew just about everybody young and old who worked at those places. Small town stuff, you know. One of those factories had a Bally batch brew coffee machine and on Sundays, we had to scrub out the stainless steel pot with SOS pads to make sure the coffee wasn’t bitter when the place reopened Monday morning.
“Fast-forward to age 22 when I got the chance to attend my first MOA show in Chicago,” he continued. “It was an eye-opener. The Crossroads Bar in the Conrad Hilton Hotel where that show was held was a great place to hang out and learn by watching shakers and movers like Johnny Bilotta making all those deals. And the parties the factories put on back then were super. I’ve only missed a few of those conventions since that first one in the early ’70s,” he said.
“Back in those early days, I remember some of the upstate machine salesmen my dad was friends with, like Roland Smith from the old Davis Distributing. Smitty sold my family a ton of Seeburg single cup coffee machines. We bought crazy amounts of equipment from him over the years when he was at Davis and later when he had Syracuse Coin.
“Then there was Frank Kindler from National Vendors who’d show up mid-afternoon and get into this long chat with Dad, talking about everything except getting an order. But just before they’d head out for a drink,” Larry remembers, “Dad would tell Frank to send us 10 candy venders and 10 22-column cigarette machines.” (Both Dick Hilimire and his wife passed away back in the ’80s; his brother and old partner Lloyd lived to the age of 93 and passed on only recently at his retirement home in Florida.)
Big on Leagues
During his long tenure running Stanton Automatics, Larry saw the electronic pinball and video game booms come and then go. Like most operators, they prospered during those twin heydays, but due to their early embrace of the league concept (Stanton has been running pool and dart leagues since 1977. . .that’s 39 years!), when the booms quieted down, those leagues served to keep income level. Stanton has also run the NYS Dart Tournament since 1983!
During all this time, Stanton’s league programs have literally offered thousands of competitive players their shot at prize money. When the smoking ban hit New York locations, those league nights once again served to keep customers coming to the bars. “Leagues have been the backbone of our revenue source,” Larry has declared more than once.
Between five and six thousand people compete each year in Stanton pool and dart leagues. “What’s curious about leagues these days is that the number of players on the pool side are off while those on the dart side are up,” Larry advised. “My personal opinion is that the younger Millennials seem to be in a hurry and don’t like spending the time to learn the ins and outs of pool. But, they take to the easier and quicker game of darts instead. Lots of younger people are coming into the dart leagues we run.”
Each April, Stanton Automatics runs the New York State Dart Tournament. “When we started, the prize purse was something like a thousand dollars,” said Larry. “These days, we award over $50,00 to the 1,000-plus players who compete. We pull a lot of boards off location temporarily and set them up for the tournament along with some additional boards Arachnid sends us, so there’s around 100 set up for the competition. We run different divisions for men and women as well as for various levels of skill. We have it all going on,” he’s proud to say.
One very big reason there are so many people involved in Stanton league promotions has been Larry’s acquisitive nature. Simply put, buying up other routes brought more players into the fold. For example, he bought Scolaro Amusements in Auburn and Mohawk Amusements in Syracuse back in the ’80s. South Shore Automatics and R&J Amusements (both in Ithaca) came aboard in the early ’90s, Seneca Music (Geneva) joined the fold in 1995, Banks Brothers Amusements (Elmira) in 2012 and Southern Tier Amusements was acquired late in 2015. All are now under the Stanton Automatics brand.
“We bought some of those routes around the time the smoking ban came along,” Larry said. “I’d get calls from some other operators asking if I was going to let any people go to offset the expected loss in collections. I said I wouldn’t do such a thing and as a matter of fact, I decided to forge ahead and ended up buying some of these fellows out.
“You know, when you buy a route, you have to figure a lot of the equipment isn’t up to snuff. Operators might let the machines get old and rundown when they figure they’re about to get out of the business. So, we had to spend a good bit to get things up to speed,” he stated. “But, I’m glad we did,” he added.
Larry’s cousin Jim and Uncle Lloyd sold their Coin Automatics route to Stanton in 2005; Jim continues working for Stanton today. Larry’s son Doc (Matthew) has been working for Stanton these past 21 years. “It doesn’t get any better than that!” said Larry, who after 40 years at the Stanton Automatics helm (plus his “child labor” days beforehand in vending) still looks forward to every day. “I’m 68 years of age, and I still come to work every day, so what does that tell you?” he laughed.
The broad Stanton Automatics route now serves locations in well over a dozen New York State counties. The spread is so wide they maintain service techs in six different stations working even at night to cover breakdowns and such. Some of the cities where you’ll see the Stanton sticker on a jukebox or game are Syracuse, Ithaca, Corning, Elmira, Oswego, and the home city of Auburn. Naturally, a ton of smaller towns in between are covered as well.
On the association side of things, Larry says he really enjoyed serving on AMOA’s board of directors a few years back. “I met many great industry people there,” he declared. He also completed its Notre Dame Management Program with son Doc (class of XIV) and keeps in touch with some fellow grads until this day. “Working with Doc, and having as many long-term employees as we do, has given me the drive to maintain and grow this business and has kept my interest in doing it full throttle.”
The Stanton Automatics owner/operator lives in Geneva (his late wife Nancy passed away at age 51). “Between Doc’s three kids and daughter Lindsay’s three, I’ve got six grandchildren running from 8-months-old up to 17,” Larry’s proud to say. “All things considered, it’s been a pretty good life,” he declared.
Every route has someone (or would like to) generally called a “Gal Friday” who the boss can turn to and get big stuff, routine stuff and trivial stuff done simply by asking. That person at Stanton Automatics was Charla Gummerson. We say “was” because after 35 years as Larry Hilimire’s secretary, Charla passed away last December.
“Charla started out doing the usual office things like counting money, making bank deposits, paying bills and answering phones,” said Larry. “When we got into the leagues, she was the one compiling pool scores, keeping schedules, updating standings, and interacting with the players. She had a great way with people,” he added.
Those thirty-plus years spent organizing pool and dart leagues was a monumental task, but Larry says Charla considered it just another part of her daily routine. “Take our New York State Dart Tournament, for example,” he said. “It started almost 30 years ago at a place called The Winners Circle with 40 players. Now, it’s become a four-day event every April with over a thousand players. And guess who was at the registration desk every day, every year? Charla!
“This wonderful lady wore many hats for Stanton Automatics, but the pool and dart hat was a big one. We are a much different company today than we were 40 years ago due in large part to our dedicated staff … especially Charla Gummerson,” Larry said.
Visit Stanton Automatics online at www.stanton-automatics.com.