The House that Frank Built
Frank Gumma Sr.’s Work Ethic and Focus on Treating
Employees & Customers Like Family Lead the Way at AVS
The fashion industry may have its House of Gucci, but coin-op has one-upped them with its “House of Gumma.” American Vending Sales, the dealership now called the “AVS Companies,” was founded in 1971 by Frank Gumma Sr. as a used vending machine sales house and has since grown into a multi-branch, full-service network serving operators of every sort of coin machine, including gaming.
Humble beginnings sum up the company’s story, as well as that of its founder. Talking to him today, you’d never guess that he’s approaching his 90th birthday in June. Frank is charismatic, charming, knowledgeable and funny, and his recall of details and dates is better than anyone’s, including those of the current era of the company.
He was born and raised in Chicago, the youngest of three children of immigrant parents from Sicily, Italy. His mother and father hadn’t known each other there, but were introduced through friends in the States and got married. Frank’s father fought in France for the U.S. Army in World War I and got hit with mustard gas. He came home and was in and out of the hospital for 11 years, passing away in 1938 when Frank was just 6 years old.
Frank graduated from high school in 1950 and in 1951, went into the Army for two years, spending one of those in Japan where he was a military policeman. He returned to civilian life in 1953 and got a job as a construction laborer, but by 1956, decided that wasn’t the career for him.
“I started looking around for a job and a friend of mine suggested a vending company because his brother was a supervisor for one and was earning $153/week. I thought that was good money!” (The median income in those days was $4,800/year or about $92/week.)
With a second child that had just been born, he made the change, going to work for a small vending company in the city. He was a route man, but developed an aptitude for vending machine repair and worked hard, even after hours, to learn all he could. Around 1959, that company was sold to Interstate United and Frank stayed on, becoming a managing supervisor with 23 Chicago routes under him plus about five or six mechanics.
From 1961 to 1964, he went to work for Rowe in field service working with five distributors in the Midwest with territories covering about seven states. He would also conduct schools for distributor customers. In those days, Rowe was owned by Automatic Canteen Corp. and Joel Kleiman, later of Pioneer Sales & Service, was president of the company’s Rowe division and approved Gumma’s hiring. The two men remained close for years. “Joel was a great man,” Frank said.
Along the way, Frank noticed that if he wanted to do better income-wise, he needed to get into sales. In 1964, he left Rowe, going to work selling vending equipment for World Wide Distributors in Chicago for about eight years.
“Seeing a market for used vending machines, I took the big jump and decided to start my own business. I rented a store in Chicago on North Cicero for $200 a month and a garage nearby for 50 bucks a month. And all of a sudden, I was in the used equipment business! I was a one-man operation, buying, repairing, picking up and delivering used machinery,” he recalled.
“What helped me when I started my business was that while I was at World Wide, the operators I called on respected me because I knew how to fix equipment,” he said.
“I would get up in the morning, put a suit on and would go call on operators to either make sales or purchase used equipment. I might do that Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Then, I would go rent a truck with a liftgate by myself, and would go pick up machines and deliver ones that I had refurbished.
“In 1971 when I started the business,” Frank recalled, “there was a company in California called Zip Kit. Run by Sig Miller and Jerry Raskin, they made kits to put a fresh face on National candy and cigarette machines. We would buy used machines and put these kits on them, reselling them for profit. Those kits were very helpful for the start of my company.”
In 1972, a fellow Frank worked with at World Wide, Ron Gergovich, joined him at his new company as the first employee. (Gergovich passed away last year, which saddened Frank greatly, though he was pleased to report that Ron’s son is an operator today.)
Things were good for Gumma and company, and growth necessitated even larger digs. Frank built his first building in 1973 in Elk Grove Village, a 7,200-sq.-ft. place on Brummel Avenue. Also about that time, AVS started selling new Lektrovend machines and in 1975, Seeburg approached them to handle their line of vending machines. “At this point in our history, we still only dealt in vending,” Frank said.
“In 1980, I contacted Rowe about handling their vending line…years later, I would handle their jukeboxes, too.” The Automatic Products vending line came on in 1981. And for RePlay’s amusement operators, it was shortly after that American Vending Sales was on the map adding music and game brands to its roster.
The company again needed more space for its bustling enterprise and AVS’ second building, constructed under Frank’s direction, went up on Wheat Lane in Wood Dale (20,000 sq. ft.). They called it home from 1984-1989. Son Vince came aboard in 1986 about the time that they bought the Chicagoland office of Bally Distributing as the company was divesting of its sales outlets around the country. (The deal also saw Bally’s Jim McAllister join AVS as CFO.) In 1989, Frank built the facility that remains their home to this day, the 60,000-sq.-ft. headquarters on Morse Avenue in Elk Grove Village.
Fast forward a bit and in 2012 the company got the IGT line for Illinois lottery-licensed gaming equipment. The state approved gaming in 2009, but it wasn’t until November 2012 that the first VLTs went on location. It was about the same time, Frank decided to retire, “and that’s where I’m at today,” he said matter-of-factly. A bit later, he sold the majority share of the business to Vince and minority shares to his two daughters, Annette and Patti. Under their leadership, AVS became the “AVS Companies” to better reflect their expansion and has continued its upward trajectory.
The AVS & Frank Gumma Way
Those are the highlights of the company’s history during the leadership of its founder, but it doesn’t convey or do justice to what was most significant: the way they conduct business. Yes, Frank Sr. knew his way around vending machines and treated customers and suppliers alike with respect, but he also instilled a culture of great appreciation for each and every employee and what they brought to the organization. You can tell this is so when they light up talking about what a difference he’s made in their lives and careers.
“For several years when I drove up to my building in Elk Grove and I parked my car, I would look at the size of building…and the walls, the interior and the people who have been there who have been so instrumental. I would get a tear in my eye…I would get emotional. And my family has done well working there. We’ve provided a living for them and a lot of people,” he said.
“The best compliment I ever get is when I’m in that office, and it might be at the parts counter, and a customer or one of their technicians will thank me. I’ll ask, ‘What are you thanking me for?’ and they’ll say, ‘Well, 18 or 20 years ago, you gave me credit and you did this, or you did that.’ Very honestly, I don’t remember doing it, because that’s our way of doing business…and that’s what I tell them. I thank them for the compliment, but that’s the way the company is still run today. It’s just our way of doing business. These compliments mean a lot to me.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about the people. Frank remembers one employee who worked for him for about 25 years named Bob Hallman. “He passed away suddenly, but people used to say to me, ‘He’s not an employee. He must be a Gumma, the way he works.’ Really, he was the best thing that happened to my company. There was Ron Gergovich earlier, and then Bob Hallman. Today, Bob’s son Phil has worked for the company for 17 or 18 years already. There is person after person to mention.”
And within the industry, among the “great, great people” he’s met and made friends with along the way include Al Toranto, Steve Shaffer, Alan Suitor, Jerry Gordon, Joel Friedman, Don Hesch, Tom Di Loreto, John Neville…and it goes on and on. “These guys have been true friends,” Frank said.
His relationship with the late John Neville of Blackhawk Music in Sterling, Ill., is an on-point example. The two men had worked together at World Wide and when Frank landed the Rowe music line at the dealership and didn’t have much jukebox experience, he called upon his friend to come train his staff, hire new people and get them off the ground. “And he did!” said Frank. “John turned the running of his own company over to his wife Jackie for a time while he came to us to run the music division until we got it going.”
Later, Neville and fellow operator Ray Shroyer worked on lobbying for gaming in Illinois, Frank explained. “They called on music and game operators, worked with lobbyists and spent a lot of time in Springfield to help get the law passed. And we at AVS contributed some of the funding it took to get it done.”
And then there’s the story of long-time friend Fred Skor. Fred had been with World Wide Distributing and it was reported in the trade press that when he decided to sell his company, “there was only one guy that he wanted to sell it to, and that was me. That’s the best compliment I ever got,” Frank said.
Frank was honored with AAMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. “Honestly, when I got that award, I was in tears,” he said. “I’m a very emotional guy. When I stepped up to the microphone to accept it, I couldn’t talk. I’m not a speech person anyway, but I was prepared to make some comments. When I got up there, I said, ‘You know what? I want my family up here,’ and about a dozen of them came to stand with me.”
He was also saluted by the Illinois operators’ association (ICMOA at the time, but now called the Illinois Gaming Machine Operators Assn.) that gave him their own Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. “Not bad for a poor Italian kid,” he said with a smile.
He’s beyond pleased with all his son Vince has already accomplished. “He’s done a good job and he’s grown the company with the acquisitions he made. And now, one of Vince’s sons works for the company – the third generation.
“It’s been an industry that’s been good to me; the people are fantastic,” he said. “I could name a multitude of people, but it just pleases me that folks have made their livings and raised their families and done all the things they’ve done. It’s been a good ride and it makes me proud to know the reputation I have out there.”