Wally Hall became involved with bowling nearly 50 years ago while living in the United Kingdom.
The sport brought him and his family in 1967 to the United States, where Hall later became president and chief executive officer of Fair Lanes Inc. for about 10 years.
Hall was getting ready to retire and relax when he stepped down at Fair Lanes and later left the company's board. He then became an entrepreneur who has served many bowling fans in Anne Arundel County.
The Pasadena resident, 72, and his family have purchased three local bowling centers in the past 13 years and tried to improve them.
Stacy Karten, a Baltimore-based bowling industry consultant, said that having someone such as Hall running bowling centers here helps the business.
"He's one of the most respected and known leaders in the bowling industry," he said. "He's a global leader in the sport. To have somebody in your backyard that operates family businesses like that is a nice reflection on the community and great for the customers."
An electrical engineer by education and training, Hall became involved in bowling almost by accident in 1958.
He was living in Scotland when he came across an advertisement for someone to head a United Kingdom subsidiary of an American company.
Hall applied for and got the job with Brunswick Corp., a large bowling company. Hall moved to London after getting the job, and his life changed when a group of Baltimoreans came to town in 1960.
They were headed to Germany to look at building bowling centers there. However, Hall persuaded them to build in the United Kingdom instead - where 20 centers opened in the first part of the decade.
He then came to America as the vice president of planning and development for Fair Lanes. Hall eventually became president and chief executive, a position he held from 1980 to 1990.
He left the company's board two years later. But everything changed again in 1993 when five bowling centers were put up for sale in the United States after Fair Lanes had economic difficulties. Hall saw that one was in Annapolis and jumped at the chance to buy it with his family.
"It was in my backyard," Hall said. "It was one of the centers that we built when I was running Fair Lanes. We [then] put money into it to modernize it and renovate it."
The Halls did the same thing when the Severna Park bowling center became available in 1997. That building also needed major renovation and held 32 lanes, as the Annapolis site did, but the Halls changed it to 16 duckpins and 16 tenpins. It had been 20 duckpins and 12 tenpins. This past summer came the third purchase. The Greenway Bowl is a 40-lane center - all tenpins - that is headed for major renovation.
Hall didn't expect to buy three bowling centers when leaving Fair Lanes, but he felt it wasn't a bad risk.
"All are in the same county, and all three are competitive and complementary," Hall said. "[They] could be much more effective in marketing activities, and we have to build on what we have so far."
Karten also said that about 85 percent of bowling lanes are owned and run by a person or a family, and that finding someone who handles three bowling centers is by far the exception rather than the norm.
But the members of the Hall family help run the bowling centers they own. Hall's son Michael, 35, serves as general manager for bowling operations for Hall Investments Annapolis Inc., the parent company of the three centers. Another son, Phillip Hall, 40, handles much of the necessary construction work, often doing a large part of it himself.
Owning these three centers has been a test as the sport has changed greatly over the past 20 years. Two decades ago, there were about 10 million sanctioned league bowlers who competed 35 weeks a year, Hall said.
That number has dropped to about 2 million now, forcing more aggressive marketing to get people into the bowling centers - and to get them back.
"It's a very competitive marketplace," Hall said. "You have a tremendous increase in recreation activities [as] we are a totally discretionary expenditure. It's not a loaf of bread. You've got to push it. You've got to raise awareness."
Hall said his bowling centers have made a number of changes in marketing. They've developed leagues with much shorter seasons and worked hard at getting more commitments from nonleague bowlers, as about 55 percent of those who bowl aren't in leagues. That's a big change over several years ago, when only 20 percent were nonleague bowlers. It's also the reason Hall's bowling centers are trying to do more creative events, such as birthday parties. They're also focusing more on trying to attract children, as about one-third of nationwide business involves those younger than 18.
The changes in the business Hall first got into nearly 50 years ago are keeping him on his toes but handing him new challenges he enjoys facing.
"I've got a passion for the business," he said. "The mission of our company is very simple. We provide people with happy times and fond memories of their visits to our bowling center. It's a very simple mission, and I like that mission, and I like the business."