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Business Observer Thursday, Mar. 24, 2022 4 months ago

Shuffle the deck: Millennial couple cue up a new career

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Stephanie Swain and Josh Dulabaum left safe, stable jobs to buy a venerable shuffleboard equipment company. They intend to quickly stretch into new markets.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Much like bocce, cornhole, pickleball, tennis and other social, non-contact outdoor sports, shuffleboard experienced a surge of interest during the COVID-19 crisis. The sport was already popular in the region, thanks to an abundance of 55+ communities and venues like the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club — the oldest and largest such facility in the world.

For Stephanie Swain and Josh Dulabaum, new owners of Allen Shuffleboard in Seminole, the pandemic presented an opportunity to shift the focus of the shuffleboard equipment and supply manufacturer from dealers and resellers of shuffleboard equipment to end users. With one of the firm’s largest markets, the cruise ship industry, largely inactive during the pandemic, selling direct to consumers made up for a lot of lost revenue.

“A lot of people associate shuffleboard with the older crowd,” says Dulabaum. “You retire, you go play shuffleboard — which is true. But also we’re seeing an expansion in the younger market as well.”

Shuffleboard bars marketed to young adults, Dulabaum says, have popped across the country, from Brooklyn to Chicago, Kansas City and Milwaukee.

“We supply one in Milwaukee called NorthSouth Club where they do hatchet throwing and shuffleboard,” he says. “We see a ton of potential.”

‘The intention from the start was not to leave my job doing software development just to work here. It was basically to come here to learn everything and then to buy the shop.’ Josh Dulabaum, co-owner of Allen Shuffleboard

However, Dulabaum, 35, and Swain, 39, still have much to learn about running their own business. They both left good corporate jobs — Dulabaum at Hitachi Solutions, Swain at Raymond James — to pursue ownership of Allen Shuffleboard. The company was founded in 1941 and continuously owned and operated by three generations of the Allen family, most recently Jim Allen, who took Dulabaum on as an apprentice, of sorts, with an eye toward selling the company to Swain and him when they were ready.

That was last May, at which time the couple acquired the firm’s assets, for a sum they decline to disclose. (The Allen family still owns the building and leases it to the new owners.)

Dulabaum says the Allens could have made more on the sale, but they wanted the company to go to someone passionate about the sport and would continue their good work.

“We got a good deal,” Dulabaum says. “The intention from the start was not to leave my job doing software development just to work here. It was basically to come here to learn everything and then to buy the shop.”

Dulabaum and Swain have been playing shuffleboard regularly since 2013, so their interest in the sport is no passing whim. Their first contact with it was at the world championships that year, held at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club.

“We took the day off to go watch this international sporting competition,” Swain says. “We had no idea what shuffleboard was or how it was played.”

Soon enough, they were part of a shuffleboard team at the club, a squad that also included Jim Allen. At the time, Jim’s father and the former owner of the company, Sam Allen, was in his 80s but still working in the shop.

“If Sam could come in and handle a drill press today,” Dulabaum says, “he’d be doing it.”

Jim’s children were not interested in taking over the business, so conversations about a handover started occurring. Dulabaum, who says he’s always enjoyed working with his hands, was impressed at how most of the products the company sells are made right there on site.

“A lot of people come in here, and they don’t expect that,” he says. “They think everything comes from China completely built.”

Dulabaum and Swain manage to keep up with demand despite having just six employees, though they intend to hire more as the weather improves in northern states.

“We get a lot of phone calls from people up north who are looking for shuffleboard courts,” Swain says. “They remember coming down to Florida as a kid and playing shuffleboard, and they recently took a trip to Florida, fell back in love with it and want to know how they can play at home. So we’re seeing a lot of [courts] going into backyards up north.”

Supply-chain issues have affected Allen Shuffleboard, but to a lesser degree than expected. The major hang-up was with a stencil the company sells to customers who want to paint the lines on their courts. 

But that also presented an opportunity to make improvements.

“We couldn't produce it the same way that it had been done,” Swain says. “So we had to find new materials and new companies that could help do the cutting on the stencil. It's a better product than it was, but it's also more expensive because things are just more expensive now.”

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