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AMF STRIKES DEAL TO BUY MOST OF CONBOW'S BOWLING LANES

The seven Conbow bowling alleys in this region may look the same in a few weeks, but they'll be part of a revolution rolling over the country.

As AMF attempts to become the dominator of all things bowling, the Richmond, Va.-based company scooped up most of the 18 bowling centers owned by Conbow Corp. of Amherst, including all of the chain's bowling operations in Western New York.

Conbow made the announcement Wednesday and neither side revealed details. Industry observers estimate the deal is worth $20 to $30 million.

"AMF is creating a nationwide bowling chain which we believe will be a boon to the growth and promotion of bowling in the future," said Terrence L. Dobbins, Conbow president.

He said Conbow wants to own more residential properties, so getting rid of the commercial facilities will promote that goal. Conbow and its affiliate, Benchmark Group, a real estate development company also in Amherst, will add more apartments in the future as a result of selling the alleys, Dobbins said.

Conbow's area alleys include Lancaster Lanes, Rose Bowl Lanes, Beverly Lanes, Mil-Sher Lanes, Allie Brandt Lanes, Airport Lanes and Thruway Lanes. Dobbins said all are profitable and the deal should be in September.

Company insiders say they doubt customers will notice a difference after the sale and that AMF probably won't need to spend too much money upgrading the area centers.

Paul Barkley, AMF's vice president for operations, said AMF will assess the needs of the Conbow properties after the acquisition is completed and determine if renovation is needed.

"I personally have seen Thruway and Airport and they look to be pretty good facilities," he said. He said the company is buying the seven centers in the Buffalo market and eight other Conbow facilities.

Conbow will keep its two centers in British Columbia, Dobbins said. It also owns another center in Plattsburgh that may be sold or closed, he said.

He said he expects most of Conbow's 700 employees nationwide, including the 15 in headquarters, will be retained by AMF or Conbow.

With the Conbow alleys, AMF will own 343 centers in the United States. That's tops in the nation.

He said bowlers likely won't see changes. "It's usually a very transparent change for them," he said. "We keep the same programs. If anything, there will be an improvement in service."

Pricing, he said, will be based on what the market bears.

AMF also is the world's largest supplier of bowling equipment -- everything from bowling balls to high-tech machines that pick up the pins after they have been toppled. The goal is to turn AMF into a global brand associated with bowling.

"It's an industry that's ripe for consolidation," said Sandy Hansell of Sandy Hansell & Associates, a consultant and broker for the bowling industry in Southfield, Mich. "Most of the centers are mom and pop operations, and many of them are getting ready to retire."

In the past year, AMF bought 112 bowling centers in the United States and six in Britain.

The company's typical acquisition is not in the same shape as the Conbow facilities. It spends an average of $300,000 to $400,000 to renovate its new properties, improving lanes and installing state-of-the-art technology, AMF has said.

Restaurants typically get a face lift and menus expand. In some locations, billiard tables and video games are brought in.

Barkley said it is premature to say what will happen with the area facilities.

While AMF's domestic growth potential is great, the market itself is not growing much. In the past, the industry depended on league bowlers, players who took the game seriously and committed to play regularly for a whole season.

But AMF Bowling Worldwide is enjoying profits. It reported revenues of $157.6 million and profits of $50.2 million for the quarter ended March 31, compared with revenues of $122.7 million and profits of $38.9 million in the same quarter of 1996.

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