Chance Rides' Success Built on Dedication to Family Values

Chance Rides: Kansas Company Stays in the Family Against All Odds

Ten years ago, Dick Chance and his son, Mike, started meeting every day at 9 a.m. in Dick's office -- a modest windowless room, made cozy by an abundance of family photos. Their company, Chance Rides -- which makes everything from roller coasters to carousels for amusement parks -- was on the verge of bankruptcy. Part pep rally and part crisis control, the meetings helped keep the business from going under.

A decade later, the company is in far better shape. But the daily ritual has stuck, keeping the two men in close contact as they run America's largest amusement ride maker just outside Wichita, Kansas.

Fly into the city's airport and you can easily spot the Chance manufacturing building from the sky. Situated in the center of a 40-acre facility, the massive white structure is as tall as the Ferris wheels the company makes and large enough to house 50-foot pieces of roller coaster track.

Despite how visible it is, few people -- including many locals -- know what Chance is making inside those white walls.

But since 1961, when Harold Chance, Dick's locomotive-loving father, started producing the now-iconic C.P. Huntington miniature trains, the company has built the rides that are part of our childhoods: like the Zipper, the Trabant, and the Toboggan.

But making huge rides that cost millions of dollars isn't as carefree as it looks. How this company has survived -- and remained in the family -- is a story as complicated as the rides Chance makes.

Chapter 1: Never Give Up

"Treat people right, be honest, work hard. Things will take care of themselves." Harold Chance lived by those words and his son Dick took to them heart when he bought the business, then called Chance Manufacturing, from his father in 1985.

Dick worked hard to grow the company. He renamed it Chance Industries and branched out into a motor coach division and developed new carnival rides, like the 90-foot-tall Giant Wheel and the pendular Pharaoh's Fury. "It was exciting," Dick remembers. "When I bought it we were doing $14 million a year in business, and that grew to $50 million at one time." By the mid-'90s, Chance employed nearly 400 people. Now 149 people work there full time.

When he was a teenager, Mike worked summers in the family shop -- until he and his dad had what they jokingly call "the falling out."

"My friends had different jobs. They would work in restaurants at night, and I would be like, 'Man, this stinks,'" Mike laughs, retelling the story. "So I went to work at Pizza Hut ... and I was good at it!"

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Mike moved away to work in Arizona after graduating from Kansas State University. But he had always stayed connected with Chance Industries -- attending trade shows with his father, so in 1997 he came back to Wichita to work with his dad. Traveling carnivals, which had been Chance's main customers for decades, were slowly dying out as more people went to big amusement parks seeking even bigger thrills.

"We needed a 'Wow!' product," Mike says. "And in this business, that means roller coasters." Chance built coasters like the Toboggan and the Big Dipper, but those were small in comparison to the gigantic rides at parks like Six Flags and Disney World.

But just as Mike was putting his plans into place to get into bigger rides, Chance's business model -- helping carnival owners buy its rides by co-signing their loans -- proved to be problematic.

Chance had been growing between 10 to 15 percent a year in the 1990s, helped by the fact that Chance's lender, CIT Corp., was comfortable with the company backing loans by its customers.

"It worked for years and years," Dicks says. "Carnivals were notoriously a little late in paying ... but they always paid. CIT always went along with it, and they always got paid."

But in 2001, a much bigger insurance company, Tyco (TYC), bought CIT and that all changed.

"Tyco came in and looked at our portfolio of business -- around a $30 million portfolio -- there was about $7 million that was 90 days past due," Dick says. Tyco wasn't willing to wait for that money. So to protect the company, Chance filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Chance wasn't alone in its struggles. Even as he was trying to keep his company afloat, Dick got a call from a longtime competitor, Dana Morgan. He wanted to know if Chance was interested in buying his roller coaster company.

Mike had wanted to build coasters before Chance's troubles began. But could they find customers for multimillion dollar roller coasters when Morgan seemingly couldn't?

The father and son drove to Oklahoma City to meet with Gary Story, the president of Six Flags amusement parks. Story told them that he needed to buy two new coasters. "So we asked, would you buy them from us if we could make a deal with Dana," Mike remembers. "And Gary said, 'Well, yeah.'"

But with Chance in bankruptcy, it was tough getting the deal done with Morgan, a public company. Ironically, the problem that got them into financial trouble ended up helping with the acquisition. Chance had helped Morgan when it was small, financing rides for the company. "So it was our relationship that made it happen," Mike says.

"If we hadn't gotten that Six Flags order, or done that deal with Dana ... I don't think we would have made it," Mike says. But there was never a time when the Chances thought about walking away from the family business.

"My grandfather always told me, 'You only lose if you give up,'" Mike says. "That actually got us through the bankruptcy," Dick adds. "You never lose unless you quit ... and we're not quitting."

Chapter 2: The Weight of a Whistle

A few miles southeast of the Chance plant is O.J. Watson Park, a gem of public space, with miniature golf and pony rides. It also has one of Chance's iconic trains, the C.P. Huntington.

Terry Giddeon, Chance's service product manager responsible for the train brand, grew up just two miles from the park. He can still remember hearing the whistle blow from his bedroom window. In a strange twist of fate, the first C.P. Huntington that Giddeon ever built for Chance -- almost 30 years ago -- was the replacement locomotive for that childhood train. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I'd build the train that Watson Park has now," Giddeon says. "Installing it was the best feeling in the world."

The trains needs constant maintenance like any machine, and Giddeon says there were long periods of time when the Watson Park train just wasn't getting it. Last year, the train was shut down more than it was running. But this year, Giddeon is making sure that doesn't happen again.

He has made the Watson Park train a personal priority of his, working with the park's manager to keep the train running. Giddeon believes that dedication sets Chance apart from its competitors.

"The support is always there," he says. Even if a ride is decades old, Giddeon can get parts for it and even provide a service manual. "The Santa Barbara Zoo just bought another locomotive from us. When they get that level of support, they don't shop around."

Giddeon doesn't always see the smiles his work inspires, but just knowing that he's brought joy to children young and old is what keeps him going. "When you see the kids grinning ear to ear, I call it my natural high," he says. "It gives you goose bumps -- makes you feel proud to work for the company."

Chapter 3: An Artist in Kansas

When Julie Boman was a little girl, she decided to express herself artistically -- by drawing a horse on her parents' marriage certificate.

She was in a heap of trouble from the act of childhood mischief, but it proved to be prophetic. Today, Boman is one of three full-time artists in Chance's carousel studio. She paints horses, tigers and dolphins -- even mythical creatures like jackalopes -- for the ride that has been the center of carnivals for more than a century.

Boman, who is self-taught, paints gorgeous animals every vibrant hue of the rainbow, then embellishes them with final touches like jewels and lace. Carousels take an average of three months to assemble, with a single animal taking between 80 and 110 hours to build and decorate.

She also painstakingly adds detail to the center panels of a carousel, inspired by everything from famous works of art to travel photos she spots in magazines. It's that imagination that landed her a job at Chance 15 years ago.

After seeing a mural Boman painted in her church's basement, a fellow parishioner told her boss at a local McDonald's about Boman's artistic skills. He hired Boman to paint murals at a few of his Wichita franchises. "It was my first paying job as an artist," Boman says.

A family friend, who worked at Chance, saw her work at McDonalds's and came to pay Boman a visit one Sunday afternoon. He asked her a question that ended up changing her life: "How would you like to paint carousel animals?"

Boman knows she's lucky to work as an artist in Kansas. "Everyone told me, you better get a backup, you can't do art for a living," she says. "I never thought this would be reality."

But Boman says that Chance being family owned makes all the difference in her work. Both Mike and Dick stop by the studio on a regular basis and Mike often brings his 6-year-old son Carter by on Saturdays to visit the animals. "Oh, he loves carousels," Boman says.

"If you had a corporate board running the company, they'd be focused on the profit and having all of this made in Mexico or China," she says. "And they could have all of this done for less [money]. It's nice to have bosses who let you focus on quality."

In that tall white building in the heart of Kansas, the Chance family has built a company that manufactures magic for the masses. But perhaps even more importantly, they've led a company that, through every twist and turn, has been a place where employees and quality always come first.

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