Acres has an outstanding team that keeps everything running. In this profile, we talk with the man who started it all – John Acres, founder of Acres Manufacturing, about his journey from the Air Force to revolutionizing casino technology.
You’re the founder of Acres Manufacturing but tell us about your day-to-day role.
Well, it depends on the day and who you ask. Some might say my role is to mess everything up! But really since I’m the inventor of the technology, I mostly deal with our strategy and conceptual elements. What I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I have a unique ability to look at players and casinos and know what they need and how to meet those needs. I really enjoy finding the right combination of technology and support that we can use to make our customers happy.
Acres Manufacturing is your fourth company and your name has been synonymous with groundbreaking casino technology for five decades. How did you first get into the casino business?
Surprisingly it all started with a low paying job at the Air Force. I got a job working with computers – flight simulators specifically – as my career path in the Air Force. I had always liked electronics so it felt like a good fit for me. I got married and was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Vegas. I was only making $362 a month which made finding a place to live challenging. I remember the first place we looked at was a little trailer and when we opened the door, two rats came running out. Needless to say, we didn’t move in. So we both decided to get part-time jobs. My wife started selling shoes at JC Penney and I fixed radios at an electronics store. After fixing a customer’s radio he invited me to come look at a casino’s sound system that was on the fritz. I was only 18 and I technically wasn’t even supposed to be on the floor, but no one cared. So I fixed their sound system and kept working on new projects until they asked me to work on slot machines. I had no experience with them at all, but I figured it out and started making more at this part-time job than my Air Force gig! So I kept working and doing game designs and modifications and ended up with nine people working for me, and it just went from there.
What was the first solution you created that opened the door for today’s Acres technology?
I ended up working for a guy named Norman Little who was a brilliant marketer. He spent a lot of time watching players to understand what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what he could change to make their experience better. One thing he used to do was spot a player who looked discouraged (but still had money to spend) and go talk to them. He would say things like “looks like you’re having bad luck. That’s not supposed to happen at our place.” Then he would open up the slot machine door, flip the coin switch a few times, pull the handle on the machine, and close the door. Next thing you know, you’d hear three “ka-chings” and money would start pouring out of the machine. And then he’d walk away and go back to watching the player. Most of the time, the player would ride that wave of excitement, put some money back in the machine, and keep playing. After a while of doing this, he said to me, “if you can ever figure out a technology that would let me predict who’s going to stay and play and who’s going to bolt for the door, we’d both be rich.” And that was it. From then on that was my favorite problem. Norman said he couldn’t pay me to develop and build the solution but that he’d buy it from me. So I built it. Unfortunately, Norman got fired after that so my first customer went up in smoke, but I obviously recovered. I went on to build three businesses before developing Foundation to reinvigorate the industry so that it can meet the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s customers.
What was one of the most challenging moments you faced in building your businesses?
There have been many but one that stands out is that moment when Norman was no longer my customer. I had been working on this system to track slot machine players and my only customer was gone. By that time I had a few kids and about 20 bucks in the bank. At one point our phone and electricity was shut off and we couldn’t afford gas for our car. So I started pounding the pavement and literally just walked into different casinos on the strip trying to sell my product. Sometimes I couldn’t get a foot in the door or get someone to listen to me but I did eventually get the slot manager at the Aladdin to buy one.
A more recent challenge has been the pandemic. Just like everyone else, we had never seen the entire world shut down. And like every other business we wondered what we were going to do. But we had to shake that off quickly and figure it out. So we asked ourselves how can we take what we already have and leverage that to meet these new and immediate needs? And the proverbial lightbulb flipped on. We realized that our technology was a perfect fit for cashless. In the midst of the pandemic we signed a deal with Penn National for our cashless technology and have shipped more than 30,000 units to them. So we were definitely able to turn that around.
I think something that has stayed with me is advice I got early on: “success is about delaying failure until tomorrow and then figuring it out again.” On any given day, you can feel like nothing is going right or that nothing is going to work. I’ve found that those are usually the moments to take a pause and reflect on why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you have trouble with that, it could be time to change what you’re doing.
What are you looking forward to for Foundation and Acres Technology?
I’m excited to see the enjoyment that we’re going to be able to deliver to players. This business is all about sending a customer home happy that she won $100 while forgetting about the $200 she spent to get it. It’s all about the experience we create that makes it worth that $200 a customer spends. We have opportunities ahead of us to deliver these experiences seamlessly through a customer’s mobile device, social media platforms, and other communications methods. All of that allows us to take the sum of all those parts and create a much richer experience than ever before.
Q: What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m always working. But this isn’t work. It’s my passion. When I do need a break I tinker on an antique truck that I own or I go for walks. But even when I’m not technically working, I’m still working. I can’t go for more than a few days without going back to my favorite problem: how do I predict what a player is going to do?
Any final thoughts?
Just that we’re hard at work to revolutionize the casino industry. We recently launched the Foundation App Store as a way to foster an environment for any developer to provide applications for any slot machine or table game. I’ll never stop problem solving or innovating so stay tuned for what’s next.