At United Coin, executive discovers his slot in life

At this week’s Global Gaming Expo, Steve Des Champs won’t be tied down to his company’s booth.

United Coin Machine doesn’t have one.

For the Nevada-based slot machine route operator, every day is the company’s own personal G2E.

“We go out and sell our services to locations one by one,” said Des Champs, who has been the chief financial officer and general manager of United Coin since 2007. “Having a booth at G2E to sell our wares doesn’t make sense for us. We meet with our customers daily.”

The tradeshow offers Des Champs and United Coin officials the opportunity to test new slot machines and technology to be released in the coming year by the major manufacturers.

“We’re always interested in bringing new technologies to market,” Des Champs said. “Some of the technology we’ve seen is fascinating, but it’s priced way too high for our customers.”

G2E is a much different experience nowadays for Des Champs than it was during the 10 years he spent in various finance positions with slot machine giant Bally Technologies.

He prefers the pace of United Coin, which operates 3,500 slot machines in 325 bars, taverns, restaurants and other locations in Las Vegas and Elko. United Coin’s Gamblers Bonus players club program is entering its 18th year and the company is expected to soon launch Power Vision, its own line of interactive multigame slot machines and system products geared toward tavern and bar customers.

As the CFO for Bally, Des Champs spent the bulk of his time with the investment community and financial interests.

In his role with United Coin, Des Champs meets with the company’s customers and business partners.

“It’s much more hands-on,” Des Champs said. “We can understand what our customers’ needs are what we can do for them.”

Des Champs’ career has brought him full-circle in the slot machine business.

He joined United Coin Machine in 1995 as the company was expanding. The slot machine route operator bought slot manufacturer Bally Gaming soon after his arrival and took on the more familiar name. Bally then bought several technology-based companies and eventually renamed itself Alliance Gaming.

Toward the middle of the last decade, Alliance became Bally Technologies. The company then began paring off various business elements to focus on slot machine and systems development.

The Nevada-based United Coin slot machine route operation was sold in 2004 to Montana-based Century Gaming, which operates a similar-sized route operation in that state.

Des Champs said moving from a large public company to a small private company allowed him to apply expertise from his previous career in public accounting, as well as management skills he obtained from overseeing complex financial and accounting functions.

Des Champs currently serves as chairman of the Nevada Restricted Gaming Association, which provides lobbying and industry oversight on behalf of members who own or operate slot machines at locations with 15 or fewer games.

Question: How is you role at United Coin different from Bally?

Answer: You wear many different hats at the same time at a big public company. I was involved in the investor relations side, the financial side, the accounting side, and treasury functions. You also have quarterly reporting obligations. It’s a very different focus in a small private company. We have one shareholder to report to. We report our information in real time to the parent company each month. I’m much more focused on operations, hence my general manager title. We’re just trying to take care of customers day in and day out. I have way more contact with customers. At Bally, I rarely met with customers.

Question: What is the company’s strategy with Power Vision?

Answer: We showed it to our customers last October and we took it into the private testing lab in January. The field trial ended in August.

We view it as a boutique game. It’s not a game where you would have 15 of them in a bar. You would want a smattering, maybe two or three per location as a start, and we’ll see how they play out. It’s a new game to this market, but we think it’s something that can dominate over time.

Question: What changes are you seeing in tavern and bar customers who gamble?

Answer: Ten to 15 years ago, the market was heavy video poker. Now, in the last couple of years, there has been a significant shift toward keno-based games and multicard keno games. We think Power Vision plays right into that trend. Still, 70 to 75 percent of locals play video poker. Our mix is currently about 60 percent games from IGT, about 30 percent from Bally and 10 percent from others. We hope Power Vision starts to grow in that other category.

Question: How did you get into gaming?

Answer: I was in the auditing field for about eight years when I moved to Las Vegas from Phoenix. One of our company’s clients was United Coin. I was working with them as an outside auditor and they happened to have an opening at the controller level. I thought it was the right time to make a move out of public accounting and into the gaming sector. I joined them when United Coin had offices on the Boulder Highway. A month after I joined the company, the purchase of Bally Gaming was initiated. I was on the mergers and acquisitions group and helped with the integration of the company.

Question: Is the tavern industry making a comeback?

Answer: If you look at the statistics coming through the Gaming Control Board, it appears more and more people are coming back and seeking restricted gaming licenses. I’d say that’s geared toward the reopening of locations that cratered during the great recession.

There is a whole host of locations that we’ve launched this past year, and a great number of them are locations that reopened. There are very few bars and taverns that are being constructed from the ground up.

Question: What is a hallmark of United Coin?

Answer: We don’t own any locations. We are truly an independent provider of technology to the industry and we wish to keep it that way. Our growth is tied to new locations. We look at it from a return-on-investment perspective.

We would rather invest in technology and gaming devices. Those investments offer a higher return rather than going out and buying a location, from our perspective.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.