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PlayCore Hops Higher on its Play Equipment

By Dave Flessner, Business Editor, as printed in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Bob Farnsworth is serious about the business of play, and he thinks he found the right playground in Chattanooga and nearby Fort Payne, AL. As head of PlayCore, the nations biggest playground maker, Mr. Farnsworth is on a path to double sales to schools, parks and residences over the next five years. "We are the industry leader in developing new types of playground equipment, and we see some real opportunities for more acquisitions to help us grow and better utilize our facility in Fort Payne,” Mr. Farnsworth said.

In January, PlayCore bought [Play &] Park Structures, Inc. in Coral Gables, Fl. The 25-year old [Play &] Park Structures, best known for its Super Max and Dura Max Play Systems, will add another line of products produced at the GameTime plant in Fort Payne, owned by PlayCore. But the company doesn't expect to have to expand on its 430-employee staff in Fort Payne, even with the addition of at least another $12 million of sales. [Play &] Park Structures sales and administrative support is being moved to PlayCore’s corporate headquarters in Chattanooga.

"The company will benefit by the shared operational resources, and PlayCore’s commitment to Moving Play Forward,” Mr. Farnsworth said. "To the extent that we can bring innovative products to play that help kids learn to play and grow more effectively, the market will reward us.”

It’s a model Mr. Farnsworth hopes to duplicate with other, similarly sized players in the playground equipment market.

"We continue to look for other opportunities for acquisitions,” he said, ”We have a good facility in Fort Payne, capable of additional production.”

Mr. Farnsworth, who previously headed operations in Fort Payne, lives in Chattanooga and sees his hometown as the ideal spot for PlayCore’s headquarters. The company relocated its headquarters here shortly after Mr. Farnsworth was named company CEO in March 2001. ”We can recruit top talent here, and we’re close to our production and design facilities in Fort Payne,” he said.

PlayCore relocated to Chattanooga in 2001 from Wisconsin, where the company’s Swing-N-Slide product is still made in a 200-employee plant in Janesville. The company, previously known as Swing-N-Slide, converted from stock ownership to a privately held firm controlled by the New York investment firm of Chartwell Investments in late 2000.While the company wants to expand and acquire other players in its primary playground business, PlayCore is exiting the yard barn business. PlayCore is negotiating to sell its Heartland division, which sells about $60 million in relatively low-margin sales, Mr. Farnsworth says. Over the past five years, GameTime has touted its mission of ”Enriching Childhood Through Play,” to become the industry leader. PlayCore has the biggest share of any company in the $1.4 billion playground equipment market.

Sales to schools and city parks have stagnated along with local tax revenues over the past three years, according to the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association in Sliver Springs, MD. But the economic recovery, school enrollment gains, and consolidation in the industry should all benefit PlayCore, officials said.

Spencer Cheak, senior vice president of operations at GameTime, said the 400,000-square foot facility in Fort Payne enjoys a relatively stable and dedicted workforce. With wage rates ranging from $13.50 to $20 an hour, most production workers at GameTime stay on the job.

”We’re able to attract some of the best workers in this area, and our turnover is very low,” Mr. Cheak said. ”We’re centrally located and have a good facility here, so it’s an ideal location for us.”

The Fort Payne complex includes a brightly colored, 6,000-square-foot design center where designers try to figure out the next hot outdoor play piece.

Over the past couple years, PlayCore has expanded its product offerings by introducing skateboard park equipment and climbing walls.

The addition of [Play &] Park Structures will add about 14 employees to PlayCore’s Chattanooga staff, and will add another floor to the company’s facility on Chestnut Street.

Sales and marketing for consumer products, corporate finance and administration, and [Play &] Park Structures’ sales divisions are all based in Chattanooga. PlayCore began operations with only a handful of employees in Chattanooga two years ago, and now has grown to include 32 workers.

Until four years ago, PlayCore was still known as Swing-N-Slide, which had 80% of the market for kits for backyard wooden playground equipment. Mr. Farnsworth joined the business when it changed to its current owners in 1997...

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