The first installment of a series of field owner interviews can be found below. For the first installment, I have interviewed Mick Gray of T-Square Paintball outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. Mick posts almost daily in his blog, http://tsquarepaintball.blogspot.com/, and the website for T-Square paintball can be found here, http://www.tsquarepaintball.com/
Reiner: Thank you Mick for granting this interview and taking time to answer a few questions for us...us being me and the other five people who read this blog. Yeah, sorry. You haven’t hit the big times yet.
Why don’t you start out by giving us little background information about Mick Gray and T-Square Paintball. What did you do before operating a paintball field and what made you decide to open a paintball field & store? And for that matter, do you still have another job outside of paintball?
Mick: Thanks Reiner. Five readers? I'm jealous. I'll try not to scare them off. I settled here in Arkansas after retiring from the U.S. Air Force. I'm fortunate enough to be able to sustain myself on paintball alone but it would not be possible if I didn't own the 40 acres we play on and have a small apartment in the back of the pro-shop. I've managed to keep my overhead low by building T-Square Paintball one dollar at a time since 1995.
I think most folks will tell you they got into paintball after playing their first game. I got into it after an all night B.S. session with a guy that played at his last assignment in North Dakota. The next day I bought a Brass Eagle Stingray and brought it to work (I was still in the Air Force at the time.) and that led to 3 others buying guns - a Spyder, VM-68 and TippmannProlite.
I still had a year before military retirement and the only thing I was certain of was I was not going to retire and work for anyone but myself. I bought 15 more Stingrays and spread the word around the base and local community with fliers and before I knew what was happening I had two or three groups scheduled every weekend.
No business plan. No bank loan. Forty acres of flood plain. (After three days of rain it's all a foot under water as I type this but it will be dry by the week-end.) The best thing I had going was no zoning restrictions and no building codes. The limits of my imagination were the only thing to hold me back and having grown up chasing four brothers through the woods with sticks for guns and acorns for ammo I had plenty of ideas to ramp up the experience.
Reiner: Fourteen years in the paintball field business? I’m sure that’s considerably longer than the average paintball field in North America stays open for. Where did the name T-Square come from?
Mick: I've always been a bit of an entrepreneur. While I was still in the Air Force I had a business on the side named T-Square Publishing, a small desk top printing business that handled booklets in quantities too small for the big boys. This was before CAD, computer assisted drawing, so I used a drafting board and t-square to lay out the projects. I was a draftsman before I went into the service so a t-square has been a part of my life for many years. Also, it doesn't hurt that "T' and "S" are the first letters of my children's first names
Reiner: Are you the sole owner and manager of T-Square?
Mick: I am the sole owner with eight part time field workers. I call them field workers because they know from the start they may be reffing one day and filling sandbags the next. My daughter joined me a few years back and is slowly taking over the business. She does it all! Guys will brush by her to get to me to get their gun fixed. I get a kick out of their reaction when I pass the gun off to her and she makes a great repair.
Reiner: How big is the market that you draw from and are there many other paintball fields in the area?
Mick: I'm located just 12 miles from Arkansas' largest city (and capital), Little Rock, with a little over 180,000 people. That's a small market to some but it works fine for us. The field actually borders Little Rock Air Force Base. Some think that is our biggest market but I don't promote it for reasons I would rather not get into here. Military is less than 1% of our player base with 80% being church groups and birthday parties. Walk-ons use to be 35, almost 40% but that has dropped off with the economy. My only competition is across town and the market is plenty big enough for the both of us.
Reiner: Am I correct to interpret that the vast majority of your business is comprised of rental customers then? How has that part of your business faired with the downturn of the economy?
Mick: Sorry for the confusion. I'm not good with numbers and even worse at explaining them. A majority of my business (80%) is church groups and birthdays groups of 12 or more players. My group rate incentive is NO RENTAL FEE so rental income comes from what I described as a dwindling walk-on crowd. On average half need rentals so, yes, the drop off in walk-on traffic has hurt my rental income. Clear as mud? LOL
Reiner: I remember reading in one of your forum posts that you try real hard to control the Rate Of Fire at T-Square. Actually if I remember right, you were just as concerned about the sustained firing as you were the actual Rate of Fire. Can you tell us what you meant by that? Why is sustained fire a concern for you and how does it help your business to control it…and how do you control it?
I enforce a strict "three shot limit" on all my players. It's in all the advertising. It's in the safety briefing and it's a mantra my refs repeat by the minute. Rate of fire is how fast those three paintballs leave the marker. I've given up trying to control that. Sustained fire is how many times those three shots are fired.
If I allow players to shoot three balls and then three balls and then three balls with no break I have done nothing to control the amount of paint in the air. So the key is to convince players to take a "healthy" break between the three shots. A hundred times a day players hear me say, "EASY ON THE TRIGGER. Take a break between those three shots!" And no, I do not allow three round burst mode. Sounds contradictory but I believe in making players work for those three shots.
Nothing breaks my heart more than to see a young player, come out of the woods stitched from top to bottom with paint. People ask why I don't separate the players into groups of new players and experienced players. The only thing I detest more than seeing a young player get "lit up" (a term I hate) is having to put up with the nonsense that erupts among hard core players. When someone gets a little froggy I invite them to the tournament team practice on Saturday mornings. I find it interesting how many pass on that idea.
Reiner: So do you think the “three shot limit” and “easy on the trigger” philosophy has hurt the attendance at T-Square? Are players staying away because your rules are restricting them from playing like they want to play? Do you get feedback from players about this philosophy?
Mick: When I first opened in 1995 I didn't allow Autocockers (AC) or Automags (AM). They were the bad toys used by the bad boys. Back then that was my way of letting players know I wanted a fun field. I had an Autococker owner get in my face and tell me my field would not last 6 months. I questioned my own business sense but what I was doing felt right and business was growing. Then the "electros" hit the scene and I didn't know which way to turn.
That's when it occurred to me not to limit equipment but rather work on attitudes. I began allowing anything that was semi-auto. I spread the word that just because someone showed up with an Indy car at my go kart track it didn't mean they got to run over people. It got around that T-Square had all these wimpy rules (no bunkering, 20 foot rule, restricted rate of fire). Some players stopped coming and because they did, others started coming back more often. Before I knew it Moms and Dads and regulars were thanking me for running a fun field. And business continued to be very good.
Reiner: Does the rest of your field staff also repeat the “three shot limit” mantra? Or are you the only “heavy” at the T-Square?
Mick: My refs are an extension of me and they know the type of field I insist on running. It's tough for any young ref to tell an adult how to play so I tell the refs not to hesitate to blame the controlled play on me. One of their favourite lines - "Mick's going to fire me if you keep ripping off rounds." It works.
Reiner: How long are your play sessions and how many paintballs is your average customer shooting with your philosophy in play, during a session?
Mick: No doubt I could make more money from paint sales. Most players here spend about three hours on the field and go through 600 rounds. I understand that is a ridiculously low number of rounds compared to some fields. But less paint in the air means less stress on the field and less stress on the field means more people hanging around the pro-shop looking at guns and gear and more people coming back for another visit. I need the fingers on both hands and most of my toes to count the number of fields that opened up in Arkansas, made a bunch of money and then ran out of players in 6 months. T-Square is here to stay!
Reiner: So it sounds like your tough guy attitude is keeping the tough guys away, or at least making them play nice, and attracting people who just want to have fun.
Mick: "Tough Guy" attitude. I like that. At 5'5" and a buck thirty I think it's more my consistent attitude than it is a tough attitude. People see and read and hear the rules, test me and the refs a little and when they realize we are serious they fall in line. And yes, there are players who refuse to play here.
They make me appreciate even more the so called "hard core" players that do come out and follow the rules, give the new players a good game and take pride in sportsmanship. They scare the new players. They are decked out in tournament gear and equipment or they are camoed up and carry M-16's but the difference here is the new players are no longer scared after the first game and they want to come back.
Reiner: Does it bother you that some players decide that they don’t want to play with the three shot limit you impose and therefore don’t come to T-Square? Don’t you feel you are missing out on potential customers?
Mick: I would like to be able to please everyone. I offer open practice on Saturday mornings for teams and players that want to turn it up. It speaks volumes about a player that wants to rip and tear during rec ball play but doesn't want to come out on Saturday morning. It's impossible to make everyone happy.
Switching gears, are you optimistic about paintball’s future in general? What do you think the industry is doing well and what do you think it could improve on? And who is it that needs to work on making those changes?
Mick: Am I optimistic about paintball's future? I'm optimistic for rec ball play. Not so much for competition ball. Fortunately paintball can survive with out the tournament scene. But if the industry doesn't get off it's collective high horse and start supporting the hard working, dedicated field owners out here it's going to continue to be tough making a living from the game.
Misdirected marketing and lack of grass root promotion and support works against us getting new players educated about the real game and out to the field. Low profit margins and poor product quality control robs field and store owners of profit. While the vanity gun war continues there has not been a decent field rental gun offered in 10 years.
Paintball needs some new, old school thinkers. The old regime that started out as players has been pushed aside for CEO's and corporate profit margin. There is also an alarming lean toward mil-sim. If I had the money and means I would create a paintball company that did nothing but produce field rentals and other products that cater only to fields that run birthday parties and corporate outings.
In the mean time I do my part to keep paintball alive in my small portion of the world by keeping it fun and safe. As long as someone is still making 68 caliber paintballs and I can keep my aging rental fleet alive I will continue what I'm doing. After that? Who knows!