“I admired the Long March spirit, which I believe is the indomitable and invincible determination to succeed,” says Zhao. “I was determined to make Longmarch Bowling the best company in the bowling industry.”
He would need great determination, because a month after he opened for business the SARS crisis began. The deadly disease originated in South China, where Zhao was located, and many of his prospective
customers were unwilling to risk their health and life to check out his stock.The SARS pandemic was not declared over by the World Health Organization until a year later, making Zhao’s first year in business extremely difficult.
Fortunately for Zhao, many of his friends and colleagues helped him survive that first year. “Dave Selzler, owner of American Bowling, purchased used equipment from me and introduced me to many people in the bowling industry,” recalls Zhao. Lane maintenance guru Remo Picchietti, whom Zhao assisted with seminars in China in the 1990s, also helped him make industry connections.
John Hoge, president of Hoge Lumber, shared a warehouse with Zhao when Hoge was selling bowling lanes in China. Hoge says Zhao was able to see opportunities when the bowling market was collapsing in China.“When other people were taking out pinsetters, he bought them,” says Hoge. “He was conscientious; he would refurbish them and not just repaint them like some people did. He had a good reputation for being able to sell a product and stand behind it. I think that's one of the things that set him aside." Hoge is still friends with Zhao, visiting him at least once a year on business trips to China.
Slowly but surely, Zhao built his new business, exporting used equipment to countries in Asia, Europe and South America. He also sent his own crews to handle the installation. John Topping, his teacher from the Napier MBA program, visited China to tutor Zhao’s workers on quality control and sales.
THE ROOF FALLS IN
In 2006 Zhao and a partner, Tom Tan, began a new venture Tan had been a Brunswick technician and had some experience making bowling balls. They began manufacturing balls in a corner of their used–equipment warehouse, then moved into a larger space nearby. The business was slowly growing, and customers began to take interest. Then in the winter of 2008, just days before a scheduled visit from a major prospect, disaster struck. Due to an unprecedented heavy snowfall, the roof of the factory caved in, burying the ball-making equipment and two container-loads of inventory.
It was time for Zhao and his employees to demonstrate their Longmarch spirit. In just three days they managed to salvage some of their equipment, moving it to a temporary building and restarting production. “When the prospects arrived, they saw the wreck of the original factory and the temporary headquarters,” recalls Zhao. “But I don’t think they really comprehended what we had accomplished.”
That company ultimately became one of Longmarch’s customers, though it took a few more years to really crack the market. Longmarch now makes 200,000 balls a year, which represents about 10% of worldwide production. They sell around the world, and are OEM suppliers to such famous brands as Brunswick and Linds.
Walter Maurer is the chief operating officer of Linds World Impex, which has been buying house balls and resale balls from Longmarch for many years. He believes Zhao would be successful no matter what he did. “Number one, he really cares about his customers,” says Maurer. “He is customer service personified. He does what he says, and his company makes a very good product." "Number two, Frank went to business school in the West,” adds Maurer. “He understands how business is conducted in the West. That's not always the case with Chinese suppliers."
BACK TO THE ALLEY
With the ball business established, Zhao decided to return to running bowling centers. In 2009 he built a 12-lane bowling center in Shanghai, determined to do something different by experimenting with newer
concepts he had seen in other countries. Longmarch Cosmopolitan Bowling Centre is located in a sports complex in the Minhang district. Zhao brought in the latest trends, including glow bowling, a light-and-
sound system and bumpers, all added to bring in casual bowlers and families. Kids’ birthday parties have become very popular, with parties almost every weekend.
More serious bowlers came because he developed a reputation for well-maintained and oiled lanes, not always the case in other Chinese bowling centers.
In a particularly bold move, Zhao made the center smoke-free. Chinese consumption of cigarettes is high, and limits on smoking in public places were rare at the time. “I believe it was the first non-smoking bowling center in China,” says Zhao. Business was good at the center, and in 2012 Zhao expanded it to 24 lanes. When he’s there, he somehow manages to bowl a little himself, enough to maintain an average he says is “a little over 180.”
Zhao is also experimenting with several other center concepts. In 2011 he built an 8-lane center with a bar and billiard tables in Chengdu, the capital of his home province of Sichuan. He also installed a two-lane operation for the owners of a luxury weekend retreat in the countryside.
Dave Selzler, co-founder of Bowl Mart, got to know Zhao while running American Bowling Corp. during the Chinese bowling boom. "He learned the business from the ground up. He loves it,” says Selzler. “When he got back from Scotland with his business degree, he said, ‘I think I want to go back in the bowling business.’ I said, ‘Frank, go get yourself a good job.’ But he didn't pay attention to me, lucky for him."
China currently has just 6,000 lanes, compared to 9,000 in Korea and 29,000 in Japan. With its huge population and strong economic growth, Zhao and others believe that there is again great growth potential for Chinese bowling. That’s why Zhao has become perhaps the #1 booster of bowling in China.
Zhao sees education and organization as the two keys to making bowling a bigger sport in China. He wants to help more people in China learn to bowl and to organize leagues and tournaments. He would also like to train more people to manage bowling centers.
Zhao is already doing his part to make the Chinese better bowlers. In 2012 he invited Jerry Norris, a USBC Silver Level coach, to give classes at the Longmarch centers. In December 2013 he brought seven-time Player of the Year Walter Ray Williams Jr. to China to hold clinics for 40 top Chinese bowlers including the national team. Williams also played in a tournament against some of those bowlers.
“Frank really wants to help with professional bowlers in China; they do have some very good bowlers there,” says Williams. “I think he's probably the best vehicle for professional bowling in China. Frank has a passion for bowling and wants to see bowling prosper in China. If they do the right things, bowling could become a huge presence in China, which would be a great thing for the sport of bowling worldwide.”
To date, no Chinese bowlers have competed on the PBA tour because there were no PBA bowlers in the country. So in January 2014 Zhao hosted his Pioneer League in which participating bowlers bowled 36 games over three days. Zhao assisted all tournament bowlers who averaged more than 200 with their applications for PBA membership. As a result, the PBA recently accepted membership applications from 13 Chinese bowlers, the first players from their country to join the PBA. China becomes the 27th country represented among the PBA's more than 3,000 members.
"Chinese bowlers are very excited about this," Zhao said on BowlingDigital.com. "They are so proud of being a PBA member. They will soon come to play in PBA tournaments. They know they are not isolated any more and some may start to dream to be the first Chinese to win a PBA title."
Among Zhao’s other projects is setting up a Chinese equivalent of the BPAA, because China lacks organizations that could build a strong voice for a bigger bowling business there. He is also working with the Chinese Bowling Association to set up a PBA tour stop in China, and perhaps a China Cup competition inspired by the Japan Cup.
Yao Ming, the first Chinese basketball player to become a star in the NBA, is one of Zhao’s inspirations. “Someday a bowling Yao Ming might be born,” says Zhao. “What would the impact be on 1.4 billion Chinese then? And what might a fast-growing bowling population in China do to the world of bowling?”
Zhao’s ultimate dream is to see a Chinese bowling team win medals at the Olympics. Bowling is not currently an Olympic sport, so it’s a big dream. But given enough time and the Long March spirit, Zhao seems capable of accomplishing anything he sets his heart and mind on.