United Tote wins big by catering to the betting needs of small tracks.
Rolling up the car window against dust -- if not the odor of Montana manure -- Linda Shelhamer nods toward a fenced cluster of buildings up ahead. It is Cabin Creek Ranch, her parents' home on the range. It is also the home of Unied Tote Inc., an $8.5-million company, located 25 miles east of Billings, that markets a portable totalisator -- a computerized data-processing system that brought state-of-the-art wagering to some 50 small- to medium-size horse tracks, dog tracks, and jai alai frontons in North America.
"Now you see why our annual reports don't show the corporate headquarters," says Shelhamer, the chief financial officer and corporate counsel of this nine-year-old company, now in its first year of public trading. "I don't think the investing public is ready for the pink house" -- where offices are in the rooms that she and her siblings outgrew, and computer terminals are assembled in what was once the granary. The down-home image is a great attention-getter, she says, but it needs to be downplayed.
"Instead of talking about our 10% market share, or our 40% annual growth rate, or the fact that the average track pays 25% less for tote equipment since we came into the business," Shelhamer says, shaking her head, "guys on Wall Street are forever talking like Dad and the company are some kind of Gary Cooper movie."
Were there such a screenplay, it would open in the late 1960s, when electro-mechanical betting was giving way to computerized equipment that was too large and too expensive for the state- and county-fair circuit. Rancher Lloyd Shelhamer -- who had bought a horse-racing track in the mid-'50s as a summer sideline -- sells his track, buys up some used totalisators, loads them on his truck, and rides affably into the tote business, leasing the equipment for a percentage of the take on a day's wagering.
Flash forward to the mid-'70s: Technological advances lead to cash-sell tote systems that, while allowing betting tickets to be sold and cashed at the same ticket window, are just as large and expensive as their predecessors. Rather than continuing to contract out equipment that is now not only secondhand, but also obsolete, Shelhamer bets the ranch n his ability to build the MicroTote 1000 -- designed to pack more wagering options and fraud safeguards into a system half the size and one third the cost of the leading cashsell totalisator. Shelhamer wins big. As the credits roll, many of United Tote's innovations are being picked up by American Totalisator Co., a subsidiary of General Instrument Corp., the dominant force in the tote business and major marketer to big-track clients.
In short, the United Tote story is of a company that blindsided its industry -- not because its low-tech location kept it out of the competition's line of sight, as some Wall Street observers like to believe, but because the competition kept its eyes shut. Location means nothing in this business," explains Lloyd Shelhamer, president.
"It was American Tote's trickle-down, take-it-or-leave-it philosophy that really gave us our niche," he continues. "As long as they could use the small tracks to depreciate their old equipment for them, they weren't going to offer them anything else. Track owners at the fairs were screaming about that, and, well -- I guess I've always had a soft spot for the fairs," he says, letting a shrug finish the sentence.
With newly legalized parimutuel betting in four states, a corresponding increase in racetrack construction, and a contract cycle that puts 40% of the industry's business up for grabs during the next two years, Shelhamer foresees little slackening in United Tote's growth. "The contracts we've got are guaranteed revenue for three more years," he says. "Growth is a do-or-stay-even situation."
Noticing his daughter's raised eyebrow, however, Shelhamer admits he would rather do.The company is aiming for a third of the tote business-- big tracks as well as small -- within five years. "Like any rancher," he says, "all I want is everything that abuts me."