Tom Shannon has built New York City-based Bowlmor from its humble (and smelly) beginnings into a 262-location bowling and entertainment empire that just acquired iconic bowling company AMF. Getting there began with the ability to see the potential amid the dust.

The idea for Bowlmor began, as so many things do, with a girl. It was 1994. The girl, Anne, invited me to a birthday party at the Bowlmor bowling alley in Greenwich Village. It was built in 1938 and looked like it hadn't been cleaned since. The decor included a coat of grime and the smell of rotting cheese from the pizza place next door. The bathrooms were disgusting, the furniture was peeling, there was no food, and the "entertainment" was a loop of an '80s music cassette.

Yet it was love at first sight--the bowling alley, not the girl. Shortly before that, as an M.B.A. student at Darden, I'd studied the successful buyout and turnaround of bowling company AMF. I spent the entire party envisioning how I could apply the lessons I learned to turn the place into a beautiful bowling alley.

It took me three years to arrange the purchase. When I got the keys, I renovated the women's bathroom and sealed any openings between us and the pizza store. I created an upscale vibe, an events space, a restaurant-quality kitchen, and a cutting-edge sound system. I drew customers with a racy ad that made them wonder, "What's going on there?" It was still bowling, but I improved the "wrapper" and marketed it aggressively, and it worked. Although we just closed that original location, it inspired everything that followed.

As told to Inc. contributing writer Reshma Yaqub.