From humble beginnings to a major player in the gambling industry, Incredible Technologies CEO Elaine Hodgson talks to Iqbal Johal about her intriguing journey with the amusement and casino games supplier.
“I got here in a very odd way,” admits Elaine Hodgson, CEO of Incredible Technologies. “I started the company 35 years ago with nothing and grew it, and now I’m the CEO of a major slot machine company because I hung on for 35 years.” But Elaine Hodgson has done so much more than just hang on. To take a fledging software design company from her basement, to a leading coin-op and casino games manufacturer deserves enhanced credit. Although she wasn’t wrong that her route to the top of the gaming industry was unusual. So how did a university degree in biochemistry lead her to build a well-established casino and slots supplier from scratch?
“My degree led me to computer programming and I was doing programming at a chemistry job which I didn’t like, so I got an opportunity to work with a company that made amusement video games,” Hodgson tells Gambling Insider. “My thought was I would take that opportunity to learn more about programming then somehow go back to chemistry. But I liked the games industry so I never looked back.”
The forward-looking trajectory took Hodgson to an amusement games company that had to close its doors during the US economic hardship in the early 80s. But out of difficulty comes opportunity. Hodgson and her partner Richard Ditton then decided to start their own company in 1985 and the Incredible Technologies you see today is a result of that. 1985 was a very different world than 2020. Long before the world of social media and Zoom calls, where a Commodore 64 was all the rage in the technology world, Incredible Technologies started out in game programming, specifically in the amusement industry, with its big break coming from producing pinball hardware for now defunct Japanese video game company Data East. However, it wasn’t until the creation of arcade game Golden Tee Golf that the company really started on the path to becoming a major player in the amusement game business.
“Once Golden Tee was successful, it cast our future for a while so we produced other games for the arcade world, then we developed a tournament system for Golden Tee, and that was innovative and propelled us forward also,” Hodgson explains. And Golden Tee, with the use of trackball being its signature feature, has evolved from an arcade game now available as home units, as well as being an online game to play from the ease of your mobile phone.
In terms of building such a successful business from scratch, the Incredible Technologies CEO is adamant it would be a much tougher proposition in this day and age, compared to a less regulated era of the 1980s. “Starting the business back in 1985 was a lot easier than it would be today,” Hodgson says. “There was a lot less regulation, HR rules, fewer taxes and the need for support to keep people going. So we were able to do a lot on our own before we got established. I think it’s a lot harder to start a new business today than it was then. Obviously technology wise, it’s evolved a great deal over the years. Back then, it was so new and very primitive; everyone’s seen videos of old games and that was the stuff we were doing. A company like mine could bootstrap itself up in that industry. There were also not many big name players in the video game industry back then, meaning there were avenues to the customers and the market that were easier. Now if you wanted to get established in the video game industry, you have to go through very major distribution aspects, which is a lot more political and harder. Back then, it was the Wild West and it was easy to get your stuff out, because it was growing rapidly and there was a lot of opportunity.”
I started the company 35 years ago with nothing and grew it, and now I’m the CEO of a major slot machine company because I hung on for 35 years
Hodgson comes across as very modest, and keeping grounded has been one of the key elements to her successes. Starting slow and building trust, as she says, certainly reinforces that point, especially in terms of entry into the casino industry around 15 years ago.
While the company’s amusement business was, and still is, going strong, the cash flow from the arcade side allowed for entry into the gambling space, something that wasn’t possible in the early days. The supplier’s Magic Touch collection of Class III video slot poker and keno games helped propel it as a major player within the industry, but that wasn’t before mistakes were made in the early days. From speaking to Hodgson, it’s obvious those mistakes helped her and the company grow stronger, not to mention the opportunity of being a small fish in a big pond.
“We first started with poker which was really naïve, thinking we could take this really big market with one really big player in it, IGT, and make one that is better, faster, prettier,” Hodgson confesses. “When we tried to do something different, the players didn’t want that, which was a mistake we reeled back on. We studied the market a lot more and hired some sales people from the industry and studied the math a lot and emulated the games that were successful, instead of trying to make wild and crazy arcade-style games, which allowed us to make some headway. Ultimately I think customers gave us a try because they wanted to have some leverage against the big boys. They used us as leverage but ultimately, we earned them money and we had some innovations that they liked, and at this point in 2020, we’re definitely one of the small companies that they go to. Relying on new technology and not legacy hardware was an advantage to us.”
In a time where society strives for equality, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the lack of women in leadership roles in the gambling industry where there is still a disproportionate representation of women at the very top of the majority of technology or business companies.
But as one of the few women in a CEO position at a supplier or operator, Hodgson believes she benefited from starting the company with just herself and her partner, rather than dealing with the politics or competing with another person for the position. While it’s a topic that deserves and needs attention, the Incredible Technologies CEO is more in favour of the right person for the required role, rather than a box-ticking exercise. She is, however, certain that a change in attitudes to womens’ roles in society over the years means we will be in a position in the near feature where more women will be appointed in CEO roles, across multiple industries.
Hodgson elaborates, saying: “I would love to see more women in the industry very much and I think you’ll see more of that because over the years, women have become more emboldened to have more high powered careers and have their own partners helping with daycare and such. There’s more drive to move that ball forward among women. There will be more women in the next 10 years in high positions, including as CEO in all kinds of industries because right now there’s more women getting MDs and lawyer degrees than men. We just previously hadn't gone in that direction. I’m very much in favour of the right person in the right job. I don’t necessarily want to be given favoured treatment; I want to be here because my company has earned it and we are worth looking at as a competitor in this industry, and as a supplier, and as a very important part of the gaming community.”
It's obvious that Hodgson has very much earned the right to feature prominently among the very best CEOs the industry has to offer. And Incredible Technologies will need all her experience and expertise to navigate through arguably the biggest challenge to date, the coronavirus pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, manufacturers such as Incredible Technologies were finding the lead time of parts from Asia getting more arduous. “Monitors would have 16 to 20 weeks of lead time,” Hodgson says. “For a company like us, that’s a big deal as we’re smaller so having money out there while we’re waiting to get the monitors is a long time to have money at risk.”
I think online is inevitable. I’ve been through a couple of industries now which has seen a shift, just like when people used to go to the movie theatre en mass, but it became less so as they bought more DVDs and now online streaming. People are learning to get their entertainment at home
That risk has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has led to a longer production process, considering the added impact the coronavirus has had in Asia, which first broke out at the start of the year. Hodgson also believes the ongoing disputes between the US and China governments adds to the issues, making tariffs “onerous for all of us” but is adamant we’ll all get through these tough times.
While we all believe and hope that’s true, there’s no denying the current period is a serious challenge. With a prolonged period of casino closures leaving many of them struggling and decreasing the demand for products, selling land-based products has become even more competitive than ever. But of course, there are positives to which Hodgson never fails to allude. “What I would say about Incredible Technologies, is we are relatively small so we don’t have the same overheads or large staff that our competitors have, and didn’t put a lot of our staff on furlough layoffs, and kept everyone employed.”
Then there’s the accelerated shift to online, which is a trend Incredible Technologies has already made provisions for. Its Golden Tee golf staple games have migrated to the online world, with a mobile version, and the supplier also putting its best IP of slot machines online too. “We’re really trying to develop more online games now as well, as everyone else I’m sure is, which is the future in any case but the pandemic has really ramped that up,” Hodgson reiterates. “I think online is inevitable. I’ve been through a couple of industries now which has seen a shift, just like when people used to go to the movie theatre en mass, but it became less so as they bought more DVDs and now online streaming. People are learning to get their entertainment at home.”
Aside from an increased focus to online games, what else does the future hold for Incredible Technologies? The supplier is sticking with a space it has flourished in previously, the tribal market. A lot of its success in the early venture into the gaming industry stemmed from the tribal market and now the supplier has started to release Class II games to the tribes, with games on test in Indiana and Wisconsin. ”We’re going to move aggressively to the Class II market, which is going to take several years to maximise that potential,” Hodgson explains. “I think the tribes are a very important part of this. They are on a different rule set in some cases than the states and they need this revenue very badly. Class II is good for them as they get different tax breaks because of that.”
Additionally, Hodgson adds that the supplier will continue to develop new products for Class III, and of course, more online games. After entering Canada and Mexico in recent times, Hodgson is keen to “explore some avenues into Europe and beyond” and increase Incredible Technologies worldwide expansion and recognition.
And recognition is all Hodgson seeks. From the humble beginnings to where Incredible Technologies stands now, that is fully deserved. As she says “I want people to say that’s the company that started at a place where there was large competition and they got through because they had really great products, really robust hardware and were really careful to do the right things.” There’s no doubt that many are.