(Crain’s Chicago Business, 2 June 2008) 

Chicago’s 50 Fastest-Growing Companies

No. 39. WMS Industries Inc., Waukegan

2007 revenue: $539.8 million

Four-year growth: 202%

Profitable? Yes

Local employees: 850

Worldwide employees: 1,414

Five years ago, WMS Industries, a leading player in the $90-billion global casino gambling industry, was in trouble. Sales were slowing, and the company was losing money.

Then WMS introduced the Bluebird, an ergonomically designed slot machine featuring high-quality audio provided by Bose Corp. and video that filled the screen.

“They were the game-changer in terms of what a slot-machine box looks like,” says David Katz, a gambling analyst with Oppenheimer & Co. in New York.

Priced at $10,000 each, Bluebirds tilted the odds in WMS’ favor. By the end of 2007, the company had shipped nearly 100,000 new machines or upgrades, a key reason WMS revenue soared 202% in four years.

WMS’ growth also has come from leasing 9,000 slot machines to casinos around the country. Among its offerings are “Monopoly Big Event,” a bank of networked Monopoly-themed slot machines that allows players to enter special bonus rounds together, and a “Wizard of Oz” game with surround sound and 3-D animation. Revenue from leased machines increased 87% between 2003 and 2007, to $174 million.

WMS, which started as Williams Manufacturing Co. in 1943, has never shied away from innovation. Founded in Chicago by Harry Williams, inventor of the tilt mechanism for pinball machines, the company made pinball games and jukeboxes, then switched to arcade video games. As arcades disappeared, the company, which renamed itself WMS when it went public in 1987, invented the video lottery terminal in 1992, then a video poker game for casinos. In 1994, it designed its first slot machines.

Casinos abroad bought 29% of WMS’ machines in 2007, up 36% from a year earlier. The company boosted international sales by acquiring two European game makers in the past two years: Orion Gaming B.V. of the Netherlands and Systems in Progress GmbH of Austria. WMS also maintains design studios in Australia and England that adapt games for foreign markets and enable the company to ship new games in all currencies and languages at the same time the U.S. version is released.

“We are in a hit-driven business,” says CEO Brian Gamache, 49. “Players around the world want to play what’s hot, and if we don’t give them products simultaneously, someone else will.”

WMS designers already are working on what industry analysts say is the next big thing — server-based gambling, in which slot-machine content can be controlled by a central computer, so if a particular game is popular one night, casino managers can download it on more machines from a back room. The Bluebird 2, scheduled for release by yearend, will have this capability.

©2008 by Crain Communications Inc.