Keeping gaming machines running: Local man grows unique repair business
When Tom Somerville isn't serving beverages behind the bar, he's traveling across southeast South Dakota keeping video lottery machines up and running.
For the past 24 years, the Alexandria native has been operating his video lottery repair service out of his basement with the help of his brother Steve. What started off as a side business after graduating from Mitchell Technical Institute with an electronics degree in the early 1990s quickly blossomed into a profitable venture, as he grew the number of machines he serviced from 20 to 200 in his first two years of business.
"It was a hands-on learning process, and since I had electronics knowledge from school, I went a step further and started repairing the parts in the machines," Somerville said. "It's big income for them, and video lottery can even pay the electric bill for some bars that I've serviced."
With a passion for electronics and mechanical work, Somerville began finding a niche in the video lottery business, as many bars in southeast South Dakota that owned their own machines heavily relied on one repair business out of Sioux Falls called Concord Gaming, where he worked right out of college.
"There aren't a lot of bar owners that know how to fix their machines to the level that I can, so that's my big niche," he said. "It really helps that I can fix the actual parts in the machines with my tools and equipment as well."
While he was working for Concord Gaming, he would cover a lot of ground repairing machines at a myriad of bars throughout much of Sioux Falls.
After the company sold out to D&E Vending of Mitchell, Somerville decided to take the leap of starting his own video lottery repair business called SnS Services and began marketing his skills.
"I would go to a lot of bars in Sioux Falls and surrounding areas and get to know the owners and offer my services, so I was starting to gain their trust," Somerville said. "It was hard at first, but my work was proving itself."
According to Somerville, some bars hire a video lottery company, who are in charge of servicing the machines such as D&E Vending. But he said his main customers are bars that own their machines, because they're responsible for maintaining them.
His first solo job under SnS Services was at a bar in Yankton, and his skilled repair work gained traction in the town, which landed him more clients in the community. However, North Sioux City became his biggest area for success, which Somerville credits for launching his business to new heights since a wide variety of bar owners owned their machines.
"I was on my own at first, but I started really growing business in North Sioux City and needed another serviceman, which led me to hiring my brother in my second year of business," Somerville said.
Together, he and his brother serve as the reparimen for roughly 650 video lottery machines throughout the state, including North Sioux City, where they're in charge of maintaining machines in several casinos. Given the high volume of casinos in North Sioux City, he typically makes trips to repair machines in the area once a week, which has greatly helped his business.
"The casinos are vital customers, and we have one casino that has 140 video lottery machines we are in charge of servicing," he said.
Somerville bought his first bar in 1997 at Alexandria, where he enjoyed several years of success while growing his video lottery repair business.
While he was running his Alexandria bar, Doug Aslesen, the former owner of Thirsty's Bar, called on Somerville and offered him a bar management job, which gained him more machines since Aslesen owned the machines in the Mitchell bar, along with several others in town. Selling his Alexandria bar, Somerville took on the management role at Thirsty's when he was 26.
"I was a good fit for running a bar, because I could keep the video lottery machines running smoothly, helping eliminate costs of hiring a repairman," Somerville said.
Although Somerville lost Thirsty's machines after Aslesen sold Thirsty's to M.G. Oil several years ago, he currently services a number of other Mitchell locations, including the Kwik Fill gas station, Platinum Players Club and Lakehouse video lottery machines.
After a decade of managing Thirsty's, Somerville transitioned over to Dr. Lucky's Bar, where the 45-year-old currently works and also provides his repair services to the bar.
While Somerville enjoys the technical side of repairing machines, above all else, he values the relationships he's made in the unique business.
"I've been working with my customers for a long time, and I have a great relationship with them," Somerville said. "My relationships with my customers is my favorite part of the job."