Revamped Fair Lanes replaces its president

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mac Clayton, who led Fair Lanes Inc. into and then out of bankruptcy proceedings, has resigned and been replaced as president by the bowling chain's vice president for real estate, the company said yesterday.

In parting ways with Mr. Clayton, Fair Lanes is returning to its roots, taking on top managers and an organization structure that predate an unsuccessful 1989 leveraged buyout.

Fair Lanes' new president is Wayne Strausburg, who has worked in operations, finance and real estate over a 22-year career with the Hunt Valley-based chain. Most recently he was vice president of real estate and development.

One of the country's biggest bowling-alley operators, Fair Lanes also said yesterday that it reappointed Gerald J. Stank as chief financial officer.

Mr. Stank worked at Fair Lanes for 18 years before resigning in 1990 to pursue real estate investments.

Reached through a Fair Lanes secretary, Mr. Clayton declined to comment. His departure a month ago was friendly, Mr. Strausburg said.

But it apparently wasn't planned.

Mr. Clayton told The Sun earlier this year that he intended to stay as Fair Lanes' top executive after the company emerged in September from Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

And Fair Lanes is already reversing some of his initiatives.

Mr. Strausburg's first tasks as president include dismantling an unusual management structure set up two years ago by Mr. Clayton.

After all of Fair Lanes' stock was assigned to creditors in its reorganization two months ago, "Mac had been very open and very candid about the fact that a change in ownership might mean a change in management," Mr. Strausburg said.

Mr. Clayton held the titles of president and chief executive. Mr. Strausburg was named president only.

Anthony J. Pacchia, of Balfour Investments Inc. of New York, a major Fair Lanes shareholder, took the title of chairman from Mr. Clayton following the reorganization.

Mr. Pacchia did not return phone calls yesterday.

No single event caused Mr. Clayton's exit, Mr. Strausburg said. Rather, he said, there was a sense that "the organization didn't have the level of clarity that is needed to run a service retail business."

One area of contention: Mr. Clayton's "guest host" system, in which five people shared responsibility for running each of Fair Lanes' 106 bowling centers.

Without one manager in charge, "We didn't have the leadership in the centers that the customers were used to," said Mr. Strausburg, who started his career at Fair Lanes as a cash accounting manager.

"The key issue was, who was there to make sure the Wednesday night league had the lanes the way they wanted them, or to put out the pepperoni pizza, to know that's the league that really likes it," Mr. Strausburg said.

Now general managers are being appointed at each bowling center. The switch won't change the company's overall employment level, he added.

Conceding that Fair Lanes may have tried too hard to woo infrequent bowlers and neophytes, Mr. Strausburg said the company will work harder at pleasing its core clientele: bowling leagues and other regulars. However, he said, the company still hopes to lure casual keglers.

As previously announced, it also will boost spending to renovate older centers from approximately $4 million annually to $6 million.

Fair Lanes, founded in Baltimore in 1923, won't significantly expand until it improves the centers that it already owns, Mr. Strausburg said.

He declined to disclose recent sales results or other financial data. But he said it is "reasonable" to expect that Fair Lanes will earn a net profit for the fiscal year that ends in June. The company generates about $100 million in annual sales.

Until recently, Fair Lanes has struggled under heavy debt spawned by a leveraged buyout in 1989.

Its recent reorganization was "prepackaged," meaning major creditors such as Balfour Investments approved the plan before the bankruptcy filing.

Mr. Clayton had been part of the investment group that engineered the buyout. Taking over day-to-day operations two years ago, he was the main architect of the bankruptcy reorganization plan approved in September.

That plan, which sharply reduced debt and substituted equity, wiped out the value of Fair Lanes stock held by Mr. Clayton and other investors. But, Mr. Clayton had argued, it was in the best long-term interest of the company.

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