INTERNATIONAL BILLIARDS CELEBRATES 75 YEARS
Published in the Spring 2015 edition of BCA Insider
By Keith Loria
Although no one can say for sure what Bill Morrison was thinking when he started a vending machine business in Houston on a hot summer day back in 1940, most who knew him believe that his plan was always for the business to continue in the family. Fast forward 75 years and Morrison would be very happy. His son Al purchased the business from him in 1971, changed the name to International Billiards, and four generations of the family have worked in the space over the years. Alicia Morrison, Al’s wife, was a strong part of the family business as well as the billiard industry. She served as the company’s vice president, took care of the bookkeeping and managed the day-to-day activity of the company. She was also a strong supporter of the BBIA, BCA, BCA Juniors program and the Billiard Education Foundation. She was well known and well respected in the industry. She was on the board of the BCA when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Today, the store is run by Al’s daughter, Kimberly Morrison Heacock, and while some of her siblings and youngest son all worked the store in the past, she expects her oldest son, T.J., to continue the business after she one day decides to call it a career. “We have always felt like the best way to run a business is the way we should run our lives, by being fair and honest to everyone and not playing games with pricing,” Heacock says. “We know what the merchandise costs and we know what our expenses are so we price our stock accordingly. We have made customer service and satisfaction our primary foundation for doing business.
International Billiards offers game room tables, furniture, and accessories from Legacy Billiards, Golden West, Bailey, Fusion and many others. Its tag line is “billiard and game room tables and accessories,” and that includes pool, shuffleboard, foosball, table tennis, air hockey, poker tables and all the supplies that go with them. “I would have to say our key to success is our personalities and wealth of knowledge. I know that ‘hard’ sales techniques are profitable and successful, but when we have so many people thank us for being nice, it’s hard to abandon who we are,” Heacock says. “In addition to years and years of experience, we try to keep as well informed on new technology as possible and share what we know. There is so much propaganda in our industry and so much trash on the Internet that it’s really important that we not make it worse by speaking untruths.”
Although International Billiards is obviously known for its billiard supplies, take a walk through the store and you’ll find so much more. In fact, the store’s motto is, “If it’s hard to find, chances are we have it, and if we don’t, we can get it!” “In addition to pool tables we also carry every game room activity and supply that you can think of,” Heacock says. “We also carry game room furnishings that will offer you and your family years of enjoyment.”
A HISTORY LESSON
If you go back all the way to prohibition, large pool tables in bars and pool halls were illegal so some clubs would circumvent the law by becoming private clubs, but still it wasn’t enough to sustain the billiard table manufacturing industry. By the late ’50s, machine operators—including Bill Morrison—started using a small 6-foot coin-operated table with smaller balls, but in 1961, the law changed in Texas allowing pool halls to once again operate with the 9-foot tables and bars to utilize 7- and 8-foot tables. “This left my grandfather and father with approximately 300 6-foot Valley, Fisher and Irving Kaye tables in the warehouse,” Heacock says. “He and my father put an ad in the newspaper and sold them for $150 each after painting and recovering them. When they quickly sold out, they realized that there was a huge market for home tables. They were ordering one to two containers of pool tables at a time and selling them locally as well as in adjacent states.”
The MOA (Machine Operators of America) acknowledged the elder Morrison as a pioneer in the industry and awarded him a plaque for his efforts. Because of the success of the table sales, the company started acquiring large orders of other billiard supplies and expanded into the supply and distribution arena. Through Al Morrison’s friendships with industry giants such as Fred Mali, Charles Bailey, Irv Nemecek and others, he began importing directly from Taiwan and Belgium. During the ’70s and early ’80s, International Billiards was one of the larger supply distributors in the country. However, the oil crisis all but killed the distribution side of the business. “Our pool table business was still strong so when I married a man who was a gifted woodworker, we began to manufacture pool tables. We had a very nice line of production tables as well as built numerous custom tables,” Heacock says. “A few of my favorites were one that doubled as a display cabinet for a customer’s wild game trophies, another that had tenor saxophones for legs and music scores carved into the frame, and another with oil derricks for legs which was stained white with a blue wash purchased by the owner of the Houston Oilers.” Through it all, the store stayed conscientious about keeping the quality high and the price low.
“When my mother got sick with cancer and eventually died in 1989, we decided to stop manufacturing and concentrate on what we felt was the easiest part of the business—one store, selling locally,” Heacock says. “During times of economic growth since then we were up to four locations. However, today we are back to one store and much less stress.”
While keeping track of the inventory alerts Heacock to what sells best and least, she also credits her “very competent employees” with keeping the store constantly filled with the products customers need and desire. “Our employees not only know the product, but also love and listen to the people who play and purchase from us,” she says. “Most of the new purchases come from recommendations from them. Luckily, we have a pretty high product turnover rate. That doesn’t mean that I don’t ever get stuck with something. For those items, I am fine with taking a loss to sell it. Floor space is more important than making a buck on
something I’ve had for over a year.” Heacock knows that while it’s important to stay up to date on the latest equipment and accessories, it’s also savvy management to keep the store looking fresh. Her dad even jokes that every time business gets slow, they remodel the inside of showroom space. “Right now, it’s about as perfect as it’s ever been—considering the restraints that being in a building originally built in the late ’30s limits us to,” she says. “The neighborhood that we are in has seen tremendous growth in the last five to 10 years so we are considering an outside facelift. We are being surrounded by condos and upscale strip centers so we no longer stand out like we used to.”
With International Billiards being a family business, Heacock never spent a lot of money on traditional media like newspapers, billboards or radio, relying instead on positive word-of-mouth and referrals. “We would try different things for short periods of time, but never had the money or the drive to use it effectively. I know that we had our first website in the late ’90s, but I am just now beginning to actively participate in social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Houzz,” she says. “People trust us because we have a great reputation and people know that we are knowledgeable from the information on our website.”
At International Billiards, Heacock says, customers will always get fair pricing on quality products. Most of its tables use 3-piece, 1-inch oversize slate and are built to the highest specifications of the Billiard Congress of America. Currently, its in-stock pool tables range from $1,699 to $7,995 and include accessories (delivery, installation, mileage and stairs extra, special order tables also are available). Although she jokes that she’s been involved in the family business since birth, Heacock’s earliest memories of working in the store was as a child, packaging swag kits for 5 cents each. She’s grown up in the billiards industry and wouldn’t have it any other way. “As an adult I’ve seen the highs and lows of this industry. When The Color Of Money was released I saw it change from a ‘family-based industry’ to an ‘every Tom, Dick and Harry with a dime and an idea industry,’” she says. “I’ve also seen the demise and ultimate disappearance of the majority of those Toms, Dicks and Harrys. But guess what? The majority of the families are still here…and I love that. I think it is because we all love this industry. Certainly none of us ‘old timers’ are getting rich, but we keep hanging on and riding the waves of the highs and lows.”
When asked about her best memories through the years, Heacock’s mind quickly turns to the people she has met along the way. “I was very young when I went to my first NSGA convention. I childishly thought that Paul Huebler was Santa Claus and Philippe Janssens was my uncle,” she says. “I still trade emails and gifts from Gilbert Van Renterghem even though we have not imported the Aramith balls in ages. I did then and still do think of so many of the industry people I grew up with as my brothers… a few sisters, but mostly brothers.”