Manufacturing and Small Business & Startups

Hobbyist racers buy slot car parts maker

Husband-and-wife team draws on ‘family values’ to carry on founders’ legacy of 44-year-old company.

December 16, 2016
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ProSlot
John Miller, left, and his wife, Angela, are buying ProSlot from Dan DeBella, right, and his wife, Cheryl. Miller and DeBella have known each other since the 1980s, when they worked together at the slot car parts maker. Photo by Johnny Quirin

A West Michigan couple seized the chance to run their own business, turning a passionate hobby into a full-time career.

John and Angela Miller, of Hartford, purchased ProSlot, established in 1972 in California by founder Dan DeBella, who was later joined in the business by his wife, Cheryl DeBella.

John Miller and Dan DeBella have known each other since the 1980s, when John Miller did a nine-year stint working at ProSlot after it moved to Hartford.

The company, now based in Lowell, makes and sells slot car products, including armatures (the revolving part in an electric motor that is wound with the coils that carry the current), chassis (the framework of the vehicle) and other components of slot cars.

ProSlot sells its products mainly to commercial buyers that race the cars on larger tracks but also to hobbyists, who race tabletop-sized cars.

The Millers plan to move the company back to Hartford, where it was located starting in 1983 before the DeBellas moved it to Lowell.

John Miller, an avid slot car racer, said his friendship with Dan DeBella goes back to when they met at a slot car track in Hartford. Due to their longtime connection, Dan DeBella said he thought of John Miller first when it came time to retire and sell the business.

“He really was interested in the hobby, and he knows a lot of the same people I do. I thought he would be a good pick to take it over and make it grow,” Dan DeBella said.

John and Angela Miller said when it comes to running ProSlot, they will draw on their leadership experience with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, where John Miller was tribal chairman for 11 years and where Angela’s grandmother held a leadership position.

“My mother was a business person and my grandmother was on the tribal council in the ’40s and ’50s,” Angela Miller said.

The couple said their Native American heritage will give them a unique perspective as they take over ProSlot.

“We are focused on family values, respect for elders and always being able to learn,” John Miller said. “The dominant society has this mindset that once someone reaches age 65, they need to retire and are cast out, but our values are just the opposite: That as you age, that’s when you need to share your experience the most and start to teach others.”

The Millers were drawn to ProSlot by the close relationships in the workforce.

“It’s a very tight-knit community — family is how I would describe it,” John Miller said. “We’re the owner-operators, but we’re not big on titles. There’s a world out there where people work for you, but we want to work with you.”

Dan DeBella said the company was born out of his hobby: He started racing slot cars when he was 12. After college, he did a stint working for General Electric as a designer, then he quit and decided to start ProSlot.

Over the years, he and Cheryl DeBella built the business by doing whatever needed to be done.

“I did a little bit of everything,” Cheryl DeBella said. “Binding of armatures, office work, answering the phones, you name it.”

Dan DeBella built the company’s international clientele mainly in the 1980s, “flying overseas a lot” and establishing contacts there.

Eventually, the DeBellas got to the point where they wanted to keep the business steady instead of growing it further.

“I stopped making anything new over 10 years ago,” Dan DeBella said. “I was in a position where we were OK financially, and I didn’t want the headache of growing more. I had had up to 10 employees, and I didn’t want to go back there; it was too much.”

Even though they sold the company to the Millers on Nov. 18, the DeBellas are actively involved in ensuring a smooth transition, working on-site and offering mentorship to the Millers. Dan DeBella said he has no doubt ProSlot will be in good hands.

“I think (ProSlot) will go on a lot better than it already has with John, because he’s aggressive and he wants to make several new products,” Dan DeBella said. “He’ll probably grow it 25 to 30 percent bigger in the first year of ownership. He’s big into being on the phone with contacts, going to the races and really promoting slot cars and the business.”

John Miller said once ProSlot moves to the commercial location the couple purchased in Hartford, 12 W. Main St., they plan to add another employee.

He said ProSlot is the kind of company that offers a good outlet for customers.

“The impact is very positive when people use the products as hobbyists,” he said. “You get them away from the TV and get them to do a hobby that people can enjoy together.”

Mostly, he said, they want to keep a good thing going.

“We’re going to maintain operations and continue to provide services to our clients,” he said. “If we could grow a little bit and provide new and creative products, that’s exactly what we’d like to do.”

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