After 30 years, Bully’s sold to Vegas businessman

Jo Lown, who co-founded Bully’s, is divesting 11 Northern Nevada Bully’s locations to Las Vegas businessman and entrepreneur Ron Winchell.

Jo Lown, who co-founded Bully’s, is divesting 11 Northern Nevada Bully’s locations to Las Vegas businessman and entrepreneur Ron Winchell.
Rob Sabo/NNBW

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Jo Lown, owner of Bully’s Sports Bar, says that once or twice every year the rumor mill will swirl with whispers that she’s sold the regional sports bar and restaurant chain.

This time, however, those rumors are true.

Lown, who co-founded Bully’s 30 years ago with her former and late husband, Paul Sonner, announced recently that she’s divesting 11 Northern Nevada Bully’s locations to Las Vegas businessman and entrepreneur Ron Winchell for an undisclosed sum. The sale is pending approval from the Nevada Gaming Commission to transfer Bully's gaming licenses to Winchell’s ECL Gaming.

“Every six or eight months this rumor would go around that I sold Bully’s,” Lown said. “I preach transparency with my managers, and I’ve told them that when and if that happens I would let them know.”

Lown took control of the business near the end of 2009 — she had stepped away from Bully’s after her divorce from Sonner was finalized. At the time, Bully’s was 14 days into chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings that Sonner said stemmed from the double whammy of the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act that eliminated smoking in bars and restaurants and the national recession that significantly curbed consumer spending.

“I didn’t know if I could get Bully’s out of bankruptcy, but I gave it a go, and now I am 15 years into my two-year plan,” Lown said. “Over the years I have had so many people say they are interested in buying Bully’s and kick the tires, but I never felt comfortable with any of them.”

The deal came about from a chance meeting with Winchell. Lown said a business associate mentioned Winchell was in Reno — Lown didn’t know who he was — and requested a brief meeting between the two. Lown said she immediately liked his charisma and business acumen.

“The more I talked to him, the more I realized that he got what I had been working for the last 25-30 years,” Lown said. “He paid attention to what our culture was, and although he wasn’t from Northern Nevada, he was willing to learn about our market.

“He’s got all these properties (in Southern Nevada) that are very similar to what we do,” she added. “He understands that Bully’s is about the employees and managers that are the face of the company and run it on a daily basis.”

Lown said the real kicker came when Winchell flew her to Las Vegas to tour many of his restaurant and gaming properties. She realized that turning the keys over to Winchell was the next logical step in the evolution of the Bully’s brand, she said.

“I saw how he interacted with his employees and ran his businesses,” she said. “I have talked to so many people over the years (about buying the business), but it was never the right fit. With Ron, I thought he would be the right person.

“I go by my intuition – I think I always fail when I don’t,” Lown added. “We just kept going deeper, and I realized he has a very good reputation as being a good businessman. It was kind of the perfect package. Ron gets customer service and understands that without customers you don’t have a business. The whole thing just works and was the right fit.”

Winchell, whose father, Verne, famously founded the Winchell’s Donut House franchise in 1948, owns and operates ECL Gaming. The company has 35 tavern and gaming locations in Southern Nevada, including Winchell’s Pub & Grill, Lucky 7’s and Jackpot Joanies. Winchell also has business interests in casino properties in Kentucky and New Hampshire.

The Bully’s acquisition was appealing, he said, because it allows ECL Gaming to have an instant presence in the Northern Nevada market through a well-established brand.

“Bully’s has a pretty big footprint in Northern Nevada, and I have been looking for the right opportunity to come into that market for some time,” Winchell told NNBW during a telephone interview. “I didn’t think the right opportunity was to come up there and randomly open stores with brands that people in the area are unaware of.

“When I reached out to Jo, it was more of a meet-and-greet in case she ever thought of selling out of her business, and I happened to reach out at the right time because she was thinking of the next phase in her life.”

Winchell said he plans on implementing new technology and gaming offerings throughout the various Bully’s locations, and also begin extensively renovating the interior spaces of the most dated taverns.

“Generally speaking, there are life cycles to taverns,” he said. “Those locations need a significant refresh. We will upgrade current facilities from an aesthetic standpoint, update the infrastructure, and that breathes a little more life into the brand. Our directive now is to get in there, put in new gaming technology, and over time we will do some remodeling.”

ECL Gaming operates its own slot machines and slot route operations, and Bully’s large footprint was an appealing aspect of the acquisition, Winchell added. Strong brand recognition was another, he added.

“In order to bring our (route operation) infrastructure to Northern Nevada we require a substantial footprint of at least five or six stores,” he said. “And the Bully’s brand has been established for a long time and is part of the history of Reno and Carson City. Walking into that familiarity with its built-in customer base and building on that brand is the direction we are going.”

Winchell has longer-term plans to expand the footprint of Bully’s across Northern Nevada, but entering the market and understanding the customer base, along with the upgrades mentioned above, are priorities, he added.

“We will look at expansions when those opportunities arise,” he said. “Jo has done a great job of assembling a very good group of general managers and creating a good culture, and we just want to build on that. The culture of a business is very important, and Bully’s employees all like their jobs and appreciate what they do and their interactions with guests, and that’s an important part of this acquisition.”

As for Lown, she’s looking forward to having more time to spend with her four daughters and five grandchildren – without any unexpected Bully’s-based interruptions.

“My family has been put on hold many times because of the business,” she said. “I have had emergencies when we were camping and I had to pick up and run home to take care of something. I think I will sleep for the first two weeks, and then spend some much-needed time with my husband, kids and grandkids.

“I feel like I am passing the baton, and this is the next chapter for Bully’s,” she added. “We had a really good run, and I am looking forward to seeing what Ron and his team do with it.”


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