Company turns carnivals into big business

Published 1:23 pm Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Mississippi company has turned wild carnival rides, midway games and food stands into big business.

North American Midway Entertainment is the world’s largest portable carnival company with more than $3.5 billion in equity. The Ridgeland-based company is at the Mississippi State Fair this week. North American Midway Entertainment sends crews, games and rides to 20 states and four Canadian provinces annually.

“We don’t play favorites, but we always enjoy coming home,” said Mike Williams, chief executive of North American Midway Entertainment.

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The multi-faceted company grew out of Farrow Shows, a 20-employee, family-run carnival company based in Jackson. Williams worked summers for Farrow Shows while he earned a computer science degree at Mississippi State University.

“My senior year, 1975, the owner, Ernie Farrow, asked me if I’d come run it for him. I married his daughter and in 1982 bought the company,” Williams said. “Back in those days, we did business in about seven or eight states, in the South and Midwest.”

The move that made North American Midway the industry giant came in 2004.

Williams and Fred Rosen of Ticketmaster put together a deal to buy four amusement companies. The Cypress Group, a Manhattan-based venture capital firm, backed them to the tune of nearly $100 million, Williams said. Since then, Williams added two more carnival companies and employs about 3,000 people, many of whom work the nine- or 10-month carnival season.

Through the carnival industry’s 120-plus-year history, two hallmarks remain: road-hardened showmanship and the tradition of family ownership.

“They work hard and travel far,” said Bob Johnson, president of the Florida-based Outdoor Amusement Business Association. “Typically carnivals are family owned and passed down. Some are now in their fourth and fifth generations.”

Johnson estimates about 350 carnival companies operate in the U.S. and Canada. What sets North American Midway apart, he said, is the scope of its business strategy — family oriented but in a modern, big-business way. “It was the first ever, the first of its kind. They buy a carnival and issue new stock in the parent company so the owners stay with the companies and they continue to manage and run the operations,” he said.

Besides the Mississippi State Fair, North American Midway has set up at the Calgary Stampede, Indiana State Fair, Miami-Dade County Fair and South Carolina State Fair.

It operates at 10 of North America’s top 50 fairs, uses a fleet of more than 250 trucks and trailers, operates a traveling school, hauls generators to produce its own electricity, and has storage and refurbishing facilities in Mississippi, Texas, Indiana, Illinois and two in Florida.

“It’s been a cash business. There are a lot of guys who operate as top-line kind of guys who look at the large, gross income but at the end of a season don’t have anything left in the bag,” Johnson said. “But it’s big business now. Most large carnivals have a (chief financial officer), they pay their taxes and they’re on the up and up.”