photo credit Ian Whelan
photo credit Ian Whelan

Incredible Technologies' Elaine Hodgson

The founder of a highly successful casino- and video-game company is also a private pilot who uses her Cirrus Vision Jet to help build the business.

In 1985, Elaine Hodgson cofounded Incredible Technologies in her basement with her then-husband Richard Ditton, who is still with the firm as executive vice president. They started the video-game business with a thousand dollars, and it’s safe to say that the investment has paid off.

The Illinois-based company’s signature product—Golden Tee Golf, introduced in 1989—is one of the world’s most popular coin-operated video games. It has sold more than 100,000 units that are operated on nearly every continent and that have generated almost $400 million in fees for small-business owners. Incredible Technologies also produces a variety of other games for bars, casinos, and home use and now has 240 employees. 

Hodgson, who remains president and CEO, became a pilot in 2010. She flew herself in her Cirrus Vision Jet to Teterboro, New Jersey to talk with BJT about everything from business to parenting to flying. As our conversation makes clear, she continues to be infused with the enthusiasm, drive, curiosity, and desire to learn new skills that led to her company’s founding more than three decades ago.

What were you doing in the years before you started Incredible Technologies?
I was always interested in science and math in school and I had some aptitude for it, so that’s what I pursued. I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I went into Purdue University thinking that was what I was going to do, but I ended up getting into biochemistry. I worked for Pan Am, which did contract work for NASA. They were in charge of the industrial-hygiene department, where you would measure air, water, and soil samples when rockets took off, and also people would wear sensors when they worked around the space shuttles to see whether they were inhaling fumes and such, so I would analyze those samples. That was the most biochemical thing I could find in the area at the time.

You were a programmer long before it was cool.
My interest in computers grew through the sciences. In those days, there weren’t computer degrees given in colleges—all the computer scientists came from math or science. I got a job with UOP [Universal Oil Products, now Honeywell UOP]. They make catalytic converters for cars and do some biochemistry, but that’s not where they put me. They had me studying the electrochemical properties of coal fly ash so that they could collect it in electrostatic precipitators in coal-burning plants. 

Well, I learned a whole new skill, but I also used computers there. So when my then-husband’s employer was looking for a programmer to do games, they considered me, and I had to make this big decision: Am I going to leave the chemistry field and do this? My plan was to do the [programming job] and then come back to chemistry with even more computer knowledge, but I discovered I really loved programing. I liked the game industry. I had taken a couple of computer courses in Florida and I just mostly learned it on my own, which is how a lot of people did it in those days.

How did Incredible Technologies grow?
Our first break was that we got a job—for little more than subsistence wages—with a pinball company that let us do the operating system and some of the light sound effects. We were able to then get a hardware engineer and start our own hardware platform to make arcade video games. Our first really big success, around 1987, was a game based on bowling. It made some good money, and long story short, we invested that money in the Golden Tee golf game, which turned out to be a very big hit. 

Were you surprised at how successful it was?
There’s no way we could have foreseen what would happen with Golden Tee. In those days, there were fighting games and driving games, and they tended to make $700 a week [for an operator] for five weeks and trail off. But Golden Tee was a steady earner. It would make $200 or $300 a week, but it would do that forever. So our operators loved that because they didn’t have to move or change [the game units]; they liked that it was a stable platform that they could set and forget. Because it’s a skill-based game, we’re able to run tournaments with a leader board; and it’s constantly evolving. Golden Tee is a pop-culture phenomenon.

What were the company’s early days like?
It was stressful. We had our first child about the same time we started the business, though I actually have always considered the business to be my first child. But it all worked out. Give a busy person something to do and it will get done. I think the big mistake we made as a young company was to hire too fast before we knew how. There was a terrible time where I had to lay people off because we didn’t have enough business to keep them going, but also some of them were just not pulling their weight. I think we were up to 30 people and I had to let 11 go, so it was a big deal. It was one of the hardest days of my life.

What did you learn about the hiring process from that experience?
It made us smarter about hiring, and sadly, it made me a little harder. I can’t totally be friends with my employees—that is the hardest lesson I had to learn. I have friends at work, but there is still that slight wall that you can’t go over because you never know what’s going to happen in the business. We have 240 people now, so it’s a lot different. We have an HR department and all that. But we have been much more careful about hiring. We have more people involved in the process to reach a consensus that a person has the talent and personality required. In certain technical cases we will have tests. We’ve been much more successful this way, but we do still sometimes have to let people go. HR has done a lot to professionalize us along these lines, but it’s never, ever easy.

Has your role evolved as the company has grown?
My role now is to look at the overall structure and see if there are any problems. I haven’t programed in a long time. I loved programing, but programing has evolved so greatly I probably couldn’t program my own system! I look at the big picture. For example, we just hired a person to restructure our customer service. Not because it was going badly, but because we are growing rapidly, and we need a centralized system with technical service and internal customer service under one umbrella. 

Did you find it challenging to be a good parent and run a business at the same time?
There’s guilt that you are not spending enough time with your children or that you are not spending enough time with your business. You have to have this duality in your brain. I spent a lot of time at work, but because I own the business, it was flexible and I could work from anywhere. I went to all the Halloween events and all the plays. I tried to instill in my kids that I was always there for them even though I might not be there when they came home from school. When it really mattered, I would be there for them. 

And being successful at business meant I had the money to take them on world trips. We’ve been all over—from China to Dubai to Safari in Kenya—to show them that the world is for them and they shouldn’t be afraid —and people everywhere are more the same than different. 

How did your love of flying begin?
Well, my [current] husband [Incredible Technologies vice president of engineering Larry Hodgson] wanted to learn to fly too, so in 2010, we went to our local FBO in the Chicago area and started on a Cessna 172. Business was good enough that I decided to buy one, and I got a 172 with a Garmin G1000 in it. I leased it back to the FBO and they used it for other flight instruction—it was the most popular plane that they had. But we would get to use it first in the schedules, so we learned to fly and got our private pilots’ licenses. We flew the 172 a little bit for business even then, and very early on I learned that we had to have an IFR certificate to really make use of it, so we spent another year getting that under our belt.

Next we flew the Cessna 182 for a little while, and then we saw this Cirrus SR22—it was like a sports car with all the amazing monitors—and I said, “This is it—we are going for it!” So we got our transition training to the SR22 and then, shortly thereafter, I bought a new one from Cirrus and went for training. It was very exciting. 

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How has the SR22 helped your business?
We’ve used it to fly across Michigan and up to Minnesota and to Iowa to see customers. The thing about the slot-machine business is that casinos are often in out-of-the-way places, especially tribal casinos. They are not in places where you are going to fly nonstop from O’Hare and get there easily. 

So it became a real asset to be able to fly the plane. Sales is always about relationship building and letting your customers know you are there for them. And the Cirrus made it possible to visit customers who don’t normally see people from casino manufacturers, and that has helped us make sales. They appreciate that we are making the effort to see them and ask their concerns. I would fly myself and our vice president of sales and marketing up to the Minneapolis area to visit casinos, or up to Warroad, Minnesota, which is at the border of Minnesota and Canada. If I tried to get to Warroad from Chicago on airliners, I would have to fly to Minneapolis and maybe they’d have some kind of regional jet and there would be layovers and waiting. The Cirrus saves days. 

What is it that you love about flying your own airplane?
The feeling of freedom. You can take off when you want on your time, bring more stuff with you, not have to go through security lines. I like the feeling of adventure. [Learning how to fly] took my mind off business and was a whole other discipline for my brain to learn. I live and breathe business; it’s always in my head. But when I am doing an approach or a 45-degree steep turn, that’s what I need to focus my brain on.

You now have a Vision Jet in addition to the SR22?
I was in Las Vegas and Cirrus had an open house with a mock Vision Jet where you could sit in the cockpit and feel what it would be like to fly. I had been considering moving up to a larger plane so I could take more people and go faster and farther, and I was looking at stuff like the Pilatus, which is also great. But Cirrus had made the transition from the SR22 almost seamless. When I was able to fly in it, it felt a lot like the SR22. I could still get into the same places that I was wanting to get into and land and take off in similar runway distances. It was a jet, and it had just one engine, so you have to worry about only one engine for maintenance and fuel usage. And they put a parachute in the airplane, so if anything goes terribly wrong and you can’t troubleshoot in time, you can pull the chute and you will float and walk away. Cirrus was sold out for years, but I could not wait, so I went out to the brokers and bought a position.

Were you happy with that process?
The brokers make it easy. It cost me some money, but I got serial number 13, not an unlucky number for me, in June of 2018. Now I am able to go longer distances. It’s awesome.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Thanks to the team at Meridian Teterboro for providing a setting for the conversation.


NAME: Elaine Hodgson

BORN: Oct. 31, 1955, Chicago

POSITION: President, CEO, and cofounder, Incredible Technologies

EDUCATION: B.S., biochemistry, Purdue University

PHILANTHROPY: Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas; Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; Avenues to Independence; Smith Center for the Performing Arts; Smithsonian Institution; Lookingglass Theater; AOPA Foundation; Nevada State College Foundation (board member)

AIRCRAFT: Cirrus Vision Jet, Cirrus SR22

PERSONAL: Lives in Las Vegas. Married to Larry Hodgson since 1999. Three children with former husband Richard Ditton.