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Taking a shot: Corporate cutbacks proved to be push Atkins needed to start his second career

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Carl Atkins, CEO of TopGun Paintball, is with his son and employee Carl Jr.
Carl Atkins, CEO of TopGun Paintball, is with his son and employee Carl Jr. - ()

Carl Atkins could see the layoffs coming for months.

Ann Taylor had opened dozens of new stores in a very short period of time right in that pre-recession sweet spot before 2008. As the company's telecom director at the time, Atkins was charged with setting up the communications systems for those stores.

Even a so-called "computer geek" could see that was too much growth in the wrong locations — at a very inopportune time.

So when the layoffs eventually came, taking Atkins with him, he wasn't surprised.

He also wasn't worried. He wasn't going to miss a paycheck.

He had paintball.

Every so often, opportunities come along that turn hobbies and passions into full-time jobs for a lucky few. That's what happened to Atkins.

He had been an avid player for years, frequenting a New Jersey institution in Jackson called TopGun Paintball. He was friendly with the owner — the man who helped legalize the paint-shooting recreational activity once banned in the Garden State for its perceived dangers. When that man decided to retire, he offered Atkins the business.

"I used to tell my wife all the time, 'Paintball, it's expensive, but it's also my therapy. I can either sit on a couch,'" Atkins said, "'or I can go out on weekends and shoot people.'"

Atkins, 63, prefers to shoot people, with high-powered paint pellets, so he bought the company — two years before he lost his big-time corporate job, his three-hour round-trip commute to Manhattan and his suit and tie.

"I've been ruined as far as ever working for a corporation anymore," Atkins said. "I get up in the morning, and I want to go to work. I don't need mental health days because I'm there doing what I want to do."

Paintball is now his full-time job. He runs a facility spread across 130 acres nestled right next to Six Flags Great Adventure. There are 16 different playing fields with a range of themes, including a Native American village and one vignette built to resemble the Alamo — which Atkins has since learned is bigger than the actual Alamo.

As the perception of paintball has evolved, from a pastime for aspiring militiamen to an edgy but acceptable family activity, roughly 65 to 70 percent of TopGun's business is birthday parties.

The rest is made up of individuals, families, corporate groups and even bachelor parties, he said.

To serve those customers, Atkins employs up to 35 or 40 people, most of whom earn minimum wage. So when that jumped earlier this year, Atkins felt the impact.

Insurance is another big cost, as is the rent he pays for the massive space he occupies.

So Atkins has set his admission rates, which start at $25.99 for a half-day's play, high enough to cover those basic expenses and break even.

He makes money from selling paintballs.

In many of the packages customers can purchase to play at TopGun, paintballs cost extra. Atkins thinks of each paintball as about a nickel a piece, and the more customers shoot, the more money comes into TopGun.

So paint splatter, in his book, is a very good thing. He even set up a sign inside the park that reads "Don't shoot this sign" to taunt those patrons high on adrenaline and itching to break the rules.

That sign is now drenched in paint, Atkins said with a laugh, and those spent paintballs help churn a profit for TopGun.

They are also Atkins' ticket to a life outside the corporate world, working alongside his son, daughter and wife in a place where "grownup" has become a bad word.

He still gets periodic glimpses at that world, though. About two years ago, for example, a company brought about 70 people to Jackson to do some paintball-based team building.

As the teams started to dwindle, with employees falling victim to bursts of brightly colored paint, the CEO of the company landed in the crosshairs of someone on the opposition. A shot was fired, and it would have been a dead hit — if it weren't for a guy from the company's mailroom who leapt in to take the pellet and save the CEO.

"And (the CEO) said, 'That was great. What's your name?'" Atkins recalled. "And he said, 'My name is Marlin, and I've been working for you for 14 years.'"

Atkins said the CEO rewarded Marlin with a seat at his table for lunch.

"I don't know the end story, but it may have worked out pretty good for Marlin," he said.

E-mail to: maryj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mjohns422

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