It’s not far-out to assume that every year, hundreds of good road dogs “retire” to start their own company. Most flounder and fail. Few are able to make a living. Fewer still rise even higher, earning special attention and accolades.
Selected by their peers, these six companies are honored as standouts in their region.
Midwest: Koster Design
Northwest: M&M Audio Labs
Southwest: Precise Corporate Staging
Southeast: Theatrical Lighting Services
Northeast: Earl Girls
Canada: Christie Lites
Out of all these honorees, one will receive the Parnelli Award for Hometown Hero in Orlando, Fla., at the gala award event November 16. The Parnelli is the industry’s highest honor for live event professionals. (For more information on the Parnellis and to make your reservation, go to www.parnelliawards.com. )
Egg Harbor City, NJ
For the fourth time in four years, Earl Girls has received the hometown honor.
“It’s because of our people — we have terrific people… not a lot of them, but the ones we do have are quality!” laughs President Don Earl. Business has been such that they were able to move into a larger warehouse space, adding 15,000 square feet. “It allows us to purchase additional equipment, and provide more of what people are wanting.” They still handle it all with 15 full-time people.
When Don was a kid growing up in Connecticut, his parents were active in community theatre and he was up on the stage at the tender age of seven. But luckily for the lighting clients in New England, he didn’t get bit by any acting bug.
“I remember looking up the stairwell at the theater, and there was this board with all these lights and dials,” Earl recalls. “And I was thinking I had to find out more about that…”
He did. He earned a degree in technical theater, then moved to Atlantic City and worked on the lightings for casinos opening there. In 1991, he founded “Earl Girls” in honor of his wife and two young daughters. “When I first started it my kids were just one- and two-years-old, and I was thinking that everything I do is for the benefit of my wife and girls so… Earl Girls! But then I did get a few weird remarks , I thought, ‘What have I done’?” he laughs. But it was not a name that was easy to forget, so it stuck.
This year, the company has seen an increase in its installation and corporate work. Clients being kept happy include many Atlantic City casinos, Journey, Kenny Rogers, Philadelphia Theatre Company and Mann Music Center. He’s also lit five of the last six U.S. presidents.
Theatrical Lighting Services
As president of Theatrical Light Services (TLS), he’s enjoyed another banner year. He’s added more personnel and now has nearly 60 on the payroll. They received rave reviews for their work with the Brad Paisley tour this year, which is looking to be the second highest-grossing country tour this year. And they completed work on the tallest skyscraper in Alabama, the Retirement Systems of Alabama building in Mobile Harbor, for which they installed a Martin exterior lighting package.
“Our office in Jackson (Miss.) has greatly contributed to our success this year, and we’re expanding our presence in Nashville,” he says.
TLS was formed in 1981, and provides lighting systems and services to a diverse group of customers (in addition to Paisley, they are supporting seven other tours this year). TLS, Inc.’s system integration sales staff specializes in dimming, control and automated lighting. The company provides a broad range of sales, lighting design, installation, production services, rental and repair to our growing list of satisfied lighting customers. Their 60,000-square-foot commercial building and broadband fiber optic communications systems makes them especially efficient at dealing with any project. In addition to growing beyond their region, they are also increasing their international client list. A business degree mixed with a love of lighting has allowed him to outlast scores of competitors in his 30 years in the business. “I’m just persistent!”
When asked about his success, he says “its dedicated and passionate employees. Our people really do care about their customers and want to offer them a wonderful, great product.”
Koster Design handles installation, sales, and rentals, and their clients range from Universal Studios in Florida, the St. Louis Blues (the hockey team, not the song), to Silver Dollar City. Of course the biggest part of their client list come from the theatres in Branson. “There’s 55 theatres here, and our lights are in most of them,” Co-Owner Mike Gormley says.
Gormley started in the theatre business. “My first gig was running spotlight for Ray Stevens, and that evolved into an assistant LD position, and then into an LD,” he tells. “My first show was ‘Country Tonight’ in Branson in 1995.” He continued to cut his teeth on the Branson strip, then moved into the bar/nightclub circuit in New Orleans and Florida where he installed lights. For two years, he handled sales and rentals for Creative Stage Lighting.
Just last year he partnered with Kelly Koster — and here they are in the Parnelli spotlight. “We’re extremely honored!” he says. “I worked for a couple of other companies that have never been nominated.”
Recent company highlights include the world’s largest permanent install of DL2, which was done at a house of worship in the Ozarks.
As to why they are being honored, “I think it’s definitely the knowledge everyone here possesses and our customer service,” Gormley says. “We’re open seven days a week and have phone support available 24/7 for customers. If you’re at a gig, and it’s 3:00 a.m. and your Hog crashes, you can get a hold of one of our techs, and we’ll talk you through it for no charge.”
Precise Corporate Staging
David Stern started touring with rock ‘n’ roll bands when he was 18, and by the time he was 32, having been keyboard tech for the likes of Bon Jovi and Van Halen, it was time to get off the road. He formed Precise Corporate Staging with his wife, Marla, and this year the company celebrates it’s seventh successful year.
“My wife and I decided to bring customer service back to the market,” he says. “We were both brought up in the age of ‘the customer is always right’ and that is hard to find these days.”
For a young company, they are expanding considerably — basically doubling every year they have been in business.
“We recently started an entertainment division, basically doing one-off concerts, small regional tours and festivals,” he says. Acts he’s recently worked with include Sammy Hagar, Joe Walsh & Glenn Frey, Alice Cooper and Don Henley. Today they have two offices, Tempe and Atlanta, with a total of 23 full-time staff members.
Upward and onward, in March of this year they left their cramped 12,000-square-foot warehouse that they rented for a 36,000-square-foot building they bought.
Today, it’s a company that knows the value of planning, anticipating and bringing to the table a proven track record and experience with all size venues and audience size. They handled events for audiences in excess of 120,000 people. A belief in building mutually beneficial relationships with the clients allows for their growth and success.
“Also, it comes down to the quality of the equipment and how we package it — that’s what is really helping the company grow.”
Most rock stars should do so well. Today, he oversees nine offices in North America, and the company operates a multi-office network of stage lighting shops. Christie figured out early how important the people who work with him were going to be for the success of his company, so he invested in human resources and attracts the industry’s leading personnel. His company employs over 200, and while he laughs and moans that “payroll’s a killer,” he quickly adds, “For me, it’s about the people. I really love working with my staff.”
He also works hard at establishing solid partnerships with suppliers and vendors. It’s an important part of the Christie chain — being confident about delivering superior quality, service and value to all those who do business with him.
They cover six different market segments (theatre, concert, trade show, TV & Film, industrial and special events). The occasional unusual project comes his way — recently he was trusted to light the Royal Ontario Museum. It had completed a massive renovation and needed an artistic touch. “That was fun,” Christie says.
Despite the growth, it’s lighting, lighting, lighting.
“It’s what people used to say to me — ‘Stick to your knitting,’” he laughs. “It means stay focused on what you’re good at, what you enjoy, what your strength is. I learned that from when I entered the U.S. marketplace. I saw many sticking to what they are good at, that one thing. For me, it’s much harder to be truly good at two things.
“We have a hard job just being good at lighting!”
M&M Audio Labs
Coeur d’Alene, ID
All too typically, the seeds for Chris Martin’s career were planted when, as a teenager during the mid 1970s, he spent his time “driving my parents crazy” with the latest stereo toys. From there it was an easy step to helping area high school bands at their gigs, and from there, he hit the road, doing primarily audio.
Also, getting married and getting off the road happened in the same year: 1982. After eight years of touring, Martin knew one thing — he wanted to get off the road. He knew he had to start somewhere so he enrolled in Full Sail, hoping to begin a new career. “I went to Full Sail to get that whole application of engineering beefed up,” he says. Upon graduation in the early ‘80s, Martin founded his own company, M&M Audio Labs. His com-pany quickly branched into the areas of lighting and staging. Martin is doing what he loves in the area he grew up in, and doing it well.
“Here is my home, I’ve been here my whole life,” he says. “The road experience gave me a big boost because I was able to work in rock, jazz, church plays, opera and big theatrical productions.” Lately he has been focused on the church market, which has been particularly good to him.
“Up here in Idaho state,,” he explains, “we have a pretty severe winter, so when I started the business, I knew right away I had to diversify quite a bit. That got me into video, lighting, staging, designing and having an audio and video suite.”
While he doesn’t live in a big city, he’s able to sustain his business because of his skills and diversity. “There’s two [production companies] left after 25 years,” he says. “New ones come and go, but we continue to be the ones who offer full service.
“You gotta diversify — let’s just say I wear a lot of hats and have a pretty tall hat rack.”
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