Found in Yonkers: Altman Stage Lighting retains its family roots as it moves beyond its mom-and-pop image


Lots of companies like to claim they are family businesses, but when it comes right down to it the closest they get to family is the annual company picnic, where the oh-so-corporate boss has to carry cue cards so he knows who's who. Yonkers, NY-based Altman Stage Lighting is another story. Founded in the mid-1950s by Charlie Altman and his wife Alice, the company is now in its third generation of Altmans and boasts seven family members among its 140 mostly longtime employees. Robert Altman serves as president of the company, and is joined by his wife Vicki, sister-in-law Eleanore, nephew Randall, and three other family members. No cue cards needed here.

But a family business has its own unique set of responsibilities. There is the name--Altman is the only major lighting company with the family moniker on all its products. And there is the legacy--Charlie Altman, who died two years ago, was a legend in the business, known as much for his willingness to help up-and-coming designers and business owners as for the affordable lighting instruments he produced. And Alice, who worked mostly behind the scenes, was known as the real driving force behind the company.

"When they were younger, the company never closed," Robert Altman says of his parents. "My dad would work on a Broadway show, then come home and work until 2am with my mother in the basement of our house, making connectors and irises. It was a labor of love."

Robert Altman is well aware of the legacy. He's been president of Altman since the early 90s, so he's seen not only the passing of his parents (Alice in 1990 and Charlie in 1995) and brother Ronald (who died suddenly in 1980), but also the growth of the company. Until the late 80s, Altman Stage Lighting was known mostly for, as Robert puts it, "banging out PAR cans" for the US theatrical market. But then the company slowly began expanding its horizons, developing its own computerized moving light (the Altstar) and a line of products (the Q-Lite, the Soft-Lite, and a wide array of fresnels) geared toward the film and video segment, all the while eyeing the international market.

"We were making world-class products with light sources of 220V," he explains. "We began making product that could compete with the Europeans."

"It's an untapped market," adds director of sales Robert Kliegl, himself a member of a prominent industry family. "Everything we build now gets CE marking, and whatever verifications we need--VDE, CUL, UL, the whole works."

Altman also saw its unique dealer setup grow to just under 500. "We appreciate and respect our dealers, and do not take jobs direct," Altman explains. "Our dealers deserve to make the sale because they are going to be the ones servicing the equipment."

Aside from these changes, the company internally remained essentially the same, building things manually, and adding more space, equipment, and employees as needed. "By the early 90s, we were growing and happily going our own way," says Altman. "It was a very casual, non-structured environment. But then in 1992 our competition came out with some new lighting."

Altman, in something of an understatement, was referring to Electronic Theatre Controls' introduction of the Source Four ellipsoidal, which debuted at LDI that year. The company answered soon after with the equally successful Shakespeare ellipsoidal, but the episode gave Altman the opportunity to take stock of the company and its position in the marketplace. "The problem was not the competition, the problem was ourselves. As it turned out, competition has been healthy for us. It was a blessing in disguise," Altman says. "It made us take a look at ourselves, and we eventually realized that it was time to make the transition from mom-and-pop to more professional: organized, focused, and disciplined."

To that end, the company brought in efficiency experts for administration and customer service, and Bruce Johnson, who as director of engineering has streamlined the company's manufacturing process. As a result, the company's 100,000-sq.-ft. (30,408-sq.-m) space ("And we're just about out of room," Altman notes) has undergone several changes--old equipment has been moved or abandoned, new equipment has been brought in, and much of the manufacturing process is becoming automated. Two years ago, not even the inventory was on computer; now there are 35 workstations within the company, with more to come. In addition, many of the departments have been shifted around; sales, for example, has been moved to a newly renovated building, and R&D has moved into sales' former space.

One of the main goals in all of this internal restructuring has been to speed up production to have more products on hand. "If we had had product in stock before, we could have sold 30% more," Altman contends. "Before, we were making 90 to 100 Shakespeares a day; now we're making 180 units a day, and we plan to get up to 200."

"Robert has set the company moving toward manufacturing high-tech quality products, and toward streamlining the manufacturing, to make sure that when you call Altman now or 10 years from now, we are going to have the product on the shelf and get it to you on time," explains Kliegl. "It's not just a bunch of mumbo jumbo from sales and marketing, it's really a commitment from him to get us all working together toward that one goal. It's great to get people to look at your product, but if you can't build it and ship it, it's not worth it. Just by increasing the factory's capabilities, and the quality control we've initiated, I've seen huge increases in sales, with very little increase in additional marketing. So people are basing us on performance now."

Meanwhile, things are picking up on the new product front. After the introduction of the Shakespeare in 1994, Altman chose to pull back a bit, fine-tuning existing products as well as its R&D department. "We wanted to straighten ourselves out a bit first," Altman explains. But with an R&D staff of nine, including head of engineering John Luk, electrical engineer Tom Tyler, who specializes in quality control and intellectual property matters, and young English newcomer Andy Neal, Altman is poised to release a slew of new products in time for LDI97 in Las Vegas. These include a new cyc light that has both ground and sky applications, new versions of the 360Q (with an improved reflector unit) and Micro Ellipse (with a 10,000-hour Philips MasterColor(TM) lamp), and, perhaps, a special surprise that the company wasn't quite ready to talk about on record at press time.

But all these changes haven't meant that the company has been sitting quietly up in Yonkers watching the Hudson River flow by. Altman equipment has been used recently on a vast array of projects, including the current tour of Phish, the new QVC studios in West Chester, PA, a massive overhaul of the lighting at Madison Square Garden, and even a nightclub, the Manhattan hotspot Life (see "Life's work," Lighting Dimensions March 1997). These projects are indicative of the wide variety of markets Altman now serves.

"We are that one company that dealers can rely on on a regular basis to be able to compete in all markets," Kliegl says. "So, in my opinion and the opinions of a lot of our dealers, Altman is the one manufacturer who is the industry standard for the last 30 years for ellipsoidals, fresnels, blacklights, things like that. We do such a variety of things that there's not jus t one thing we're specifically geared toward. We're covering a huge variety to allow our dealers to go into a project and say, 'Okay, we can supply you all the equipment: one manufacturer, one dealer, one shipment.' And you'll be happy. You'll know you don't have to make 20 phone calls when you need a knob for this or something for that. You just call Altman."

Clearly, Altman has moved well beyond its theatrical roots. Film and TV may be the company's most recent conquest, but the current focus, according to Robert Altman, is on architectural lighting. As he explains it, this latest decision is typical of the never-give-up nature of the company. "If we didn't have tenacity, we wouldn't have gone into TV and film, and now architecture," Altman says. "But my father used to say, 'If you don't make mistakes, you didn't do any work.' Since he and my brother passed away, I decided that I wanted to get my licks in. I want to work hard as well as play hard. We might make mistakes, but we're learning every day."