Meeting of minds: NSI and Colortran pool philosophies in its corporate merger

For companies focused solely on the race for market share, concepts like reliability, integrity, and dedication are just buzzwords that litter the text of annual reports, not actual business practices. Such is not the case at NSI Corporation of Tualatin, OR.

Founded in 1986, NSI is headed by former Sunn Electronic executives Larry Lynn, Terry White, and Robert Hick. They don't fit the typical profile of the owners of an international business. "We have no outside investors to speak to. In fact, we only have one person to answer to, and that's our customer," says White, who is NSI's senior vice president of marketing.

In its early days, the company serviced the music retail market, providing lighting controllers that were easy to use and could be controlled by the performer onstage, using a foot pedal. As NSI grew, its product base expanded to include dimmers of every size for almost every application, as well as a variety of lighting control systems, including numerous consoles for every level of live entertainment. "Our philosophy is that we like to obsolete our own products--we don't want our competitors to obsolete them for us," White says.

NSI keeps ahead of stiff market competition through aggressive research and product development that has been implemented since its inception. Today, NSI products are all over the map--there are PMC series touring consoles and DDS series dimmers at the House of Blues in Hollywood, Melange consoles at the theatre in the University of Paraguay, plus dimmers and consoles that have been traveling around the world for the past few years with entertainers like Phish, Barbara Mandrell, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and Tanya Tucker. At the other end of the spectrum, NSI gear can also be found in close proximity to the contestants at the American Junior Miss Pageant. "From bar bands to Broadway plays, we've got them all covered," says White with a laugh.

In early 1996, as NSI continued its trek through the dimmer and control market, business was not going particularly well for Colortran Inc., the Burbank-based dimming, control, and fixture manufacturer. Colortran, which at the time was owned by Lee Filters, was a well-respected firm that had supplied quality equipment to the theatrical and television markets for 40 years. In a move that surprised many, NSI stepped into the fray and paid $1.6 million in cash to purchase its product lines, inventory, and equipment. Why Colortran?

Says White, "Colortran has an excellent reputation, name recognition, and diversification in a market that NSI did not participate in." The acquisition took place in mid-March of 1996. "The biggest challenge was physically moving the organization out of Burbank and integrating Colortran manufacturing into NSI manufacturing," he says, noting that the Colortran inventory consisted of a total of 15 semis worth of equipment. The move was completed later that year, with quite a few Colortran staff members making the move to Oregon to become part of NSI; 1997 was spent reestablishing the dealer network and the representatives for Colortran both domestically and internationally.

NSI Corp. is now focused on aggressive product development for both lines of equipment. "Our products are defined by the users and designed and built by our engineers," White says. "The starting point for our research and development is the customer." And when the customer has specific engineering needs, NSI and Colortran are there to pick up the ball. "We're going to provide you with engineering support up front and service after the sale."

One key player who joined NSI after 14 years at Colortran is Paul Sherbo, vice president of sales of the Colortran division. "I'm part of a group of about 18 who were originally part of the Colortran organization under the previous management," he says. "Those of us who came up originally are enjoying it, and we're encouraging people who were with us before to come up and be part of the organization." He adds that "the marriage has been a very good one" between NSI and Colortran. "There is a real synergy between the two product lines. It's been a wonderful exchange of ideas and markets."

While NSI continues to be in the forefront of the live entertainment market, the Colortran division is quietly finding its way overseas. "We do a lot of work in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia," says Sherbo, who was assigned to Colortran's international market in the past, and started enlarging its stake in Asia about seven years ago. Relationships are very important to NSI in all markets, but are crucial globally. "Long-term personal relationships are very valuable in the business world because you know who you're dealing with, you know what to expect, and when you're 7,000 miles away and your communication links are tied to one person, that's very important."

The Colortran division recently completed an enormous project for China TV in Taiwan, which included three complete television studios with more than 20 dimmers in one facility alone, including its i Series E dimmers and Encore control consoles. Colortran equipment can also be found at the Kennedy Air Force Base in Florida and at Andrews Air Force Base in California, where it entered the space race.

In a project completed in the summer of 1997, Colortran provided a dimming circuit for the space shuttle runways. "It's a very interesting project: The space shuttle itself can dim the runway lights prior to approach," White says. As it turns out, in non-NASA-approved jargon, the space shuttle is what is referred to as a "dead stick glider," which means that the pilot exerts quite a bit of manual control over the landing apparatus. In some cases, when the shuttle is at a high altitude on a clear night, the pilot may want to confirm the position of the runway. Now, with Colortran's assistance, he can simply flash the runway lights to confirm its location. Or, on cloudy nights, a pilot can simply dim the landing lights before entering clear skies; the runway lights can blind if they're on too brightly.

For this high-flying project, Colortran provided the interface and the dimmers, and NASA provided its own proprietary controls, Sherbo says. When NASA approached Colortran about the assignment, it was asked to provide a plethora of data for extensive pre-project testing. In the end, its equipment was chosen from a variety of products, due to several technical specifications. "It was reported to us that our dimmer had the lowest radio frequency interference and electromagnetic interference of any tested," he says.

NSI is looking forward to exhibiting and reviewing several new products at LDI98 this month. "We think product development is the real key to growth," explains White. "As long as we take care of all the other parts of the business and do everything else right, development is the key for us to gain the foothold that we need so we can bring the company into new markets."

One of the biggest splashes that NSI is making at LDI is with its Innovator series of lighting controls. This series, which was developed by the Colortran division, represents a merging of the technologies of both areas of the firm. Previewed at LDI97, the line includes four products: the Innovator 24/48, 48/96, 72/144, and the 600, originally shown as the 512 (it has been upgraded to include greater capacities than initially planned). "These control consoles combine theatrical with intelligent lighting," says White.

The Innovator 600 is a bit different than the other consoles in the series, and is geared toward a different market share. "The other Innovators are aimed at more hands-on control, where the Innovator 600 has such a wide capacity, it doesn't lend itself well to that. It's more of a pre-programmed event console."

NSI is also launching a new console called the MC 2448, which is aimed at the live entertainment market. "The MC 2448 represents a technology exchange between the two product lines," White states. "It's a little bit of a different layout [than the Colortran consoles] and it's aimed more at the NSI customer in that market." The MC 2448 combines programmable intelligent lighting control with conventional fixture control and is suited for the industrial and corporate markets, when the designer requires a user-friendly console that can control both type of fixtures while maintaining a workable budget.

NSI will also be showing its DS dimmer series. "It's also aimed at the music market," White says. "We're going to introduce a design approach that the market hasn't seen yet. It's going to be a very flexible, very field-serviceable product."

Among the many new Colortran products that NSI will be showing at LDI is the Remembrance series of control stations. The Remembrance, which is aimed at the architectural market, is a wall station system that gives the user control over the lighting of an entire facility as well as specific zones. The new series is indicative of the firm's commitment to development in that market. "We see a continued expansion into architecture," says White. "This includes fixture development, which is something we didn't touch on this year."

The company has another premiere at LDI this year--its first CD-ROM. It highlights products companywide, and will be available at the show. NSI can always be reached on the internet at, a site that is filled with product information but is still under construction. But, however you find it, Sherbo concludes, NSI Corp. makes good on its promises to that one person it always answers to. "We're a reliable company that a customer can count on, and that's what's really important these days."

Sharon Stancavage is a Detroit-based concert and theatrical lighting technician.