Rock and roll--and beyond: Celebrating renewed pride in ownership, Light & Sound Design looks to the future

When Lighting Dimensions first profiled Light & Sound Design(TM) (LSD) four years ago (April 1993), the company had just launched its Icon(R) automated luminaire and control system. The multifaceted Scottish corporation, Christian Salvesen PLC, had bought the company in 1991; this alliance provided LSD with the financial backing necessary for the Icon project's research and development. Having its own moving light technology, coupled with the company's 18 years of touring experience, proved a winning combination that gave the staff a feeling of excitement and optimism.

Today, the Icon system has established itself as one of the industry's most user-friendly control consoles; the Icon automated spot luminaire has been joined by the Icon automated WashLight(TM). Besides offices in Los Angeles, Nashville, Birmingham, and London, the company has firmly established its presence on a global scale with branch affiliates in Japan, Australia, South Africa, and France. Although there were few major American tours this past summer, the summer Olympics in Atlanta provided the US offices with an unprecedented amount of work. Meanwhile, the UK offices were supplying equipment to every European stadium tour, making 1996 the company's most successful year ever. The staff is still excited about the future of the company--and now, they own it.

Patience is not always a virtue of large corporations. By the end of 1994, Christian Salvesen had determined that as LSD was not performing up to its standards, it should be sold. The board broke the news to the staff just before Christmas that year. While the timing may have been something of a jolt, the announcement itself certainly was no surprise. "It became evident after the first couple of years with Christian Salvesen that we didn't really fit into their corporate structure," says company CEO Nick Jackson.

So Jackson and Terry Lee (who founded the company with former partner Alan Whitaker in 1975) rallied with vice presidents Tim Murch and John Lobel and other key personnel to buy their company back. "By January 1995, we went searching for backers, who would enable us to put together a sufficiently attractive financial deal to get the company," Jackson says. "But it had to be done by the end of March, which gave us only three months. It was very intense. We managed to extend the deadline continually by a few days at a time, and eventually the deal was done on the 13th of April. But it was very touch-and-go for a while."

Traumatic as the situation had been, the owners admit that their experience with Christian Salvesen was well worth the stress. "We got a great education in what goes on in publicly owned companies and how you operate a big business," Murch says. "It's all very well reading a book and going to classes and having all these letters after your name that say you're a genius, but actually getting out there and doing it is what it's all about. Having LSD operate as part of a publicly owned company--and then the acquisition by the management--provided us with a huge education that you cannot get from a textbook. We've gained some valuable insight into the business side of the industry through having been represented by Arthur Andersen and the venture capitalists who helped us finance the whole deal."

"When we were bought by Christian Salvesen, we were a rock-and-roll company with rock-and-roll organization--or lack thereof," Jackson adds. "And when we emerged, we actually were a properly managed business, used to financially managing ourselves and working within budgets."

Jerry Reidy, who handled the financial deal for the partners, is now a partner himself, and the company also has a new chairman: John Lawrence. "John is an industry maverick in the UK. He is very well known, very clever, very easy to talk to, and he's a great guide for the company," Murch says. "He puts all of us who have come from the road on track. Right now, this is the most cohesive I've ever seen this company, and that's felt by everybody that we deal with."

Those salubrious effects were more immediately evident in the company's two UK offices, where Christian Salvesen had a more pervasive influence. "Christian Salvesen people were present in the company there, whereas in the States we tended to be left alone a lot more," Murch says. "But when we finally did get the company back, it was very emotional. The day the documents were signed, we had Jolly Roger flags simultaneously hung around all the LSD buildings in Birmingham, London, Los Angeles, and Nashville."

Yet the volume of work cut out for the company precluded any lengthy celebrations. "There had been indecisiveness about what Christian Salvesen was going to do with Light & Sound Design for about a year, so there had been very little investment in the company," Jackson says. "We had been running on a shoestring budget up to the end, and that was one of the factors that we immediately had to put right. We had to have the capital available not only to buy the company, but also to reinvest and to start producing the WashLight, which had been on ice for 12 months. It was really frustrating to actually launch it at LDI in 1994, and then not be able to have it available until a full year later."

The owners' other top priority was restoring their employees' morale. "We set back up to reorganize ourselves, and repair some of the deterioration that had gone on, particularly in the UK," Jackson says. "Fortunately, we had a number of big accounts in the summer season ahead of us, so all of a sudden we were busy; there was a good vibe in the company, and we felt we were starting to move forward."

In June 1995, just as that summer season kicked into gear, Dave Keighley joined the company as one of its managing directors in the UK, where he oversees operations in both Birmingham and London. LSD Birmingham, where the company first started, is a vast 70,000-sq.-ft. (6,300-sq.-m) warehouse that houses the bulk of the UK operation's equipment and a 48-member staff. Lee, the inventor of the spun aluminum PAR can, still runs this office (where all of the company's manufacturing takes place) along with general manager Kevin Forbes, who has been with the company for 16 years.

"After the completion of the buyout in April 1995, our (myself, Terry, and Kevin) first task here was to get back to the core business," Keighley says. "Basically, we decided we would return to being the best lighting company in the world for concert touring. And there was a lot of work coming out of Europe at the time, so it presented us with a great opportunity. Since then, we have made an impact in the special event market, which is now an important part of our business."

Actual daily routine changes in the office have been few, apart from the overall staff morale, which "turned around 180ø" after the buyout. "Mainly, I just have more time for clients now," Lee says. "All of our customers and clients have a primary person who is dealing with their account, but if that person is not around, they're quite confident to call any of us--with the understanding that if we don't know exactly what's going on, we can find out really quickly and get back to them. It works out well."

"The driving force behind our success here is that the communication level is phenomenal," Keighley adds. "We all have a good idea as to what's going on in the big picture, all the way down to the warehouse. No one holds an account close to the chest. All the information is disseminated within these doors--it has to be that way."

For every project, warehouse manager Miland Rikic coordinates the shop floor, and Keith Owen handles the electronic gear. Birmingham also houses the R&D department, which is headed up by director Bill Hewlett. Keighley estimates that the company is now spending more on this department than on any other. "That's the future," Keighley says. "Without that, we'd just be another lighting company."

Although much smaller in size than Birmingham, London is where most of the company's newer clients visit. Mickey Curbishley runs the London office, with help from Joanna MacKay and Lester Cobrin. All three deal primarily with concert tours and sales. "A lot of the London-based acts and management companies have tended to use top London-based lighting companies in the past," Curbishley explains. "So we have broken into that market a little now."

MacKay, who joined the company in 1992, worked in the Birmingham office as assistant to former partner Simon Austin before moving to London in 1994. Her main efforts have been geared toward working with younger, newer bands. Oasis is one of her accounts; when their popularity skyrocketed, MacKay's skills were truly put to the test as she coordinated major arena shows and then stadiums for them last summer. "I really enjoy working with small tours, but Mickey knows tons of people and they've all been great," MacKay says. "They let me do what I want; sink or swim on my own."

Also in London, receptionist Yvonne Donnelly actively handles accounts--mainly for TV. Simon Barber runs the warehouse, and Rob Lancaster does Icon training. "We do all the Icon training here because it's more convenient," Curbishley explains. "Although we certainly have equipment here, we are primarily a sales office, available for meetings with designers. Plus, we have a large demo facility."

Lancaster not only trains new Icon operators, but updates designers on software upgrades as well. "A designer who maybe learned the desk two years ago needs to be retrained and learn the new software changes, so we have refresher courses. It's like Walt Disney Imagineering--Iconeering at LSD," Keighley says. "The beauty of the control system is that it was initially designed to encompass any desires that an operator would have. We have continual software changes that are inspired primarily by designers and operators out in the field--people like Gary Westcott and Justin Collie and Mark Payne, who are continually pushing the boundaries."

Official software releases happen three or four times a year. But each upgrade is a combination of 10-12 minor updates that have come out of the field in the previous three or four months, then are tested, ratified, and checked before becoming an official release. "It's been great to see that the designers and the crews understand what we're doing, which is just getting back to basics. Our company is run by people that understand the industry rather than run by managers," Keighley explains. "Although there are eight directors, six of us actively handle accounts. So there are a couple of layers of upper management that don't exist, because the upper management deals with downstairs as well, and I think that's unique."

In the US, the way the company is now structured, Jackson divides his time mainly between the California and UK offices where he, Murch, Lobel, Mark Coleman, and Peter Alexander work on accounts. Of the five, Lobel tends to concentrate the most on sales; he handles the company's larger accounts, such as Michael Jackson's and U2's tours. The Los Angeles office (it's actually in Newbury Park) is the company's largest, with about 50 employees in a 36,000-sq.-ft. (3,240-sq.-m) building. Jeff Mateer is the office's general manager and Barry Claxton is in charge of production.

Murch visits the Nashville office at least once a month, but all of the US administration is dealt with out of Los Angeles. "Our business is about service," Murch says. "We're all constantly monitoring service quality and trying to find ways to raise the standard at all of our facilities."

Having all their gear as close to their clients--especially their corporate clients--as possible prompted LSD to open its Nashville office in March 1994. "About 60% of the US population lives within a 600-mile (960km) radius of Nashville," Murch says. "The large corporations who could afford the type of corporate events that we're used to providing for are within that radius."

Operational sales manager John Orchard opened LSD's Nashville office in late March 1994 in a building shared by Aggreko. By June 1995, this branch had a new home in a 34,000-sq.-ft. (3,060-sq.-m) building. The 80'x360' (24x110m) facility is equipped with a 25-ton crane that reaches its entire length. "This setup allows us to fly and check out systems quite quickly," Orchard explains. The office has a full-time staff of 12, but road crew members also work in the shop, so there are usually about 30 people there on an average day. Jay Schwartz is the facility's production manager, who also handles all the sub-hire trucking for projects, and Diana Klein is the office administrator/receptionist. Plus, Valerie Groth, formerly an independent concert LD, recently joined the staff as the general manager.

"It's such an expanding market and we've experienced a lot of positive growth since we've been here," Orchard says. "While we handle most of the East Coast and Midwest events, we are also involved in a variety of shows throughout the country."

Steve Llorens, who has the unique company distinction of having been to only three rock shows in the past four years, handles most of the company's corporate work. In August 1994, Llorens moved from the LA office to Nashville, where the workload is split almost evenly between corporate events and tours. "It's definitely seasonal, so it balances out really well. Summer is the busy time for the concert season, and corporate events tend to start up in September and October and continue on in earnest through March," Llorens says. "After that, these events are often outdoors, like festivals. Generally the indoor shows are in two parts: seminars for training or new product showcases, and then on the last night they'll bring in a performer such as Ray Charles or Kenny Loggins--often there is an LD for that. For example, American Express booked the Righteous Brothers, so LD Debbie Fowler faxed over what she usually uses and we brought that in. A lot of country artists and many established pop stars are doing these shows now."

Llorens works with clients from Chicago to Los Angeles and San Francisco on these shows. "The clients know that they can all talk to me and we'll produce the same package they need anywhere," Llorens says. Murch adds that the Nashville office has expanded so much in the past three years that it's almost comparable in size and workload to the Los Angeles office. "We're rapidly turning it into an entity that can deliver as much service and product as we can out of Los Angeles," Murch says. "So we're going to have two similar-sized American operations soon. It was ramped up with the Olympics, of course. We got a lot of support out of that, which helped with the significant growth we've seen this past year."

While it seems that almost every lighting company in the industry was somehow involved with the Atlanta games, Light & Sound Design actually opened a satellite office for the duration. "We called it LSD Depot, and Dak Harris ran it for us," Lobel says. "We had about 45 people, about 18 semis of gear, and two dozen sites, including very large and very small ones. We worked with a lot of other lighting companies because early on we made the decision that it would be stupid to try to do the whole thing on our own."

Lobel estimates that the company used gear from eight different lighting companies, some of which were involved in fairly large ways, others from which they subcontracted only a lighting console or a couple of HMIs. "That was really fun, and it gave me a chance to work with people who are all too often my competitors," Lobel says.

LSD provided a wide range of services at the Olympics, from coordination and staffing of entire shows, to doing all the sub-hires and being the one lighting company for a particular installation (such as at the AT&T Pavilion with LD Candace Brightman), to working as part of a team on the opening and closing ceremonies, which were coordinated by LD Bob Dickinson and gaffer Bob Barnhart. "It gave us a chance to do everything you can ask of a lighting service company, and I think that's something LSD does better than any company in the world," Lobel says. "I was really proud of our people, our performance, and the fact that we managed to pull off some momentous undertakings under difficult environmental and logistical conditions.

"The Olympics is a good example of how LSD provides a lot more than just equipment," Lobel continues. "We really put in a lot of time and a lot of energy, and I don't think that any other lighting company could have done what we did there. That kind of project is personally rewarding for me."

Going after those projects that are satisfying on more than just a business level has become even more of a priority for the company's partners, who started out on the creative side of the business. "When we were faced with the possibility of everything falling apart, I know that we all looked at our lives and re-evaluated them," Lobel says. "I discovered I wanted to stay in lighting--that I really like it. I like the people, I like the process, and, if anything, I want to do a little more lighting and a little less arguing with lawyers. I didn't start working in theatres because I wanted to negotiate insurance with lawyers, and I didn't stay up all night focusing dance shows because I wanted to negotiate unemployment insurance. Luckily, I've got some really talented clients whose skill makes up for my lack thereof, and so when we work together they allow me to do a little bit. So sometimes when I see a show I am really proud of my contribution. It means a lot to me to occasionally have some creative input into a show, and help make good shows better."

"I got into this industry because I love music and because I liked the atmosphere that was in the business," Keighley adds. "It was fun and somewhat happy-go-lucky. And that's still an important element and an important motivating factor for a lot of people in this business. We are a professional and very serious outfit, but, at the end of the day, we have a good time. From the management team down to those working on the shop floor, to the truck drivers, they all feed off the vibe. Working at Light & Sound Design should be a labor of love, and you should take it seriously."

The company is also seriously planning to diversify its work. "We're looking at expanding into different markets and consolidating our position in concert touring, and basically, having the reputation of being the most professional lighting company in the world," Keighley says. "We have more facilities worldwide than any other company as far as owning our own automated system and the level of inventory in conventional equipment, and the expertise that we have in all of our branches."

"The concern of diversifying the business is something that we constantly look at," Jackson adds. "As time goes on and the public has a greater sophistication about how a show is put together--whether it be a public event or a private show for a corporation--they're expecting more and more sophisticated-looking shows, and our job is to make sure that we are able to provide that to all of those various entities."

In line with these goals, the company is planning to increase the global presence of the Icon system. In January, Chris Adamson joined the company as Icon Operations manager worldwide to oversee the development and expansion of the Icon system. Icon Japan was opened in 1994 as an independent company; it is run by president Taizo Yamamoto, who is assisted by Ayumi Homme, as well as sales manager Midori Yokoshima. "They have done stellar business over there," Jackson says. "They're good people, great attitude. The same is true of Grupo Mundo, located in Mexico City. They are our Icon Mexico."

Also, in South Africa, Ofer Lapid is handling that country's emerging market. "For the last three years it's grown very rapidly and expanded every year," Murch says. "We sold conventional equipment to Lighting Unlimited, so they have the same equipment that we do, and now we have Icons placed there." Besides increasing its visibility, the company will keep developing the Icon system. "It's a product line that needs to continue developing and improving," Jackson concludes. "We want to carry on the concept of providing an integrated lighting system for both conventional and moving lights, which are controlled by the one Icon console. I think that has proven to be, at this point in time, the most successful show control system for the touring market."

The owners apply their optimism not only to LSD, but also to how they see the future of the lighting industry. "We're a really good company, and we've got the strength to prosper and to be a force in the industry," Lobel says. "And at the same time, we're lucky to be at such a vibrant time in a vibrant business. It's fun. This industry is not contracting, we're not shutting down, we're not losing our business to offshore companies, we're prospering.

"Just like video games seemed to some people as if they were going to end the live entertainment business, some people think that the Internet and the World Wide Web will, but I think they couldn't be more wrong. Excitement and immediacy are things that you can't get from being online and sitting at home. So all types of live entertainment are going to grow. And even television has an excitement and an immediacy; live television is a substitute for it. That's good for our business. It's not taking people away from shows as much as it is creating another outlet for people to see shows. The opportunities are just incredible," Lobel concludes. "So, yes, I'm definitely optimistic."