Applied Electronics

by Mike Wharton
in Company 411
Roof system at Florida Central
Roof system at Florida Central

It is hard to imagine that, with the vast proliferation of manufacturers, dealers, and rental houses operating in the production world these days, a young production design company would panic about fulfilling an order after it was awarded a contract. Such were the circumstances that led Scott Humphrey and his father, Jim, to acquire Applied Electronics (AE), however.

Now in its 35th year, AE is one of three companies owned and operated by Scott Humphrey. But you will not see his name on any of their websites.

“Each of the companies — Light Action, Applied and Staging Dimensions — are separate entities, and are successful because of the individuals operating and representing the product line,” the younger Humphrey explains. “They each focus on their area of expertise. For instance, no one would go to a lighting production rental house to buy truss; they would go to the manufacturer. We don’t try to be everything to everybody.”

It is a business model that has nurtured the companies’ growth and worked well over the years. From fewer than 20 employees in the 1990s, the total employee count now exceeds 110. Applied is currently in its third location, while Staging Dimensions, which once shared warehouse space with AE, is now located in New Castle, DE. New construction and facilities are under way to double the size of AE’s facility from 30,000 to 60,000 square feet, while renovations at Light Action will expand its footprint from 40,000 to 80,000 square feet.

Scott Humphrey

Little Miracles

Scott Humphrey founded his first company, Light Action, in 1985. Based in Wilmington, DE, the fledgling lighting production company achieved mild success until disaster struck in 1989 when a fire wiped out his 1,200 square-foot warehouse and damaged his inventory.

“After the fire happened, Light Action was at its worst point, literally ready to close the doors,” says Scott. “Then this little miracle occurred; what I like to call, ‘the money fairy’, shows up.”

Through a series of fortuitous circumstances and conversations, Humphrey landed a meeting with the executive producer in town filming Rocky V, at the Philadelphia Civic Center.

“I went down to the set, knowing nothing about film lighting,” says Humphrey. “He explains to me that he is getting gouged by another local vendor who is charging more than even Los Angeles’ costs. Then, he hands me an equipment list, telling me if I can do the job for a penny less and return a signed contract within two hours, the job is mine.” Scott signed.

Now, Humphrey just needed to find the gear. A call to Pete’s Lights in Chicago (now Performance Lighting), whom he had gotten acquainted with while working as an LD for an opening act on a Bob Seger national tour, provided the truss.

“They could not have been nicer,” Scott recalls. “I bought the truss, and they helped me out with some guys for the install, since it was a first for me and they were used to projects that size.” Good relationships with friendly rental houses in the Delaware area filled the rest of the list through cross-rentals.

The contract to provide lighting for the boxing ring fight scenes went so successfully that a month later, Light Action was called upon to duplicate the system in Los Angeles for additional filming.

“I will never forget that producer; Michael Glick. Without him, I would not be having this conversation today,” Scott says. “I was ready to declare bankruptcy before that job. I had no insurance to cover what I had lost in the fire.”

Capitalizing on that success brought Humphrey into more contact with manufacturers as he built up Light Action’s inventory. He met the Applied Electronics owners at the inaugural LDI convention in 1988. AE was the original brainchild of Graham Honeycutt, with the financial backing of an optometrist named Dr. Gaskin, neither of whom knew much about, or worked in, the entertainment industry.

Fast forward a few years to 1993.

“I had just sold a system of 300 channels of dimming and a Celco Gold console to Trump [Plaza], in Atlantic City,” recalls Humphrey. The problem came when he learned his supplier, Applied Electronics, was considering closing its doors. “I realized my company, Light Action, was not structured to provide the after sale service backup of repairs, parts and maintenance we relied on from our manufacturer.”

After some frantic soul-searching, Humphrey set out to acquire Applied Electronics. “I knew nothing about running a manufacturing company, but I knew the industry way better than the owners of AE.” His passion proved strong enough to convince Jim, his father, who had just sold his printing business, to put the brakes on retirement plans and form a partnership. “My dad became the day-to-day operations guy while I did R&D and continued to sell.”

Part of the purchase deal was that the business would remain in Charlotte, NC for three years. Upon completion of the contracted time, the company relocated to Newport News, VA. The large ship building industry in Newport News, access to facilities and skilled craftsman welders made the move most logical.

Making It Up as You Go

Back in the 1980’s, Thomas Engineering was one of the only truss manufacturers in the country. Calling up a local vendor to rent double hung pre-rig was not really an option. Dimmers and other industry needs were met on an as-needed basis. This was the age of innovation, when many of the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award winners shaped the industry of today. The vast network of companies and gear available through the Internet today simply did not exist. “Back then,” recounts Humphrey, “we had to figure it out when a client said, ‘Well, I’d like this type of piece or widget.’”

Though small, “AE built its brand recognition in the industry, because they could respond to companies like mine,” says Humphrey. The garage-like business had an electronics shop and a metal fabrication operation, so they were able to say, “Yes, we can build that.”

In fact, when Light Action built their first self-climbing peaked roof system, Humphrey used Pete’s Lights’ double-hung box truss on Applied Electronics uprights. AE had never manufactured a self-climbing roof system before, so Humphrey went to the facility in Charlotte. “This was my first taste of seeing manufacturing in action, and I got really excited about the process.” At the time, Humphrey was also one of AE’s biggest dealers.

Mike Rampmeyer

The Sky’s the Limit

Mike Rampmeyer, the chief operations officer (COO) for the past 10 years at Applied, has an extensive background in concert and special event productions.

“Applied has always responded to the needs of the marketplace,” Rampmeyer says, “by developing new products as the market evolves. We are unique in the fact that we have a full electrical division and full metal manufacturing under one roof. We are set up as a distributor with products that complement what we manufacture, such as CM Hoists.”

Applied is one of the top distributors in the U.S. for CM Hoists, largely because the hoists go hand-in-hand with AE roof systems, line array towers and other rigging applications. AE can also supply customers with Avolites lighting consoles and Vari-Lite intelligent lighting fixtures.

The combination of this product mix along with “sister” company Staging Dimensions (SD) enables AE to offer a turnkey solution for its dealers. “Production today very much supports the integration factor, and we are in a position to facilitate this,” notes Rampmeyer.

Staging Dimensions was originally located in Newport News, sharing the same building as AE.

“Time lines are the most stressful part of this business, as well as the most consistent challenge,” says Humphrey. “There is no tomorrow. Customers want their projects NOW. I started Staging Dimensions because the lead-time on getting staging was too long. It would take four weeks to get an order filled.”

He began building his own staging products to fill his project needs. Soon, demand for his staging products developed from sources outside Light Action projects.

“One of the things we do well at all three companies is, we have the capability to turn things around quickly, by having inventory ready to go. We have been designing custom pieces for a long enough time now to realize that certain standard components are required. Our efficiency in producing the customized piece increases by stocking these components on the shelf,” says Humphrey.

A new service introduced by Staging Dimensions falls into the scenic category. Often, a client will take a custom piece to a scenic company to have the pieced “wrapped,” or treated with scenic fabrications.

“This is a new direction we want our customers aware of,” Humphrey points out. “We have the infrastructure, manpower, and knowledge to design and complete that last piece of the puzzle internally.”

Staging Dimensions is now developing a new LED floor product utilizing a 6mm and 10mm panel. What makes theirs different is the surface in a structural panel. The structure of the deck is part of the LED tile. It does not need a subfloor, which eliminates the two-step process necessary with other LED floor products.

Beach Bowl stage with screen

Behind It All

Applied Electronics and its sister companies have enjoyed considerable customer loyalty over the last 35 years. “We have customers that have been with us 25 years now,” says Humphrey. “They started when we did. Our customer service emergency line has the phone numbers of Mike Rampmeyer with AE and Kim Moore from SD, so there is a direct link to someone that can deliver answers immediately.”

The company has sales offices in California, Minnesota, Florida, and Georgia. Staffed full time, these employees sell nothing but AE and SD products in those areas. “Our national dealer network around the country profits from this,” says Humphrey, “because our offices feed the dealers work.”

PA tower

Remarking on the over twenty-year tenure of many of his employees, he points out, “they are an invaluable asset that you can’t put a price tag on. Manufacturing is a kind of glorified construction worker field. The difference is we try to create a good work environment. They are paid more each year, and know the items they create are going to be used in a cool and entertaining way that makes them proud.”

“I let all my employees know that the customer is most important, and they are the second most important thing. Do your jobs better than the person that hired you, and you will always succeed.”

Motivating people is what gets Humphrey up these days. “For me, I will always love the manufacturing thing, but now it’s employing people that excites me. I have employees around my daughter’s age, and I am trying to figure how I make this interesting for somebody else that I work with each day.

“Patrick Dierson and I were talking the other day about programmers, how these days they are looking at ones and zeros. When we started out, we were painting a picture with light. It is a big challenge from an artistic standpoint, getting them to ‘see’ that.”

Finally, recalling the moment that set everything in motion 35 years ago, “I want our customers to be aware that they have a manufacturing company behind whatever products we have available.”

For more information about Applied Electronics and its affiliates, visit www.appliednn.com, www.lightactioninc.com and www.stagingdimensionsinc.com.