Production company rides the New Orleans startup wave

NOVEMBER 13, 2012 | NEWS

By Donna Fenn, OPEN Forum

When Gary Solomon Jr. moved back to his native New Orleans in 2008, the NYU grad wasn’t at all sure there was a career path for him in his hometown. Fast forward four years and his production company, Solomon Group, is preparing for one its largest projects to date: designing, fabricating and installing CBS’s sets for its week-long coverage of Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. “We pitched against the largest television and sports design firm in the world and we got the job,” says 26-year-old Solomon. So how does a scrappy startup with just three years of experience under its belt compete with and beat the big guys?

Timing is Everything
Solomon, who studied theater and technical production, says that when he first returned to New Orleans, the city was still in a post-Katrina haze. So he initially went to work for an existing production company, joining two friends whose technical expertise complemented his creative skills. But as rebuilding picked up steam and entrepreneurial activity increased in New Orleans, the three became restless and struck out on their own.

“We wanted to provide production services to the live event market,” recalls Solomon. “But we didn’t own our own gear and we didn’t have a staff, so we ended up being middlemen between service providers and clients. There wasn’t a big value proposition.” Still, it gave Solomon and his partners, Steve Fink and Jonathan Foucheaux, exposure to the marketplace and the experience they needed to move to the next level.

Leveraging Early Success
In early 2009, Solomon Group landed a job that opened its founders’ eyes. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans hired the company to re-create Stage Door Canteen, an actual New York entertainment venue that entertained soldiers before they headed off to war. The permanent installation included a live show and a documentary film, and Solomon Group not only marshaled the resources to create it, but integrated all of the A/V, automation and control systems so that museum personnel could operate it with the flip of a switch. “It exposed us to the museum market,” says Solomon. “And we realized we could make money on permanent installations.” The partners also realized that they had a clear market advantage. Most other productions companies specialized in either cutting edge technology or the creative side of the business. With its three partners, Solomon Group had all bases covered.

The Next Level
In 2010, Solomon continued to land more business, but the company was still playing the middleman role, without the staff or resources to pull off big projects on its own. But that would change soon enough. After completing a $3.5 million technology and lighting project for an outdoor entertainment center called Champion Square, Solomon and his partners were admiring their work one evening. “We looked across the street at the Superdome and it was dark,” says Solomon. “And I thought that was silly.”

The renamed Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a symbol of New Orleans’ rebirth, was in the homestretch of a $300 million renovation and Solomon thought that lighting the perimeter would be a great finishing touch. So he came up with a solution that was both economical and energy-efficient and pitched it, bringing in both the management team at the Superdome, and the New Orleans Saints. Partnering with a Danish company, Solomon built an LED lighting system that now lights up the Superdome nightly with an array of changing colors and patterns. “That was the project that solidified us in people’s minds,” he says. “And that’s when we said, let’s do it right and start doing things in-house.”

Infrastructure for the Future
With a loan from a local bank, lines of credit, and some family savings, Solomon and his partners began growing the company by buying a small lighting and staging company in July 2011. The “middleman” role that the company had been playing would become obsolete as the partners invested in their own staff and equipment.

“In the last year and half, our volume has tripled,” says Solomon. “Our staff went from five or six to 80, and we’ll be at 100 by the end of this year.” The company, which stated in a single 2,000-square-foot office, now has three facilities including a 40,000-square-foot warehouse. Every bit of inventory and gear, says Solomon, is tracked via a cloud-based system.

Challenges on the Horizon
With the convention, tourism, and live entertainment industries growing rapidly in New Orleans, Solomon has been well positioned as a local player and a one-stop shop. The company will post a hefty $11 million in revenue this year, but Solomon knows that he’ll hit a wall unless he moves beyond New Orleans.

“A big part of our model is to get clients while they’re in New Orleans and then follow them,” he says. For instance, the company now does several events in a variety of locations for clients such as the Coast Guard Foundation and regional energy provider Entergy. But Solomon will need more clients like that to ensure future growth. He’s hoping that the plum Super Bowl contract with CBS will help him not only maintain the momentum he’s built up locally, but put his company on a highly visible national playing field.