Extra Strength

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ORLANDO, FL--Strong Communications began as a division of a larger company before breaking out on its own in the southeast AV market. Tom Wilmers, president and CEO of Strong, started in the AV business working for Blumberg Communications in Minneapolis, MN. He was moved to Orlando in 1996 to become regional manager for its new office, but Carabiner bought Blumberg shortly afterward when Blumberg starting falling apart.

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Strong Communications provided support for the Organization of American States conference.
Wilmers then left to start Strong. Wilmer had friends in Omaha at Ballantyne, the largest manufacturer of motion picture projection equipment. Ballantyne also dabbled in LCD projectors and produced spotlights like the Gladiator. In February 1998, Wilmer went to Ballantyne with the idea of creating a division within the company that would be Strong Communications to take over the clientele left after Blumberg folded and the larger corporations grew. Wilmers explained, "I worked out of my garage for a while after Carabiner took over. They were making this huge corporation and all the smaller clients and events were being pushed by the wayside. They didn't want to do the smaller ones and I thought that was a great opportunity; doing those drop off rental properties, doing some smaller corporate events. Once we got our foot in the door we started doing the bigger stuff and we grew."

When Strong started it acquired a lot of brand new equipment that it ended up sub renting out to other companies. Wilmers said, "We actually did a lot of cross-renting in the beginning to other AV companies like AVW because we had a bunch of new gear. Back in '98 most of these companies were updating, but we had all brand new screens and projectors, so they just went with us and we were able to create a good name for ourselves in the market with that." In October 1998, Strong opened an office in Fort Lauderdale, Wilmers' partner in the company Dave Jones head the branch, and Strong really started to take off. Wilmers began hiring more people to take on the bigger clients. His forward thinking caused a lot of original employees to stay with him throughout the years. Wilmers recalled, "I've always felt people are the key, and they do a great job taking care of clients. When we got started our guys were still taking about getting the Barco 808s, and I tried talking them out of it because of the advent of the LCD it made so much more sense to use that product, so we adapted with the change and they saw I was right."

To stay with the current market of changing technology, Wilmers tries to stay away from the buzz gear and get what makes sense. "Recently we've gotten into the JBL Vertec array system, much easier to set up, we've gotten some Shure digital mics that are easy to set up for the room. When new tech comes out we research it, find out who needs it, and jumped into it based on what our clients wanted us to have, not so much on what was the latest and greatest. If the tech is there and the clients are looking for it, and if we've go to take a class, learn the equipment, we'll have the expertise to get out there and start using it."

Strong works in a variety of markets, from corporate to smaller clients. It even acquires work from its crew of freelancers. Wilmers said, "We have a great group of freelancers and they get us business by mentioning us. They let clients know we'll do everything in our power to get the job done right for them."

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Strong provided an intuitive set design for Education Essentials' Gathering of Champions.
In January 2003, Wilmers bought Strong from Ballantyne, breaking away from the company to become private. Since then its staff has increased 50 percent and its revenue has doubled. Strong is expanding all over the place as well, with expansions planned in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, as well as a new building for the Orlando office. Wilmers expanded, "We're also getting half a million dollars in new gear; camera systems, audio, lighting. But as an owner and someone who doesn't have deep pockets like some in the industry, we have to be real careful. So I like to make sure we have the client base and the business there before any spending is done, but sometimes you got to stretch. It's okay to throw someone that's six feet tall in six foot six inches in water because they'll be able to tread water, swim, and bounce up and down. But if you throw the same guy in ten feet of water he's going to drown. So I tell my guys, we're just above the surface and treading water on some things, but let's make sure we got the business coming in to use that cash flow to grow."

When buying new gear Wilmers has learned to define priority from his clients' requests. "The first thing I look at is cross rentals, what are we spending the most on, and we end up buying it. If we're cross renting a lot of lighting maybe it's time we buy some. If we're doing several large shows at the same time over the course of a couple months, which is tough for a small company, and they're all using the same gear it will often prompt us to buy it because we'd be spending money anyways. There's some guys out there buying HD cameras and such right now, but the corporate market doesn't need HD. To try to charge our clients for it isn't our priority."

When it comes to cross rentals now, Strong doesn't need to rely on that business to make their name. Wilmers has found an efficient way to avoid using too much cross rentals himself. "We cross-rent from other companies and cross-rent to companies, so it's very reciprocal. But we're cross renting out a lot less recently. The business we have is solid and the relationships we've developed through cross-renting have been great." For more information visit www.strongcommunications.com.

OAS Assembly.JPG @cap:Strong Communications provided support for the Organization of American States conference.
M2 Onstage.jpg @cap:Strong provided an intuitive set design for Education Essentials' Gathering of Champions.

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