Tending to business despite a hurricane Corporate glitches are opportunities for those who solve them

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Susan McIntosh planned for everything but a hurricane. But in mid-August, Hurricane Felix pushed off the coast, creating havoc in the Carolinas -- and fogging in film mogul Steven Spielberg on Long Island.

Mr. Spielberg, pacing an airport in the Hamptons, was scheduled to fly to Pawtucket, R.I., and, with Hasbro chief Alan G. Hassenfeld, announce a joint project to make toys created by Mr. Spielberg and his new company, DreamWorks SKG.

Ms. McIntosh's company, Envision, had written Mr. Hassenfeld's speech, staged the event and erected a 25-foot-square video wall in a tent behind Hasbro's headquarters. The company also had reserved satellite time to broadcast the event to Hasbro workers in Cincinnati, London and other sites.

When the weather didn't clear, Envision rewrote the scene and found Mr. Spielberg by phone. The meeting would take place as a live broadcast telephone hookup before thousands of Hasbro workers. Still, Ms. McIntosh held her breath when Mr. Hassenfeld, on stage, asked, "Steven, are you there?"

"Yes," Mr. Spielberg replied.

The event came off without a hitch.

"We get a lot of short-fuse stuff," said Ms. McIntosh, president of the Boston-based Envision. "But this was hairy."

For Ms. McIntosh and others like her, solving corporate glitches is part of a growing industry called "business theater" -- staging big events for clients who want to roll out new products, inspire sales teams or announce new directions.

"It's like opening night at the theater -- and you have no second chances," Ms. McIntosh said.

It's big business, too.

Last year, non-Hollywood and non-TV production companies generated $3.5 billion in sales by making films, slides, videos and staging events for businesses and the government.

"It's growing," said Thomas Hope, owner and editor of the Hope Report, which tracks industry sales and other statistics.

According to Mr. Hope, there are about 7,600 U.S. companies, or "contract producers," who create media for corporations and government agencies. Boston is the sixth-biggest market for such services, he said.

And Envision, he said, is among the top 50 companies whose sales last year ranged from $5 million to $100 million.

Corporate downsizing is fueling the growth among producers, Mr. Hope said. Most big companies resisted trimming their in-house media operations -- until a few years ago, he said.

"What's happening now is the big corporations have been closing down their video operations," Mr. Hope said. "The people on the outside, the Envisions of the world, have been picking that up."

Indeed. Since 1981, the number of employees at Envision has doubled to 30. Sales have grown sevenfold, said Werner A. Low, chairman and creative director of the company.

"Since 1980, we have never lost money," Ms. McIntosh said. "We don't always make a lot. But we're not losing money."

It wasn't always that way. The company was founded in 1961 by entrepreneur Bernt Petterssen, who went on to start an ultralight aircraft company and a third company to make environmental films.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Envision made mostly educational and nonprofit films and slide programs. But the company was hit hard when the education market dried up.

"Between 1969 and 1978 we almost went of business three times," Ms. McIntosh said. "In those days we were small enough that when a recession hit, it hurt."

In 1980, several of the employees -- Mr. Low and Ms. McIntosh among them -- bought the company. To survive, Envision turned increasingly to producing slides, videos, meetings and events for corporate clients.

Since then, the company has done work for regional and national companies, among them Fleet Financial Group, BayBank, AT&T;, CVS, Gillette, IBM, Lotus Development, Coca-Cola USA, New England Telephone, Polaroid and Wang Laboratories.

The company has also worked with such entertainers as singers Dolly Parton and the Drifters, basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson and writer George Plimpton. It has staged shows in Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., the Palace Theatre in Hollywood and even Monte Carlo.

The Hasbro meeting between Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hassenfeld was a real challenge, Ms. McIntosh said. The company -- which was sworn to secrecy -- had just over a week to pull it off.

Another tough assignment: turn Atlanta's World Congress Center into a Hollywood diner for the company Computer Associates. For that event, Envision hired Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas to sing. She drove a '57 Chevy into the convention center.

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