Alcorn McBride: The Comfort Zone

by Eric Minton

It is the oddest office configuration; but it's right, too. Visitors to Alcorn McBride's headquarters in Orlando, Florida, pass through the snack room on their way from the lobby to the sales, marketing and engineering offices. Why would a company put its kitchenette, usually relegated to the end of a back hall, right next to its comfy-chair and della-robbia reception area?

"The first thing you do is offer guests coffee or a soda, so we put it right there where the guests first come in," says Steve Alcorn, president of the world's largest manufacturer of show control, audio/video playback and lighting control equipment for themed entertainment.

Many companies talk about putting customers first; Alcorn McBride does that even in the layout of its office. Many companies tout customer relations; Alcorn McBride touts customer relationships, whether those customers are end users, installers, one of 12 distributors around the world or the company's own employees. As that kitchenette expresses in its placement, Alcorn McBride expresses in its business philosophy: "Make yourself comfortable."

"They are a family-style organization," says Debbi Merritt, director of business development at EXP Productions, an experiential marketing firm based in Orlando. "They've even slept on the floor during some of our installations. That's how dedicated they are, working literally around the clock to make sure the job is done right before they leave. These are some of my favorite, favorite folks."

"I like the equipment, I like the company, I like Steve, I like his people. He takes care of me," says Brian Edwards, president of Edwards Technology, Inc., an El Segundo, California, theme environment designer. "If I get into trouble, he's around. I've been able to call him 24 hours a day. You know how these projects are at the end when you're trying to meet a deadline, and when I needed him he's performed. That what we need in this world, people you can rely on."

Alcorn McBride's devotion to customers has its roots in the company's founding as a consulting engineer firm. Aerospace engineer Alcorn started in the theme park industry helping Disney's Epcot Center open in 1982. His first assignment was the American Adventure show, a "massive, complex show," he says, using animatronics, moving sets, audio-visual effects and film to dramatize historical events. "It was a real panic to get everything ready for Epcot's opening day," Alcorn says. "We had to improvise a lot." During the last few desperate weeks he even re-programmed a computer intended for park-wide monitoring to serve as part of the show control system.

Another ride that struggled to open was Journey Into Imagination, where the vehicles were stalling on top of the ride's complex electronics. Recalls Alcorn: "Why they put half the electronics in the track I'll never understand. I latched on to this guy who was a co-op student, Jim Carstensen (now a project engineer for Alcorn McBride). One night we went in there and chopped out all the electronic equipment in the tracks and wired the sensors directly to the ride computer. Bypassing that stuff greatly reduced the complexity of the ride. We opened the next week."

Alcorn spent most of the next year programming Epcot's park-wide monitoring system. "Without it, we couldn't have opened Horizons."

Three different Epcot projects, three goals: "Show control, ride control and monitoring, which turned out to be the core of what Alcorn McBride was founded to do," Alcorn says.

He didn't jump directly from Disney to entrepreneurship. He worked for a couple of other engineering firms before striking out on his own in 1986 with his own consulting firm that "eventually and inevitably" received a theme park industry commission: show control for the Los Angeles Zoo's new children's zoo. "There was nothing on the open market that did the things we needed, the way we'd learned at Epcot. So, we built a custom board to do those installations. We liked it so much we put it in a box, called it the V16 and generalized the software and drivers." Disney used the V16 in its Wonders of Life attraction at Epcot and adopted it for video control throughout Euro Disneyland.

Suddenly, Alcorn McBride was a manufacturer. "That product grew into an assortment of show control and audio products, which gradually began to take over the business," Alcorn says. "We went from being 100 percent consulting to less than 50 percent consulting in a couple of years." Today, manufacturing comprises about 90 percent of Alcorn McBride's business with 17 products encompassing audio and video playback, show control, lighting control, and networking. "We're the only vendor that provides show and lighting control and audio and video that work together," Alcorn says.

On product quality alone, Alcorn McBride would be a leading vendor. That's one of the reasons Deloitte and Touche recognized Alcorn McBride as one of the fastest growing technology companies in Florida three years in a row.

"Whenever there's a technology need, Alcorn McBride is the first company we talk to," says EXP Productions' Merritt, who worked 18 years as a Disney manager where she became acquainted with Alcorn McBride products. EXP produces non-print advertising for clients by translating brands into experiences, such as trade shows, conferences, special events, exhibits or branded shows for themed attractions like those at Disney parks. "Coming from a theme park background, I know you have to deliver the same quality show on the first day and final day of that show or exhibit. That could be 10 years down the road. With the experience I have of Alcorn McBride products, I know that will be the case."

Jeremy Scheinberg, a Project Engineer for eight years with Alcorn McBride, describes a letter he received from a former Disney employee doing work at non-Disney Hong Kong attraction. "He opened a door and saw a whole rack of Alcorn McBride equipment," Scheinberg says. "He said, 'You can't get away from your stuff, it's everywhere.'" It's in theme parks, restaurants, urban entertainment centers, retail stores, museums, zoos, cruise ships, visitor centers and who knows where else. Alcorn McBride doesn't know because so much of its sales comes from distributors, and the company seldom learns of the end application. Merritt notes that a benefit of Alcorn McBride equipment is its application across the whole spectrum of venues and mediums EXP uses.

That Alcorn McBride equipment is so ubiquitous in the themed entertainment industry is one reason Edwards Technology is so comfortable working with it. "I have a lot of guys who know (Alcorn's) equipment well, so I don't have to worry about stuff," Brian Edwards says. "If we get in a jam and I need to get extra people to help program because we're running late, I've got a lot of guys who know his codes. I can sleep better knowing these guys can get everything done." Case in point: Legoland California. Alcorn McBride equipment outfitted the whole park, and thanks to construction delays nothing had been programmed two weeks before opening. A combination of Edwards programmers and Alcorn McBride staff accomplished a "crash-programming" effort with dozens of V16s, IO64s and Digital Binloops to get Legoland opened on time.

In addition to his own staff's expertise with Alcorn McBride equipment, Edwards knows he can call on Alcorn McBride itself any time. Be clear on one thing, though: Alcorn McBride does not provide tech support, at least not in the sense that such a phrase has come to denote. Better to call it engineering support or even designer support, for when you call for help, you just might end up talking to the person who designed the product.

Alcorn says he originally avoided creating a tech support service to save money. "We were too small to justify a separate department." That decision, though, reaped customer service brownie points and yielded an effective training program. Every newly hired engineer became the first stop for customer support calls, forcing the rookie to learn every one of the company's products.

Now that they're bigger, one Alcorn McBride engineer, Mike Polder, is dedicated full time to customer support. Polder loves audio production, guitar playing, and live sound mixing, so it's easy for him to establish an instant rapport with callers. If he can't answer their question, he accompanies the caller to the newest hire. If that engineer is stumped, the question goes on to the product's actual designer, with both Polder and the new engineer tagging along so they can learn the answer, too. Sometimes, even the designer is stumped. That usually leads to a new or improved product. "Some of our best ideas come from customers," Scheinberg says.

"The industry is small, and we want everybody to be happy because we want them to be a repeat customer," Alcorn says. "What customers would pay for from another company is free here, including unlimited telephone support, writing scripts, and, if we think we're at fault, traveling to the field to support a customer."

That support can go so far as selling rival equipment, says Scheinberg, who often invites customers to send him their plans for a free review. "I'll recommend a competitor's product if I think it better fits a project. We've had people spec our equipment when it isn't right for them, it's a square peg in a round hole. I'd rather help you out and not charge for that - get the right equipment there at the beginning - than have the wrong equipment at the end." This doesn't really hurt the bottom line, Scheinberg says. "Sales are obviously important to us, but we're not so desperate for sales we're going to sell you wrong equipment. In the end, that's what the customer will remember."

Alcorn McBride also understands, innately, the bureaucratic nature of project development that can be more complex than the equipment itself. "They don't get involved in the politics," Merritt says. "They're very diplomatic, able to work with what I call multiple masters." She cites her most recent work installing Alcorn McBride high definition Digital Video Machines and show controllers on a Kodak-sponsored preshow for Honey I Shrunk the Kids at three Disney parks. The January installation at Disneyland in California saw Scheinberg on the site "sometimes working 20 hours a day to get the job done without complaint," Merritt says. "At the end of the day, it's got to be right not just for their primary client, us, but for their extended clients, which in this case is Kodak and Disney."

It's smart business, but it's also the experience of having been in their clients' shoes that drives this philosophy. "When someone calls us on an emergency phone line at 4 in the morning and it's Opening Day and they just got their media three hours before, we can all relate because we've been there," Alcorn says. "We still might not be able to get it to play, but we can sympathize."

Serving customers-from their front lobby kitchenette to the design teams building prototypes in the conference room to engineers coaching panicked operators in pre-dawn hours-is the backbone of Alcorn McBride's business.

Making customers comfortable is its soul.

3300 S. Hiawassee Rd.
Bldg. 105
Orlando, FL 32835

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