Peter Hoffend, president of Rochester, NY-based rigging company Hoffend & Sons, can never be accused of resting on his laurels or the reputation of the 88-year-old company. Started in 1917 by his grandfather, noted scenery painter Aloysius J. Hoffend, the company thrived in painting scenery upstate and then shipping it down to Manhattan for Broadway or Vaudeville shows. After WWII, Don Hoffend Sr. (Aloysius' son) got involved with the company and created a series of counterweight systems that were installed in new schools being built all over the country. Hoffend & Sons was now in the rigging business, and it was thriving with the post-war construction boom.
Peter Hoffend began his tenure in the mid and late 1970s while he was in high school and college working in the manufacturing facility building some form of counterweight system as well as on the installation part, which took him around the world. “I got a real flavor for the counterweight system,” he says. “I also saw that their time was limited in terms of their functionality, usefulness, and safety issues.”
Then Hoffend detoured away from the family business for 15 years after he graduated college and worked as an investment banker, another job that took him around the world. Meanwhile, Hoffend & Sons developed an automated rigging control system in the 1980s specifically for Venezuela's National Opera House called the MicroCommander, which was very well received throughout South America and Europe and “really put the company on the map as far as automation is concerned,” Hoffend says. That map was read by an Austrian competitor vying for a job in Spain in 1992. The Austrian company made Don Hoffend an offer he couldn't refuse and Hoffend & Sons was completely bought out and assets were liquidated in the US by 1993.
But Peter Hoffend was by no means out of the picture; his cousin, Don Hoffend Jr., contacted him about an idea he had for a mass-produced rigging control system. “My cousin thought that I might have some ideas based on my financial background on how to get this system produced,” Hoffend explains. “I thought that if we do it in a ‘Henry Ford’ way, we could completely revolutionize the industry.” Hoffend is referring to Ford's creation of the assembly line. That's exactly what they did and the Vortek was born, or at least began gestating.
That gestation lasted for about a decade because, as Hoffend says, they could not just create and sell the Vortek in 1993. “We had to develop it over a 10-year period through the technology evolutions that came out of the large projects we were on.” Hoffend worked on the “O” theatre at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, which included over 200,000lbs. of rigging steel, a 10-ton carousel, and winches above the massive pool. Other projects where the Vortek system was installed include the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, The National Theatre of Uruguay, the Sanger Theatre in Mobile, AL, and many more. “The technology that the Vortek brings together is a derivative of so many of the projects that we've done,” he says. “Those projects also served to finance the Vortek as well as perfect the technology.”
According to Hoffend, the Vortek has allowed the company to offer an economical automated rigging package for the masses. “A high-end opera house would normally cost $250,000 or more, but we're doing it for a fraction of that,” he says. “We tapped into a need in the industry where counterweight rigging was king. And the fact that it's a fully assembled product — there are no welds, saw, or torch cuts — means it's a lot easier to control all your dimensions. We produced the very first assembly line for an entire rigging system.”
The Vortek was officially unveiled at LDI in 2003 where it quickly won the Rigging Product of the Year Award (it also won an ED Staging Product of the Year Award in 2004), but it was long after the system had been alpha and beta tested at different sites around the country, which took up to five years. “If we sunk this enormous investment into this product and we didn't have a fully finished system, this business venture would be a disaster,” he says. “We couldn't go out there and deliver products that are not field tested.” The five sites that aided the company also received-free of charge-brand new versions of the Vortek, as a thank you for their feedback and research and development.
Moving from a projects company to a manufacturing company was not an easy process and there were plenty of growing pains. Hoffend is grateful for the team of investors the company assembled who believed in the Vortek as much as the Hoffends did. “You can't get from here to there without a lot of pain,” Hoffend comments. “We simply put all of our funding into research and development so that we would have a glorious product.”
Hoffend contends that the Vortek has changed the world of stage rigging, a world that has not been changed in over one hundred years. “A lot of terrific stuff is going to be developed from this technology,” he says. “We're really the story of the tortoise and the hare, and we've been the tortoise in this story.”