Bill Sapsis, president of Sapsis Rigging, is not a superstitious man, because a superstitious man would not start his own business on a Friday the 13th. In the middle of a recession. Yet that's exactly what Sapsis did when he embarked on Sapsis Rigging on Oct. 13, 1981. “It was just me and my pickup truck in those days,” he says. “I started with nothing, so the only direction to go in was up. We slowly built it up from there with install work for other companies and manufacturers. Once the company's reputation grew, we started picking up our own work.”
The first company's first major project was for Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, PA. “They wanted this monster divider curtain on a great big gothic arch that needed to be double-sided, tab-motorized,” Sapsis explains. “We were probably in way over our heads and we knew it. But we got the job done. We didn't make a penny but it was a nice job when we were done.”
Growing Sapsis Rigging has been a two-pronged endeavor — the company's reputation via word of mouth and simply being in the right place at the right time. As an example, Sapsis cites the company's involvement with the Palladium nightclub in Manhattan in 1984. “We were hired as the club's riggers and we got to know a lot of people who worked there,” he explains, “and from those contacts, we kind of spread out. We do a lot of fashion work from Palladium contacts.” One Palladium, contact in particular was Robert Isabell who was a “budding” designer at the time; Isabell is now president of Robert Isabell, Inc., a leading event design and production company in New York City. “Robert introduced us to a couple of PR companies and that eventually led to being Calvin Klein's technical director for a couple of years. That doesn't sound like rigging, but it is — somebody's gotta hold all that stuff up in the air. I had the added task of making sure that the scenery didn't fall down.”
While work was fairly steady throughout the 1980s, when the 1990s dawned, Sapsis says that's when “all hell broke loose and everyone was working full-tilt boogie as fast as they could.” It was at this time that the company started a catalog business, which proved very successful, as did the special events division. However, as with many companies in a variety fields, 9/11 drastically hurt the rigging, trussing, and events business, but it is slowly coming back, Sapsis says.
In the lean times, Sapsis has had to resort to layoffs, but the employees always seem to come back to him. Sapsis Rigging also has a liberal leave policy; if an employee gets the opportunity to work on a tour or a movie, they are encouraged to leave and do the gig knowing that their old job will be waiting for them when it's done. “This is the rigging business,” Sapsis says. “I spent a lot of time, energy — and yes, money — training the people who work for me. They've spent a lot of time and energy working, and there's a lot of investment there on both sides. Neither one of us wants to toss it aside. This industry is full of people who — myself included — really like the running around and being transient, and the gypsy nature of it. If one of my guys has that opportunity, I tell him, ‘We'll be here when you get back.’”
This flexibility is one way that Sapsis tries to keep all 10 of his full-time employees happy, “which is not as easy as it sounds. Treat employees as honestly and fairly as possible. We watch each other's back and try not to burn the candle at both ends. It doesn't always work, but we try.” Simple though it may sound, Sapsis' theories have obviously worked since most of his employees have been with him an average of 10 years.
When it comes to dealing with his customers, Sapsis always gives them the benefit of the doubt. “As trite and as insipid as it sounds, the customer is always right even when they're dead wrong,” he says. “It's not just a question of making sure the customer gets what they want, it's finding out what the customer needs and making sure they get it because they don't always know what they need.” Sapsis explains that many customers are not as experienced in the world of rigging and trussing so they're not quite sure about what will work best for a particular job. Sapsis tries to understand exactly what the customer wants to do and he can often come up with a better solution. “The bottom line is, it's the rigging business and we have to make sure that it's right,” he says. “You get the wrong lighting equipment and you get the wrong light on stage. You get the wrong rig and it falls down.”
Sapsis has special words of praise for his head of sales, Ildelis Cruz. “We should all be at least half as good as she is,” he says adding that he even has customers so impressed by Cruz that they are going to name their children — daughters, presumably — after her.
As the industry goes from manual to more automated systems in general, Sapsis Rigging is making the change as well and Sapsis sees the company's safety division becoming an even more important part of the business. “I see that growing and becoming even more the core of our business than it is now,” he says. “We'll definitely be doing more inspections, training, maintenance, and fall-arrest issues. Installations will always be there, and I'm hoping that special events will always be there because they're such good fun, but I don't know how that industry will grow.”
Being Calvin Klein's TD of choice and rigging holiday decorations for President Clinton at the White House three years in a row are impressive accomplishments for the company. But Sapsis stresses that to really succeed, an attention to detail is vital, as is an ability to look at the lighter side and take everything in stride. “This industry is nothing if not a roller coaster ride,” he says, “and if you can't enjoy a roller coaster, don't get on.”