For the sixth year in a row, Apollo Design Technology has received ESTA's Dealers Choice Award for Customer Service. To be that well liked in the industry for such a long run, the Fort Wayne, IN, custom gobo maker must be doing something right. “The only competitive advantage we have is our technology and our customer service,” says Joel Nichols, president and co-owner with his wife Keersten.

“I want the first encounter a customer has with us on the phone to be with a live person,” he explains. “And in the hiring process we make sure that our inside sales people are customer service oriented. It's that simple. I cannot train somebody to have a good attitude.”

Before entering the world of customized gobos, Nichols worked in the manufacturing and inspection realm of the steel industry. A college drop out, Nichols was studying agriculture but lost his inspiration after two and a half years. Fortunately, he was always interested in business and admits he cannot live without Fortune magazine or The Wall Street Journal. He also admits he was not prepared to be in the entertainment technology industry but does not think that is necessarily a bad thing. “Everything is fresh,” he says of taking the plunge into a new industry. “I had no allegiances and no prejudices.”

Nichols delved into entertainment industry magazines and contacted customized gobo/stencil dealers and what he heard was not rosy. There were only a handful of manufacturers who made customized gobos in the early 90s and, according to Nichols, they did not want to make them in the first place.

So in 1992, the Nichols got a phone number for Apollo (named after their horse who stars in their logo), ordered some computers, and it took six months to get the first order. Their second order came four months after the first. Nichols believes that this slow start was one of the keys to Apollo's success.

The company initially grew because Nichols says there was a demand that simply was not being met in the industry in a satisfactory manner or at a satisfactory price. “For fast growth in any company there must be multiple things that come together at the same time. For us, the demand and need for the metal custom gobos and the lack of service, price point, and the fact that nobody would step up to the plate gave us our first shot of growth,” he says.

“When we went into glass color and black and white gobos, there was a void and, again, we were able to fill it. At the same time the technology came together for a higher resolution gobo rather than the ‘through a five-gallon bucket’ theory. Technology, demand, and production processes fed on each other and that pushed our growth.”

The company's more recent growth has been due to its gradual transition into technology outside of gobos, such as rotators, scrollers, gels, and other products. The new products also played well with Apollo's current dealer/distributor relationships because it allowed them to get their foot in the door with a new product. “They may already love us for our gobos so they will talk to us about our rotators,” Nichols explains. “Our pre-existing relationships allowed us to introduce products over the last two years. They will give you the time to talk about your new products and if they don't need it right away, when they do they will give you a call. And they always call.”

Today Apollo employs more than 60 in a 30,000 sq.ft. facility. Nichols feels that staying on top of new technologies will maintain Apollo's competitive advantage. “We are in a technology-driven industry; what works today may not work tomorrow,” he says. “We really want to be a technology-driven company with an in-house engineering department that can specify design products and processes. If we do that right and maintain customer service, we'll do a good job.”