It's a truism that for companies to survive they must grow and diversify. But sometimes companies develop in unexpected ways, creating new structures that thrive even as they defy conventional models. Such a company is Le Maitre, which over its 20-plus-year history has gone through a number of significant changes to arrive at its status as a specialized manufacturer of smoke and pyro effects, with a unique international identity.
Le Maitre was started in England in 1977 by Rick Wilson and Martin Blake. Wilson was a rock-and-roll promoter and Blake a lighting designer. "I introduced him to a band called Status Quo, which was sort of a European ZZ Top," says Wilson. "For some reason, Martin was always grateful, so when he came up with the Pyroflash system, he asked me if I was interested in selling it for him."
The Pyroflash, still a mainstay of the Le Maitre product line, is described in the company's catalog as "now regarded as the safest preloaded pyrotechnics in the industry." Although selling the product meant a big career change for Wilson, the time, he notes, was ripe: "In 1977, the industry was easing off, so it was an opportune moment for me. Pyroflash was an instant success." However, with that success came new challenges. He adds, "We soon realized that we weren't going anywhere having the stuff made for us, so we built our own factory in 1980. Of course, we were well established by then."
The company was by then known as Le Maitre Lighting and Effects. In addition to the Pyroflash, the product line included mirror balls, pin spots, and the Pea Souper, the dry-ice fog machine which is still a key component of Le Maitre's lineup. The movement into fog machines was a major development for the company, says Wilson: "The only fog machines or smoke guns available in the theatre were converted insect machines, which were designed by the agricultural industry to kill insects. They were very hot and very horrible. Martin thought there was a better way of doing it. We did the Cloud Nine, which was the first commercially available smoke machine that was purpose-built for the job. It was an instant success and from there we developed the Mini Mist, which is still in production, and then the Smoke Processor." By 1986, he says, the company's success was assured: "The Pyroflash had become the largest-selling pyro in Europe, and we had certainly opened up the market for smoke machines."
However, if 1986 represented an early peak for Le Maitre, it was also the beginning of a difficult period. Martin Blake left the company and, says Wilson, "We sort of lost our way a little bit. We were doing really well--we were market leaders and were earning a lot of money. But what do you do for an encore? So we branched out. We bought a company called ICElectrics, which distributed twin decks, amplifiers, mixing consoles, and, would you believe, a bubble machine. We also bought Jivelight, an importer of Spanish and French effects. We formed a company called LSD--Light and Sound Distribution--and it worked well for a time. But, as a manufacturing organization, it took our eyes off the ball a bit. We let other people catch up with us, good companies like Jem, Rosco, and High End Systems."
The turnaround started in 1990, when, Wilson says, "we got back to our core business. We shrunk down to a proper size, and took on some really strong management from outside the industry. We pushed forward again."
At that point, Adrian Segeren entered the picture. Segeren, a Canadian and formerly an audio dealer, had a company named Genco Industries, which manufactured disco lighting products. He was well-acquainted with Le Maitre, which in 1990 was looking for a new distributor. "We traded with Adrian on a normal distributor basis for a while," says Wilson. It was, however, a relationship that was destined to grow. "We started distributing their products in Canada, then they offered us the US." Both parties agreed that, to maximize market share, a North American manufacturing facility was required. Hence, the companies created a joint venture in 1992 and Le Maitre Special Effects Inc. opened its doors in London, Ontario. The company independently manufactures and jointly develops new fog products with its British counterpart; it also continues to distribute the Pyroflash system.
When asked if the Le Maitre product line was an instant success in North America, Segeren says, "We experienced some significant growing pains the first few years and found it difficult to get market share. However, in 1994, we introduced the G300, and then we started to build some serious momentum. The G300 was not only one of the highest output fog machines available, it also operated as a water-based hazer using the newly designed micro-processed technology, which was a whole new approach to special effects." The G300 was followed by the Low Smoke Generator, the G150 continuous output fog machine, and the Neutron Pro Hazer, utilizing the patented S.T.A.R. (Sequentially Tracked Auto Re-issue) technology, which was named a 1998 Lighting Product of the Year by Lighting Dimensions' sibling publication Entertainment Design.
"New product development has been instrumental to the company's continued growth for the past five years," says Segeren, adding "the fact that we have a team of key people dedicated to our customers' success and satisfaction is the company's greatest asset." Recent years have seen an expansion in the research and development department as well as a new production management team in the London, Ontario, facility. Segeren further credits the company's ability to efficiently service both Canadian and American markets with a centrally controlled logistics department. US distribution is handled through the company's Port Huron, MI, facility, which is fully staffed and supplied with daily inventory transfers from Ontario. (Other key players on the Canadian side include David Petican, sales manager for the West Coast of the US and for all of Canada, and Jim Juniper, who handles US East Coast sales.)
Segeren looks after themed entertainment sales, an area that Wilson credits him with developing for Le Maitre (the company's products are used extensively in both Universal's and Disney's theme parks, among other places). He notes that many themed projects are particularly complex and require purpose-built systems, which often lead to the development of new products. "One thing we brought to the theme park business was the Fluid Management System," he says. The system consists of a central fluid supply via 55-gallon drums that remotely fill each machine as needed.
Theme parks, however, are not the whole story with Le Maitre; recent projects featuring the company's products include a variety of themed retail environments and the Broadway musical Footloose, Kiss' Psycho Circus tour, and the Rugrats arena show. The current cruise line boom has provided the company with new areas of expansion--Le Maitre products are used on Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, and the new Disney cruise ships as well.
As for the future, Segeren adds, "There are quite a few things on the drawing board at this time. I can't elaborate, but there some unique diversifications planned over the next two or three years." It seems the evolution of Le Maitre is set to continue for some time to come.