Amidst all the developments of this tumultuous autumn, a significant industry anniversary passed with little notice. Vari-Lite Inc. turned 20. It was on September 25, 1981, that a Genesis concert in Barcelona, Spain, featured moving light units called Vari*Lites, an event which essentially transformed the lighting industry.

Since then, many other companies have sprung up, offering designers an astonishing array of choices. The growing competition has caused many problems for Vari-Lite, which spent much of the 90s mired in litigation over intellectual property rights. There have been other problems as well; the company went public in the 90s and its stock price suffered a deep decline from which it has not yet recovered. However, Vari-Lite at 20 is a significantly different company, having undergone many changes in the past couple of years. Once a rental-only operation, it now offers a line of products for sale. Along with this has come a stepped-up marketing effort with former rival Bob Schacherl, once of High End Systems, coming onboard as vice president of sales and marketing.

Speaking of Schacherl, Rusty Brustché, the company's CEO, says, “To have him become available and be willing to come work with us is a great thing, because he has an enormous amount of experience. We need someone to help us learn how to sell equipment. That's the biggest challenge — to go from a rental operation to a sales operation.” Because Vari-Lite will rent and sell product, he adds, “We're going to organize two divisions. Vari-Lite Production Services will be the rental side, and the manufacturing side will be Vari-Lite Inc.” As a result, he says, “We'll be adding a lot of staffing on the manufacturing side, in the sales organization.” Key to this effort will be the creation of a Vari-Lite dealer network. “We have regional sales managers, and they'll be setting up dealers in their regions,” he adds. Major hires in September included Craig Burross, Sean Hoey, and John MacDowell as regional sales managers.

Looking to the future in terms of product, Brustché says, “I think we need to drive the cost of the technology down and increase functionality. That's what we're concentrating on — building better products at a lower price.” Without being specific about any LDI launches, he continues, “We're excited about the product we're introducing this year, as it has a lot of features and a really great price point.” As for consoles, the plan is to further develop the Virtuoso DX, which was introduced last year. “We've had focus groups where we've gathered input from people on their issues with the product, as well as additional features they'd like to see.”

Reviewing the last few years, Brustché says, “I've think we've gone through a difficult period, because we're basically trying to change what it is we do. It's been a long process to sell off certain divisions and to focus primarily on Vari-Lite, and to create product for the sales side. We need to get some momentum with our earnings, then we'll start marketing to the financial markets a bit more.” It's a big order for a nervous industry in a troubled world, but don't underestimate Vari-Lite's powers of reinvention. There may be many more anniversaries in the company's future.