Behind the Scenes

John Camm's Vermont company furnishes things we never see for productions the world over

by Bill Simmon

In the world of theatrical production, they are called "lamps." Professionals in the motion picture industry call them "globes." To the rest of us, they look like light bulbs. John T. Camm, owner and president of Production Advantage in South Burlington, calls these specialized theatrical lights "inventory." When the hit Broadway show Miss Saigon was on a world tour, the producers called Camm's company for lamps, lighting gels and gaffer's tape, and Production Advantage delivered them to China.

Wiggle lights, 9-volt batteries, gaffer's tape, globes, sound equipment: This is the stuff John Camm's dreams are made on. His South Burlington company, Production Advantage, ships production materials to film and theatrical clients everywhere.

"If the Tommy tour is in Chicago and the next stop is Cleveland," Camm says, "they'll call us up and say, 'We want four cases of gaffer's tape in Cleveland tomorrow,' and we get it there."

Operating out of a small office adjacent to a 4,500-square-foot warehouse near the South Burlington-Williston border, Production Advantage ships theatrical production materials to clients all over the world. Along with expendable items like lamps, tape and batteries, the company sells lighting fixtures, dimming hardware, rigging hardware, sound equipment, fabric anything a theatrical or musical production might need.

Camm got into the production business in the 1970s as a sideline, doing lighting for local rock bands. "My wife, Carol, was asked to play "Stairway to Heaven" on the acoustic guitar for a girlfriend who was getting married," he explains. "The fellow who taught her to do that was in a just-out-of-high school local band, and she became the band's manager."

Camm kept his day job as marine superintendent for Lake Champlain Transportation Co., but pretty soon, he was also building light shows for area bands. He and Carol started a fledgling company called Rock Light Engineering. When they divorced in 1979, Carol continued to run the business for about a year. "She then sold it to another local fellow, who was one of our customers." That was Andrew Mack, who re-named it Vermont Theatrical Supply. This was not, however, the last Camm would see of the business.

In 1983, he had what he calls "a mid-life crisis" and went to work for Mack at Vermont Theatrical. He started as a technician and eventually became sales manager. After six years, he decided to strike out on his own, and in September of 1990, he founded Production Advantage.

Production Advantage has 13 employees, including Camm; Sheryl Begin is an outsourced IT professional who "smacks the computers around," according to Schraffenberger.

From the start, Camm positioned Production Advantage to fill a niche distinct from that of Vermont Theatrical. For instance, Production Advantage is a sales-only company no rentals; no production work; and Production Advantage's market area is national. Despite doing business with the University of Vermont and St. Michael's, Middlebury and Johnson State colleges, less than one-half of 1 percent of the company's business comes from within Vermont. Another difference is that Production Advantage does not operate a storefront, but is set up as a fulfillment center, filling phone, fax, mail and e-mail orders from the warehouse.

Camm stocks as much as he can in the warehouse, but that was not always the case. "Originally everything was drop-shipped," he says. "You would call me and say, 'I need five of these,' and I would pick up the phone and call somebody else and have them ship you your order. But you can't do that ad infinitum because it's crazy. Sometimes people want one of something, and before you pick up the phone, you've lost money." Over the years, Camm has begun keeping the more popular items in stock, and now the company maintains half a million dollars' worth of inventory.

If a customer has a need for a specialized item, Production Advantage will stock it. The Miss Saigon show, for example, used German-made spotlights that required special bulbs, which weren't made or stocked in the United States. Camm and company had to get them from Europe and have them on hand for quick delivery. Recently, customers have become interested in high-tech items. "The new hot thing is what we call 'wiggle lights,' or intelligent lighting fixtures," he says. "You see them especially in rock shows. That's what's hot."

Sometimes, however, it's the little things that count. Production Advantage does a booming business in batteries lots of batteries: 9-volts, AAs, C-cells, D-cells. "The 9-volts are the biggies," he says, "because they go into the wireless headsets that everybody uses, and they always change the batteries before every show. We sell tens of thousands of these things."

When asked to describe a typical day, Camm smiles. That's because his answer depends on what time of year the question is asked. In the warm months, he arrives at the office dutifully at 7:30 in the morning, has a meeting with his general manager (and company vice president) David Schraffenberger, and sets to work scouring the Internet for his competitors' prices and catalogs and making phone calls to his vendors. In wintertime, his day is quite different.

"I've got a 42-foot sailboat in the Caribbean," he explains, "I spend all winter there. I call it my comp time, and my employees tell people who ask for me, 'He's on a sails call.'" Camm might be sailing, but he does keep his hands in the business from his remote base. "They FedEx me stuff once a week wherever I am so I can look over the financial stuff," he says, "I've got a phone on the boat so I call and talk to my general manager every week and keep in touch."

The job wasn't always so filled with leisure time. In the early days, Camm did everything from taking the orders to packing and shipping the product right from his own house. "I'd get up at 6 o'clock, make a cup of coffee, I'd get the cigarettes going, and I'd be on the phone you know, 'buy, sell, buy, sell,' and I didn't have any of this infrastructure." When the UPS truck arrived at 8 a.m. with new inventory, it went straight into what at the time passed for a warehouse the laundry room. At noon it was out to the mailbox to sort the checks from the bills. A bank trip before 3 p.m. beat the school buses to the roads.

"I had a regular routine," Camm says. "I'd go down, put the money in the bank, come back, and I'd have maybe five or 10 orders on the answering machine by that time." He would pack up the new orders, drive them to UPS, ship them off, go back home and work until 11 at night. "Then you'd get up and do it all over again," he says. "I loved it; it was just great. I mean, I was psyched!"

Business was good, too. "The first four years we doubled our volume," he says. "It was just incredible."

After three years of running the young business by himself, Camm hired someone his daughter. Then he hired his daughter-in-law, then more employees came onboard, and in the summer of '95, it was clear that the business was just too large to continue operating out of his home. After all, he quips, he had to have someplace to put his laundry.

According to John Camm, David Schraffenberger (background), his general manager and vice president, "runs the place," especially when Camm is on "sails" calls. In the foreground, Dan Lanpher (left), customer service trainee, works with Deborah Butt, customer service rep.

He moved to the lower level of the Champlain Mill, where the business stayed for three years before relocating to its current home in 1998. "Now we have 12 employees besides myself and we're looking at expanding," he says. "We need to move into another facility that's got more space than we've got here."

Production Advantage's client list is impressive. Along with Miss Saigon, other well-known outfits have used the company's services, including Phantom of the Opera, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and the Universal Ballet of Korea. Disney's Broadway hit Aida is a current customer.

Despite big-city names like these, however, it is not in the large metro centers that Production Advantage does its best business. "Usually in a metro area, there's at least one big supplier like us there," Camm says, "and if you can go down the street, why would you call us and have it shipped from Vermont?" So the more suburban and rural parts of the country are Production Advantage's bread and butter.

Of course, Vermonters find the company's location perfect. "That's a great bunch of people over there," says Bill Kneen who, with his wife, Terrie, has operated KPS Productions in Richmond for 25 years."We rent out theatrical lighting, and they're our largest supplier." The Kneens have bought gear from Production Advantage since the company's inception.

Why, though, would a college theater department in rural Illinois choose Production Advantage over a closer, Chicago competitor? "We've made serious inroads into I guess what some of our competitors might call 'their territory,'" Camm explains, "because we try to treat our business customers like LL Bean treats their customers. We make it easy for them to do business. We do that, and a little more aggressive pricing than the industry average."

Still, being in Vermont, far away from the action, is a bit of a hindrance to business, says Camm, who claims that being closer to the geographic center of the country would be better for sales, because both coasts would be within easy shipping distance. "We do a substantial amount of business in California, but we'd do a lot more if we were open at 9 at night and if we could get our stuff there using UPS ground service. It's five business days, and six to be safe, to California. There's a whole market that we're never going to have as much of a chunk of as we would have if we were as close as we are to, let's say, New York."

The question of moving the business meets resistance, however. "We've talked about it," says Camm, but "everybody is from here and they wouldn't want to go, and I wouldn't want to go, either."

Andrew Wallace (left), works in general fulfillment and spends part of his day in the warehouse chasing down problems. Robert Kenyon is supply chain management expeditor/procurement clerk, and Howard Hogan is a warehouseman.

Despite the fact that he is not technically a native Vermonter his parents moved here from Connecticut when he was three months old Camm's ties to the state are strong. His family is here, his grandmother was a feature writer for The Burlington Free Press for many years, and a recent fascination in genealogy has turned up some unexpected connections to the state.

"I just joined the Sons of the American Revolution," he says, "because I found out that one of my ancestors, a fellow by the name of Joseph Little, was not only one of the founders of Springfield, but he was one of the patriots in the Revolutionary War."

So this patriot's son will let his thriving and growing business stay in Vermont for the foreseeable future, and despite needing to grow into a larger space, Camm hopes he won't have to move too far from the South Burlington location, which is convenient for his employees. When the move becomes necessary, so be it. After all, the show must go on.

Originally published in July 2003 Business People-Vermont