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Change is one constant For La Vigne and DVS
Is this any way to run a business?
“Yeah, this is how I want to run things. Everybody’s got to be involved,” said La Vigne, whose 28-employee firm operates under an open-book philosophy and offers profit-sharing after donating 15 percent of profits. “The only way everybody will take ownership is if they have skin in the game.”
And the game is in constant flux at DVS, which CEO and Chairman La Vigne founded in 1993 as Digital Video Services with loans from family and friends to offer audio and video duplication and supplies. Dramatic changes in technology, particularly the Internet and convergence, spurred the company’s evolution and prompted a reorganization and rebranding.
“One of the things I’ve said since the beginning is the need to communicate always exists. The method by which you communicate changes,” La Vigne said. “The business we’re in is communications. We’re always going to have a business. We’re always going to find a need for our services, but if we’re going to stay relevant, we do have to change the methods by which we communicate.”
La Vigne said this year he expects sales to land between $2 million and $2.5 million.
“We’ve literally done work with thousands of companies over the years: local, regional, national and international, advertising agencies, corporations, nonprofits, educational, market, governmental units,” La Vigne said.
He founded the company, which he owns with his wife, Dawn, after working in broadcast engineering and marketing. The small Grand Rapids firm where he was vice president of sales and marketing fell apart after he’d been on the job for just a year.
“I went to my family and my best friend’s father, who was my mentor at the time, and I put together a business plan and presented it to them and asked them to help fund it. And they were generous and helped to give me the seed money to start the company,” La Vigne said.
“I started with 30 VHS decks and all the wholesale media, lining everything up and connecting it and getting it going. I would sell by day and do the duplication work by day, and at night time, I would sit and do the books and all the filing and paperwork and all that.”
He rented space behind a Wyoming insurance agency for the equipment and kept his office in his basement.
“I set aside $20,000 to live on for the first year, and I said, OK, we’ll give it 12 months. If, at the end of 12 months, there’s no more money, then there’s no more company, and I’ll go find another job. I’ve never had to look back.”
After nine months, the company outgrew its space. La Vigne found bigger quarters. In 1994, he hired his first employee.
“When we started off, it was VHS duplication, professional beta cam spot duplication for TV spots. Then we saw the upcoming need for additional services, engineering services and support services for the production of videos and that. So we ended up buying video editing equipment. We had a couple clients that wanted us to edit their TV shows, so we began offering those additional services.”
After five years, the company moved to its current location, with 10,000 square feet, including a warehouse and a moveable back wall should the day for further expansion arrive. With 500 video decks and stacks of VHS tapes, the space was a welcome feature.
Then the compact disk era arrived, quickly followed by DVDs. CDs and DVDs take up a lot less space and also demanded a shift in the company’s business plan. Today DVS has just 50 video decks.
“We started doing authoring of interactive programs as opposed to straight video,” La Vigne said. “After that, we saw the next wave coming and that was the switch from CDs to DVDs. We started authoring DVDs.”
The company also got into the Web applications and site development business.
“We were into the Internet right off the bat in the early days,” he said. “One of our clients had a client out on the lakeshore who wanted to update and improve their website. …We did a tandem pitch. That opened our eyes to the whole potential of the Web and what you can do with video on the Web. At that time … video and the Web were two totally divergent things; they were not converged as they are now. So I actually started a separate company called Pelco Solutions and set that up as the Web company.”
Along the way, the company has leveraged media to suit clients’ needs for communication solutions. For example, a 2008 corporate training for Amway associates stretched media applications in new ways. Web-based corporate training is common in the U.S., La Vigne said. But Amway operates around the globe.
“Now, what do you do in the country of Thailand, where the Internet penetration is 7 percent, in 2008 terms? You can’t ask them to log into your learning management system and learn the content. We said, let’s take a look at what’s available in the way of technology and what these people have and are comfortable with,” he said.
What DVS found was that cell phones and black market DVDs were common there. So the company developed a learning and testing system that used DVDs and cell phones in Thailand and then uploaded that data to the Web for access by Amway in the U.S.
“Now you’ve taken something that was a paper process for a country that doesn’t have Internet penetration and brought them into the realm of the Internet,” he said.
La Vigne grew up in Trenton, the youngest of three sons born to Ernest, a French and Spanish teacher, and Shirley, an X-ray technician. His father and grandfather also operated La Vigne Construction, which did concrete work.
“I grew up around business. I grew up pushing wheelbarrows full of cement and using tools and digging holes,” he said.
When La Vigne was in high school, United Cable set up a public access cable television station.
“I went through the access class there and started volunteering and just loved it. At Trenton High School, we actually had a class you could take on that. So I got into that class … and just absolutely loved it. It was just totally my passion.”
La Vigne worked his way through the Specs Howard School of Broadcasting, attending class by day and cleaning a McDonald’s restaurant by night. He took an internship at Producers Color Service, duplicating TV commercials on 2-inch videotape for distribution to television stations.
“I watched Jerry, the master gardener for K-Mart, thousands of times,” he recalled.
He landed a full-time job there as a production technician. But after a year in the working world, La Vigne decided he needed a college degree. He quit PCS, found a night job as a broadcast engineer at Ford Motor Co.’s headquarters in Dearborn, and enrolled at Eastern Michigan University. Anxious to plow his way through a double major in speech communications and telecommunications and a minor in marketing, he carried 18 to 21 credits per term and attended school year-round.
“My senior year, I got married,” he added.
In 1990, he became a sales representative for Producers Tape Service, peddling audio and video tapes and supplies to businesses from Traverse City to Niles. After a year, his former employer, Producers Color Service, tabbed him as an account executive.
But changes came to that company, and when new management asked him to move back to Detroit and travel weekly to the East and West coasts, La Vigne, a new dad, balked. He took a pay cut to join a local company as a vice president. A year later, he started Digital Video Services.
The company’s board includes the two owners and two top executives as well as three outside directors. Monthly meetings open the books to employees.
“We want everybody to participate and everybody’s ideas. Frankly, to put the decision-making capacity right at the front line, as it were, we find it the best way to be nimble and to adapt.”
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, La Vigne said he noticed that companies were distributing far fewer promotional CDs, DVDs and USB drives than in years past.
“What was on the counter was all these promotional products, everything from A to Z with the company’s logo on it,” La Vigne said. “We’d been looking at the duplication business and seeing that there is such a migration of media to others sources than tangible products, namely to the Internet. Knowing that is coming and seeing the volumes of tangible video products decreasing, either we ride this division till it becomes a one-person operation or we need to find another product line that uses our same skills.”
La Vigne, who is active in his church, runs a six-figure side business selling martial arts supplies on the Web at www.budogu.com with his best friend from childhood. He is a second degree black belt, instructor and referee in taekwando.
The company supports nonprofits and ministries around the world, La Vigne said. He and his wife donate the first 10 percent of profits to charities of their choice, then set aside the next 5 percent for an employee committee to distribute.
The video production department, which frequently hosts clients, works in a room decorated in the film noir style. And as for the games?
“We call that the R and D lab,” La Vigne said. “That’s where we do all that brainstorming and research.”
One entire wall is a dry erase board, which oversees an 8-foot slate Brunswick pool table, a dart board, a Wii gaming system, the foosball table and, of course, a DVD player.
“We deal with such a high-tech, detail-oriented environment, you really need a place to go and decompress and let the creative energy flow.”