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SPECIAL REPORT: Attraction to Design

When visitors enjoy an attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood or a show at the Hollywood Bowl, Disney Concert Hall or the Forum, they have Mark Riddlesperger and LAProPoint Inc. to thank for it. The Sun Valley company has been designing, building and installing mechanical and structural components and lighting systems for theme park attractions and displays since 2002. What keeps Riddlesperger interested in his job is the places it has allowed him to visit when working on projects for museums, music venues, theme parks, corporate campuses and private individuals. “I’ve sat in the cockpit of the space shuttle Endeavour,” said the 55-year-old Riddlesperger. “You get in there and you cannot believe how amazing it is.” A native of Lodi in California’s Central Valley, Riddlesperger started LAProPoint after working in attraction design for Universal Studios on projects in Orlando, Fla., and Japan. He operates the company with business partner Jim Hartman. The company’s work flow is often cyclical. There can be a lot of theater work followed by multiple projects at museums, Riddlesperger said. LAProPoint is currently doing projects at the California Science Center and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and is bidding on work for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. “It seems like all those things are hitting their peak right now in the quantity of work and the amount of projects,” Riddlesperger said. He met with the Business Journal at his Sun Valley office to discuss his favorite projects, the manufacturing process and why LAProPoint hasn’t joined the 3-D printing revolution. Question: How hands-on do you get with the projects? Answer: It’s changed quite a bit now that I have an infrastructure built up. I can delegate a lot more. Typically, the way the company is structured is I have a business partner (Hartman) and he handles the money and contracts, insurance, the day-to-day operation on the administrative side of things. I tend to stay more focused on the technical side of things – bringing projects in, meet-and-greets with clients. My job is about keeping the pipeline full. I don’t do work on the shop floor or any drafting. You miss doing that kind of work? Oh, yeah. That was the fun stuff. That’s what got me started in this. How did you get into the theme-park industry? After living in San Diego, going to school and working for 10 years, I moved to Los Angeles and worked for Lexington Scenery and Props, who ultimately introduced me to Universal Studios. What motivates you as a business owner? I don’t know if I can pinpoint one specific thing. What motivates me in this industry is the interesting work and my employees, we have a familial atmosphere. We don’t have a lot of turnover here. What do you find interesting about it? Every day is something different. You might get a phone call from Universal or Disney or some museum or some person who has some crazy thing they want to do. They have money and want to spend it. How do you sell your services? We have a pretty good reputation and a lot of repeat business. For the most part, it is word of mouth. What is an example of repeat business? The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, where we’ve been back several times. Those are meaningful projects. We are primarily hanging the aircraft and each aircraft has its own history. They are real, not replicas. You feel like you are part of that history. What have been some local projects? Here in L.A. we are working with the California Science Center a lot. We’ve been lucky to hang the aircraft in there and the spacecraft. We are getting in on the ground floor of the (space shuttle Endeavour) project. We are helping them collect artifacts. On several occasions, we’ve been dispatched to an Air Force base or Army base somewhere to disassemble an aircraft, put it on a truck and bring it here. Do you have a favorite project? One World Trade Center. We worked for a firm, the Hettema Group in Pasadena. They were the designers of the guest experience on the 102nd floor. It is video-driven content that we built some machines that (move) panels on which are projected images of the Manhattan skyline. It is hiding a big vista window and after the presentation these (panels) fly away and people can walk up to the window. How did you get involved with that project? (Firm founder Phil Hettema) is an old colleague from when I worked at Universal. He has been involved with the World War II Museum and we worked with them on that. How many projects are you working on at any given time? On average, we have 10 to 15 of various sizes. Some are very small, it could be a theater inspection or the replacement of equipment. It could be a track and drape job. Sometimes, if we get large projects that are more complicated, we will pare back on the small jobs to manage our resources. Is your work with theme parks for existing attractions or new ones? Both. We are often asked to provide technology upgrades or expansions of existing attractions. The large theme-park operators like the Disneys and Universals of the world like to freshen up their existing attractions regularly as well as provide new offerings. Are you doing work in China and Asia? We are not doing as much as a lot of other companies. We’ve been able to stay busy over here, which we’re quite happy about. Asia is not the easiest place to work. Why is that? It’s hard to be competitive for one thing. The Chinese have really high tariffs. So to engineer, design and build it here and send it over there is expensive. If they can find someone over there locally, they’d rather do that. How has the manufacturing process changed in the time since you started the company? The jobs we’ve taken on have progressed in complexity. What we are doing now is more technology driven. So we’ve had to step up the level and quality of our fabrication. We are more efficient with our fabrication. We don’t have a lot of computer or (computer-controlled) equipment because we build a lot of one-offs so it doesn’t make sense. We recently purchased a water jet machine (for cutting material), which has turned out to be most amazing tool in the world for us. In what way? It helps to elevate the level and quality of our fabrication. It also drives the way we design. We design to use the water jet machine. We didn’t know what the capability of that machine was until we got it. Has LAProPoint ever used a 3-D printer? Not yet. We’ve been asked a couple of times. It’s not there yet for us. Why is that? We’ve thought about using it for prototyping, which we’ve had people approach us with that service. Most of the projects that we are handed don’t have the budgets to support that level of prototyping. What are some other projects that the company has done recently? We did a big hardware upgrade for Royce Hall at UCLA. We did a very large acoustic blackout curtain for the new Facebook campus in Menlo Park. What is that curtain used for? They have a big cafeteria multipurpose room which is also where (Facebook founder Mark) Zuckerberg does all of his presentations to the group. This room faces the bay with a big glass window. When they do presentations there are a lot of projections and multimedia so they need to black out that window and they need to dampen the acoustics in the room. There is a 175-foot-long curtain that wraps around the room and accommodates both of those requirements. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space reasons.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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