Movers and shakers: Moving iMage Technologies' Phil Rafnson and Glenn Sherman are committed to customers
“From the beginning, we have always stated that our mission for Moving iMage Technologies is to have the most talented, passionate people in cinema working together to provide the best presentation tools for the theatrical exhibition industry.” After ten years, chief executive officer Glenn Sherman assures, “And it still works!”
That effort has had personal benefits as well. “Even though I was enjoying my second retirement when [Joe Delgado, Bevan Wright and Dave Richards] asked me for help after my stint as chief executive officer at Christie, I thought this could be fun and help keep me young. And that’s turned out to be true. I figured I would only stay as long as I was having fun, and here I am, ten years later, still having fun.”
MiT chairman Phil Rafnson, who provided most of the seed funding to get moving on image technologies, has had no regrets either. “I could go on all day about the talents and dedication of all of the partners as well as other key employees and their role in our success.” When Delgado approached him in 2002, “with his desire to put together a team and start a new company, we discussed the idea many times and eventually made the move,” he recalls. “I was very impressed by the availability of such a unique group of individuals and was convinced from the beginning that the chemistry was right for a successful start-up.”
Indeed, these partners and a select few additions “have all been the reason for our success,” he appraises. “We have an experienced chief executive officer in Glenn Sherman and an excellent sales and marketing executive in Joe Delgado. Manufacturing and engineering are headed up by two of the best in the business, Bevan Wright and Dave Richards. Over the first years we added two partners who have turned out to be great assets as well. Tom Lipiec oversees sales and customer service and Jerry Van de Rydt runs Rydt Entertainment, our in-house FF&E [Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment] division.” The most recent addition as an officer of the company is Frank Tees, joining technical sales from Regal Cinemas. “MiT’s most valuable asset is the experienced, dedicated personnel, starting with the partners and including all key staff members. Simply put,” Rafnson concludes, “we have the best team in the industry to support cinema owners of all sizes.”
“The key guys at MiT all have been in the business many years, many more than I,” Sherman concurs. “That means they all know their jobs and responsibilities very well. So my main objective is to clear away obstacles to them doing their jobs, to take on the unpleasant tasks that every company has, of course, so that they do not have to deal with them.” Another important function is to facilitate teamwork, which for Sherman means to “constantly work on improving communication, adjucating disagreements, cheering them on…to keep them working together.”
As part of the team, Rafnson says his job “is to provide guidance and direction regarding strategic and long-range planning. This includes all financial decisions, investments, and acquisitions.” Attending board and planning meetings, “I also participate in major trade shows and help with sales when called on. The entire team participates in the development of new product as we continue to work on innovative ideas and services for our customers. Our aim has always been to determine what the market needs and then work with the customer to provide the best products possible.” Adds Sherman, “We are a dealer, value-added reseller, and manufacturer who designs and builds our own products. As such, we listen to our customers’ needs and get them what they want. If it is not available from one of our suppliers, we will design and manufacture it ourselves.”
Not surprisingly, Sherman’s “number-one goal is to keep our customers happy. Numbers two and three are to have a great place to work where every one of us and all our employees can earn a good living.” Good times are very much part of the mix too. Although he asked us to “keep our little secret,” in the interest of our readers we decided not to oblige. “We built a real movie theatre in our facility, hooked up to satellite TV, so we have fun watching sports events there on a large screen. Our motto is work hard, drink hard,” he laughs before getting back to business.
Handling “all the financial matters” as a de-facto chief financial officer, Sherman has his priorities set. “While being profitable enough to pay all our people a good wage and bonus, and giving our founding partners and investors, which are one and the same, a good return on their investments,” he says, MiT wants to continue research and development on new products. “That is always a challenge requiring tradeoffs with the bottom line,” he admits. “Continually coming up with new products” is also one of the challenges in the cinema technology business alongside “too much competition in certain niches that makes it hard to generate a decent profit in those areas.” This said, Sherman hopes MiT “to grow 10 to 20 percent per year from our base” in view of perhaps the biggest challenge in the company’s ten-year history. “After the surge in business that we and many in our industry have seen over the past few years from the d-cinema rollout, growth is a relative term” as business is going back to normal levels. “But, what is business as usual, in the digital age versus the 35mm age?” he asks. “If we think of it as growth from a baseline that was there before and that will be there after the surge dissipates, MiT will continue to do what we do best. Namely, serving the cinema exhibition industry.”
“One place where we see potential growth,” he elaborates, “is in helping our customers smooth out their digital operations. Many of the installations were rushed in order to get them in place with minimum downtime, leaving holes of inefficiency. We have new products ready and more in development to address some of these inefficiencies. Another place is power utilization. We see many opportunities to help our customers cut their power costs.”
Expanding into international territories, as well as “more and more special venues such as theme parks and museums interested in upgrading their projection to cinema quality,” are other areas of growth. “And we think our side of the industry might be due for some consolidation. We would hope to be a consolidator, rather than the one being consolidated.” Indeed, MiT is “looking at strategic acquisitions within the next year or so,” Rafnson confirms. “We will continue to grow by expanding the products and services that we offer and by increasing our customer base which definitely includes markets outside of the U.S.”
Here and abroad, Rafnson and the MiT team can certainly build upon the work that was already accomplished. “There have been many times over the past ten years that I have been both excited and proud of MiT,” he agrees. “The most exciting was probably the way we adapted to the change to digital and how we were able to capture a significant share of the digital conversion business in the U.S. and Mexico.” The biggest challenge, in his view, “was getting through the first couple of years when things did not always go as expected. We all invested a lot in terms of funds…and time and energy and effort. It was a huge gamble for all of us, but we never gave up hope, and eventually all the confidence was proved to be well-deserved.” Sherman was most pleased “when we reached profitability and I realized that we were going to make it as a company.” Winning the Teddy Award from ICTA as “2012 Manufacturer of the Year” was another highlight, especially because that very year “was probably the largest manufacturing year ever in our industry,” he says.
Given the opportunity, would they do it all over again? “Yes,” Sherman replies, “it’s been a fun ride!” For Rafnson, “that is an easy question today, but had you asked me that in year two or three, it would have taken a lot of thought. It has been a great experience for me being involved with such an exceptional group of people and being able to stay involved with the business that I love.” Along with the love which everyone at MiT seems to be sharing, “success breeds success,” Sherman concludes. “I think every one of us recognizes that whatever it is, the magic that we have all works. Even with everyone’s shortcomings—and we all have them—the combination of our strengths has struck a balance that has made us successful as a team, more so than we each could have done individually.”
In another ten years, the future will continue to be bright, according to Rafnson. “I have confidence in the future of the cinema,” he assures. “I think there will be new technology in terms of both picture and sound which will assure that the best movie experience will still be in a cinema.” While MiT “will always be on the leading edge of both technology and service” to help exhibitors with developing the experience further, Rafnson is “concerned about the early release of new movies to TV and other venues. I hope studios and exhibitors will continue to work together to solve this problem.”
As a longtime engineer, Sherman cites boothless movie theatres as an innovation easing the way for many new opportunities: “more 3D because of the brightness lasers will provide; more 4D and vibrating seats, etc.; more booming surround sound like Dolby Atmos; and other innovative concepts meant to fill more seats and more often. As a fan of movies and theatres, I see flat attendance to low growth as theatres compete with all the other ways in which young people enjoy content and as the theatrical window continues to shorten. I expect that the studios will eventually be returning to more adult content as the younger generation ages and tires of all the high-tech shoot-’em-ups. And I see more upscale theatres catering to us old folk who enjoy a glass of Chardonnay, when available, with caramel corn and sitting in a very comfortable seat during our movie.”
Thankfully all that is available at Sherman’s “new favorite theatres,” both near to his home. Lauding Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Del Mar “with its first-class seats, food and wine,” and Reading Town Square 14 on Clairemont Drive in San Diego, he fondly recalls watching the Superman serial on Saturday mornings in Chicago as a six-year old, although his “first real movie” was Kangaroo, he says. “Entry fee was five cents and I just couldn’t believe Superman would hold those rails together while the train went rushing by, without hurting his hands!” Later on, another memory remains of “Delilah cutting off Sampson’s hair and him pushing the two pillars apart to destroy the building.”
For Rafnson, “watching horror shows with all my friends in the Joy Theatre in Minnesota, Minnesota, on Halloween when I was about 10 years old” had him reeling with joy. As for the theatres themselves, “my favorite cinemas that I helped equip are the Warner Bros. Cinemas in the U.K., Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Japan. I worked closely with Salah Hassanein and Millard Ochs for several years and it was a great experience and challenge to be traveling and working in so many different countries.”
No matter where in the world, he has learned that “a cinema theatre provides a societal function more than the sum of its basic parts—providing images and sound to a consumer.” And there’s another part of moviegoing that remains a constant. As Rafnson observes, “The imminent demise of theatres has been predicted more or less regularly ever since television was introduced. But as long as couples go out on dates, theatres will provide a popular destination.”
Laser focus; Close-up on Glenn Sherman, PhD
“When we were developing laser projectors at Laser Power, we were producing some of the most beautiful images anyone had ever seen, so I was trying to figure out how to commercialize them. I knew that the cost of lasers was high and was searching for an application that put a premium on beautiful images… I figured cinema was the most likely target market, and started learning everything I could about it. I was just 20 years or so ahead of the times!”
Glenn Sherman has a background in manufacturing, marketing and sales, product engineering, research and development as well as finance. All told, he acquired five companies, including one in Belgium, and has built strategic relationships with major companies around the world, and was instrumental in building a low-cost manufacturing facility in Mexico. Dr. Sherman holds the BS, MS and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois.
During his more than 30 years of leading and building technology companies, Sherman also spent one year each as president and chief executive officer of Christie and at another company “working on a unique digital-cinema projector.” Most interestingly, perhaps, he spent 19 years as founder, chairman and chief executive of Laser Power Corporation, where he led “extensive efforts to develop laser projectors for digital cinema, growing the company to $35 million and taking it public.”
Of course, FJI wanted to find out more. Seven years after “helping a friend build his laser company” right out of college, “I left in 1979 to form my own company.” During the late ’80s and early ’90s, “we developed the first compact high-power blue laser. It was the missing link for laser projection in those days, and we won many government contracts… The Air Force, for instance, and others were interested in more realistic colors for flight simulators. At that time we also did the very first demonstration, with Texas Instruments, of illuminating DMDs with lasers. In fact, we showed every conceivable method of doing laser projection, including all the ways in which people are doing it now.”
Looks like he was very much ahead of what’s coming next in cinema. Will this help MiT? While his prior experience certainly “gives us insight into what to believe when we hear the claims and timelines,” Sherman is “not sure how far this will get us.” But MiT has first-hand access through its relationship with NEC Display Solutions. “They were taking orders for their laser projector at CineEurope and promising some deliveries in the fall.” MiT as well is “having discussions with a potential customer at the present time.”
Rafnson d’être: Close-up on Phil Rafnson
“The way we responded to the needs of cinema owners in converting to digital has been our best success so far.”
ShowEast “Special Award of Achievement” honoree Phil Rafnson has been a major participant in the cinema equipment business for over 40 years. “I was an electronic technician and I loved movies,” he says about what attracted him to the field. “When I serviced cinemas, whenever possible I stayed for the show, and when I was not working I could get into almost all cinemas for free! And when I was a kid I just loved westerns and horror shows.” Among his favorite films are The Godfather, Shane, Caddyshack and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Back to business, Rafnson’s technology path led him from sound engineer for Northwest Sound and RCA Service Co. to national sales manager for Xetron Inc., to owner and president of MTS-Media Technology Source, the largest cinema equipment distribution company in the world until sold in 1999. In 2003, Rafnson provided the start-up funding and expertise to Moving iMage Technologies and has since been a partner and chairman of MiT. For 12 years he has served as board member of the International Cinema Technology Association (ICTA) and its predecessor organization, and was its officer and president for more than four years. He also served for many years on the boards of Variety of the Northwest and of Courage Center in Minnesota, Minnesota.
“As always, the cinema industry needs to serve the demands of moviegoers through the production of quality movies and always improving the moviegoing experience.” While that is certainly the challenge, he says, the opportunities for this industry are “continuing the development of new and even better technologies which will result in the continued success of the cinema."