If one manufacturer in the custom integration channel could make for fun reality TV, it would be Severtson Screens. Combine the charmingly off-beat stories from the owner, the company’s under-the-radar success story, and Arizona setting, and you might just have something worth selling to cable TV.
Ron Severtson (in the jacket and tie) entered the projection screens business in an improbable fashion. His son Kirk (beyond his right shoulder) is now involved in the company as well.
Severtson Screens has quietly gone about its business in the residential projection screen business for the past nine years after having first established itself in the commercial cinema market, and the flight simulator projection screen business before that. The company doesn’t spend money on big trade show booths (though they do exhibit, modestly, at CEDIA EXPO) and they hadn’t, up until now, promoted themselves much outside of word-of-mouth. They recently hired a publicist after a locally based PR agent convinced Severtson’s father and son management team that they were doing such great things in numerous markets that publicity would put the Severtson name in front of even more potential customers. He also had to encourage them to be interviewed for this article because they’re still not very comfortable at the self-promotion game.
Maybe the Severtsons are not such great candidates for reality TV after all. They’re much too humble to be projected onto the screens that they manufacture.
The company of 20 employees based in Mesa, AZ, got its start in the screens business back in the mid-1980s in the most unlikely way. Founder Ron Severtson, who is quick to tell anyone he meets that he only has an eighth-grade education, was running a house-painting company when he got a call from a friend that worked at a local Air Force base.
“This is actually comical and almost too stupid to tell,” Severtson recalled. “A friend of mine worked out at Williams Air Force Base and they were working on a simulator for helicopters and they had all sorts of chemical engineers and other engineers trying to coat the interior of a dome, because what they were doing was putting the cockpit of the helicopter in the middle of a dome to have a 360-degree picture. They thought they had a solution, but they couldn’t get a uniform finish on the inside, so the picture was terrible.”
So Severtson’s friend, who knew he had experience with paint, told an engineer from Venezuela who was working on the project to call him and ask for his advice on coatings.
“When I got the call, I thought it was a friend of mine named Eddy Vercelli, doing his Italian accent, and I gave this guy the hardest time before he hung up on me,” Severtson said. “A few minutes later this friend of mine called me and said, ‘Ron, you’ve just embarrassed me to no end. This engineer called you seeking help, and you were just the rudest person. I never expected you to be this way.’ I thought he was in on the gag, so I started giving him a hard time, too. Finally he convinced me that this was real and he asked me to come out and apologize to the engineer.”
Severtson eventually ventured over to Williams Air Force Base to apologize (he later became very good friends with the Venezuelan engineer) and then he was asked about his paint company and whether or not he could make a coating for their flight simulator.
“I said, ‘Guys, I’ve got an eight-grade education,” Severtson recalled telling them. “And they said, ‘But you’ll try?’”
Severtson agreed to give it the old college try and next headed over to the Arizona State University library to read up on various chemical compounds before mixing something together in his wife’s kitchen and backyard that he thought might work. He and his superintendent returned to the base a few weeks later, applied the paint, and after it dried we went back out to project an image on it. The verdict?
“Once I saw the screen, I thought that it was the most embarrassing thing I’d ever done,” Severtson remembered. “It was so terrible that I could not believe it.”
Nonetheless, the two colleagues stayed for a demo with their clients, who responded with unexpected cheers and enthusiastic comments such as, “This is the most fantastic thing we’ve ever seen!”
“We both looked at each other said, ‘These guys have got to be idiots,’” Severtson said.
But the clients were so impressed with Severtson’s formulation that they soon handed him an expedited passport for him to fly to Germany (Severtson had never been out of the country) to work with another client on a second simulator project. From that point on, there was no stopping Severtson in the flight simulator coatings business, as it gained a reputation for providing custom reflective properties for difficult applications.
Severtson’s company went on a lengthy run working as a government contractor as well as for a who’s who of airplane and aircraft parts manufacturers to produce optical coatings for various surfaces such as aluminum, screen fabrics, and film surfaces used in flight simulators around the world. Along the way, Severtson perfected his coatings and his operation became much more sophisticated.
The move from simulators to creating custom coatings for commercial screens occurred about 20 years ago, when Severtson, in another improbable, but true, story was discovered by IMAX when it needed help converting its mammoth screens to 3D. When an internal memo from one customer complimenting Severtson’s screens ended up in an invoice to IMAX, just like that Severtson’s company was making custom coatings for one of the biggest brands in specialty cinema.
“They knew we could stay within certain tight tolerances,” son Kirk recalled. “We were basically the only company doing custom gains and viewing angles in the world.”
Making actual screens, not just coatings, didn’t actually happen until nine years ago when Ron brought home his first 720p projector and Kirk made the suggestion that they build their own screen for it.
“At that time I was running another one of his businesses, a furniture business,” Kirk said. “But as new projectors were becoming affordable we started making screens for our friends.”
Eventually Mitsubishi, Sanyo, Panasonic, and Epson teamed up with the Severtsons to sell projectors and screens, helping the company get a foothold on the home theater side. Kirk’s experience developing automation systems for furniture manufacturing helped Severtson improve its screen-making process and soon the commercial cinema business’s shift from film to digital and digital to 3D led to more calls from companies on that side of the business.
“The same guys that were at IMAX were now with different companies,” Kirk said. “So we went back into business making giant screens and supplying screens for Harkins, AMC, Regal, Cinemark…basically every chain there is in the U.S., and worldwide.”
According to Ron, the company now ships to 70 countries, selling into both home theater and commercial cinemas. Its home theater business is growing faster than anyone at the company had anticipated.
In addition to its diverse history, the company’s sales pitch centers around its ability to make its own coatings and its own vinyl for its screens. For screens over 108 inches tall, Severtson has a process for seaming the vinyl sections of the screen together, for infinite size potential. Coatings are all applied robotically, in house, and the company also supplies woven and micro-perf screens with custom coatings for acoustically transparent applications.
“We can offer all different coatings on it, so if somebody needs a different reflective property than what’s on most woven screens, then we can offer that,” Kirk said.
The company also supplies a very high-end masking system for 2.35:1 screens that can close completely when not being used.
Severtson sells $20,000 screens quite often, but Ron says the company has learned that relative affordability is the key to success in the home theater market.
“We’ve learned that you can’t charge more for a screen than you pay for a projector,” he said.
So the company adjusts its pricing accordingly and remains humble, even as it sells screens to famous directors and other Hollywood notables and maintains a modest-sized booth at CEDIA to keep costs down.
“It comes down to what you’re happy with,” Kirk said. “We’re happy, and we have a good time. I don’t want to make a name that I have to live up to. We just want to be ourselves.”
Jeremy Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems and Systems Contractor News.