“We started in a two-car garage,” says founder David La Porte. “We used the money that we were paid to buy more equipment and to bootstrap the company. Nowadays it’s a whole different ball game. We have 30 full-time employees, we have a 401k plan, we have vacation time, we have an equipment-loan policy, we have a cellphone-reimbursement policy, we have a fleet of trucks. The company has grown in leaps and bounds.”
David La Porte is the president and founder of ATR Treehouse, an audio-visual services company that he sees and operates something like a baseball team.
The company operates out of its facility at 812 Charles St. in Providence and recently bought another building on Charles to use as a warehouse.
ATR Treehouse includes two departments: a production and rentals department, which produces events and rents out equipment, and a sales and installation department. Across both departments, the company has 30 full-time employees and about 15 part-time employees.
After graduating from URI in 1981, La Porte began working for the City of Providence, producing public festivals, concerts and celebrations. In 1986, he helped coordinate the technical side of First Night Providence, and in 1987 he founded ATR Treehouse.
In an interview, La Porte, of Cranston, discussed his experience owning a small business in Rhode Island. Here are excerpts:
What makes your business unique?
I think part of what sets us apart and makes us different is our combination of both sales and installation, as well as the production and rental side. It gives us a better and unique perspective when we go to sell and install equipment. The people who have input on the types of equipment we propose and how, where, and why it’s installed are people with as many as 30 years of experience operating that equipment on a daily basis in a live setting.
In other words, if Moses Brown [School] calls us and says, “We’re building a new theater,” our people who work with them on designing and installing the system are very experienced and currently work live productions.
How has business evolved over time?
We started in a two-car garage. We used the money that we were paid to buy more equipment and to bootstrap the company. Nowadays it’s a whole different ball game. We have 30 full-time employees, we have a 401k plan, we have vacation time, we have an equipment-loan policy, we have a cellphone-reimbursement policy, we have a fleet of trucks. The company has grown in leaps and bounds.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
One of my perspectives is that the company is like a team. It’s very much like a baseball team, for example. You have an offense, a defense, pitchers, outfielders and hitters. One year you could have great hitters, but your pitching could be terrible. And then your hitters could be weaker but all the sudden your pitching is fantastic. And then your shortstop gets hurt.
The biggest challenge for me is trying to maintain a team, across the entire company, where every position is filled with somebody good and capable. Ideally, at the same time I like to have a bench to go to, should somebody leave or move on. It’s also important not to have all your eggs in one basket. Our work is virtually all corporate now, and those are our contract clients. A five-year contract for this client, a three-year contract for that client. In the corporate world you can’t have all your eggs in one basket. You have to have several different clients at the same time.
What do you need to grow and succeed in light of challenges?
What it takes is the ability to anticipate challenges and react to those challenges before they’re realized. You have to be able to look at the whole picture and say “I’ve only got two starting pitchers right now, if something happens to one of them, I’m going to be hurting come the end of the season. I’ve got to go find another starting pitcher.”
The same is true of your client base. Looking at your client base, you’re constantly trying to build it and anticipate changes. Having said that, doing it is another thing. It’s not always easy. It takes motivation.
Has anything surprised you in terms of being a small business owner in Rhode Island?
We actually have very little to do with the State of Rhode Island, if you will. I don’t find it difficult to do business in the state of Rhode Island; we really don’t do business with the State of Rhode Island. That is to say that we don’t go out of our way to bid on state work because it’s low-bid. They kind of get what they pay for and, as I mentioned earlier, we have a very serious commitment to quality and customer service, and we find it challenging to provide state agencies with the kind of quality work we like to do, given the bid process and the state infrastructure.
We’re doing more and more business in Boston. To be honest, we’ve found that we’re able to compete in Boston, and it’s more cost-effective to send a guy up the street on an hour commute. The business climate there is obviously much more active. There are a lot more facilities and a lot more going on.
What are your goals?
Our major goal at this point would be to expand and reach places outside of Rhode Island. A goal would be to develop satellite offices in other cities, be it an office in Boston or an office down south, for example, Orlando or Jacksonville.