Technifex powers up for the next 35 years
by Gene Jeffers
ABOVE: Technifex helped create several show/art installations at the Galaxy Macau resort. All photos courtesy of Technifex
“Technifex people are problem solvers – we offer creative solutions that keep our clients coming back to us,” explains Rock Hall who, with Monty Lunde, founded the production and special effects firm 35 years ago. Together they have passionately orchestrated engineering, technology and relationships into an experienced production and special effects team focused on design challenges and the fabrication of a broad range of technical show systems. The company they built – Technifex – is a recognized leader in effects and specialized products and process for the attractions industry and related sectors, and Monty and Rock are industry leaders in their own right.
“We’ve succeeded because Monty and I built a company based on honest, transparent integrity in all of our relationships,” says Hall. “That’s why Technifex has lasted. We’ve taken a number of steps to ensure the company is well positioned to go on, to continue to be successful after I retire at the end of 2019.”
Hall and Lunde acknowledge shared core values that have made their partnership durable: building relationships and treating people well, listening to clients, learning from every experience, testing and retesting their processes and work product.
“Our relationship has been and is very strong,” Lunde says of his business partner. “Like any, it has had its ups and downs; mostly ups. I’m harder and more focused, Rock’s softer and more caring. Between the two of us we cover a lot of ground and though we have different personalities, we are both keenly focused on providing our clients the best service and technical systems possible.”
“We complement each other in so many different ways. We don’t always agree,” says Hall. “We often take opposing viewpoints to prove a point, our process of vetting the challenges before us. Monty came from a different educational background, more design and business, I came from a more theatrical/technical one. I’m a bit older, so have a bit more life experience.” He laughs.
Ever since Epcot
The two have known each other since working at Disney’s Tujunga facility in 1981. Although never assigned to the same project, each had a passion for finding ways to make incredible effects and they soon became friends. “Rock and I just got along,” says Lunde. “He was great at teaching me about the technical equipment since I had absolutely no theater background, but I was a pretty quick study.”
Hall and Lunde considered their next move after they completed the redo of Fantasyland at Disneyland and the opening of the Horizons pavilion at Epcot, respectively, a year after Epcot opened. In 1982-83 Disney reduced its creative staff dramatically – an event that paved the way for the founding of numerous new companies, many still active in the industry today, including Technifex. As with so many, both Hall and Lunde were released in late 1983. Hoping to apply some of the skills they had learned at Disney, the pair started Designers’ Guild, a short-lived special effects company focused on fiber optic signage. “We landed one job, a local bar,” says Lunde. “One job, then nothing. Not the best start for two entrepreneurial dreamers.”
In early 1984, Hall landed a position with Gary Goddard Productions, which at the time was producing the Baltimore Power Plant, an indoor attraction for Six Flags. Hall enlisted Lunde to apply and once again they were in the same company. With their years of building effects for Disney, Lunde and Hall were asked to help critique firms that were competing for the design and fabrication of the special effects that would enhance the guest experience within the Power Plant “theme park.”
Building a business
“Rock and I talked about the various companies vying for the effects work and thought we could do the work,” says Lunde. “So we went to Gary and offered to start a company and build a team that could develop the effects.” The two put a proposal together and Goddard took it to Six Flags, which agreed to cover the costs of setting up a facility for producing the effects. As part of the agreement with Six Flags, the two would forgo any profit but could keep the production equipment when the project was completed.
Six Flags Baltimore Power Plant – Technifex’s first theme park project
“The hardest part of establishing Technifex was learning how to run a company,” Lunde admits. “We had no experience in that regard. We had to find a facility, buy equipment, hire staff, all within a few weeks. It was truly a case of hitting the ground running and never looking back.” They worked 14- to 16-hour days, six to seven days a week for over a year to create the special effects for the Six Flags project. And thus the foundation for Technifex was laid.
“When the Six Flags project was nearing completion, we had no idea what to do next,” Hall remembers. “We had to figure out how to get new work, a bigger challenge than getting the company started. The marketing and sales side was something we had to learn, so it set us back a little bit and it got a little scary. We knew how to design and build, but in the early years the biggest challenge was ‘How do we find more work?’”
Building a portfolio
Thanks to a lot of hard work and help from many different people, Lunde and Hall figured things out and built a successful company. Technifex has credits for hundreds of ground-breaking shows and innovative special effects on projects ranging from the Apollo/Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, to SpaceQuest Casino; Star Trek: The Experience to Titanic: The Experience; Cerritos Library to Revenge of the Mummy Ride; Terminator 2: 3D to the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony; the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to the Polynesian Cultural Center’s 4D Theater. Clients include aerospace firms, science centers and museums, casinos, zoos, theme parks, hotels, retail facilities, consumer product manufacturers, film studios, trade show exhibitors and government life-saving training facilities.
Working for BRC Imagination Arts, Technifex created a Burning Bush effect for the Stories of the Bible exhibit at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.
“It is hard to point to any one project as a favorite,” Lunde says. “It’s really more about the relationships and the type of work that makes projects memorable. Most of our projects are challenging and that is what we enjoy. When personal friendships also develop through the course of projects, the experience is that much more rewarding.”
A year after starting Technifex, new opportunities were proving hard to find. A mutual friend invited Technifex to share a booth at TS2, a show for trade show suppliers. Lunde and Hall decided to explore the market and built a kiosk that showcased their patented Pepper’s Ghost effect. Monty attended the event in Louisville where he met Nancy Forester, Head of Marketing for AT&T Consumer Products.
“She was an amazing person looking for new and innovative ways to demonstrate AT&T’s products at the Consumer Electronics Show,” recalls Lunde. “She loved our technology and shortly after the TS2 show, she contracted us to produce a unique Pepper’s Ghost show for their booth at the CES show. We designed and built a cutaway of a full-size, two-story house, and incorporated a 10-inch tall video character who popped in and out of different areas of the house and talked about AT&T’s in-home automation systems. People couldn’t get enough of it; crowds would gather every time the show started, blocking all the aisles around their booth.”
“We ended up doing a ton of work with Nancy over more than 10 years,” says Hall. “More important, she taught us how to work in the trade show and corporate worlds. She taught us how to treat each other, treat other people and clients. She was a big part of our survival in those early years.”
Rock Hall in front of his retirement gift from Monty Lunde, a 1964 Buick Riviera. It had 17,000 original miles on it and took two years to restore.
Microsoft, Nokia, Motorola and Northern Telecom all wanted Technifex effect systems for their booths. Then aerospace companies such as Lockheed, Raytheon, Ford Aerospace and Loral wanted in on the action. “The trade show work was steady, regular and it made Technifex stable at a time when theme park work was very intermittent,” Lunde says. “We learned so much from Nancy about diversifying our client base and building relationships. She is far and away one of the most significant individuals Technifex has had the pleasure of working with.”
The emphasis on relationships remains intrinsic to Technifex company culture and is visible in the Technifex approach to hiring. “We want to be seen as supportive, intelligent and thoughtful people on a project,” Lunde explains. They vet people’s skills and expertise, but then, regardless of the position, put them through two or three interviews to see if they will fit into the group. “We want to know if applicants are passionate professionals and if they will also have the kindness and empathy we want reflected in our staff. Will they fit in with our team of professionals, many of which have worked with us for decades?” The formula works, as Technifex has many long-term employees, some who have worked for decades with the company.
TEA and collaboration
Building relationships with a wide array of vendors and suppliers who work on similar types of projects has also been an important priority for Technifex, says Hall. “Monty’s efforts to connect with other companies and establish the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) were important to our success.”
“I invited 35 or 40 company owners to come to a meeting at the IAAPA Expo in 1991, with the plan to establish the TEA as a trade association,” says Lunde. “At the meeting, I made a point of seating competitors next to each other because I knew most did not know their competitors personally. Needless to say, the meeting started out very quiet as people began to realize who they were sitting next to. Most knew one another’s names but had never met before. I explained that no one knows your business challenges better than your competitors since they struggle with the same types of challenges that you do.”
Monty Lunde and Rock Hall at the Technifex 35th anniversary party.
The group talked about how creating relationships and working with each other could help everyone. They discovered they were all dealing with similar challenges and client issues. At this pivotal meeting, the group formally decided to join together and the TEA was born. The association effectively established a collective voice for the industry’s international creative and supplier community, and improved dialog with the worldwide client and operator community. As a result of TEA’s activities and outreach, operators began to see the benefits of participating in and supporting the association and becoming more engaged with the vendors.
A Rock-solid future
Technifex is positioned for the future. “As a company, we are established, have processes, systems and management all in place,” notes Lunde. “But one lesson we’ve learned well over the past 35 years is that companies need to continually evolve to remain relevant, and that’s very much the case in the fast-growing, global attractions industry. Our big challenges today include keeping costs as reasonable as possible, diversifying our client base and finding resources, both suppliers and quality staff.”
Lunde continues, “Industry fluctuations and external events such as tariffs mean we have to support multiple industry verticals to keep the work flow that we need to survive and grow. Codes are more stringent today, technologies are more advanced, and often oversight and regulations on our projects are one step shy of aerospace standards. We believe working to these more exacting standards pushes us to achieve a higher level of professionalism and makes us a better company.”
Technifex’s Faux Fire effect replicates the look of real fire.
“Adapting is our strong suit,” says Hall. “There are a lot of smaller projects today, for museums and others working with limited budgets.” To better meet that potential market, Lunde and Hall formed Technifex Products LLC in 1999 to make their patented technologies available to a wider market that is hungry for the company’s special effects. Technifex Products rents and sells a range of variations of one of their most successful products, FauxFire®, as well as their Flowscreen®, Water Web™ Water Maze, Dragon’s Breath Heat Blaster, 4D Theater Systems, Tunnel Vision™ and other effects unique to Technifex. The products can be manufactured and stockpiled when staff are less busy with major custom projects, providing stability to the overall operation.
“The whole industry is busy today,” says Hall. “We’re all looking to find and recruit quality people and help grow the next generation.” He notes that as his retirement approaches Technifex has hired two new key executives, John Polk as VP and Senior Project Director, and Howard Smith as VP of Production, to add depth to their in-house expertise and expand leadership at a time of rapid growth. “I want to be sure when I leave that Monty has the people, resources and tools he needs to carry on and be successful.”
Hall will continue to be involved with the firm on a consultant basis after he retires. Lunde says, “While we are building a brain trust to cover what Technifex needs when Rock steps away, I know we can call on Rock should help be needed for specific clients or projects.”
“Themed entertainment is undergoing a renaissance,” says Lunde. “Everyone is busier than ever. Compared to 30 years ago, the benefits our industry bring to making guest experiences more compelling are better understood among a broad range of markets. Here at Technifex, we will always work to engineer and build leading edge technical systems to meet industry demands because it keeps us relevant. We want to be around for the next 35 years!” • • •
Following his retirement several years ago as TEA Executive Director, Gene Jeffers is currently serving as Board chair for the San Gabriel Pomona Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross and is a Board Member of the Historical Novel Society. He was recently invited to and attended the Tucson Literary Festival’s Master Class; is writing an historical novel and a series of short memoirs about growing up in the Congo; and is drafting a research article based on a survey he conducted about perceived success factor differences between theme park designers/builders and theme park operators worldwide. Gene and his wife, Carol (also a writer) travel often, and enjoy their two daughters and three grandchildren. More at www.OurWriteHouse.com.