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Continued: When retirement didn't work out, entrepreneur turned to robots

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 18, 2010 - 9:12 PM

Rob Sheeley has followed a rather convoluted path on the way to the $28 million business he runs today.

It's a road that has veered from start-ups to mergers to divestitures and buybacks, all of which have paid off, thanks in part to an ultimatum delivered by Sheeley's wife, Donna, that quickly ended an abortive stab at retirement in 2002.

"I had a tendency to try and tell her what to do," said Shelley, 55. After six months she banished him from the house with instructions to "find something to keep me busy."

What's keeping him busy nowadays is New Vad LLC, a New Hope company that manufactures robotic video cameras and elaborate control consoles that allow one person to command multiple cameras to pan, tilt and zoom in or out with the twist of a joystick.

Marketed under the trade name Vaddio, the products are used by corporations, universities, government agencies and broadcasters, among others.

Vaddio equipment can be found in the press briefing room at the White House, in the performance auditorium at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in Google's video streaming auditoriums.

What sets the Vaddio cameras apart from those made by much larger competitors is the fact that they are manufactured in the United States. Indeed, Sheeley said Vaddio's is the only robotic video camera made in North America.

Not that he has anything against video cameras manufactured overseas. A significant share of Vaddio's annual revenue is generated as a distributor of Sony, Canon and Panasonic robotic cameras made offshore.

The product of all this wheeling and dealing is a business that has more than doubled its sales in the past three years, shooting from $13.7 million in 2007 to a projected $28 million this year.

The Vaddio camera, the HD-18, was introduced in 2008 and has grown to projected 2010 sales of $4 million. In the process, the camera has generated a 20 percent gain in sales of control systems, Sheeley said.

Even better, the HD-18 has hoisted profit margins before taxes and interest from 8 to 13 percent of sales, a 62 percent gain. Meanwhile, sales of non-Vaddio products with their lower margins have declined from 70 percent to about 40 percent of his firm's sales, Sheeley said.

The thing is, Sheeley might be the most unqualified designer of high-tech equipment I've ever encountered. His credentials: a two-year marketing degree from North Hennepin Community College and several years' experience as product and marketing manager for telecommunications products at RCA and Honeywell.

So how did he translate that into such technological creativity?

"I love that stuff, and I worked hard at it," he said.

The years at RCA and Honeywell triggered Sheeley's interest in the growing field of teleconferencing, and in 1987 he founded Acoustic Communication Systems to distribute teleconferencing equipment.

Ownership shuffle

He built the business to sales of $12 million by 1999, when he merged with Video Labs, a Golden Valley manufacturer of video cameras. He stayed with the business as chief technology officer for three years, during which he developed the early version of the Vaddio camera-control system.

But when Video Labs was sold in 2002, dropping a sizable wad of cash into Sheeley's bank account, he decided to retire -- at least temporarily.

Early in 2003, he and Tom Mingo, the international sales manager at Video Labs, started Vaddio LLC and bought the camera-control technology Sheeley had developed at Video Labs. They also signed up to distribute robotic video cameras made by Sony and Canon, which generally are used with the Vaddio control equipment.

Alas, they didn't have the capital to carry the necessary inventory, so Sheeley and Mingo sold the business in 2004 to Photo Control, a New Hope manufacturer of portrait cameras. Five months later, Photo Control merged with Nature Vision, a Brainerd manufacturer of underwater cameras used by ice fishermen.

Sheeley stayed with the merged company, focusing on building the Vaddio control system. By the end of 2007, control system sales were approaching $14 million, vs. just $600,000 in 2003.

Whereupon Nature Vision management decided to refocus on its core business and sold the camera-control and camera distribution business back to Sheeley, Mingo and a third partner, Steve Sullivan, for $1.5 million. Today Sheeley is president and CEO of New Vad; Mingo is vice president of sales and Sullivan is chief financial officer.

Sheeley promptly began working on a proprietary robotic camera in pursuit of the aforementioned gains in profit margins. Those trends are expected to accelerate in 2011 with the midyear introduction of the HD-20, a higher-resolution camera aimed at on-air coverage of live video events where "extremely accurate images are required by today's high-definition standards," he said.

At the same time, Vaddio will unveil an enhanced control system designed specifically for the HD-20 to give operators greater control of color, brightness and depth of field.

In short, the past three years have been good to Sheeley -- and not solely because of Vaddio's success.

In April he was diagnosed with early-stage colon cancer, which he battled through the summer and emerged this fall with the cancer in remission -- and his business on the way to record sales.

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com

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