An Unlikely Haven for Rock Entrepreneurs
Originally Published in the NY Times – January 28, 2010, 3:31 AM and written by Robert Strauss
Lititz, Pa., a small town in Pennsylvania Dutch country, in the midst of cornfields and dairy farms, would seem an unlikely home for a warehouse filled with the detritus of rock concerts past and future — a large section of the stage for the next Black Eyed Peas tour, the sets for an Elton John concert and gigantic lips from the Rolling Stones.
But Michael Tait, whose stage-building and designing company Tait Towers, owns the warehouse, said life in Lititz was too good to move elsewhere, The New York Times’s Robert Strauss writes. In fact, Mr. Tait said, if any of his employees are ever interested in going elsewhere for a job, he’ll pay their expenses while looking.
“It’s worth it,” he said. “They almost always come back. You could go to L.A. or New York, but it would never be as comfortable and it would surely be more expensive.”
Lititz (pronounced LIT-itz), population 9,000 and about a dozen miles north of Lancaster, is a haven of sorts to other small businesses. Clair Brothers, which says it is the biggest rock sound-system company in the country, is there, as is Atomic Design, which does a lot of the backdrops for music and theatrical staging.
And beyond music-related businesses, there is an unusual combination of other companies whose products or expertise are known beyond the Lititz town limits: Woodstream, which produces the Victor mousetrap; Wilbur Chocolate, maker of a Hershey Kiss competitor, Wilbur Buds; Sturgis Pretzels, which says it is America’s first commercial pretzel maker; and Lititz Watch Technicum, a school where Rolex watchmakers study.
To Barry Miller, the director of retail banking for Susquehanna Bankshares, Lititz is a natural business haven. Susquehanna itself is now a $14 billion enterprise, but its headquarters remains in Lititz, where it was founded at the turn of the last century.
“There is just a formidable work ethic in Lancaster County, the hearty farmers who saw the Amish and the Mennonites around here working so hard,” Mr. Miller said. “Then there is an innovative, entrepreneurial streak here, too. Finally, there is the loyalty. The owners want to give jobs to local people and keep them here forever.”
The rock business, for instance, started just that way. Roy Clair and his older brother, Gene, who grew up in Lititz, got a rudimentary sound system as a present from their father when they were in their teens in the 1960s. They started setting it up for pin money at high school dances, and then for events at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster. In 1966, they did the sound for a Dionne Warwick concert, and then one for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
“What we didn’t know is that the concert just before, they were at the Fontainebleau in Miami with Herb Alpert, and Herb, an engineer, wouldn’t let them use his sound system,” Roy Clair said. “So when they got here, they sounded so much better, their wives were impressed. They asked us to do the rest of their tour — we may have been the first sound guys to tour with a band — and the rest, as they say, is rock history. We kept getting word-of-mouth business.”
But the Clairs also loved Lititz and found ways to truck their sound systems, as they became more elaborate, from there. They hired local people and taught them how to enhance and modify the systems — louder, crisper, more hidden or more out-there, as the rockers wanted.
Along the way, they met Michael Tait, an Australian who was doing production and lighting for the British band Yes. He wanted to go out on his own and, he said, ended up sleeping on Gene Clair’s couch until he could get his business going. He, in turn, persuaded a British artist friend, Tom McPhillips, to come to Lititz and do the artistic part of the stages, as Atomic Design, while Tait Towers did the engineering.
From his office perch on the second floor of a mini-industrial park, Mr. Tait — whose anonymous four buildings have no sign identifying them as Tait Towers — can see the Clair Brothers’ factory and warehouse just past a farmhouse, and then look right toward Atomic Design’s studios. Tait employs about 130 designers, technicians, welders, machinists and assemblers and, like those at Clair and Atomic, almost all of them come from a 20-mile radius.
“There is a tremendously motivated population here, but I guess that is tradition,” Mr. Tait said. “There are motor heads and rockers and just plain machinists and smart people, a good sampling. Plus, they want to stay here. Look out, it’s a beautiful life. If you want to go somewhere, it’s two and a half hours to New York.”
Wilbur Chocolate no longer qualifies as a small business, since it is now owned by Cargill, but the chocolates are still made at the 125-year-old factory on North Broad Street, hard by the railroad stop. There is a homey museum and factory outlet there, its centerpiece the Wilbur Bud, a $6-a-pound upscale version of the Hershey Kiss.
Julius Sturgis started his pretzel-making business in town in 1861, and the Woolworth family still runs Woodstream, which traces its roots to 1899 and the first Victor snap-action mousetrap. Woodstream has since made a billion of them, and also has a long line of other pest control machines and poisons.
Each of the businesses employs from a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred people, and none had significant layoffs during the recession.
“I guess we were never hit badly,” said Gaylord Poling, the chairman of Venture Lititz, the town’s business promotion arm. “Maybe it’s because we are conservative enough here that we always bought and sold $300,000 houses for $300,000, not $600,000.”
Mr. Poling added: “There are no big-box stores here and the only chain I can think of is the Subway downtown. Every other store is local.”
Soren West, now president of Atomic Design, grew up in Lancaster County, but said that when he was younger he had to get away. He became a ski instructor in Colorado and was a professional cyclist and art gallery owner. Then he was passing through Lititz and heard about Atomic and Mr. McPhillips.
“It was 14 years ago and I begged Tom to hire me, to do anything,” Mr. West said. “I was really coming home. We have a little art colony of sorts in the county, with a couple of art schools and lots of small galleries.”
“You say, ‘Why Lititz?’ and I say, ‘Why not?’ ” Mr. West said. “You get the stimulation without the hype, and no one is in anyone’s face.”
Roy Clair tells the story of the time Billy Joel came to town to check up on a sound system for a forthcoming tour.
“He was in a limo or at least had a driver,” Mr. Clair said, stopping to chuckle. “So he’s on one of the main streets and rolls down the window to ask someone where Clair Brothers is. The guy looks at him and says: ‘I can’t tell you. They don’t like people to know.’ I mean, this is Billy Joel. But this is also Lititz, where they respect a local business.”