From inside an old, repurposed brick bakery on a rough stretch of Leavenworth Street in the Big O come some of the most cutting-edge infrastructure ideas for stadium and festival shows around the world. But while Aaron Cass had all the experience and the technology to turn a concert designer’s vision into “real nuts and bolts,” he told Omaha’s KETV, it wasn’t until he got financing with an SBA guaranteed loan that he could make a business out of it.
Cass personally knows what show runners in far-flung locations need, and how fast they need it, after spending 15 years touring and supporting some of the biggest performers around the globe, from N*Sync to Britney Spears, and from to Bruce Springsteen to the Stones. Name a city from Australia to Japan, and “I know a good restaurant or a bar there,” he said. Over time, he built his Rolodex starting out as a roadie eventually working up to stage manager bouncing from tour to tour, often working up to 100 hours a week.
“I’m always on the go,” he said. “I can’t do monotonous work. That’s who I am. I mean, I can’t eat the same breakfast two weeks in a row."
He’s put those contacts and knowledge to work with his company, Acass-Systems, designing cutting-edge modular crowd-control barricade systems and self-erecting outdoor roof structures that can handle 60 tons and withstand 100 mph winds. Their modular video frame systems allow quick build of enormous video displays, and they’re developing an arena staging system that will work with a wide range of elevator platforms. Finally, they’ve come up with an easily-installed aluminum flooring system to protect the ground for outdoor venues and flooring for indoor arenas, the only of its kind, Cass said, in the world. All are designed for easier transport and faster installation.
The company also will do custom work, like the drum riser on their fabrication room floor built to the liking of rock legend Mick Fleetwood.
'You should take this kid on the road with you'
Cass has been looking for the next idea to tackle since he was a youngster growing up in Missouri Valley. He left school in the fourth grade when he was frustrated with the normal academic pace of his classroom; homeschooled on the family farm from then on, he would devour old textbooks on design and engineering, making his own toy cars and trucks with homemade engines and transmissions. By 15, he was scribbling out his ideas in his bedroom on a full-sized drafting table salvaged from an old aircraft company.
After working in construction as a teenager and graduating high school a year and a half early, he took a job at a printing press company fixing sensors and hydraulics, but soon moved on to a fabrication firm often working 80-hour weeks. By 1996, Cass was working in Washington, D.C., running an ironworking crew building the new indoor stadium in Chinatown for the Wizards basketball team and Capitals hockey team.
“I was up there climbing I-beams,” Cass remembered.
On one occasion when he climbed down, he met with his construction superintendent, who was showing his son around the arena. The son, who was working in the entertainment industry, was doing a site survey there for an upcoming Billy Joel show. The superintendent turned to a sheepish Cass and told his son: “You should take this kid on the road with you, he will go further in the business than you have!”
The son did just that, and Cass’ career was born.
His first gig was Shania Twain’s tour, where he started as an assistant but moved up quickly, learning the unspoken rules of the road from veteran roadies. By 2009, as he finished up with a Springsteen tour, he moved on as stage manager for the Black Eyed Peas, where out-of-the-box, innovative solutions not only were encouraged, they were needed day to day.
Locked himself away for a whole year to come up with new designs
Finally, Cass took four months off from the non-stop touring schedule. Living in Australia, he got a call from a friend who talked him into designing barricades for major events.
“This company didn’t have the time to innovate new products, so they’d pay me to come up with something from scratch,” said Cass, who always had talked about starting his own business someday.
But starting his firm Down Under was too formidable; the labor costs would be prohibitive and the location too remote to compete on an international level. So he returned to Nebraska and locked himself in his apartment to draw designs 18 hours a day for the next 12 months.
When he emerged with an innovative video frame design, the company dismissed his invention as too radical, insisting on a traditional approach. A few months later, and Cass’ newer design is all the rage.
“That’s what got us noticed and allowed us to open the factory,” Cass said of his interlocking series of frames which support a 40-foot-by-60-foot video board assembled in just 15 minutes.
He outsourced the production work to a machine firm in Minnesota willing not only to do the manufacturing for a nascent small business, but reduced turnaround time from six months to shipping the materials to him in just six weeks. He also demanded tolerances on the design of plus or minus a third of a millimeter. The latter not only outpaced his competition, a larger company with a presence on three continents, but ensured safe operation for arena-sized video screens.
Being a smaller company gives Acass-Systems the flexibility to ramp up from eight full-time employees up to 20 as needed to do assembly work, filling three semi-trucks with 800 of those video frames, a competitive advantage they enjoy over larger firms.
Getting an SBA-guaranteed line of credit 'took the pressure off us'
But Cass needed the access to a line of credit to “fill in the gaps, and offset our expenses.
“Banks don’t throw money at you until you’re established,” he said. “We needed collateral and a proven record in business for two years. We needed help with overhead and the time to turn over the work just to save my clients in this high-speed, high-pressure niche.”
Through Security First Bank, Acass-Systems was approved in December 2013 for a $350,000 SBA Express loan. “If we didn’t have that, we’d be (in an uncomfortable position). It took the pressure off us. As a small business, you don’t have a lot of capital sitting around.”
The company’s long-term goal is to standardize a wide range of ad hoc event structures from around the world, and using a one-of-a-kind global supply chain sell or lease to already-established domestic and global companies certain types of products, such as cart dollies for production companies, for 30 percent less than they could manufacture in-house. That’s crucial in determining whether a promoter in an emerging market in Africa or South America can afford to put on a show with some of the entertainment world’s biggest stars on stage.
Cass claims a network with 75 percent of the people who promote and manage tours around the globe; by leveraging those contacts while establishing strategic partnerships with the machine shop in Minnesota and a robotics firm in Iowa to construct his customized products on time and for low cost to meet those shows’ needs, he expects the company to reach $3.5 million in domestic sales this year, with potential for $34 million in revenue from international sales by 2016.
“We’re setting up an international infrastructure to dominate this market for the next 40 years,” Cass added.