All Pro MediaBy Carlienne Frisch • Jul 2009 • Category: Feature Story
Mankato couple hurdles turbulent life events to build media business with clients in five states.
Photo: Kris Kathmann
Although not knowing it, movie producer George Lucas is responsible for the creation and growth of a video production company in Mankato. Rob Petersen, co-owner of All Pro Media LLC, saw his first Star Wars movie in 1977 and said, “I want to do that.” He’s been moving toward that goal ever since, currently channeling his creativity into promotional, educational, and sports coverage video and related projects.
Using Hi-Def technology, Rob and wife Mary specialize in producing commercials, other promotional and marketing materials, training videos, and sales materials. They also cover 18-20 Women’s Hockey games annually at Minnesota State University, streaming live video to the Internet. It’s a first for women’s hockey at MSU. The company’s annual sales have reached $300,000, and fluctuate with the economy.
Rob, whose birth name was Harry Robert, goes by Rob because his father’s first name is also Harry. What’s more, both men have wives named Mary. Harry and Mary and Harry and Mary would have been just too confusing. Mary (Rob’s wife) said, “We’ve even gotten our personal bank accounts mixed up.”
Rob’s mother is involved in the business, handling All Pro Media’s accounting and some editing. His father, Dr. Harry C. Petersen, occupies himself teaching automotive and industrial engineering at Minnesota State University. Steve Conover, the general manager at Mankato’s Alltel Center, works for All Pro Media after hours on lighting and video editing. (Rob designed the TV system in the Alltel Center and produces Alltel Center promos.) A few other subcontractors, such as editors, web designers, audio specialists, complete the team because, Rob explained, “We don’t have time to do it all ourselves.” But the personal touch takes priority.
“We are a boutique studio,” Rob said. “I like to be personally involved with every client. In bigger studios, clients initially meet with a producer and the client is handed off to a technician. There is often little further relationship with the producer.”
Mary put it into a nutshell: “Clients get the ‘TLC’ they need from us.” Her comments are delivered in the drawl of Hearne, Texas, where she grew up. Rob, who sounds like a Midwesterner, can produce a Texas accent when choosing, and describes himself as “a chameleon” linguistically. Because his father “collected degrees” and was a railroad engineer before that, Rob lived in various parts of the United States during his childhood and teen years, and mastered the art of “local speak.”
The couple met in College Station, Texas, where both were students at Texas A&M University and Blinn College. Mary was majoring in general studies and Rob, architecture. Mary recalled, “When he proposed, he said that someday he wanted to make movies. He has written complete stories for them.” They married in 1988.
After studying architecture three years, Rob knew he loved the creative side, but was turned off by a professor who said the designing of buildings came only after decades of designing bathrooms. So Rob dropped out and the couple moved to Duluth, Minn., where his parents lived, and he began to pursue his dream of rivaling George Lucas.
“I’d always been interested in photography, and did a lot in high school,” Rob said. “At a job fair in Duluth, I stumbled across the broadcast idea.” He enrolled at Duluth Technical Institute, from which he earned a degree in broadcast engineering and production in 1989.
“While at school, I interned on a Toro Snow blower commercial,” Rob said. The commercial was never released because that model of snowblower was found faulty. “I was getting $75 a day and worked with a professional crew and actors from California. I volunteered as an assistant to the director, which meant I did things like getting his coffee, and they let me shoot some film. My predecessor had been fired for having a bad attitude, so I learned the life lesson that attitude is very important. The company offered me a job in Los Angeles, but at the time it wasn’t a place we wanted to live.”
Rob then interned at WDIO and WIRT, Duluth-Hibbing Channels 10 and 13, while Mary worked as an on-call teacher’s aide in Duluth public schools. Rob’s first assignment was as a grip person for a cameraman covering college football.
“The station used 50 unpaid interns for football coverage, and about 11 were still showing up at the end of the season,” Rob said. “I was one of the three who were then hired. I did everything—teleprompter, studio cameras, field cameras, mixing board, technical switching, live audio mixing for news and sports editing. At the end I was the floor director and studio supervisor, training new camera people.” He included Mary in the training, at home.
“In high school, I wanted to take photography, but that was only for honor students,” Mary said. “So I got myself a Polaroid camera and went from there. I was always a photographer, so Rob brought home a camera from the station and gave me training.” Mary is now the chief All Pro Media cameraperson, shooting about 60 percent of the jobs, with Rob doing the rest.
Rob explained, “Mary has a natural eye, so I convinced her to try it. I love filming, but I enjoy being behind the scenes more, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.”
Rob was shooting a news spot at the Duluth harbor during a particularly cold spell when the videotape froze and shattered. The couple eventually gave up on living in Duluth, returned to College Station, Texas, and began their first videography business in 1992.
“We did wedding shoots, training films for Texas A&M, and some marketing videos, including one for NASA,” Rob said. “It was one of our bigger projects—the history of NASA, titled ‘What has NASA done for you?’ for the Texas Teachers Association. I got to interview Dr. Aaron Cohen, the head of NASA ground control at the time.” As they slowly began their business, both Petersens worked at Texas A&M, with Rob as a security guard, and Mary as a gardener.
After the Texas oil economy went flat, they moved to Mankato because it had been voted one of the top micropolitan areas in the U.S. Rob’s parents arrived here at about the same time. The Petersens started their business back up while working other jobs the first two years.
“We’ve always bootstrapped our own financing,” Rob said.
They ultimately located in the Matt J. Graif building, downtown, and moved on in 2007 to the Technology Plus building, now the Greater Mankato Business Development Center. (See sidebar, page 40.)
“We began with an industrial quality camcorder,” Rob said. “To have the equipment we have now would have cost about a half a million then. Now it’s much more affordable. Technology has been great—awesome. Then, if you had a half million dollars, you could be a hack and stay in business for a few years. As the technology got better, and more affordable, more people got into the business. Now, you can get in at one-tenth of that, so the quality of people entering the business has improved.”
The Petersens give substantial credit for their success to the Riverbend Center for Enterprise Facilitation and its representative, now-retired Milt Toratti. “He was a retired Army officer,” Mary said, “and would direct questions to us like a drill sergeant. He’d make you think and look for the answers. He was our mentor.” In this world of changing names and images, the Petersens have adhered to Toratti’s advice: Don’t change your logo for 10 years. They also are clients of the South Central Small Business Development Center.
The Petersens acknowledge God in their success. Rob explained, “For us to be busy in this economy is a blessing from God. A lot of our competition has shut down.”
“Many companies do only one thing,” Mary said. “We do video post-production, editing of video someone else has shot, location filming, website design, print design (carrying the video theme over into print) and product photography for business cards and catalog layout. We’re survivors, both personally and professionally.” (See sidebar page 41.)
“When we do a DVD, we do the disc layout and cover design,” Rob said. “That has just boomed out into a lot of print work. This also saves the client time and money, and their marketing is consistent.
Like many business owners, the Petersens are subject to the “shoemaker’s barefoot children” syndrome. They’ve been working on their website for two years and as yet have no brochure. Nevertheless, their client list continues to grow.
“It’s mostly word of mouth,“ Rob said. “In a time when customer service is just awful in many industries, most of our clients go away happy. We’ve had a few hundred clients, from small to large, with some website clients constantly updating. From the beginning, we contacted people directly, including the Civic Center and MSU. I don’t take a real aggressive stand on marketing. I don’t think that works anymore, if it ever did. I tell people what we do and our philosophy, which is that I’m not selling you anything. I’m going to solve a problem for you and create a relationship with you. The biggest challenge is to communicate that it’s not the camera or software, it’s the person behind it.”
Their client list includes start-ups—“Exciting and fun to be there at the beginning, when there are so many possibilities,” Rob said—and small- to mid-sized companies and nonprofits. “We have worked with boat manufacturers, the Diocese of Winona, inventors, agricultural groups, the ethanol plant in St. Peter and the Lake Crystal Area Recreation Center. They want to get the same message out as large companies, to advertise and market themselves,” Rob said. “Technology has leveled the playing field for small companies. HickoryTech approached us with a five-year contract, and we did cellular and TV commercials (until the cellular division was sold off) and internal communications.”
Annual clients include the March of Dimes, for which the Petersens worked seven years as volunteers, the ISJ Auxiliary Women’s Show, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the BENCO Electric annual shareholders meeting, which is run live on Imax screens and put on a DVD.
The services All Pro Media delivers are personalized to whatever extent a client wishes. Some customers give the Petersens their credit card number to order DVD duplication or business cards. Now, video to DVDs is secondary and they work with videos on websites.
The Petersens, who have no children, work more than 60 hours a week because “I don’t delegate well,” Rob explained. “We work with Steve Conover from 6 p.m. to midnight twice weekly. To meet clients’ needs, you have to work many hours. Having your own business, you have many bosses, sometimes three clients with the same deadline.”
It may sound like all work and no play, but for the Petersens the work is play. Travel is one perk. About 80 percent of their Minnesota clients come from outside Greater Mankato. About 25 percent of all clients are out of state, giving the Petersens the opportunity for business trips to Iowa, Wisconsin, Texas and upstate New York.
“I love what I do so much,” Rob said. “Work is always different, fresh, with new challenges. I get to meet great people, presidents of companies, and janitors.” Mary added, “We get to interview people like Glen Taylor and to meet people like Kelly Armstrong (Lance Armstrong’s mother, also a Texan) when she spoke at the ISJ Auxiliary Women’s Show. And we learn how things are made.”
Seeking a more convenient office location than the Matt J. Graif building in downtown Mankato, from which All Pro Media served clients since 1997, Rob and Mary Petersen moved in 2007 to the Technology Plus building, now the Greater Mankato Business Development Center, in Eastwood Industrial Park on the northeastern edge of Mankato. Suite 200 is a studio cum office where electronics rule. Amid the computers and cameras, the Petersens meet with clients around a cozy round table, dispensing coffee, pop and bottled water.
“We were looking for a small office space, didn’t need 3,000 sq. ft., and we’re out of the office a lot and didn’t want to spend much money,” said Rob. “The building has the right location, with security in the evening, and it’s easy for clients to meet us here and see we’re legitimate. They see our cameras and digital equipment. We also store equipment in another location in the building.”
The Greater Mankato Business Development Center is home to 15 tenants, including financial companies, agricultural companies, technology companies and consulting firms. Business development service providers include educational, regional economic, and community development organizations, as well as nonprofit small business development organizations. A group of business incubator clients, of which All Pro Media does not belong, receives guidance from Greater Mankato Growth and other local support organizations that help connect entrepreneurs or business start-ups with the appropriate resources to help them succeed.
The Petersens have had their share of near-death experiences. Mary survived an armed robbery as a child. In another incident, they survived a car accident about which a state trooper said, “How did anyone walk away from that alive?” As a security guard, Rob was struck by a car driven by a fleeing student and couldn’t walk for nearly a year, and he has experienced several near crashes of small planes. And then, there’s the shark story.
Scene 1: Rob goes for a walk along a beach in Galveston, Texas, not planning to get wet. A tall wave comes up around his ankles, and the next wave grabs him by the legs and drags him into the very muddy harbor water. Tossed about, he’s soon bruised and bleeding. Swept several hundred yards from shore, he decides to swim diagonally against the current toward the receding shoreline.
Scene 2: Rob sees a triangular fin. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, he treads water as slowly as he can to stay afloat. Then, he feels terrible pain in his left leg and thinks he’s lost it to a shark. Suddenly he finds himself standing on the water’s surface—on both legs. The shark has risen beneath him. (It had attacked his leg with its mouth closed.) He looks into its eyes and down at his horribly bruised leg. The shark dives and swims away, leaving Rob floundering.
Scene 3: Rob finds he can’t swim with his injured left leg. As his head goes under, a tow-headed surfer on a white surfboard (Galveston is not a surfing destination) appears and tows him to shore—then vanishes.
“To this day I truly believe God sent a guardian angel to bring me in,” Rob said.
1. Where did you grow up?
HE: I’m an only child, born in Wisconsin, and have lived in North Dakota, Idaho, Illinois, Virginia, Iowa, Texas and Minnesota. SHE: I was born in Mississippi and raised in Texas, the youngest, with four brothers. I spent time in foster care after my father was killed when we were victims of an armed robbery when I was four. Then my aunt and uncle adopted me.
2. What were your favorite subjects in school?
HE: Science, because I love learning how things work. SHE: English, art and music. Rob and I both play alto sax.
3. In junior high, what did you hope to do?
HE: I wanted to do special effects in film. SHE: I grew up on a farm and wanted to be a veterinarian’s assistant.
4. What would you like to have studied that you did not?
HE: I came at this as an artist and technician. I wish there had been more business resources for me in the beginning. SHE: I would like to have taken the classes Rob took in Duluth.
5. What were your early jobs?
HE: I had paper routes, and around age 10 bought Twinkies and Ding Dongs with my lunch money and sold them for a profit to other students. Later, I worked at fast food places. At Chuck E. Cheese I wore a costume for group birthday parties. SHE: I worked for my mother (aunt) cleaning the beauty parlor, and in a public library, and also helped kindergarten teachers, all while going to school.
6. What are your hobbies?
HE: I write music (sometimes for clients), paint models—especially WWII military miniatures—collect Star Wars and other movie memorabilia, collect video gear, and write stories. SHE: I take still photos at lakes and parks and I enjoy singing songs with Rob, especially songs we’ve written, and hope to record them.
7. Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
HE: Being a good Christian, being a husband, and starting a company. SHE: Having learned the things I’ve learned and having come this far.
8. If you weren’t in this business, what would you be doing?
HE: Trying to get into this business. SHE: Working with people—maybe in psychology, at a nursing home or as a volunteer.