Media company sets up shop on Madison Street

Chicago Producers specializes in business marketing and reformatting old family videos

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By Tom Holmes

If you recently found a box of old VHS tapes in your parents' basement and you want to transfer them to a CD or a USB file, Michael Bambacht at Chicago Producers, which recently opened at 7507 Madison St. here in Forest Park, can do that for you.

Bill Vala, his business partner, said Bambacht handles the retail or consumer side of the business. He noted that many families have a lot of mini-DVD tapes they've taken of their kids over the years and would like to consolidate them into one CD, file or video. "We get a lot of walk-ins for that," he said.

On the other hand, if you own a business and what you need is rebranding or the creation of a marketing package, Vala is the person to see.

LaSalle Bank wanted to expand their business into the Detroit area about 15 years ago and hired Vala to design a way to market their bank to executives at high-end firms in the Motor City. All the bank asked for was a baseball theme since the Detroit Tigers were doing well at the time.

What Chicago Producers came up with is a box in which a florist would put roses, and printed "Are you covering all your bases?" on the cover and shipped directly to the desks of the CEOs of the companies they were targeting. When the execs opened the box they found a baseball bat with their name laser-carved on the barrel and LaSalle Bank carved where the manufacturer's trademark would ordinarily appear along with the business card of an official at the bank.

"We charged LaSalle Bank $45,000 for developing that campaign," said Vala, "and they netted $40 million in business."

Like many other startups, Chicago Producers started in a basement. Back in 1997, Vala was working for Anderson Consulting, building server farms for in-house use. He was making big money but felt the itch to get back to something more creative.

So he quit his job, grabbed his camera and three of his friends, and started photographing rock bands in bars as they performed. Sometimes they would do three in one night. 

"I was 25," he said, "and I like live music. We invested $150,000 in multiple cameras and other equipment, but in the first year we made only $3,000. We realized pretty quickly that we liked doing it, but there was no way we could make a business out of it. The bands liked our pictures but didn't have the money to pay us for them."

The foursome stumbled on some music people who asked if they duplicated DVDs. They replied "sure," even though they'd never done it before, spent some money on a duplicating machine, cranked out the product, and delivered it on time. 

"We got paid pretty well," Vala recalled, "and it was then that we saw a vision of what could come of this."

At that point, Vala's three buddies were all helping "dupe" CDs in the basement of his Wicker Park townhouse without being paid because they enjoyed the work and hanging out with friends. Unlike their first attempt at making money, they started picking up clients, and Mike Bambacht quit his job to join his friend in this entrepreneurial adventure. One thing led to another and, with 13 employees on Chicago's West Side, Chicago Producers crossed the million-dollar threshold in revenue in 2006.

Problem was, despite the huge increase in revenue, more money went out than came in. "We lost $70,000 that year," Vala explained, "because we spent so much on salaries and benefits."

So earlier this year, in an effort to cut their expenses, as well as get out of a dangerous neighborhood, Bambacht and Vala started checking out other locations in the Chicago Metro Area. Vala said the Forest Park location on Madison Street "just popped up." When they checked the place out, it was a mess, but they were able to picture what it would like if they gutted and rehabbed the space. Another selling point was that it's on street level which is important for walk-in customers.

They also saw what was happening on the street. 

"Look at this area!" Vala said. "It's lively. There are always people walking up and down the street. The community is doing things like festivals and the parade. We didn't have that where we were. We love that kind of stuff. We love being part of the community."

The two owners of Chicago Producers feel they're now in a good situation. With a staff of just two people, they've cut expenses. They're still doing what they love to do and now have the space to do it. "Our place on Western Avenue was cramped," Vala explained. "Now we have the space to keep our cameras and lighting all set up and don't have to take it down for another activity."

And they feel much safer in the village with "small town charm." 

"I tell people that where we were we had bars on the windows," said Vala laughing. "Now we're located between two bars."

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