Lyle Waggoner hit pay dirt when he made the worst decision of his acting career.
The decision to leave "The Carol Burnett Show" in 1974 was something he did because he thought the show would never make it into the lucrative realm of reruns.
"As it turned out, 'The Carol Burnett Show' went on to become one of the most successful syndicated shows in the history of television," Waggoner said, grimacing. "But my decision was a good move for me. I probably never would have started this business otherwise."
The business is Star Waggons, which supplies dressing-room and work-area trailers to the motion picture and television industries. Now in its 20th year, Star Waggons has evolved from a sideline venture--Waggoner started with one motor home that he rented out--to a company that employs 55 people and supplies about 300 trailers. He estimates annual revenue of about $10 million.
And competitors are small, mostly teamsters who own their own motor homes or trailers.
"Entrepreneurs are legendary for identifying unmet demands in niche markets," said Lloyd Greif, president and chief executive of Greif & Co., a Los Angeles-based investment banking firm that specializes in working with entrepreneurial ventures. "Mr. Waggoner has found a very finite niche with little competition. The company's nicely situated geographically to the movie and TV industry and they have products designed to cater to a difficult-to-please customer base. And customizing is big in this town."
Waggoner, 65, manufactures his own trailers, currently offering 15 models for different uses in the industry.
Trailers for makeup artists, for example, feature large work areas. Trailers for supporting actors may have three dressing rooms, while top-of-the-line models for big stars feature just one dressing room, and have living rooms that can be expanded with hydraulic controls once the trailer is in place.
"Our trailers are built to satisfy the different levels of success," Waggoner said. "But each one is very nice. The smaller ones are just like a little stateroom on a yacht."
In the grander models, which rent for about $1,300 a week, amenities include a bedroom with a queen-size bed, full bathroom and a living room/office area with a kitchen, video and CD players and, of course, a large three-sided mirrored area for dressing and makeup work.
Waggoner is also involved in design choices, from the material used in the furniture to the artwork hung on the walls.
Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., likens Star Waggons to a computer software firm.
"They have a low employment number, but they're turning out megabucks," he said. "And the company's providing a service that, as long as the Hollywood film industry continues, will always be in demand."
Waggoner got the idea for his company shortly after he left "The Carol Burnett Show" to star in a new show in 1975 called "Wonder Woman." "They took me to the set and when I asked where my dressing room was, they showed me this great big motor home. I was very impressed. It had to be a $30,000 or $40,000 vehicle."
When Waggoner found out that the production company merely rented the motor home from a private owner, he made a deal to buy his own motor home and rent it to the show's production company. "I rented it to them for the three years I was on that show," he said.
That deal sparked an idea to create a company that would provide this kind of service, as the studios often had to scout around to various places to find such amenities. "Those were the days of the investment tax credit," Waggoner said. "That was my incentive to do this as a business. If I was buying a motor home for $40,000, the government was giving me a 10% tax credit right off the top of my income tax."
In 1979, while still on "Wonder Woman," Waggoner started buying motor homes. He began the business with four, with an initial investment of about $120,000. "I was making payments of about $500 to $600 a month to the bank on each motor home, but in return I was renting each of them out for $400 a week."
The irony for him was that while he was still a star on "Wonder Woman," he was spending his free time scrubbing tires and cleaning toilets in his motor homes. "I knew the show couldn't last forever," he said. "When you're an actor, you have no security. They can pull the rug out from under you at any time and then you're not sure where your next buck is coming from." As it turned out, the show was canceled in 1979.
The company's first office in the early 1980s was in a gravel lot in Van Nuys and consisted of a metal building that Waggoner bought at a hardware store. Today, the business sits on 20,000 square feet of property in Sylmar. There is an office building, a large parking lot and a manufacturing plant where Waggoner's technicians crank out new and improved models. "We've been in this building for three years and already we're growing out of it," he said.
In 1986, Waggoner made a big decision in charting the company's future course when he decided to sell the motor homes and use trailers instead.
"We discovered we could save production companies money because trailers didn't require a teamster driver on the set all day," he said. "Motor homes did."
The cost-saving factor for him was that trailers didn't have engines and drive trains, which are expensive to maintain. So he sold his 60 motor homes and began designing trailers.
At first he contracted with trailer manufacturers to build units to his specifications. As the business evolved, Waggoner began doing his own manufacturing--hiring electricians, cabinetmakers and other tradespeople to build the trailers to his specifications.
Another bonus of his business is that he doesn't have to deal with the networks or studios, which can sometimes can be a political nightmare. The people he works with are the transportation coordinators, members of Teamsters Local 399.
"They are the ones who rent the trailers and I feel that my job is to make them look good," he said, flashing his still-famous smile.
At this time of year, when production on television shows is at a standstill, Waggoner finds the lion's share of his 300 trailers back on the lot, where they undergo extensive maintenance and cleanup. But come July, when production starts again, Waggoner said the trailers fly off the lot (to such shows as "E.R." and "West Wing" among many others). "I can't build them fast enough to keep up with the demand," he said.
He plans to increase his stock of trailers to about 500.
And other than the occasional guest role ( on such shows as "That '70s Show"), Waggoner--who still looks like a leading man--has given up acting. "I still have an agent, but I don't enjoy going on auditions," he said. "I never really was a dedicated actor. I was always more of an entrepreneur. What I wanted was to have my own business."
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For more information on the companies in this week's Valley Business, check out these Web sites.
www.academymgt.com: Academy Kids Management. Information on staff, workshops, list of successful clients and links to studio Web sites.
www.beverlygarland.com: Beverly Garland Holiday Inn. Views of the hotel, online reservation service, and pictures and excerpts from an upcoming biography.
www.starwaggons.com: Lyle Waggoner's Star Waggons. Pictures, floor plans and rates for trailers and trucks.
Sites subject to change.