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Small Business Person of the Year: Steve Wildemann

Posted Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

Programs & Events, Member News, Featured Member, Newsletter

We caught up with this year’s Small Business Person of the Year to see how the Philadelphia business community has contributed to their success.  Check out what Steve Wildemann, President and Owner of Advanced Staging Productions has to say as we highlight one of the excellent small businesses that drives the Greater Philadelphia region. Join us to celebrate the 35th Annual Excellence Award winners on Thursday, November 9.

Describe the moment that you decided to go into business for yourself. How did you feel once you made the decision?

I had worked for Paul Grafinger at Advanced Audio Visual for nine years when he made me a limited partner in 1997.  It was exciting to have a “piece of the pie” but my workload and outlook did not change all that much.  I was still running things, working long hours and managing the team, but now I was in charge of revenue generation, too!  Fast forward 15 successful years of steady growth and Paul was ready to sell the company.  After seeing some of the offers we received and realizing what my future as a limited partner would look like after the sale, I came to the realization that I HAD to buy Paul’s remaining shares and take over the company 100%.  It was a scary thought, fraught with risk and uncertainty, but that was tempered by the fact that I had been running the company all these 15 years.  I was confident in who we were, what we represented and how we could continue our growth.  So, the risk was mitigated by my experience and knowledge and I bought the company outright on New Year’s Eve 2012.  The closing was an adrenaline rush I had not expected. And the different feeling in my gut from that day forward made me proud and excited and gave me the incentive to want to do all I could for the company and the team that helped get me to this point.

Who has been an inspiration to you as a business owner and why?

Initially Paul Grafinger was my inspiration as I was able to see up close how he built a stable of companies and employed dedicated, smart people (I was one of them!) to help him grow the companies beyond what he could have on his own.  Since then, I am inspired every day by the many stories of small business owners and the sacrifice, risk and uncertainty they face as they try to succeed with many odds stacked against them.  I am inspired by their drive and will to succeed and by their ability to connect to people…clients and employees alike…to get them to believe in what they are doing and help them achieve their dream.

What is your business philosophy?

Our business philosophy is to genuinely care about what we are doing, who we are doing it for and how well we are doing it. We have a passion for our craft…the instant gratification that comes from seeing an event succeed in all its technical glory is exciting.  But that within itself accomplishes little.  The relationships we develop, the ties that bind us to our clients and their goals, and the desire to see that all come together successfully is what really drives us.  Knowing that we made someone’s job and life a little easier in the process is icing on the cake.

What’s so special about the Greater Philadelphia business community?

The special thing about the Greater Philadelphia business community is just that…it is a community. We are small enough, especially in the hospitality industry, to know each other well, to compete hard and fair but to feel good about each other’s success, especially when it is an event that helps put Philadelphia on the map.  As a region, we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder so I think we work a little harder to prove ourselves and to work together when needed to make us all look good.

Others will be looking to you for advice about starting and/or operating a business here. What are your top 3 tips?

  1. It will be harder and cost more than you thought.  Be prepared.
  2. Don’t go into it unless you are ready to commit yourself and your resources to see it through.
  3. Build a great team around you and give them the autonomy and opportunity to have real impact on your success.

What does it mean to you personally and/or to your business to be named an Excellence Award winner?

For me personally it is an incredibly humbling experience.  I know I am not the smartest or hardest working person in the region or even in my industry in the region.  But this award recognizes the soft skills that I think I have that help my company succeed…integrity, the ability to share responsibility and reward and genuinely caring about people and the lives we are building together.  I know I owe it to the people around me who have helped me through the years and to win this award means that their efforts have been recognized and rewarded.  For the company, it just means that we have been doing things the right way all these years and someone other than our clients noticed and that is special.  Plus it’s really good PR!

What are your strategic growth plans for the next 3-5 years?

We plan to continue our strategy of consistent, sustainable growth over the next few years. We are not out for the big hit…we want to meet and develop deep relationships with like-minded people and see how we can help them.  It is important to us to like what we are doing and to want to help the people we work with.  Life is too short to just grab for the brass ring.  By gaining the confidence and trust of our clients, the revenue side will take care of itself.  And it will last.

What’s the most unexpected thing that has happened while running your business?

In 1999, in the early years of my running the company, we had what we now call The Mutiny of ’99.  I was burning the candle at both ends, working crazy hours operating, managing and helping to execute all the business we could handle.  What I did not realize was that, no matter how loyal and dedicated your team, they have a breaking point…and we reached it.  I thought that leading by example was enough…I never asked them to do anything I wouldn’t or didn’t do myself…but their level of emotional investment was different than mine and it was important for me to step back and consider their quality of life and their family and what drove them.  It was a turning point in my understanding of how to lead.

What resources or opportunities in the region helped your business succeed?

It’s the people that I have met over the years who were willing to give selflessly of their knowledge and experience to help me grow. I could name them but it might take up the rest of this interview!  The various hospitality groups have helped me, especially the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau and their willingness to work together and help each other put a better face on the region and early on in my career, groups such as MPI (Meeting Professionals International), ISES (International Special Event Society…now called ILEA for obvious reasons!) and others.

What’s something that you think would surprise people about your business?

People, especially those with whom we have not yet worked, would be surprised by the level of technological complexity that defines many of our events.  Those of us in the “AV” industry suffer from an inferiority complex brought on by the typical stereotype portrayed for many years.  But much of what we do we term “corporate rock concerts” because the types of equipment, the level of expertise and the amount of planning and coordination that go into successfully producing some of these events is similar to high-end award shows like the Grammys or popular commercial artists like U2.  This isn’t a bunch of guys in a garage playing with microphones and amps.  This is sophisticated, highly engineered, integrated digital technology that is designed to produce amazing sights, sounds and images that can inspire, motivate, educate, influence or reward audiences on many levels.  And it’s fun!


Advanced Staging Productions is an event technology management company providing audio, video and lighting production services for corporate meetings, special events and university events. Working closely with event managers and meeting planners, Advanced provides the expertise and hardware to make their vision come alive for product launches, national sales meetings, galas and awards dinners, and university graduations and development events. With 32 years of experience, Advanced Staging Productions helps clients’ events run seamlessly and effectively.


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