BUSINESS

Steady shooter

Canada’s Wescam focuses on the Olympics

DAN HAWALESHKA December 11 1995
BUSINESS

Steady shooter

Canada’s Wescam focuses on the Olympics

DAN HAWALESHKA December 11 1995

Steady shooter

BUSINESS

Canada’s Wescam focuses on the Olympics

When former football great O. J.

Simpson made his bizarre break for freedom in a white Ford Bronco, Mark Chamberlain was thrilled to be part of the spectacle’s little-known Canadian connection. Ironically, last year’s quintessential U.S. media extravaganza was captured on TV by a camera made in Canada. Suspended from a Los Angeles TV station’s helicopter on that surreal June day was a camera designed and assembled by Flamborough, Ont.-based Wescam Inc. Chamberlain, Wescam’s president, points to the 0. J. chase as proof that his company’s high-tech product, a gyro-stabilized camera system that can take jitter-free images under the harshest conditions, “just happens to be capturing some of the most spectacular and meaningful events anywhere in the world.” That is no idle boast. To date, Wescam camera systems have been used in the production of more than 100 Hollywood movies, including the current James Bond flick, Goldeneye, and dozens of the world’s top sporting events—among them the Tour de France and World Cup soccer matches. The company’s product is designed for mounting on moving vehicles, including helicopters, planes, trucks and boats. The technology is prized by police and military forces, so much so that sales of Wescam camera systems for surveillance and public safety generate most of the company’s revenues. Clients include the RCMP, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and 15 police departments in Japan.

This month, Wescam is poised to close a deal with NBC and the host broadcasting organization for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. The agreement could cover as many as nine competitions. ‘Take the yachting events,” says Gary Childs, Wescam’s general manager of entertainment services. “Our cameras will be mounted on chase boats, providing coverage that could never be achieved from the shoreline.”

That kind of global exposure—the company also helped to cover the Albertville, Barcelona and Lillehammer Games—is what Chamberlain hopes will ingrain the company’s name in the industry lexicon, much as Ski-Doo has come to mean snowmobile. As he puts it, ‘Wescam is essentially becoming the Kleenex of the airborne, steady-platform shot.” In fact, Wescam won an Academy

Award in 1990 for inventing and developing the stabilized camera system; it has also won several Emmy Awards. And whether the event is the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, the Super Bowl, World Cup skiing or the America’s Cup yachting competition, Wescam has been there. CBC Sports director Ron Forsythe, who will be in Atlanta for the Games, relied on a helicopter-borne Wescam at last month’s Grey Cup in Regina, where 70-km/h winds made conditions difficult. “It’s a real salute to the camera when the terrestrial shots are jiggling around more than the aerial shot,” Forsythe says. Adds CBC producer Mike Brannagan: “I’ve never come up against anything like it.”

Not bad for a company that grew out of a division spun off by Hamilton-based Westinghouse Canada Inc. in 1974. Chamberlain joined the company in 1985, becoming coowner two years later. From 17 employees and $1 million in revenues in 1987, Wescam grew to a staff of 60 and $12.3 million in sales in 1993. That year, Chamberlain bought out his partner and brought in Jefferson Partners Capital Corp., a Toronto-based venture capital firm headed by Jack Kiervin and David Folk. In October, Wescam moved from its cramped Hamilton facility into a new 40,000square-foot head office in neighboring Flamborough. It also recently completed its first public offering of shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange, netting $27 million.

Today, Wescam employs 136 people in Flamborough and another 110 abroad—exports account for about 85 per cent of its business. With offices in Los Angeles, Melbourne, Fla., Paris, London, Brussels, Milan, Barcelona and Stockholm, Wescam is forecasting $31.3 million in revenues for 1995 and $1.6 million in profits, double last year’s sales of $16.5 million and profits of $615,000. “They’re a world-class company—not big yet, but growing very quickly,” says Andrew Brenton, managing director at ScotiaMcLeod Inc., which underwrote the Wescam share offering.

Things were not always so good. Once back in the late 1980s, Chamberlain’s sales pitch self-destructed. “A military customer came in and was questioning our capabilities,” he recalled. To demonstrate his product, Chamberlain grabbed a camera, shook it vigorously and directed his client’s attention to a monitor. As the customer marveled at the vibration-free image, the $200,000 unit slid off its stand and crashed onto the concrete floor. Embarrassed, Chamberlain hoisted the unit back onto its mount. “I continued to shake it and it continued to work,” he says. He made the sale. And like the cameras it builds, Wescam’s growth has been steady ever since.

DAN HAWALESHKA

ERIC FOSS