Early on in the pandemic, folks in the special effects and fireworks display industry thought COVID would be a short-term concern — three, maybe six month, says Stephen Vitale, head of Pyrotecnico, the 132-year-old family special effects and fireworks display company. But, as it continued to get worse, shows were getting canceled. That prompted Pyrotecnico to raise some capital and find the opportunity amid the chaos.
"I saw it as an opportunity for us to really find companies that might want to join our organization as a result of COVID and really fulfill our dreams of being a full-service entertainment production company," Vitale says.
Lining up capital was the first and arguably most important step. The company talked with several groups, mostly in the family office space, and ultimately came to an agreement with Delaware Street Capital. With capital in place, the plan was to start acquiring companies that made strategic and cultural sense for the business. And that led Pyrtecnico to land five deals in 2021.
Every company in the live entertainment space faced difficulties because of the pandemic. And with those difficulties affecting revenues, valuations likely took a hit. But that didn't drive Vitale to go bargain hunting, largely because he had a bigger vision.
"Everyone in this space was distressed," he says. "That being said, we have built a culture around relationships and collaboration. Myself and Andy Bluhm, who's the general partner and leads Delaware Street Capital, has been a friend for many years, we wanted to be fair and we wanted the folks that own the business to be excited about working with us to grow into the future. So, if we would have looked to get a discount on the front end of the business, I don't think we would have good partners moving forward in growing the business. The last thing you want a seller to believe is that you stole their business. That was unacceptable for us because we are committed to growing this into a much larger business and we wanted to create raving fans with the families and the owners whose companies we purchased."
Vitale understood what these owners were going through because he experienced it firsthand. He says the company had 105 full-time employees when COVID began, which was then cut down to the low 40s as the pandemic progressed. Today, with the acquisitions completed, Pyrotecnico has upwards of 250 employees.
Making those acquisitions was a lot of work. He leveraged people both inside and outside the business to help. Many had made acquisitions before, or had experience in the later M&A stages, maybe just not at that pace.
"Every one of my leadership team has done integration work. That was incredibly important," he says. "We wanted to make sure that the people, the employees of the companies that we acquired, felt comfortable and excited about a compelling future with Live Events. And that was not easy because a lot of people were still shell-shocked about what happened to them during COVID. It was like a nuclear bomb went off in the industry. So, a lot of my time and effort was keeping the spirits high of not only our team, keep us focusing on the compelling future, a lot of that was really selling the folks who work with us now on this is going to be good for them."
Through the five-deal year, Vitale says he learned that the acquisition process takes a lot longer than he initially expected. And in that is another lesson.
"You have to temper your expectations because you're always going to uncover issues," he says. "It doesn't mean those issues are bad. Everyone has their share of operating issues, people issues. Everyone's different. My best advice is have a great team of advisers, as well as your team, in place, and folks who have done it before, because there are plenty of lessons learned."
Vitale spoke on the Smart Business Dealmakers Podcast about his busy M&A year. Catch the full conversation by hitting play on the player above.