Meet Les Lamotte. A forward-thinking designer, innovator, and entrepreneur.
Continually forging new profitable paths & profit centers. He’s a big picture strategic thinker with a designer’s eye on details able to connect the dots and create a winning platform for success. Strategy player with winning motivation and resolve excels in propelling growth through the use of foundational relationships and business development strategies. A skilled negotiator and business developer capable of influencing sales and procuring contracts with clients of various businesses and influence, i.e. best Buy.
He envisioned and created categories of unique products solving the barrier of weight and ease of use for Exhibits and Trade Show Displays worldwide. Met and exceeded major client requirements, successfully negotiated multiple Contracts over $100,000.
Les Lamotte performed Competitive Analysis both domestically and internationally. He competitively achieved product and marketing positioning & product lifecycle management.
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Table of Contents
Let’s learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
Les LaMotte: Born and raised in White Bear Lake in one of the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. In about the ninth grade I began taking an art correspondence course from Art Instruction Schools in Minneapolis, who became one of my clients almost 45 years later in my business I will discuss later on in this interview. I finished up high school with an interest in art and music. In 1969 after graduation, headed up to Fargo Moorhead area and began college at Moorhead State College studying art with an emphasis in graphic design again picking up some interest in music along the way. The music came from a traveling music group that I joined called “The Freeway Singers” and it was in this group that I met and became interested in a young woman from Osakis Minnesota, Vicky Larson and we were married on April 21, 1973.
It was then that we moved to Madison, Wisconsin to begin my first job as Graphic Designer for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at their national office in their finance department designing their communications and fundraising. It was there that I was given the opportunity to design my first display system that was used by all of the missionary organizations that were on display at the Urbana ’73 Student Missionary Convention in Urban, Illinois. I also designed a podium for Billy Graham one of the main speakers in their large round coliseum. Prior to the convention, I was involved in making the suggestion to hire a crew to videotape the entire convention for the first time, as the video had just become a reality, which was later turned into a film.
My life has certainly been surrounded by oceans of fantastic people. My rock is my beautiful, and wonderfully talented spouse Vicky, of almost 50 years, we raised our family of three outstanding and gifted children to grown adults with their fantastic supportive spouses giving us twelve beautiful and amazing grandchildren. Of course our supportive extended family, friends, business partners, and those willing to help in times of life’s greatest storms and celebrate life’s greatest victories.
Was there somebody in your life that inspired you to take that specific journey with your business?
Les LaMotte: Over the last half-century, I have performed in multiple professional such as Graphic Designer, Marketer, Creative Writer, Video Producer, Video Editor, Publisher, Worldwide Traveler, Humanitarian, International Relations, Solar Energy Designer & Trainer, Multi-Award Winning Singer/Songwriter, Inventor, Business Manager, Urban Planner, Author, and Motivational Speaker. The result is that I have become a masterful generalist or what I like to describe myself as an Imagineer. I was highly inspirited as a youth by my “mentor” Walt Disney, the pioneer of Imagineering as he has so evidently illustrated in his life vision filled with technical challenges, musical celebration in color, fun, and total passion.
My father, who spoke French as a child and was raised on a farm in Hugo, Minnesota, a French Canadian community had the insight to acquire two acres of land to build a vineyard and huge strawberry patch which included one acre of sweet corn. However, he spent World War II in Shanghai, China as a diesel repairman aboard a ship on the Yankee river with a mission to keep the Japanese at bay. When he returned home in 1946, he became mentally ill and was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. Therefore, despite his limitations taught me to hunt and fish, but, having gone off to war before he finished high school and with the additional burden of his mental illness, I felt a very large void in most of my growing up years as he was away in the hospital multiple times for up to a year at a time. It left my adoptive mother, with only an eighth-grade education with a lot to handle. So, even though I was the second born in my family to my older sister, I was the oldest young man who had to grow up very fast to take up some of the slack.
My inspiration came as a young man through my adoptive grandfather a World War I veteran who spent his career as a manager at Swift & Co. a large meatpacking plant along the river in South St. Paul, Minnesota. A few years after he retired he and grandma came to live next door in our original “little house” that my father first built one-two by four at a time.
We lived in a new house only a few small steps away. Grandpa taught me many things that I was lacking from my actual father, such as the value of being a free American, loving your country, and how to take care of and celebrate the flag that represents it. The value of sitting and listening to an older person and taking time to absorb all of the knowledge that they had accumulated. To care for the elderly as in my grandfather’s case he lost his sight and so I became his eyes and this additional relationship bonded us for life.
Grandpa used his inside “Vision” to teach me gardening to plant and harvest every vegetable known to man. Grandpa Les also brought with him a full basement of the shop of tools of which I had used as early as eight years old. While Grandpa still had his site he taught me the wonders of designing, building, and flying my first kite. He impressed in me that it is not about fame and fortune it is not about religion or politics although they are very important, it is about the quality of your life, and how to make it satisfying.
Be extremely aware of your passions so that you can work and direct yourself to fulfill your God-given plan for your life. You are not an orphan but, with the power of life wisdom through the pursuit of your dreams and destiny unrestricted by boundaries placed around you by others or your family and parents.
Identifying and understanding your passions without falling into the stereotypes set out by society, your parents, or your friends. A reflection of yourself observed by others around you and soaked with the knowledge of your creativity, passion, professionalism, and life at large, all at once was one of the results.
He taught me to take action on my inspirations. Make your own positive movement in tiny steps and over time you will achieve results that will count. Take a hold of your dreams and put in the effort to begin to carry them out to reality no matter the ultimate cost or amount of time it takes. For in your efforts will come a bouquet of success not just from the centerpiece of roses, but, from the other life forms, you have planted around them.
One of my childhood dreams was fulfilled when I invented the Xtra Lite Display product and it was purchased and used by Disney and Universal Studios to promote them and many hundreds of top creative and technology companies around the world.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons you learned from that?
Les LaMotte: God Shows Up in My Business
As I began ordering poles and stocking them in my garage where the temperature varied depending on the time of the year in bone-chilling Minnesota temperatures that range from ten below zero to over a hundred, and it can change in a day or an afternoon over sixty-to eighty-degree differences.
I began attending as many small trade shows locally in Minneapolis as I could afford to expose my product to businesses and to test the market. On one show I decided to go to a local balloon store and find the largest balloon I could get. I bought 3 of them and a small Helium tank. I blew them up and floated my display around the tradeshow floor holding on to a small ribbon while demonstrating that my display was the “Lightest Portable Display on the Planet”. I know that I made a very big impression at that show.
I usually picked up a few orders at these small shows; and being the only employee at the time, I was not only responsible to design them, market them, and manufacture them, sometimes all on the same day. I remember very well that it was a very happy time in my life, as I finally felt after building each project a great sense of accomplishment and monetary improvement.
I had not yet caught on how to quite manage my inventory just right yet. With all the sizes and various parts, I began to accumulate, it was becoming a very large task. I would initiate a sale, go off to my garage to build the display order, and all of a sudden, it occurred to me that no matter how many displays I built, I always had enough aluminum poles and accessories. One day as I thought about it for an instant, I realized that God had shown up in my business—and He became my business partner. Possibly just like he fed the five thousand with just a little boy’s two small fishes and three loaves of bread. I was shocked at first and couldn’t believe it, but whether it was absolutely true or not, I gave God the glory anyway and I began to see God as my business partner as he provided for me and my family in miraculous ways in those early days.
Resilience is critical in critical times like the ones we are going through now. How would you define resilience?
Les LaMotte: Recovery as the Buildings Fall (9/11)
Meanwhile, the orders for the product began to be reduced as companies didn’t know quite what to do in these new times where war was imminent. So most business tucked their heads in the sand and closed their purses and put a full stop to making promotional plans and slash their trade show budgets and wasn’t making new ones. This stuck terror in our nation’s history but especially for us in a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable place of owning a business that just a few months earlier felt unstoppable and moving forward and now facing the ultimate disaster.
Jordan LaMotte, president of the company, and I found ourselves back to the same work as we started in our basement—cutting tubing, taking orders, making products, shipping them out the door. We did this for about another two years while we slowly
paid off our huge debt to our main supplier in South Korea and tried to meet our new space lease that doubled on our newly remodeled offices.
As owner and CEO of the company, we gathered our personnel left and inquired of our dealers across the world. Then we sat down and tried to make sense out of all that had happened. I needed a report of what they were hearing from some of our distributors, clients, and companies and if they were still making plans to attend trade shows or just reducing their budgets and packing it all in until it was all clear.
So the purchase of our original Xtra Lite Displays®, which at that time was selling with graphics for a full eight-foot exhibit for about $2,500 to $3,500 and before 9/11 were moving off the shelf at a high rate of speed because we had one of the most cost-effective, compact, and lightest-weight displays in the world, which positively reduced both our clients’ overhead and shipping costs. Soon companies really began to experience our displays as an extremely favorable option for their trade show usage and seeing us as a definite price and product alternative with Xtremely better design.
We even began selling to Skyline Displays®’ independent sales offices across the country and around the world. My former employer now had changed their owned sales offices to independent sales offices. Their display sales offices began to buy in larger numbers from us as Skyline Displays® had moved on to high-priced larger display systems and had nothing like our low-priced alternative.
However, the 9/11 terrorist trauma and financial upset, really put a scare into our customers. We were faced with digging in deep and going back to our beginnings to keep our company alive and afloat, at least keeping our doors open so we could hope for a quick recovery. After about six months, we knew it was not going to be a quick recovery at all.
Starting Over with New Products
I brought out my design hat and went back to the “Skunk Works” and began to look at how to greater utilize our present technologies, parts, customers, distributors, and design a new product to market as a less-expensive display. What could we manufacture that was absolutely simple and we could make it for far less than $10 and sell it for at least three to four times the cost. We had just added an additional $32,000 digital printing plotter and laminator so we could be complete an in-house digital printer and finisher. With the right new product, we could increase our display and graphics sales netting us a definite price advantage and greatly increase our sales in these coming hard times.
I began by taking out a small project I was working on earlier and began to make some quick new prototypes to prove a new lower-priced metal-based technology. We realized that if we could make a more cost-effective new display design made of only a few pieces of stamped steel, possibly we could remain in business and eventually gain some traction back as things began to change. We had to prove to ourselves that it was everything we thought it could be and deliver a solid dependable alternative just like our present world-class display after all we did not want to ruin the good names we had established since our beginnings in 1997.
We found a local metal fabrication house in Lakeville, Minnesota, that would make a few finished quality samples to test and send to some key distributors for their review. If we could prove its overall effectiveness, then we could re-jumpstart our market and possibly begin looking for a partner in China that could make them at an even better price and in higher quantities, but with the same quality. We also became very aware at the trade shows that everyone was going to China at the time to get “more bang for their buck” and unfortunately China was delivering quite well.
Sourcing Sheet Metal in China
We began to try to find a metal fabricator of quality metal products in China that could make this new display at an even less expensive price and at greater volumes. We found a possible Chinese sheet metal supplier by asking our other contacts in China. We made contact and sent our designs over via email and in a few weeks received their first prototype back. However, after all the waiting, our hopefulness was immediately dashed as they simply could not make a product out of the thickness of metal we had specified. It was, as normal, too flimsy and not stable enough as our American-made prototype. We needed heavier-gauged steel; plus they said they could do powder coating, but they sent it to us just spray painted. We absolutely needed the powder coating. I knew it had to be powder coated as I learned from working at Skyline Displays that the powder coating added a thick plastic to the paint making the product feel and respond better with a velvet touch, and increased the overall fit and finish removing all the sharp edges. The Chinese failed the initial test miserably, but we had to continue to solve this product delivery system to market so we moved back to focusing on our American supplier.
American Made – the Only Answer
We quickly went back to our local metal shop in Lakeville and asked them to consider making limited runs of the product making enough to bring the price more inline and we sign a buyout agreement to order products on demand and they would hold the balance on their shelves. This allowed us to buy them on an on-time basis. When they reached the need to remake, they were to give us a call and we could place an additional order guaranteeing them that they could begin building them again. We also went back to the drawing board and asked them what we could change on the design to make it simpler to manufacture and yet satisfy our needs of strength and guarantee our customers it would work perfectly every time. It proved to do all of what was required and more. Soon it began to fly off the shelves extremely fast as we had hit the right product with the right price for our distributors and their clients in just the right time. We learned that becoming more aggressive and making bold changes in light of difficult circumstances can pay off greatly!
We also looked at our retail sales pricing structure and soon we could begin to predict how many over how much time we would need to reorder. Since they were only a few miles away, we could reduce all shipping charges and pick them up ourselves as needed. This allowed us to meet a very slim but acceptable overall product margin, including the sales of custom graphics with it.
This one new product allowed us to update our brand and increase product offering and cash flow so we could continue to be competitive in the display marketplace. We continued to ride on all of the great marketing and branding we had built for the prior four to six years. In addition, it continued to capture more market share worldwide. It turns out this was the product the market determined was the right product for the right price, and we had to continually make reorders of them. In the end, we had made all the critical calculations for our customers and served them Xtra Lite Display® Innovation and success with a new less expensive product.
Soon, we began selling them in the thousands, increasing our printing, which increased our revenue and reduced our workload as we did not have to add any labor to this new product. The end result was increasing worldwide traffic once again.
Moving fast and nimble in producing a new product kept us on the road going forward even if slowly in some very debilitating and long dry times. In the end, it kept us out of closing our doors and brought us back from the dead, you might say, and saved our distributors’ base from moving on as well to Chinese products. We also employed a significant conversion ratio to reduce our retail pricing structure with a formula that allowed us to reduce our overall pricing very slightly to ensure enough profit but lower the wholesale and retail price. This worked very well and put us back in an upward direction and sped up our product sales.
In your opinion, what makes your company stand out from the competition?
Les LaMotte: Seize the Opportunity
I was always a tinkerer; I played with products, tested them, tried them, tore them apart to see how they worked. I found out that new ideas and the pure Imagineering process do not come from a committee. It comes from individuals who see what others cannot see. Like Michelangelo who didn’t carve a statue, he saw a work of art in the stone, and “he was only chipping away the rock to release it to the world.”
Xtra Lite Displays was a boutique worldwide micro corporation. Its early beginnings came in the form of an upside-down marketing plan if you can call it that as literally it made itself after being launched on the world scene in magazines. I began selling products globally before really capturing a domestic and local market. As the CEO and founder, I built it like you would assemble a Lego® set. Therefore, at each level of the build I wanted it to look and feel not like a local pub, but, a well-thought-out global company in every way. Everything thing I did, I was trying to achieve the highest form and function from the beginning so that as progressed we would grow into the company I could in vision. Every aspect had to be similar to what I had just witnessed as the International Design Director of Skyline Displays which also started as a grassroots company in our small town of Burnsville, Minnesota. I had already achieved a certain level of how to operate as my design decisions were made in conjunction with my bosses the CEO, Chief Product Designer, and Marketer. This placed me in the driver’s seat them helping to steer a fast-paced 80’s company that had its corporate eye on Apple and implementing some of the new concepts and striving for the same quality driving their success from $25 million to $75 million in just three years. After the first two years, we managed to celebrate making the Inc 500 list.
Obviously, I learned a lot about how manufacturing is done and keeping your eye on the ball in product development and making important changes, transitions in the product, methods, and materials. Nothing trains you better than to be baptized into the complete process and I surely did while working at Skyline Displays including, graphic design, marketing, display design, video writing, and producing five videos worth half a million, and an ad budget of over $3 million. I even won three national packaging awards for overall packaging design on a complete Exhibit training series.
Now it was my turn to try to achieve similar results with only a fraction of the money and it was all my own so guerrilla marketing is what I became very good at quickly and it paid off in spades and grew our company from the $14 dollar investment in magazine ads to the $14 million in revenue over the 14 years of its time in the sun.
Delegating is part of being a great leader, but what have you found helpful to get your managers to become valiant leaders as well?
Les LaMotte: Because we were small in numbers, I could maintain a very personal connection to all of my employees. Each one was supplied with corporate shirts on a regular basis so that we could all feel as one. They were fully trained in all aspects of our product and its purpose. We wanted each one to be able to tell anyone coming through our plant just exactly what they were doing and how it was benefiting the client because we made our products with the very best supplies, with efficiency, and handmade accuracy and care. To describe in their own words what it means to serve them as our customers and how we didn’t stop working on their products until they were perfect and on the way to them for their shows. Many times, things would come up at shows and we allowed everyone to take action on anything the clients needed to accomplish their goals at the shows. If it was grabbing an extra part and packaging it to make the FedEx shipment and out the door for early morning delivery, then we did it, without question.
All employees were given the option to tell us how we could improve our products, production, materials, and gave them a reward for new ideas they came up with based on the merits of the idea. They always knew I had their back and any decision they had to make to deliver a quality product was pre-approved by me and to take action without recourse.
Most of my original crew members as I didn’t like to call them employees, stayed with our company for almost the entire life of our company of fourteen years.
We always met together whenever a crisis arose and reasoned it through together sometimes right there on the manufacturing floor. I learned this method of standing meetings at Skyline Displays as it informs everyone directly and it keeps the focus on the subject at hand and is solved in the shortest amount of time. The takeaway is that everyone feels they had a chance to have a say in how to resolve issues and they can personally benefit from the process as well personally.
What have you learned about personal branding that you wish you had known earlier in your career?
Les LaMotte: I believe that at least in my case my personal brand was also my product brand. Xtra Lite Displays was the result of my grandfather’s teaching me to build kites from sweet pine, string, and newspaper as a kid. My Eagle Scouting with my knowledge of lightweight tents and camping experiences. My training as an artist and graphic designer and the study of architecture. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, early airframes, and Thomas Edison’s structural works all using load and tension design tenons.
Xtra Lite Displays branding focused on the use of aerospace materials and attributes that were lightweight extremely compact but produced a large image. Because it was highly technical and functional we stressed how simple it was to use and cost-effective. Enhancing it with a mountaineering mystique of lightweight tubular aerospace aluminum materials it used similar to the high strength mountaineering tents. We gave it a very high design, sensible, curvilinear, recyclable look, and feel. In high contrast to the heavy wood and laminate build Trade Show square box exhibits. We were innovators we were one of the first to use the early large-scale printed graphics and silkscreened fabrics which are now the main staple of all exhibits.
What’s your favorite leadership style and why?
Les LaMotte: I would have to say I lead from the front and teach as I go forward. I simply teach by example showing processes and how to arrive at solutions, not just the end result. I like to give some simple directions of something I wish to achieve and then give the one I am mentoring the chance to solve the problem or challenge in their own way. Then I give them a critique and show them possible options and see if they simply follow or find new ways to look at the entire challenge. I love to see someone feel that they have achieved something on their own in their own way but, allowing someone to stand alongside them for guidance if they need it.
I believe that the servant leader is the best stance one can take. It is a time-proven approach used by some of the greatest to have set foot on this planet such as Jesus Christ. His admonishment to all is that if one wishes to be greatest of all then they should be the servant of all.
I had a friend who was the commander of a very large Naval vessel. He told me that if there was something below deck that needed help with that he would go in his whites down to help his men solve the problem and get dirty with the wrenches in his own hands. The other officers just turned their nose at the option and went about their business. When it came time to receive the awards, my friend got them all and what was much better is that his men would follow him into battle anytime and he was extremely well respected as a Navy officer during his entire career.
What advice would you give to our younger readers that want to become entrepreneurs?
Les LaMotte: My inspiration came as a young man whose grandfather taught him the wonders of designing, building, and flying his first kite, and the rest, as they say, is history! It was all of the “spark of inspiration“ I needed to launch my Xtra Lite Display business at the age of 45 that made over $14 million in revenue. It’s not about fame and fortune because they come and go very quickly sometimes. I know all too well because I was there once with my own business. And it is not religion or politics as they can stand in your way at times, but it is about your life, and how to make it satisfying, for you and the ones you love. Take action now, making positive steps to achieve the results you dream of and deserve by putting the effort to begin. Sit down, calm down, take a deep breath, and allow yourself to deeply meditate and meet with God in a meditative state where you feel safe. Ask for His wisdom and to reveal His plan for your life. Obviously, He had something in mind for you for bringing you to this planet. Ask and you will receive, seek, and you will find. But, take the time to listen not just once but, as much as you need until the breakthrough comes clear to you. Now begin to renew your mind, retraining it giving yourself options you have never thought about before. Now think about all of the things you enjoyed as a child and the very distinctive way it made you feel satisfied. Once you step off of the curb to pursue your business dream it cannot be an ups misstep because getting into business is difficult but getting out of business can be a disaster as planes without landing gear demonstrate they end in a big crash and you or others could be changed for life.
My book ‘Imagineer Your Future: Discover Your Core Passions’ is the place to start for anyone wanting to look at becoming an entrepreneur. It gives you a place to go online to learn your top 5 Core Passions. Discovering these will reveal to you information about yourself that you have never considered. The assessment will give you clear thinking and you will be filled with the wisdom of life to pursue your dreams and how to avoid the pressure that can create artificial potential boundaries imposed on you by others. Discovering your core passions and how to work with them will give you your guardrails so you don’t automatically accept the stereotypes set out by society, your parents, friends, counselors, or your own bad ideas. Entrepreneurism is a rollercoaster ride of creativity, passion, professionalism, and life at large, all at once. Don’t attempt it without others around you that build you up to achieve your goals not tell you what to do and never listen to the thousands around you that will say you are nuts and will try to talk you out of your dream… don’t listen and reject that kind of thoughts. Make it personal and make it meaningful to you!
What’s your favorite “leadership” quote and how has it affected the way you implement your leadership style?
Les LaMotte: On my office wall behind me in excellent viewing range of my guests hung, “In everything you do, put God first, and He will direct you and crown your efforts with success.” Proverbs 3:6
On my office wall in front of me hangs the constant reminder of a majestic eagle in flight and the statement that reads: “Excellence is the result of CARING MORE than others think is wise; RISKING MORE than others think is safe; DREAMING MORE than others think is practical and EXPECTING MORE than others think is possible.”
Becoming excellent is knowing the author of Excellence, Jesus Christ the righteous one… I am fortunate to know Him as my loving Lord and Savior!
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Les LaMotte for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Les LaMotte or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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