Colorado Springs lighting controller manufacturer serves clients from casinos to zoos

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The Design Specialties, Inc. story includes lights on a Wheel of Fortune slot machine, a McDonald’s restaurant in midtown Manhattan and an animated gecko at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Electric Safari that slurps up a bug. It’s about lights – moving, alternating, chaselights like those on the marquee at Tinseltown or in a Vegas casino. A manufacturer of industrial quality lighting controllers that are sold under private label and used by display, gaming and sign industry companies worldwide, Design Specialty owners pride themselves on finding creative solutions to any type of electronic lighting challenge.

So who’s the Wizard of “Ahs” behind the curtain – and how does he do what he does? It’s time to introduce David Holmes and his wife, Margery Neis-Holmes. In 1989, a yellow brick road lead these former California residents to the Pikes Peak region. David, a retired military officer, had worked for G.E. Aerospace and Martin Marietta prior to the latter’s merger with Lockheed Martin. “We moved to Colorado Springs because of my work on the Star Wars program. That was my focus for five years until Clinton axed the budget in the mid-1990s,” Holmes says. “Then I started to look for another job but finally decided I’d start a business of my own.”

Prior to leaving his job, Holmes had experimented as a hobbyist with lighting and animation – and he was familiar with how to build the programs and electronic controllers and could bring bulbs to life in myriad illumination patterns and frequencies. In 1993, he opened his own firm and immediately began contacting the owners of casinos, sign companies, commercial/holiday display clients and even a few nonprofits that he felt could use his services. “The business basically just fed us for the first four or five years,” he recalls, noting that marketing was not one of his talents.

After attending the International Gaming Technology Expo in 1997 and meeting a number of casino industry operations managers and vendors, Holmes was hired by High Sierra Lighting of Reno, Nevada, to develop customized controllers for the Wheel of Fortune slot machine. But his real break came in 1998 when Design Specialty, Inc. was finally “discovered.”

High Sierra’s sales manager – without telling Holmes – submitted a competitive bid featuring one of Design Specialty’s controller boxes and pricing information to a California casino client. “We got our first order for 1,000 units right away,” Holmes said, “and we’ve been doing lights for the gaming industry on the East Coast and in the Reno-Las Vegas area ever since. But it’s a fickle world,” Holmes admits. “Slot machines enjoy a fairly short period of popularity and then new ones are introduced.”

He has also become acquainted with other lighting companies headquartered in Denver and Montana that promotes his work and refers business. With the company’s greatest competition coming from overseas, Holmes believes that the free engineering assistance he is able to provide, coupled with a life guarantee on the controllers he manufactures give him a marketing edge. “We’re not cheap, but we are competitive,” he says, “and we require no minimum orders.”

From 1998 through 2000, Design Specialty was promoted by High Sierra at gambling industry trade shows. “I had attended the International Gaming Technology conference but we never set up a booth. It would have been too expensive, and I preferred to let our customers, the lighting companies, take the lead in marketing,” he adds. Business was booming up until September 11 when orders dropped by almost 50 percent.

Recently, Holmes says, business has started to ramp up again, but in new areas. “I am beginning to see real opportunity in holiday and special event lighting,” he says, noting that he recently was hired to develop animated electronic lighting controllers for a Florida company. “They wanted help animating a fire truck with a hose that sprays water that turns into a Christmas tree,” he explains. “I custom-designed a system that not only provides an animated fire truck, but allows the lights on the tree to fade and light up again.”

To date, some of Design Specialty’s lighting customers include Anchor Gaming, Casino Data Systems, Bally’s Gaming, Disneyland, Disney World, Universal Studios, Cinemark Theaters, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Sea World, Six Flags Amusement Parks and more. “You’ll never see our name on the controllers though,” Holmes points out, “because we private label for the lighting companies we serve.”

The company, he adds, was founded on simple-to-use high quality controllers, designed to satisfy customer requirements, backing each one with a meaningful warranty, and coupling these with unsurpassed customer service. As a small business owner, Holmes takes pride in his long-time relationships with local vendors such as Eagle-Pitcher, Starlight Assembly and other firms that agreed to take a chance on his young business. “Some companies wouldn’t even talk to us when we were starting out. I really appreciated people like Bob Montoya at Eagle and Kathy Anderson at Starlight for their willingness to work with us.”

But perhaps the real story for David and Margery Holmes lies in discovering a field that allows “artistic engineering.” They thoroughly enjoy bringing fun and merriment to life through electronically-orchestrated lighting. For the past three years, Design Specialty has donated countless hours to helping the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo embellish its popular Electric Safari holiday tour but adding clever animation and whimsical features. “The gecko-eating-a-bug is one of my favorites,” says Holmes, “but so is the giraffe that walks out of the bushes and takes a drink of water.” Other special effects, constructed under the supervision and with the help of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Bob and Antonia Chastain, include countless animated cows, zebras and elephants. “We put in from 20 to 40 hours each year for the Zoo,” says Margery, “but we love knowing how much families will enjoy the show.” The couple also recently agreed to assist the Pueblo Zoo as well.

Eventually the Holmes hope to become the dominant manufacturer of lighting controllers in the country, but for now, as long as there are Dorothys and Totos looking for chaselights and wizardry, Design Specialty, Inc. will keep consumer fantasy and excitement alive through pulsating, alternating displays, lively amusement lighting and casino games designed with a flair and originality.