In mid 1998, things at Big Idea were going swimmingly.  Sales of Veggie-Tales videos, which had risen every year since 1993, were now exploding.  I had just hired Bob Patin as my “Partner in the Office of the CEO” (a title that confused more people than it illuminated, but reflected the fact that it didn’t seem quite right for a 55 year-old guy who had run a $3 billion insurance company to report in under me, a 31 year-old guy who hadn’t run so much as a lemonade stand). Bob was helping bring in a group of executives to guide Big Idea’s growth.  As soon as those executives got in the door, they needed staffs of their own and within about a year the company ballooned from 40 people to more than 100, with plans for many, many more.  Most of the executives were convinced that VeggieTales sales growth could continue unabated for years.It was clear to everyone working in our offices on Clinton street in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood that we needed to move to larger quarters.  Desperately. We talked about looking for larger rented office space, but it had always been a dream of mine to build a building and give the company a real home.  Someplace fans could come visit, take tours, have lunch in a studio restaurant and buy souvenirs in a studio store.  Something really cool. I also wanted the company to be located in a downtown area with restaurants and shops within walking distance as opposed to a charmless industrial park along the freeway.  And boy, did I find it! “It” was the DuPage Theater building, a 1920’s movie palace in the quaint little downtown of Lombard, Illinois, a suburb about 30 minutes west of Chicago.  We could build our movie studio and restore an old movie house all at the same time!  Fans could come for tours and see a film in the theater!  What fun!I went to Bob Patin like a kid who had just found his dream bike.  “Can we buy it?  Huh?  Huh?”  We ran some numbers and figured it would be about a $9 million project, which Bob felt was within our ability to finance, given our amazing financial performance.  (At that time we had about $4 million in cash in the bank and zero debt.)  So we bought the theater and two adjoining homes, assembling enough land for a studio that could accommodate a staff of 350 or so.  (At one point the new execs suggested the company would reach 500 people within a few years. With that in mind, we soon began scouting for additional expansion land.) I encouraged the architects to keep costs down by telling them the projects in architectural journals I admired most were those praised for “creative use of inexpensive materials.” While the architects went to work on the new building, we started work demolishing the houses and restoring the theater.  We hoped to be in the space in about 18 months, so we had to move quickly.

Fast forward 12 months.  By mid-1999 we had spent nearly $4 million to assemble the land, demolish the houses, draw up plans, commission studies, get approvals and start the theater rehab.  We had survived public hearings where citizens voiced their concerns that we would use their beloved theater for “religious services,” and that a proposed illuminated tower in our design would be “bright enough to read their newspapers by in their living rooms.”  We had finished construction drawings and were about to start digging.  What we didn’t have yet was the appraisal of the project, or the final budget.  Just days before starting the excavation and several weeks after the official groundbreaking ceremonies (replete with speeches, balloons and coverage in the Chicago papers), the final budget came in at $19 million.  A bit more than the $9mm we were originally hoping for.  On top of that, the bank’s appraisal (meaning the amount they believed they could sell the property for if we defaulted on our loan) came in at $10 million.  “It doesn’t have enough parking,” the appraisers said.  “It isn’t close enough to a freeway.  It’s too unusual. Who would want an office building connected to an old theater?”
Ouch.  The construction barricades were up (covered with happy VeggieTales characters), and the heavy equipment was onsite to begin digging the foundation for the new studio building.  And we couldn’t go forward.  The bank was willing to loan us 80% of the appraised value, which meant $8 million against a project that was going to cost $19 million.   We didn’t have another $11 million lying around anywhere, so we had to call in the mayor of Lombard and announce that the project was dead.  Several Lombard city officials said they went home and cried that night. Immediately after the news hit, angry letters streamed into the newspapers calling on Big Idea to “stick to its promises” and restore thetheater. I got letters from irate Lombardians informing me they were “no longer VeggieTales fans.” It was absolutely brutal. While several developers offered to buy the theater from us, we knew they would only knock it down for condos or a drugstore, so instead we donated the property to the city in hopes that they could raise public funds for a rehab. The $4 million we spent was a complete loss and Big Idea was now beginning to go into debt to cover its ever-increasing payroll. It was only one failed project, but it seemed to mark a change in momentum for the entire company.

Pix from Lombard…


The historic DuPage Theater, as it appeared before our rehab efforts began.  At the time we bought the theater it was sporadically showing Indian films and was brimming with code violations.


That’s me speaking at the groundbreaking event, telling everyone what a great neighbor Big Idea was going to be.


Here we are throwing dirt with Lombard dignitaries and some Big Idea folk.


Lisa and I with the mayor of Lombard and his wife.  They say the hard hats make the outfits…


More photos with kids and grandkids.  To the left of me is the mayor of Lombard in a Bob the Tomato tie.  To the right of me is Bob Patin, my “Partner in the Office of CEO.”  In front of me are my two youngest kids, Jeremy and Sydney.  Sydney appears to be saying, “Dad, this whole thing’s gonna blow up.  Let’s just go get ice cream.”


My family and I walking back to our car after the festivities.  You can see the groovy construction barricade graphics our designers concocted.  It says, “VeggieTales Animation Studio Construction Kit,” and includes all the ingredients.  Very witty.  At this point we had paid to gut the stores on the first floor and the apartments above.  We had also paid to relocate the residents of the apartments and the old diner on the corner.  The interior of the theater was already being rehabbed.  We were about $4 million into it, and about 30 days from seeing it all fall apart due to the final appraisal.  I get hives just looking at these pictures…

(Thanks to Angela Hobbes for snapping the groundbreaking photos.  Not that the photos themselves are “groundbreaking,” but they’re OF a groundbreaking.   You know what I mean.)