Acquiring Diverse Accents

You've heard what Norfolk-based Studio Center Worldwide Audio sells: voices. That friendly "You've Got Mail" voice on AOL? Studio Center. The "I'm Lovin' It" radio campaign from McDonald's? That's Studio Center, too. You've probably heard the company's work when you're waiting on hold on the telephone, watching a History Channel documentary, or surfing through stations on your car radio. And thanks to a recent acquisition, you'll soon be able to hear a lot more of Studio Center's voices in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch - even in Mandarin Chinese.

Studio Center acquired Hollywood, Calif.-based Tele-Talent International Inc., a voiceover production studio known for hard-to-find foreign voices and translations, for an undisclosed amount on Aug. 11. The purchase is one item on a long to-do list that CEO William "Woody" Prettyman has put together since buying Studio Center in June of 2004.

"Our goal was one acquisition and one new office this year. If we can get Tele-Talent humming along and our build-out finished, it'll be a pretty good '05," said Prettyman, who hopes to see his headquarters move into a new 9,000-square-foot facility off Business Park Drive in Virginia Beach by December.

The need for a new building seems obvious enough: Located on 22nd Street in Norfolk, the old facility, with one side guarded by razor wire and flanked by a small strip of parking spaces, is "blowing out of the seams," Prettyman said. The upstairs reception room with its low lighting and its seven big wall clocks displaying the times in Rome, London, Buenos Aires, Norfolk, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Melbourne is packed with smooth-voiced blondes rehearsing their scripts and sucking down coffee in Styrofoam cups. Downstairs, the building is honeycombed with studios so tight that the door of one room opens into the wall of another.

"We had to get this building straight this year," Prettyman said.

But why Tele-Talent?

For one, the Hollywood company gives Studio Center a "sexy address" on Sunset Boulevard to add to its locations in Memphis, Tenn., and Las Vegas, Prettyman said. Perhaps more importantly, Tele-Talent's niche in foreign voiceover will help Studio Center capitalize on an increasingly multicultural trend in the broadcasting business.

"It's definitely a growing market," said Bettina Burnham, broadcast production manager for Virginia Beach advertising company HCD. "The world is getting smaller, and our clients are reaching out to everywhere now. As an advertiser, our purpose is to communicate, so if our clients are talking Turkish, that's what we need."

Burnham has been using Studio Center's voices since she came to HCD five years ago. Studio Center helped her create radio spots in Spanish for Popeyes, and the company recently translated a video clip for her client, Troy University, into Mandarin Chinese, Turkish, Korean, Arabic and Spanish.

But translating radio commercials and video scripts from one language to another is a little more complicated than it sounds.

"It's really hard to do translations. I don't enjoy it." said Nancy Penczner, production manager for Penczner Media in Washington, D.C., and a client of Studio Center. "When you do Chinese, there's all these dialects of Mandarin. When I line up Spanish speakers, I say, well they have to be from Venezuela or speak Central American Spanish rather than Spain's Spanish. It's very complicated."

Tele-Talent, said Prettyman, was one company that did it well - so well that Studio Center frequently used the company for foreign voices that weren't on its own talent roster.

"We were actually their customers," Prettyman said. "They had this great little collection of voice talent there - Dutch, Mandarin Chinese. We had a Hispanic roster, but we found that they had particular voices we had a hard time finding. They're in Hollywood, so all this voice talent was there for movies."

The acquisition, Prettyman said, was a fairly easy one.

"I wanted to grow two ways: organically, and by buying companies. This was a hybrid," he said. "It wasn't expensive, because this was an old Hollywood company that had done big business until five years ago. The gentlemen that owned it were two 75-year-old guys, and these guys had been in semi-retirement, so it wasn't a lot of money. But it wasn't a startup either, because the studios are already there."

The acquisition may become a model for other buys in the near future.

"My goal is 20 locations over the next 10 years, and I think this maybe the way to do it: Look for some people who want out." Prettyman is considering expansion into St. Louis, Orlando, Dallas, Austin and Atlanta. "We don't need to be in New York right now because it's a very tough market."

In the meantime, Prettyman's work on Tele-Talent is happening fast.

"We are probably going to relocate the studios, expand the physical plant, renovate their Web site, revamp their marketing materials. We're going to market Tele-Talent as its own company and target some big businesses and corporations that do business overseas," he said. "We have right now a Venezuelan translation and a German translation we're working on. We're going to do more business this month than they did in the last 12."

Ashley Wilson
Inside Business