Capital Ideas: Terry Terry

For a Michigan State University grad who lives, works and owns his own business in mid-Michigan, Terry Terry’s clients are remarkably, well . . . un-local.

South Africa. Switzerland. Spain. Saudi Arabia.

Flip to the Z’s, and it's equally exotic: Zaire. Zanzibar. Zambia. Zimbabwe.

Terry is the founder and president of Message Makers in Old Town, Lansing. Since 1977, the company has been developing and producing a variety of events, high-definition video, instructional programs, and  high-tech tools to help clients tell their stories.

A Detroit native, Terry has traveled to more than 80 countries. “I started hitchhiking in the ninth grade,” he says. “In college, I traveled Canada, the U.S., Europe and India. I’ve got the travel bug. That’s made a big difference, because you learn about yourself and understand the world differently.”

At Message Makers' home offices in Old Town, Lansing (there are satellites in Portland, D.C., Chicago, Germany and other hot spots), the scene is a hybrid of high-tech and homey.

Gracie the cat wanders in and out of the brightly painted corners of the 4,000 sq. ft. restored brick building, through rooms where Terry used to both sleep and work while renovating the space.

Young designers, technicians and artists are spread throughout the three-story complex, most glued to banks of computer, audio and video editing suites, working on projects for some of firm’s global clients, like Harley-Davidson and the U.S. State Department—testaments each to a tidal shift in the way business is working in Lansing and the world.

Small World After All

Terry is a rare and strange combination: a passionate local neighborhood advocate, deeply rooted in and committed to his Old Town community; and a footloose, New Economy globe-trekker, happily riding Harley’s around New Zealand and Oman with folks from one of his biggest clients, Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

It works because Terry, maybe as much as anyone in Michigan, understands that the wider world is simply not as far away from Lansing as it used to be.

“The Internet has made a big difference,” he says, and quickly offers an example. “We did a project last year in Florida, a video. They wanted some changes. I called back [to Lansing]; within four hours the changes were made, and we went online to download and play it. So we were able to rehearse it that night, and play it the next morning.”

“Two years ago, you couldn’t do that,” he says. “You had to get it on a DVD and overnight it in a package.”

As the world gets smaller and distances close, companies like Message Makers are finding that more than just their client lists are expanding. Old definitions of “office,” and “employee” are also in flux.

“We use an Internet-based management system, so all our projects and base information is on the Internet,” says Terry. “Our calendar is Internet-based, so [our] people float around. We still have a brick-and-mortar space we work out of, but we also have people working out of different places.”

It’s also meant that Terry and his crew can run a world-class business from a quiet side street in Old Town, Lansing.

“We can be competitive with New York, Chicago, and bigger cities,” he says, “We can do the same quality of work or better, and the overhead is so much lower—the cost of living there is exorbitant—[that] we can be very competitive.

“Buying a house or buying property is so much more affordable than those places, plus no traffic problems, clean air, a safe community, and great entertainment options, a better quality of life,” he says.

Art, Community, H.O.G.S.

Message Makers started, with a different name, as a modest video outfit getting by on odd contracts, says Terry. “Mostly training or informational type stuff, occasional commercials. I didn’t make any money for a long time, because I didn’t know about contracts or banking or any of that stuff.”

Terry moved his company to its current Old Town location in 1982, after graduating from the James Madison college at MSU, and working in downtown Lansing for several years.

“I had a space below the old Michigan Theater downtown, which they unfortunately tore down. It had been an old bowling alley. The lanes were torn out, I had that space for next to nothing,” he remembers fondly.

After the move to Old Town, he got involved in neighborhood development and helped start several art galleries. He eventually co-founded and produced the Lansing JazzFest and the Old Town Bluesfest as president of the non-profit Old Town Business & Art Development Association, which helped pave the way to organizing events for Harley-Davidson.

At first, Harley-Davidson was  “a little contract,” he says, a referral from a colleague who was moving to Chicago. “We delivered some creative for them, and they liked it and liked us.”

Today, Message Makers has produced dozens of videos, developed more than 60 full training courses and annual coordinates dozen of events, on three continents and in seven languages for the Harley Owners Group, a division of the company dedicated to supporting and building local rider’s groups.

“They liked us and trusted us and have kept asking us to do more,” he says. “When we started, [the Harley owner’s group] had 450,000 members; last year they reached a million members. I’m glad we are able to help.”

New Economy Notions

Terry attributes much of his success to hiring good talent—a group that Message Makers’ Web site describes as “workaholics, leaders, geeks, and artists.” 

To recruit that talent, explains Terry, “you’re always looking. You get referrals; you let people know you exist, whether you need someone right then or not.

“Someone advised me to hire people that did things better than I do,” says Terry. “About four or five years ago I really made some changes and expanded and tried to get creative talent into the mix, and it made a huge difference.”

“We need to think similarly in Lansing,” says Terry. “Local governments and other agencies tend to see the area as a zero sum game and keep fighting over a small pie. 

"If we can think and act regionally and combine our assets and talents, then the world opens up and we all will have much more opportunity."

Brad Garmon is the managing editor for Capital Gains, and he can be reached here.  

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Terry Terry on location in Muscat, Oman (photo courtesy of Message Makers)

Terry in his Old Town office

Adam Cate (lft) and Rick Weaver

Terry Terry

Tom Lietz of Message Makers shooting on location for a Manitou Pontoon Boats  (photo courtesy of Message Makers)

Message Makers staff conducting a recent interview for their client MAHSA

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie (unless noted)

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