Not even a full plume of Arturo Fuente cigar smoke billowing in the air can mask the grandeur of Tim Estes, the 57-year-old president of Fiesta Parade Floats in Irwindale, Calif., one of the premier float builders in the United States, if not the world.
His inveterate cigar-smoking is an indulgence he’s not willing to part with at this stage of his life. After literally sacrificing life and limb for his company – he has broken 55 bones and undergone multiple surgeries – he’s going to continue puffing away.
“I’ve been smoking ‘em since I was 18; I’m sure the smell insults some people, but ‘Oh, well,’ I’ll die early, but I’ll be happy.”
And happy is what Estes is. Indeed, he named his company, “Fiesta,” (Spanish for party), which has built more than 500 parade floats that have glided down Pasadena’s gilded Colorado Boulevard and charmed millions of viewers around the globe.
Every year working with lead designer Paul Rodriguez; floral director Jim Hynd, art director Claudia Dial and his talented team of about 25 skilled artisans, Estes continually raises the bar for constructing parade floats. Perhaps, Fiesta’s 20 consecutive Sweepstakes Awards given annually to the best float in the Tournament of Roses Parade is the highest tribute that can be paid to his and his team’s remarkable talent and vision.
Although Fiesta has been in existence for more than a quarter century (Estes founded the company in January 1988), this year actually marks his 50th year of float-building.
“I started when I was 8,” he said. When other kids were playing tag or dodge ball, Estes was hanging out with a neighbor, whose dad, Don Bent, owned C.E. Bent and Sons, a float-building company at the Rose Palace on South Raymond Ave. in Pasadena.
“I started sweeping floors and doing any odd jobs,” he said. “I eventually taught myself welding and doing mechanical stuff. It just hooked me. I always liked doing it.”
His college curriculum was certainly no harbinger that he would become one of the world’s premier float builders. “I graduated from PCC (Pasadena City College) with a degree in natural science,” he said. “Obviously, that wasn’t very applicable to construction, but my father built space craft parts at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) for 30 years, so I guess I inherited some natural aptitude from him.”
There’s no telling where his work ethic comes from, but its imprint is on every rose petal and poppy seed in his cavernous 65,000-square-foot building. Besides engineering each float, he does the sales, contracts, accounts payable and runs the crew during his 85-hour work week.
He glides effortlessly between each skill, but it’s his engineering prowess that most awes. He’s not a trained mechanical engineer, but he’s an engineering genius who can take his designers’ geometry and breathe life and motion into it, computing and applying his breadth of creativity to solve problems related to weight, force, motion, pressure and friction. “They design ‘em and I make them work,” he said.
His float entries have stretched the bounds of physics and calculus multiple times, giving him a coveted place in the Guinness Book of Records. When he breaks a record for length or weight, it’s usually his own.
“I was always pretty good in math,” he said. “So, it’s a lot of fun for me to figure out.”
Surprisingly, he does all his musings, mathematics and drawings by hand. “I’m not sophisticated enough to have a CAD (computer assisted drawing),” he said, shuffling through a stack of hand-drawn designs that will soon be magically transformed into fanciful and whimsical award-winners on New Year’s Day. This year, Fiesta will produce 13 floats for the 5.5-mile cruise down Colorado Boulevard.
Although he’s not a card-carrying mechanical engineer, he relishes the most difficult engineering challenges. He’s not interested in stamping out assembly-line projects for his clients.
“What’s really cool is I’m not punching out the same Ford Mustang every year,” Estes said. “One year, I’m building the Ford Mustang, then I chop it all up and convert it into the Chevy Camaro.”
Although he’s a remarkably gifted tinkerer, you need only sit across from his desk for a moment to be equally charmed by his sales acumen. He lays out an incredibly compelling case for why the Tournament of Roses Parade makes a better advertising platform than the Super Bowl for a company or even a country trying to hit a promotional grand slam.
“You can buy commercial time for the Super Bowl between $1.8 million to $2.4 million,” he noted, “and you haven’t even made the commercial yet. You’re just buying the time.”
Conversely, the cost of building a float ranges from about $150,000 to $280,000. “Only a couple of floats will bounce over $300,000,” Estes said. Were a company to double that budget by hosting parties for VIPs, buying hotel rooms, Rose Bowl tickets and incurring other “auxiliary expenses,” the parade would still be a bargain by almost any measure.
And in the all-important “eyeballs” department, Estes also knows how to touch all the right “vanity” buttons of companies craving exposure.
“Approximately, 900,000 to a million people line the street,” Estes said. “The national TV audience is another 45 million, then you’ve got another 100 to 110 million international because the parade is telecast to some 120 nations.”
Rainbird, one of his former clients,” didn’t want to take just Estes’ words, so it researched various advertising options.
“They entertained several scenarios,” Estes recounted. “’Should we sponsor a major golf tournament, should we sponsor a tennis championship, should we buy advertising with NASCAR?’ Then they checked out the Rose Parade. ‘Oh my God, this is a great deal.’
“It’s really a hidden advertising opportunity,” Estes added. “It’s great value for your dollar.”
Kaiser Permanente, another Fiesta client, hosts a party for 3,000 employees and guests inside Fiesta’s hangar-like home in early December. The Rose Parade’s influence casts a big halo.
“’Just this party alone’ Kaiser’s president told me ‘is worth being in the Rose Parade,’” Estes said.
It also has provided a great ride for Estes. CEOs, sultans and emirs have entertained him on his travels to Indonesia, Thailand and the United Emirates to discuss their float entries. But at heart, Estes sees himself as just another cigar-chomping employee.
“Like any other successful business, my success stems from my crew,” he said. “I’m just one of the guys, I just happen to be president.”
Screen-Shot-2013-08-12-at-11.27.05-AM-1024×724Estes may be just one of the guys, but he is a guy who cares a lot. He could just on rest on his laurels after the yearly Rose Parade, vacationing in Palm Springs or some other sunny clime, but he wants to keep his cast of 25 fully employed year-round.
“The Rose Parade probably represents about 80 percent of our gross,” he said.
As for that other 20 percent, you can see elements of his work almost everywhere: in shopping malls (South Coast Shopping Plaza, music videos (Robin Thicke), casinos (Bellagio and Mandalay Bay), amusement parks (Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm), floral shows (Los Angeles County Fair), and local parades (East Los Angeles and Martin Luther King, Jr.).
Each new project turns Estes into the eager student, probing his client’s history, objectives and mission. K9s 4 Cops, whose mission is to place exceptionally trained canines with law enforcement agencies across the country to help patrol and provide further safety for schools and communities, is one of Fiesta’s new clients. On January 1, there will be no mistaking who’s in charge, when a giant German shepherd named Johnny Cash woofs his way down the boulevard. “We came in with this design, and they loved it,” said Estes about the Houston-based nonprofit organization. “Sometimes, you just hit the nail on the head.”
Another new entrant is the Wingtip to Wingtip Association, which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II. “There aren’t many of them left so this is really special,” Estes said.
The theme for the 2014 Rose Parade is “Dreams Come True,” something that happens for Tim and his team with each new assignment or commission.
The countdown for the 2014 Rose Parade has begun. With October here, much work needs to be done, but Estes has never missed a deadline.
On January 31, 2013, at about 4:30 p.m., his police-protected convoy of 13 floats will begin the slow six-hour procession from Irwindale to Pasadena (and you thought traffic on the 210 was at a standstill). “We try to go slow because we don’t want to jostle any of the flowers,” Estes said.
He’ll sweat every minute and movement until his floats are safely ensconced at Pasadena’s Victory Park later the next day. And he’ll continually monitor the skies above for signs of precipitaion. Rain fell on the parade in 1955, Estes’ birth year, and in 2006.
Again, Estes becomes the historian.
“In 1955, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was the grand marshal, and, in 2006, Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court Justice, was grand marshal, and those were the only two times that rain fell on the parade,” Estes said.
Estes’ dream-come-true scenario is for a clear weather and a non-judicial Grand Marshal. “When it rains, I just feel bad for all the people who want to see a good parade.”
The current forecast for Jan. 1, 2014, is for legendary Dodgers baseball announcer Vin Scully to do the Grand Marshal honors, and that suits Tim just fine!
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