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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 11, 2011 6 years ago

Rags to Roaches

Bruce Barry developed a wild imagination while living under a New Jersey boardwalk. His vision has helped his firm defy the downturn.
by: Alex Mahadevan Tampa Bay Editor

Bruce Barry greets visitors to his Oldsmar compound wearing flip-flops and jeans.

His style is that of a laid-back surfer, possibly derived from his days living under a New Jersey boardwalk.

But the founder and president and self-described “wacky artist” of Wacky World Studios is no longer living the life of a drifter, and his company, which just expanded into a new Oldsmar studio, is poised to hit $3 million in revenues this year.

Barry's father was a cartoonist for Disney. He passed away when Barry was 16 leaving the young artist practically on his own.

“I would get on my bike and shoot down to the race track,” Barry says of his initial experience as a young entrepreneur. He says he would try to persuade the drivers to let him paint their daughter's name on their car. “I finally got one guy to let me do it,” Barry says, “and the rest followed.”

Painting storefront windows was another path he followed to bring in cash, though usually shop owners would just throw him a sausage hoagie for his work.

This imaginative take on revenue generation is one that follows Barry's career from the boardwalk to the big screen.

Throughout the 1980s Barry found himself working out of storage units. He finally moved into his own studio, and brought partners into his Wacky World Studios in 1997. The Barrys declined to name the partners, but say they provided $1 million to help produce children's movies.

“The Roach Approach” was one of Barry's concepts, which was inspired by his six-legged neighbors from his days under the boardwalk. But the world of animated film yielded thin margins and eventually massive losses, says Vivian Barry, Bruce's wife and CEO of the company.

The undisclosed partners wished to continue with the fledgling movie business; the Barrys did not. So the two parted ways in 2009 with the partners receiving the rights to five movies produced by Wacky World — which were picked up by 20th Century Fox — and the Barrys keeping the production company.

Vivian Barry now sees the flirtation with Hollywood as a distraction from the work that brought Wacky World 90% of its revenues at the time: designing themed environments for mega-churches.

This began in 1996 when a church in Springdale, Ark., spotted one of Bruce Barry's designs on the Internet. “Eight months later we had two 16-wheelers full of items to transform their youth area,” Vivian Barry says. The 3-D environment that followed attracted the attention of churches worldwide, Barry says. This attraction led to projects worth as much as $1.2 million.

The company moved in February to a new studio down the street from its previous Oldsmar warehouse. Vivian Barry, who was an interior decorator prior to joining Wacky World, is designing the new office with an investment of $150,000.

The renovation of the new 25,000-square-foot studio, which is up from the previous studio size of 17,000 square feet, is in its first stages. But when it is complete, Barry will have an office that resembles a scene from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” complete with a comically large fridge out of a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Though Vivian Barry says that she expects the firm to double revenue in the coming year because of the size of contracts the company has generated, the future may not be as colorful as the two artists hope.

The economic climate in 2012 will shape Barry's business, and Vivian Barry explains this is a point the duo will watch carefully in the coming year. “Our business is largely based on tithings,” she says, “and when times are tough people stop giving.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Bruce Barry is president and founder of Wacky World and Vivian Barry is CEO. The relationship between Wacky World and its former partners has also been clarified.

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