June 19, 2011

Phoenix-area firm forms digital-sign alliance

Phoenix-based Ellman Cos. investment group has struck an alliance with a unit of Panasonic Corp. worth "hundreds of millions of dollars" to develop massive digital signs throughout North America.

Ellman's flagship investment is Westgate City Center in Glendale, and it has ownership stakes in 88 companies. Its sign subsidiary, Branded Cities Network, will work with Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Co., which provides sign technology for sports and tourism industries.

BCN will sell ads for all Panasonic signs, including those that hang over Kobe Bryant in the Staples Center during Los Angeles Lakers games. Panasonic will provide the technology for BCN as it grows.

Panasonic's portfolio also includes one of the world's largest LED screens, at the Concord, N.C., Charlotte Motor Speedway, a NASCAR venue.

BCN's portfolio includes massive signs at Westgate, the Denver theater district and casino properties owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp.

"We went to Panasonic because we believe they truly are the leader in this space and technology," said Steven Ellman, CEO of the Ellman Cos. The company owns or has a joint venture in more than 2,000 signs.

Ellman is better known for his company's real-estate holdings, ranking as one of the largest owners of real estate in metro Phoenix for the past few years with maximum holdings in excess of 10,000 acres. But the sign business is booming.

The Ellman Cos. bought Clear Channel Outdoor's majority interest in Clear Channel Branded Cities in October after being a partner for years.

"We've been involved in the outdoor space since the mid-1990s, and 15 years ago, there wasn't a lot of digital signage," Ellman said. "We've struck a venture that will be worth several hundred million dollars in investment in the next few years."

He said the venture will probably hire 50 new employees in Phoenix in the next year and several hundred nationwide.

"Obviously, Panasonic has lots of capital to invest," he said. "What is an issue is getting permits and locations. It is controlling the best real estate, the best rooftops you can in America."

While metro Phoenix has seen some complaints regarding bright billboards that can distract freeway drivers, Ellman said that is not his company's focus.

"Most of the boards we are building don't read to drivers," he said. "They read to intersections, squares."

The venture also will use "cloud technology" to distribute specialized, targeted advertising content to signs across the continent, offering customers the ability to advertise in major city centers.

"Cloud technology allows scalability of our system without building a massive operations center," said Jim Doyle, president of Panasonic Enterprise Solutions. "The (advertising) content and software will exist in a quote-unquote cloud."

by Ryan Randazzo The Arizona Republic Jun. 17, 2011 06:41 AM

Phoenix-area firm forms digital-sign alliance

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