| 2014 Q4 | story by DEREK HELMS | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
The question is so common that, Ryan Robinson and Kyle Meyers, owners of Lawrence-based Silverback Enterprises, laugh every time someone asks it.
“Yeah, we get that a lot,” Meyers said while sitting on one of two big leather couches in Silverback’s lobby. “Almost everyday someone will walk in and ask us just what the hell we do here.”
The answer, relatively speaking, is simple. Silverback Enterprises is an event production company.
“Sounds simple, right?” Meyers asks with a laugh. “To be honest it is kind of hard to really describe what we do to someone who isn’t involved in or familiar with the industry.”
In layman’s terms, if you are putting on an athletic race, Silverback can help. In fact, they can do it just for you. Robinson, Meyers and their team can do everything from meet with government officials to secure proper permits to clean up the mess made from racers after completion. From full-scale Ironman races to local 5k fundraisers, Silverback has become one of the most prominent event production companies in the country.
Robinson is a Lawrence kid. He was born and raised in town and after college he started working for the Douglas County Sheriff’s department. He satisfied his life-long love of sports by spending his weekends traveling to participate in various endurance races. It didn’t take long before his natural entrepreneurial spirit pushed him into hosting his own races.
“I started very, very small,” Robinson said as he leans back in his chair. “I put on some pretty small races, like 5ks, 10ks and a few kids races. But I had enough experience with the Ironman teams from working with them and participating in the events that I had real good grasp on what it took to host a successful race.”
By 2008, Robinson was ready to make the leap and host his own major event by licensing the Ironman name. The 2008 Kansas Ironman was, by most accounts, a smashing success.
“We had great attendance and I think almost everyone involved was pleased with the course and overall atmosphere of that first race,” Robinson says. “It was a great event. I mean, if you forget that we took it on the chin and lost almost $40,000.”
Robinson is, by all accounts, a very relaxed guy. He operates in a casual manner and doesn’t seem to let much rattle him. So when his first major event lost $40,000, he didn’t let it bother him much.
“Well, I knew I couldn’t do that again,” he said with a laugh. “But I knew I could be successful at hosting these races.”
Robinson quickly figured out how to turn a profit on hosting events and his business began to steadily grow. His relationship with Ironman events helped him land hosting jobs, not only across the country, but also in multiple international locations.
“For a number of years I was traveling all the time,” Robinson said. “When we started this I was as hands-on as possible. That meant living on airplanes and in other cities a lot. We took on almost every race or event we could get and built a solid reputation in the industry.”
As business grew, so did the emergence of niche races – races that embraced less traditional race formats to entice more participants. Due to Silverback’s established reputation within the industry, race directors began to call and Robinson needed help. He called his old race friend Meyers.
Meyers, a cross country standout at Loyala Univeristy in Chicago, Ill., is an accomplished endurance athlete and veteran of the race production world. After college, he began working for the esteemed Lakeshore Athletic Services, one of the most established race production companies in the world. The work was solid and Meyers was busy traveling the country opening offices for the company. Then Robinson called.
“I was in Florida opening an office for Lakeshore,” Meyers said. “I had known Ryan for years from races and just working in the same industry. He told me about what he was doing in Kansas right at the time I was looking to start something of my own. I figured if I was going to be putting in so many hours and working so hard, I should have some skin in the game.”
Meyers signed on as Chief Operating Officer in 2012, just as The Color Run was beginning to explode. The Color Run, dubbed “The Happiest 5k in the World,” is the most successful niche race in the country. Runners, many of whom have never ran a 5k previously, run through city streets and are sprayed with color. Music plays, folks dance and thousands of people have a good time.
As the event began to grow, John Connors, Color Run Vice President of Events and National Director, knew he needed a crew to handle the immense amount of prep work.
“These races are very labor intensive,” Connors said from his office in Utah. “Because we are a national company, we needed someone we knew would deliver. When I started asking people who they would recommend, almost everyone said Silverback.”
In 2012, Connors invited Robinson to one of the first races they held. He knew what he needed, and wanted to know if Silverback could handle it.
“I think it was in Seattle,” Connors said. “It was maybe our fourth or fifth race. We were just looking for supplemental event support. Ryan signed on for that. At this point they essentially conduct the majority of our races.”
Since that first meeting, Silverback has managed and produced “well more” than 200 Color Runs. Connors credits much of the event’s success to Meyers, Robinson and their crew.
“The way they conduct themselves and handle business coincides so well with our business model,” Connors said. “Those guys care so much about the participants and they are so dependable. It’s more than doing what they are paid to do. The Silverback crew does whatever needs to be done. No questions asked. They get the job done and we are so happy to work with them. They are the best in the business.”
The steady business of working with The Color Run, Ironman and various other races has kept the Silverback crew busy. A full-time staff between 15-20 employees spend most of the year on the road. Whether it’s driving a truck full of race barriers or flying to meet with city officials, the company is always on the road.
“Yeah, we have an employee that sits at a desk all day and make travel arrangements,” Robinson said with a laugh. “I’ve tried to cut back a bit on my travel, but being on the go is part of the deal.”
Earlier this year, the company purchased the old Zimmerman Steel building in East Lawrence and has refurbished it into a warm, modern space. Offices are in the front of the building and a large warehouse occupies the back. Robinson and Meyers have big plans for the warehouse and the acreage behind the building, but they’re not quite ready to reveal.
“Well, we do have some pretty big ideas,” Robinson said with a big smile and a laugh. “You know, Free State bottles their beer right behind us and we have this great open space between our buildings and we all love music and getting people together for a good time.”
One thing is for sure: Silverback will continue to operate out of Lawrence.
“I’ve had the opportunity to travel to some of the coolest places in the world,” Robinson said. “And I know it sounds cliché to say, but there really isn’t anywhere like Lawrence, Kansas. We couldn’t have a better set up to run our business.”