“Jacobs” might not be in the name—but Telescopic Seating Systems counts itself among the many family-run businesses that keep the exhibition sector moving. Married for 43 years, Fred and Denise Jacobs have come up through multiple industries together, landing in the seating world—along with their son, the engineering manager, and daughter-in-law, the CPA—as the couple behind Telescopic Seating Systems.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Fred and Denise began their respective careers in the automotive industry. Fred found his niche in automotive interiors, while Denise—needing “a little more challenge” than her job at General Motors afforded—went back to college at the University of Michigan. While there, she had two children in four years and earned her Bachelor’s in physics before joining Fred at the AC Spark Plug Division of General Motors as a Manufacturing Engineer.
“We thought we were going to be Flint lifers,” Denise recalls—but a job opportunity took them to Holland, Michigan, where Telescopic Seating Systems is based today. There, Fred helped manage an automotive seating company. This was the ‘90s, when a boom in multiplex construction sent demand for seating through the roof. Ford Motor Company decided they wanted in on the action; Fred recalls that he “went in to make a presentation on seats for their Mustangs and walked out with a contract to make movie theater seats instead.” From there, Fred ran what he calls the “stealth movie theater seat company” Visteon, which from 1998-2003 operated as a division of Ford. “We were making 40,000 to 60,000 seats a year.… Going to all the trade shows. But people didn’t really know that the same people that made seats for their Cadillacs and their Buicks were making their movie theater seats.”
In 2003, Ford’s six-year experiment in movie theater seating came to an end when Visteon was spun off into its own entity. Fred became a minority partner in Track Seating, which bid unsuccessfully for Visteon’s movie theater seat business. Track Seating continued to make seats for Buicks and Cadillacs while expanding into the non-automotive arena,buy ing a company called American Desk. While Denise continued in the automotive interiors business, Fred expanded into other facets of the seating world, manufacturing seats for universities and sports stadiums and setting up an independent seating company in China to service that market. Meanwhile, their son Matt, straight out of high school, joined Track Seating as an engineering intern.
When Fred’s partners opted to sell Track Seating, he was left at a career crossroads. “I wasn’t smart enough to retire,” he jokes, while Denise “wouldn’t let me just stay at home and go fishing.” (Denise counters: “He doesn’t want to retire!”) In 2011, building on years of industry knowledge and contacts, the pair started the U.S. company Telescopic Seating Systems LLC, with Fred as managing director and Denise as president and majority owner.
The decision to name their new company Telescopic Seating Systems and not, say, Jacobs Seating, came from a desire to center their products, which can be found in theaters, arenas, auditoriums, and more largely across North America and Asia. The “Telescopic” in the name refers to TSS’s most eye-catching feature: a patented system (“about 16, 17 North American patents in the last ten years,” says Fred, to be precise) allowing all TSS power recliners (up to 100 on a single circuit) to be raised up for ease of cleaning underneath. Explains Fred, the seats ”extend and retract… like powered recliners, but on a much larger scale.” The company’s Smart Clean Sweep™ and Smart Power-2™ technologies, says Denise, “lower theater construction/operational while make cleaning recliner theaters a breeze.”
Ease of recliner cleaning is not originally what the Jacobses were going for. Back when Telescopic Seating Systems first started, “we developed a very good rocker system and led with that, along with other products,” says Fred. “And then people started buying recliners!” AMC, North America’s largest chain, upgraded in the early aughts from rockers to recliners, leading their competitors to follow suit. Fred and Denise took a moment to be upset, Fred admits, that their new invention was now old-school. Then, they took a step back and assessed what the so-called “recliner revolution” meant for the needs of their customers.
“You look at recliners and you say, ‘Well, yeah, I understand they’re comfortable,’” says Denise. “But I’m thinking, if I were a manager of a theater, how in the world would you clean them between every show? Especially if you had to open them up every time?… How do you get rid of all the residue that you’re going to find in the chairs?’” The barrier to entry for making home recliners, Fred adds, isn’t particularly high: “Can you buy fabric? Can you buy mechanisms to [recline the seats]? Can you buy a staple gun?” Telescopic Seating Systems, they decided, would be a “technology-based company,” says Fred, at its core one principle designed to better the customer experience: “How to power a roomful of recliners. How to network recliners together in a link.” Since then, the technology has evolved, adding such features as the ability to only lift seats that have not been cleaned since their last use and a red light/green light system so the customer can know their seat has been freshly cleaned.
All of that, of course, positions Telescopic Seating Systems to meet exhibitors’ needs during Covid. They are one of a handful of companies that have introduced new products since March 2020 designed to increase theaters’ ability to maintain standards of cleanliness and sanitation. For Telescopic Seating Systems, that product is the Seat Suite™, a single-use partition that can be put between seats, creating a physical barrier between customers and their neighbors. (As an added bonus, the shields can also serve as ad hoc ad spaces.)
As with Telescopic Seating Systems’ rocker system, their Seat Suite™ was originally designed for one purpose before changing exhibition realities shifted the company to another route. While they’re marketed now as a way to increase “guest confidence in social distancing,” they were originally envisioned as a less-expensive, more flexible way for Telescopic Seating Systems customers to adapt to the increasingly popular “pod” concept, adopted at luxury chais like iPic. “It’s something that we had been working on for four or five years,” Fred recalls—“but it was for privacy,” not safety.
For the Jacobses, the needs of the customer—and the flexibility required to meet those needs—remain top of mind, now as when they first started Telescopic Seating Solutions. That’s why, though trade show floors (when trade shows still existed in physical locations) were dotted with high-tech seats boasting heaters, USB ports, and bells and whistles befitting the luxury recliner experience, TSS still sells trusty rockers in addition to their other products.
“I think that, ultimately, it’s easy to be blinded by the glorious, luxurious installation” of high-end chairs, says Jacobs. Ticket price being the same, most moviegoers would prefer a luxury recliner to a ‘90s-style rocker—but price usually isn’t the same, and while the shift to recliners has driven occupancy rates in theaters, in some places “a basic rocker chair is all the market can afford.” On top of that, there are some theaters—for example, those with older sloped floors and a programming line-up that caters to families with small (age-wise and height-wise) children—where a shorter, more compact chair makes more sense. “We really try to work with a customer to understand their business and their market,” says Fred, “rather than selling the fanciest puppy in the window.”
In 2016, Denise retired from the automotive world, where she’d worked at Magna Mirrors, to devote her energies to Telescopic Seating Systems. “When I came on board, that was exciting for me, because for the first time I could start traveling with Fred” to all the regional shows, in addition to the major ones she’d been able to attend before. That, now, is temporarily on hold—but the couple looks forward to the day when they can once again “pack up the trailer and go out and hit the road and visit customers!” Says Fred, “the exhibition industry is really blessed with that personal connection. There is certainly tough competition between chains, but most chains understand and respect one another… That civility, within the exhibition industry, is good to be maintained.”