Constance Chatfield-Taylor is the youngest of six children, which the psychologist in me says is the reason behind her success.
She is driven, to put it mildly.
“I grew up in the shadow of five brothers and sisters,” said the polo-playing entrepreneur. “I wanted to be taken for me.”
Chatfield-Taylor, 61, has charted an unorthodox career that pinged like a pinball, bouncing from one thing to another.
It spans continents and swung between enterprises as diverse as wineries and charter air. For the last two-plus decades, she has settled in the video broadcast business.
Her District-based firm, Flying Colors Broadcasts, (she pulled the name from words she saw on a bus advertisement), has 10 employees scattered around the United States. It affords Chatfield-Taylor a comfortable living (homes in Georgetown and Upperville, Va.) on annual sales of around $3 million. In a good year, her take is the middle six figures.
Flying Colors makes money by creating in-house training videos and filming interviews, ceremonies and announcements.
“We take care of details, all of them, just like an event planner,” she said. “Except we add television to the mix.”
When Toyota Financial Services announced it was moving from Los Angeles to Plano, Tex., Chatfield-Taylor flew to California to set up the cameras and electronics so employees could hear and see the announcement in real time.
Flying Colors also coordinates live shots around the world, finding cameras and operators, booking satellite time and taking care of all the little details that go into filming a live sports event, a rocket launch, fundraiser, parade, inauguration or speech.
Her business has taken her to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, an opera house in the heart of the Amazon, an election in Kiev, a New Jersey chocolate factory, White House welcome ceremonies, a scientist-packed amphitheater in Bangalore, an Ohio jet engine plant.
I spent a few hours one recent morning with her, surrounded by video monitors and editing equipment in Flying Colors’ command center on M Street in downtown Washington.
Chatfield-Taylor is an easy conversationalist, but her techno-geek side comes through. Her sentences are spiked with chatter about satellite bandwidth, uplinks and downlinks, and redundant feeds.
“There is a magic to what we do,” she said in a follow-up email to me. “Standing in a truck as the signals from the other parts of the word come in — ‘there’s Paris, there’s Moscow and coming up looks like color bars from Johannesburg’ — watching the pictures and audio come in and knowing that 10 trucks and camera operators around the world are following the plan that you laid out and it’s working.”
You get the idea she enjoys her work.
Chatfield-Taylor’s family goes back a ways. Her grandfather was a successful Chicago banker, assistant secretary of the Treasury for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and president of the Export-Import Bank.
Constance grew up on a farm in Lincoln, Va., where she earned extra money teaching horseback riding. Her riding school paid for four years at the University of Virginia, where she studied anthropology and set design.
She headed to San Francisco after graduation in 1976 because she wanted to make her own way.
“I didn’t want to be somebody else’s little sister,” she said.
But the family’s reach is vast. Her first two weeks in the Bay Area, she found a cousin who helped her get a job at a winery. Chatfield-Taylor shaped up the financial books and set up a billing and shipping system for the nascent business. She then moved to sales and marketing.
One of her first stops was Chez Panisse, a restaurant run by Alice Waters, a pioneer of the farm-to-table cooking based on using fresh, local ingredients.
She then went to work for World Airways Management, a charter airline based in Oakland, Calif., where the winery owner’s had worked. World Airways’ niche was flying American soldiers around the world.
Chatfield-Taylor, in her mid-20s, started at World Airways as a flight attendant, traveling to Africa and Asia, but soon was creating in-house instructional videos on first aid, emergency procedures and tests for employees. She even put together one of the earliest passenger videos for what to do in the event of a loss of cabin pressure.
“I was figuring out technology to make it more efficient for training employees,” she said. She took a night course near Berkeley, Calif., to get more comfortable with the subject, exchanging World Airways passenger tickets in return for the temporary use of “good gear.”
Then came the event that threw her into the possibility of international broadcasts.
At a Washington cocktail party, she was introduced to a gentleman who ran a small operation that helped produce video segments, live feeds and broadcasts for the British Broadcasting Corp.
The BBC subcontractor eventually offered her a job that had a big title (senior vice president, operations) and low pay.
The job offer was wired to her in Kathmandu, where Chatfield-Taylor, then 28, was taking a break volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Little Sisters of the Poor.
The experience would become her springboard to start Flying Colors.
Timing was perfect. Satellite and broadcast technologies were advancing, opening up the industry from a couple of players to several. At the same time, the broadcast business was becoming deregulated, again creating opportunities for others.
Her big break involved a complex logistical challenge: a live television program for a group called the Hunger Project that was beamed to 30 countries from New York’s Madison Square Garden. Chatfield-Taylor nailed it.
She earned half her previous salary on the one gig and made a name for herself.
“That was the first show I did on my own,” she said. Her client list started to grow: the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “Chanukah Live” from New York. Other work in Mozambique. Senegal. Bangalore.
Her business instincts kicked in. She focused less on big bucks and more on tackling interesting jobs that showed off creativity: standing in a General Electric jet engine, touring an M&M factory.
“Sometimes,” she said, “it’s not about the largest paycheck.”
She watched costs, preferring to rent high-tech satellite trucks instead of taking a $300,000 loan to buy one. She picked good business partners who were detail-oriented.
Nationwide Insurance and GE came on board in the early 2000s, providing a reliable revenue stream that brought predictability to her up-and-down business.
Her event and client list is long: the Pew Charitable Trusts; American Express; Wells Fargo; SAP Systems; AARP; World Cup Soccer; NASA; Fox Sports; Head Start; the Small Business Administration; and various foundations.
One of her proudest moments was improvising the temporary Katrina Information Network, where she teamed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help people find loved ones lost in the 2005 New Orleans hurricane.
I have met few people who appear as happy and engaged in their work. Chatfield-Taylor said she relaxes playing polo and entertaining at her Upperville and Georgetown homes.
I am not sure how much she actually relaxes.
Last week, as I was writing this, she sent me an email asking if I wanted to go fly on a trapeze near the Navy Yard.