Although she is very much what we would all consider to be a seasoned AV veteran, Marla Suttenberg of Sapphire Marketing didn’t go to school with the notion that she’d eventually end up working in the AV industry. According to her, it was a total fluke.
“I went to Clark University in Worcester, which is known for its psychology department. That’s the only location in the U.S. where Sigmund Freud gave a lecture,” said Marla. “I was a psych major and after I graduated, I spent a summer being a beach bum trying to decide if I wanted to go to grad school. However, my friend’s father managed a Volkswagen dealership in New York and his boss owned both the dealership AND an AV dealership.
“There was a trade show in New York City at the time called the Visual Communications Congress. And my friend’s dad’s boss said to my friend’s dad, ‘I have a booth and this show, would your daughter and some of her friends come work my booth for $50 a day? I guess you could say at the time we were basically hired as booth babes,” Marla said laughing.
While she was working the trade show, Marla had been speaking with one of the manufacturers that the booth represented — LaBelle Industries, which was a film strip company. The man who worked for LaBelle said to Marla that they really needed a sales office in Manhattan… and that ended up being Marla’s first job in the industry.
Marla decided to forgo grad school and went to New York City to open up LaBelle’s first Northeast sales office. She was the inside sales coordinator for the first few years and then eventually she was placed in the field as a full fledged sales person.
“So many of the dealers that I called on back then [at my first job] are still my customers today — it blows my mind,” shared Marla.
The more Marla got to know the industry, the more she loved it.
“I just loved [and still love] the technology. At the time we were selling training projectors for fast food restaurants and point-of-sale projectors for cosmetics companies. I loved traveling and being independent on my own schedule,” said Marla.
Marla worked for LaBelle for five years. As the film strip business was beginning to die, she left and joined a company called AVL that made computerized multi-image slide controllers. Since video didn’t really exist, the slide controller made synchronized slide shows to make it appear like it was continuous. According to Marla it was, “The coolest thing on the planet.”
The president of AVL convinced Marla to come work for him out on the Jersey Shore. She commuted 100 miles a day, 50 miles each way, for that job and she loved every second of it.
She did public relations there and was the inside rep manager. She also ended up covering eastern Canada. That’s also where she ended up meeting her husband, Randy.
After three years at AVL, she was hired by the manufacturer rep of AVL, Milanese Associates, to be the northeast sales rep for the company and that’s where Marla ultimately got the “rep bug.” They were also the AMX rep at the time.
“I liked working for a manufacturer, but it was so much easier and cooler to be a rep… if someone didn’t want to buy a projector, they could buy a screen,” she explained. “I had the same dealer base that I’d had before and so I was basically selling to my friends. It was a very social part of it for me.”
At this time in the northeast, Crestron was #1, AMX was #2 and a company called York Control was #3. The Crestron rep, Robert Christopher Sales, had been bugging Marla to come work for him and so she took another leap of faith and left to sell Crestron.
So, Marla was repping Crestron up until she started her own company, Sapphire Marketing, 14 years ago this January. All in all, Marla has been repping Crestron for 25 years!
Taking that step to start her own company wasn’t an easy one and there were a lot of challenges along the way.
“The main challenges were finding the right people that had the same values and motivation and passion that I did,” Marla explained. “I think I did a really great job of doing that, but I had some bumps along the road. Now there’s 12 of us total. Two are my inside sales people and there are 10 of us on the road. Each employee that works with me represents my value set and my passion. So that challenge really ended up being good.”
In addition to having a passion for the technology, Marla ultimately has a passion for the people in the industry.
“I’m really involved with the dealers, consultants and end users in the market,” Marla said. “Relationships are so vital and without relationships, our manufacturers wouldn’t hire us. Being a rep, it’s my job to be there for the customers, and to make sure the manufacturers understand what’s going on in the market as it relates to their offerings, and to take our advice and guidance to help make them even better than they are.
“I’m a people person and I manage my people the way I liked to be managed when I was a rep. It’s the little things like paying expenses on time and letting them take care of personal family business if they need to. As long as they’re selling stuff for our manufacturers, I don’t care what timeline it’s on.
“I’ve been really fortunate. I don’t have a business background, but my successes and decisions have been based on my gut instinct and treating people the way I wanted to be treated when I was an employee.
Outside of her busy work schedule, Marla really enjoys spending time with her family and her friends. She stays healthy by going to the gym “as much as possible” and leading an active life, which she attributes all to trying to keep up with her 18-year-old daughter, Dani (who is a senior in high school) and 24-year-old daughter, Jenny.
She’s also very involved with associations and charities that she’s passionate about, including The Skin Cancer Foundation & The National Multiple Sclerosis Society. She participates in a lot of fundraising activities, including volunteering at many local events.
Through it all, Marla is so passionate about education and getting people excited about getting involved in the AV industry. “Everything we do now [in the industry] is so pertinent to the world. Multi-image controllers were so hard to explain [when I first got started], no one understood what we did,” said Marla. “But now, everyone uses technology and it’s such a marketable industry to be in. I think it’s just going to explode with more and more opportunities as there is more adoption by the masses. My passion has helped fuel me.”
And it’s clear that her passion will continue to fuel her for many years to come. Marla hopes that newcomers to the industry will find the same passion and go for it.