There it is. I’m putting it out there. I’ve thought about this a lot and from my vantage point, having spent the past 30 years of my life as an AV design consultant, I believe there’s no other single individual who has had a greater impact on the lives of more people in AV over the last decade or more — essentially the “digital AV” era — than Crestron CTO Fred Bargetzi.
Why am I making this bold statement? And why now? Well, as many of you have no doubt heard, Fred, who at 52 is in the prime of his life and career, has been dealt that same unlucky hand as baseball great Lou Gehrig was dealt all those years ago; he has ALS.
Before I go any farther, let me fess up: I’ve known Fred for nearly my entire career and I consider him to be one of my closest friends in this life, AV or otherwise. However, I also view him with a certain degree of awe. Not only is he one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and a true giant in this industry, you’d also be hard-pressed to find a more honest, decent person than Fred. Period. And he has had such a positive impact on our industry — and on so many of us individually — that my hope is we can all make our voices heard so he and his family know exactly how meaningful his influence has been on all of us. (More on that later.)
Now, allow me to make my case.
The Career That Almost Wasn’t
For many of us, Fred is as synonymous with Crestron’s name as George Feldstein, Crestron’s founder, and Randy Klein, Crestron’s president and CEO. However, few know the story of Fred’s disastrous interview with George back in 1990 that nearly ended his AV career before it began.
George was a born engineer and had a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineering, but he was also a notoriously tough interviewer who did not suffer fools gladly. In 1990, Fred was fresh out of the University of Buffalo’s engineering school with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering (but a masters in partying) when he was invited to interview with George for his first real job.
George tasked Fred with designing various electrical circuits, right there on the spot. The interview lasted three hours. (Let me just state for the record: I also have an electrical engineering degree, and I wouldn’t have lasted an hour.) When Fred was done, George looked at his work and told him it was all wrong before unceremoniously showing him the door.
Now, here’s where our story gets interesting: Most of us would have sighed, “Oh, well,” or nervously thought, “Crap! I’ve been found out,” or said to ourselves, “Ah, to hell with it. I don’t want this job anyway.” But not Fred. He began to argue with George — the founder of the dang company! Fred insisted he was right, and that George was an old-school, analog guy who didn’t understand Fred’s solutions because they were based on microprocessors instead of analog circuitry. But George was not impressed and told Fred they were done.
At this point, most of us would have tucked tail, headed to the nearest bar and prayed the next interview would be for a cushy sales job somewhere. But not our Fred. He went home, looked at his work again and composed a long letter to George explaining the theory behind his designs and why they were right. He mailed it to George and awaited his reply. As strong-headed as George was, he had to admit that Fred was right and hired this 22-year-old kid to be Crestron’s newest engineer in what was then about a 40-person company.
However, Fred’s resume, which was ‘meh’ on grades but heavy on fraternity achievements, resulted in Fred being deemed “too social” to be a design engineer. Thus, it was determined that Fred would be an applications engineer and was assigned to hit the road with Crestron’s other new guy at the time, Randy Klein, to interface with all of us in the field and learn firsthand what the industry really needed. Fred and Randy heard from customers that other, cooler competitors had sexier hardware and more advanced software tools. Fred took all of this information back to engineering to reinvent the company and, along with George and Randy, grew it from the second-tier player it was then to be the premier, billion-dollar-plus manufacturer it is today. Not bad growth from the million or so in revenue they were doing when Fred and Randy joined.
An Early Start in Business
Fred got into this whole engineering thing because he came from a working-class family and needed a way to earn some cash, so in middle school, he bought a secondhand lawnmower at a yard sale and started a lawnmowing business. The problem with running a lawnmowing business with one lawnmower is, when the lawnmower breaks down, so does the business. Thus, young Fred taught himself how to rebuild lawnmower engines so he could keep that sweet, sweet cash pouring in.
Fred’s skill rebuilding engines led to his second business: fixing dirt bikes for all the rich kids in the area. See, dirt bikes, like lawnmowers, break down all the time. Kids would get them for Christmas, but by spring, they were all broken. The kids soon learned they could bring them to Fred who would fix them up for a small fee. Fred eventually grew this business into one where he would buy broken dirt bikes, fix them and sell them to the kids in the neighborhood whose parents couldn’t afford new ones. So, while the rest of us were watching Gilligan’s Island reruns, Fred was running a tidy little business and honing his inner engineer to solve problems, both technical and business-related.
But Back to our AV Story…
Like many people, I met Fred for the first time at the Crestron booth at an InfoComm show (in my case, probably ‘91 or ‘92). Back then, a “booth tour” consisted of George breathlessly showing you the new touch panels, while Fred stood next to him explaining how it all worked together. It soon became obvious that George was the founder, mad scientist, inventor; Randy was the dealmaker extraordinaire; and Fred was the glue who made it all come together. He was the go-to guy for taking good ideas and turning them into new products. He could get engineering or software to turn around new solutions we really needed by opening day of the next big project. When I told Fred many years ago that what Crestron really needed was one person who could be a liaison for the entire AV consultant community, he said, “Cool, I’ll do it,” and he did. In short, Fred was that person every company needs who just makes sh*t happen.
Everybody’s Got a Fred Story
Like many of you, I’ve got a Fred story or two because Fred really got around quite a bit in the early years and saved a lot of people’s bacon on job after job. Our first real bonding moment happened during Waveguide’s project numero uno in early 1997. We had been hired for the design of a major business school project and since that was our first job, failure was not an option.
When Waveguide launched, I had decided our differentiator was going to be designing not only the AV systems, but also the user experience on all our projects. So, for that first project, I developed all the touch panel pages and described the button-by-button functionality for all the classrooms… using AMX, Crestron’s biggest competitor. Frankly, at the time AMX’s touch panel graphics were better, and their panels were slicker. Plus, AMX was what I knew.
I had known Fred for years, but we hadn’t done very many projects using Crestron at my previous employer, so while I really liked this Fred guy, I just didn’t spec any of his stuff. For Fred, this was simply unacceptable, and — maybe seeing something in my fledgling company I couldn’t yet see myself — he went all out to win us over to using Crestron on this project.
Of course, I didn’t make it easy for him. I told him the client had already signed off on my GUI designs using AMX. He said he’d create equal or better GUIs himself using Crestron. I told him I already had a quote from AMX for the hardware. He said he’d get me an equivalent Crestron quote immediately. I told him AMX had features Crestron didn’t have. He said they’d match AMX feature-for-feature in time for this project. He even said he’d come down to finalize the programming himself to make sure everything was exactly as I wanted it. And he did.
Working side-by-side late into the night on that jobsite, Fred and I were just two kids defining what a good AV user experience should be, in real-time. Me: “Hey Fred, this GUI I’ve laid out has too many button presses at startup. Can you program it so that when the instructor hits ‘start,’ the projector turns on, the screen lowers, the shades lower, the lighting goes to the ‘AV’ preset, and the switcher chooses input one?” Fred: “Stand by…” and then a few minutes later he’d have it. Remember, this was 22 years ago, when most AV systems were programmed like someone dumped a box full of handheld remotes onto a touch panel. We were making it up as we went along and it was great. I was a Fred fan from that moment on.
The Growth Years
Those of you who haven’t been in the AV industry as long as some of us might not know of a time when the entire staff of Crestron could fit in a 20×20 booth, but that was the case in those early days. Companies like Crestron don’t just suddenly appear as fully formed entities; they grow brick by brick, through lots of hard work and late nights. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion in those early days that Crestron would become the dominant manufacturer it eventually became. It took vision for the company to break out from its beginnings as a commercial-only, control system-only company to embrace and then dominate both the commercial and high-end residential control market and move from there into lighting, shades, audio/video distribution and just about everything else you need in an automated, smart environment.
When Crestron launched its DigitalMedia (DM) line in 2008, everything changed. DM changed not only Crestron, it changed the industry. AV integrators grew their business on it, and I have no doubt that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of children of AV professionals whose college education was paid for courtesy of DM.
Fred and company had to stick their necks way out on DM and lead the industry where many of us didn’t really want it to go… at least not at that moment. VGA worked, kinda sorta. This digital thing is, well, digital; it’s either there or it’s not. At least with analog, it dies a slow death. Crestron, behind Fred’s technical leadership, risked everything and earned their share of battle scars in the early days of DM, but they stuck it out, made it work and made history. And we’re all the better for it.
Yeah, But What About “So and So”
Without a doubt, there are other people in our industry more well-known than Fred, cooler than Fred, with fancier titles than Fred. And yes, there are some great names you could put on a top-10 list of most impactful/consequential people in this industry over the past decade. And on this point, let me say that, in making this argument, I’m not taking anything away from Randy Klein and his place in the industry. Randy is a force of nature and hugely responsible for Crestron’s growth. But people like Randy and me and many of you, we need something to sell. Without that, what have we got? Fred gave us that something to sell.
But allow me to continue to make my case.
To talk about most impactful/consequential individuals, you must look at most impactful companies. One might suggest that it’s really the systems integrators who dominate the industry, and there are certainly some smart, hardworking people at the top AV integration companies who have built fantastic businesses. I take my hat off to them. It’s hard work.
Some might argue that it’s consulting firms who have a leadership role the industry. And while some consulting firms certainly punch above their weight in terms of influence, our impact (speaking as a consultant myself) rarely extends beyond our relatively small companies, our client base or the market segment where we might have some influence.
But is there really any one individual who rises about the rest you can say has shaped the entire industry? Someone who has influenced the life of a consultant in Australia up late trying to solve a client’s problem? Or a residential dealer in Silicon Valley showing his happy clients their new home automation system? Or a technology manager at a university in Boston who can now see the status of all her classrooms through a Crestron web-based interface? Fred has.
Thus, you have to look at the AV manufacturers who have had the biggest impact on our industry. Certainly, Crestron isn’t without its very worthy competitors — companies like Extron, Cisco, Harman and others. And yes, some of those company’s founders are rightly considered pioneers who were central in putting the AV industry on the map. I salute them all. But name me one individual at those companies who is named on 26 patents like Fred is; who ushered in the modern control era with industry firsts like eControl, RoomView, Fusion, Pyng and XiO Cloud; and who shepherded in the digital media era in AV, first with the groundbreaking video-over-Cat5 QuickMedia and then DigitalMedia, AirMedia and now the NVX line of streaming media products.
Now, Fred will be the first to say he didn’t do this all by himself; he has built a team of hundreds of talented engineers and programmers who also share in those accomplishments. But somebody had to lead that group, guide the development of these product lines and see the future when the rest of us were busy with our little projects and problems. That was Fred.
But Wait, There’s More…
If you’re not convinced yet, let me offer some more evidence.
I’ve attended every InfoComm show for the past 28 years, so I’ve seen a lot of things come and go. Companies who used to have the biggest booth on the show floor don’t even exhibit anymore. Crestron used to have a little booth and now have a small city on the show floor. But the most telling sign of Fred’s impact became crystal clear to me about 10 years ago when Crestron began hosting its consultant lunch at the show each year. I get invited to lots of these types of events, and every year I would see manufacturers — really big manufacturers — struggle to get 20 or 30 consultants to show up for a free lunch. Fred’s annual talk to consultants at InfoComm would routinely attract about 500 consultants. You simply couldn’t miss it. Fred was going to tell us where the industry was headed, so we could go back and tell our clients. I often joked to Fred that if we somehow all got locked inside that room, the AV consulting profession as we know it would come to a screeching halt.
Being a close friend of Fred’s, I know how much he put into that event each year, and how much he stressed about it. Who wouldn’t? You’ve got 500 highly opinionated, know-it-all consultants giving up three hours of valuable show-floor time and staring back at you saying, “Yeah, tell me something I don’t already know.” It was and is, without a close second, the toughest gig in Vegas (or alternately Orlando) every year, and Fred delivered, year in and year out.
Plus, Remember That Thing About Fred Making Shi*t Happen
Fred also shared with me how he ended up hanging out with Mark Zuckerberg a few years ago. One morning, Fred was on his elliptical at home before work and saw Zuckerberg on CNBC announcing his new personal challenge for the year. In past years, Zuckerberg had engaged in a wide range of challenges including learning Mandarin, going vegetarian and writing a handwritten thank you note every day for a year. In 2016, he announced he wanted to automate his house with A.I. like Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies, except he wanted to use Morgan Freeman’s voice for his “Jarvis.” Fred stopped his workout and immediately called his people who knew people at Facebook and said, “Get me a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg.” Very long story short, Fred ended up at Zuckerberg’s house soon thereafter, and you might not be surprised to know that there’s a fair amount of Crestron behind the scenes providing the automated controls at Casa Zuckerberg.
And Then He Blew My Mind…
Some months ago, Fred sent me a text asking when I was going to be in New York next. I knew immediately from the tone of the text that something was up.
When he walked into the little diner where we met for breakfast, I could see he had lost weight. Now, Fred was super fit at this point in his life, so I was hoping maybe, just maybe, he had gone all vegan or something. But he wouldn’t call me up to New York to talk to me about his diet.
When we sat down, we started our conversation the way we almost always did, with him asking me how my family was, how business was, how I was. But I knew something was up, and, as we talked, I began to wonder when he was going to drop the bomb.
Having lost both of my parents to cancer, I braced myself thinking, “OK, Scott, he’s going to tell you he has cancer, but it’s early stage, and he’s a healthy, resilient guy, so he’s going to beat it.” That was what I was prepared to hear and what I was prepared to help him through, having had an up-close and personal experience with it all.
When he said, “It’s ALS,” my heart sank to the floor. In the past 75 years, medical science is still flummoxed by this cruel disease. Yes, Stephen Hawking endured many decades, but I couldn’t imagine my buddy Fred going through that sort of struggle.
So, I did what I think any of us would do. I said, “OK, here’s the deal. I’m on board with whatever you want to do. Is there anywhere in the world you’ve always wanted to go? I’m in. You wanna hop in one of your fast cars and road trip across America? I’m down. Climb Machu Pichu? My bag is packed.” I meant it. I was ready to drop everything.
Then, Fred proceeded to blow my mind.
He said, “I appreciate it, man, but really, I’m all good. I’ve been all over the world. I married my college sweetheart and love of my life, Beth. I’ve got two great kids, Madison and Alex, who I love dearly. Hell, I’ve hung out with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife in their house. Really, I’m all good. I don’t have a bucket list. I’ve already lived it.”
“So, what are you going to do?”, I asked.
“Keep working, of course,” he replied.
I didn’t know what to say at that. My mind was reeling. If I got the same diagnosis, would my first thought be to keep working?
Then, he did something that really floored me.
He took his cloth napkin off his lap and proceeded to outline for me products — hell, entire product lines — he had in his head, all this stuff he still wanted to invent. He filled up both sides of his napkin and had to ask the very-annoyed waiter to bring him another napkin so he could fill both sides of it with more product ideas. Products that would take years and years to bring to fruition.
I sat there utterly speechless. All I could think was, “You’re a better man than me.” My one regret in my friendship with Fred over these many years is that I didn’t find some clever way to spirit away those napkins so I could frame them on a wall in my house.
As we got ready to go, I asked Fred to give me his personal email address so he and I could converse outside of normal work emails as he went through the challenges that lay ahead of him. He looked at me and said, “I don’t have a personal email address; email@example.com is all I’ve ever needed to be.”
All I could think was, “Man, they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
So, Here’s the Deal
For those of you who know and love Fred, please know that he and his family are fine. Fred continues to work and lead Crestron into the future with the same enthusiasm he has had for the last 30 years. However, I have an appeal to all of you. Actually, I have two appeals: First of all, if you have a Fred Story, I invite you to share it here on the rAVe site. I know it would mean a lot to Fred and his family to hear your stories.
Second, I’d like to ask you to get out your wallet right now. Not for Fred, but for the next Fred or Fredericka who gets the news that he or she has ALS. You can donate to Columbia University’s ALS research in Fred’s name here. If Fred or Crestron has had an impact on your life, donate what you can: $10, $100, hell, some of you folks whose companies benefitted mightily from Crestron should think about $1,000 or more. Let’s raise some serious money to help fight ALS in Fred’s honor. I know he would appreciate that.
I look forward to reading your stories and seeing this industry rise up and come together around this great man for a worthy cause.
Donate to Columbia University’s ALS research in Fred Bargetzi’s name online. Gifts can also be made by check, payable to the Trustees of Columbia University, which should indicate Eleanor and Lou Gehrig ALS Center on the memo line. Checks can be mailed to: