Pulled Up By the Roots

featured-crewcallWell, time for another article that makes me feel old.

Believe me, I don’t do this on purpose. I usually do it because one of the young(er) people who works for me asks a question that prompts me to wax philosophical. I try to pretend that this makes me feel like an elder statesman, when in fact it usually just makes me feel elder.

Today’s question, from a new technician, was essentially a simple one: “I never knew this industry existed. Where did it come from?”

This, of course, sent me off into a flight of old stories, about our industry, its history, our associations and, by extrapolation, our future. It also sent me off thinking about the history of our companies, and some of the legacy issues that can result from long conditioning to that history.

We talk often about where we as individuals come from, and there are of course some commonalities, or at least there have been over the 20 years or so that I have been involved in the industry. When I got involved, I was enthusiastic about the AV and projection industry because of my history as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. Many of my colleagues had gotten into the industry from being musicians, television repair, film students and amateur theatrical buffs. If you look around the business, this is the background of many of the senior people, and indeed many of our new people still come from these backgrounds. Because of this, we bring to the industry varying kinds of experience, and contribute it to the strength of companies in a niche industry where those parts come together in a cohesive whole.

So, this got me to thinking. Much like AV personnel as individuals, the companies in our industry have a tendency to have evolved out of a number of different backgrounds. And, like individuals, this gives them some general sets of strengths and weaknesses that are legacy of their history. So, over the next couple of articles, let’s take a look at the background that these companies come from and see if any of our stereotypes hold true. As I have collected these over the years from a number of different colleagues around the world, don’t be surprised if you think I’m talking about your company. I probably am.

This week: The “Stereotypical” Audiovisual Company

Our industry was largely born as a separate industry following the second world war. The principles of staff command and the requirements that soldiers in a new kind of war had new kinds of training made the use of audiovisual equipment more widespread, both in the military and in all of the industries that the returning G.I. went to work in. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the use of audiovisual grew in schools as these new instructional methods were adopted. I fell in love with audiovisual in school in the ’60s and ’70s, where I was the kid who raised my hand and jumped up and down to be allowed to advance the filmstrip projector when the record went beep. Later on, I was the only kid in my junior high school who could thread a 16mm projector, which got me a blanket hall pass and got me out of study hall.

During that time, we saw the emergence of truly separate audiovisual companies that were formed to satisfy that demand for audiovisual equipment. Names like Kodak, Dukane, Bell & Howell, Eiki, etc. were prominent on their walls.

At first, those companies were mostly very small companies, run by entrepreneurs taking advantage of early title money flowing into schools. The company I first went to work for, Audio Visual Systems, (Dayton, Ohio) was one of these. I went to work for them in the mid-80s as one of the first employees in a brand-new rental department, which was formed to take advantage of the growing pool of demo equipment that our company had to have to represent these lines.

And this was not unusual. Many of the companies that were members of the National Audio Visual Association (NAVA, later ICIA and now InfoComm) came from the same background. In those days, most audiovisual fans and business cards carried three words: Sales, Service and Rental.

This background gave us a number of advantages, such as access to manufacturing lines at dealer cost, and the demo room populated with equipment that we could steal in the middle of the night. We used to refer to this process as a midnight inventory transfer, although it drove our owner and the salespeople crazy when they would come in the morning and find a gap in the demo rack. The first time we did this, our lead salesperson thought we had been burglarized.

So if they gave us some advantages, it also gave us some disadvantages. The rental department often felt like a redheaded stepchild. We didn’t go to InfoComm, and weren’t included in a lot of meetings. At least not at first. Our rapid growth rate changed all that, along with an internal rental department philosophy that said that it was easier to apologize for something you had already done that it was to get permission to do it. This story will be familiar to a lot of you.

In fact, in an organization where the rental department grew out of a sales organization, a common feeling is that the rental department is treated as a way to do expensive and time-consuming demonstrations for the sales department. We often referred to this derisively as a “freebie.” In organizations that were accustomed to deriving most of their revenue from sales of equipment, the rental department is often treated as a pool of technicians that the sales department can call on whenever they like, and the internal cost of that labor is often not transferred, producing some friction between the departments. The rental departments customers are also often seen as a source of leads for the sales department, especially if they are commissioned, and I have seen several repeat customers move from being rental customers to purchasing setups of their own. This is natural but in many organizations is treated by the rental department as an undesirable result.

In fact, I have worked in several companies that originated in this mold. Each of them had the problem in common that the rental and sales departments felt that the other side of the aisle didn’t understand what they do. In every instance, I have eventually found it necessary to separate the disciplines into separate operating groups each with their own budget and bottom line in order to maintain a happy family and the feeling that the various disciplines were being paid attention to. This separation is often dismissed by owners as being unnecessary and a creation of internal paperwork shuffling between departments, but I have always found the difference worth having.

I can see that I’m already running out of space for this article so I’m going to leave this open for next month when we will discuss the good and bad points of a company that grew up as a pure rental and staging company. in the meantime, I look forward to your comments, especially from those of you who have been around long enough to recognize the companies that I’m talking about.