WAVE Feature: Marla Suttenberg, A Woman in AV Pioneer

marla-suttenberg-0313I had the honor of interviewing Marla Suttenberg, 2013 Women in CE Award winner and owner/principal of Sapphire Marketing, a manufacturing representative firm, offering leading-edge AV solutions to both the commercial and residential side of the industry in the Northeast.  She is an inspiration to all of us women who want to one day be a female business-owner, especially in a male-dominated market where few women, or men for that matter, have the insight, wisdom and experience she brings to the table about both Pro and CE sides of our industry. She’s a firecracker and someone who truly makes you question, “What IS it stopping you from living your dreams?!”

Jennifer Willard: Please tell us about your background. When and how did you get started in the AV industry? How did it feel being a woman in a male-dominated industry? Have you seen any evolution over the years and where do you feel we are at now?

Marla Suttenberg: It was a total fluke – I fell into it.  It was the summer of 1978 after I graduated college, and I was deciding whether to go to graduate school to be a psychologist. But I also needed to make money, and I was presented with an opportunity to open a NYC sales office for a Midwest ‘filmstrip’ manufacturer as the inside sales coordinator.

After a year of being on the ‘inside,’ I was fortunate that my boss thought I’d make a great outside salesperson as well, and after a few ‘old salesman pointers,’ sent me on my way.  At that point there were hardly any women in the industry, especially not outside sales representatives. Luckily, I enjoyed being out of the office, meeting new people, and talking about how my products were the best on the planet and could solve the world’s communication and training challenges.

Being a road-warrior took practice, and sometimes nerves of steel, and I learned to feel comfortable eating at a restaurant by myself, walking down a dark hallway to a hotel room, and even sitting at the bar to have a drink (with my head in a book of course). My kids can’t believe that I’ve actually been to movies by myself while on the road!

My most humbling experience was when one of the larger NYC dealers invited me to lunch to get to know me better. The check for lunch came, and I let it sit on it the table for a few minutes since he was the one who invited me (and he was the man and I was the woman??). After a few more awkward seconds, which felt like an hour, I picked up the bill and offered to ‘split’ it with him. Hey, I thought that was ok since I was used to going ‘dutch’ with my current boyfriend at the time. He proceeded to lecture me on how it was MY responsibility to pay, since HE was the customer. I was so embarrassed and realized how wrong I was…  The good news is, I certainly learned a lesson, and he’s still one of my customers today!

Most of our commercial dealerships that were family-owned were often passed down to the ‘sons’ in the family – I can only name one or two daughters who currently run their family businesses. The residential dealers are generally still first-generation, given that it’s a newer marketplace, and the overwhelming majority of the owners are men.

When I first started, most women (including myself) were more like ‘detail’ salespeople, i.e., we’d check the pricing station to make sure they were current, and re-stack literature racks to make sure our brochures and spec sheets were up to date. Today, our roles need to be more “consultative” and technical in order to succeed. A dealer has the Internet for pricing and product specs – what they need from us is suggestions on ways in which they can become more profitable with our products, and us sharing interesting applications that other people have been successful with.

Early on, I experienced a great deal of satisfaction when I knew more about my products than my customers did – which seemed to make them respect me even more. Even today, some men seem surprised when I know what I’m talking about when taking a deeper dive into a product/application discussion. I probably try twice as hard to be good, but get twice as much respect in return.

I believe that the IT channel has brought more women to the A/V side — perhaps because there are actual college courses being offered? Although I think these women are mostly on the end-user side within the corporations and/or universities.

JW: Please tell us about your business, it’s history, how you’ve evolved, what market you serve and what you do for the AV industry?

MS: Sapphire Marketing is a manufacturer’s representative in the AV/IT market, supporting both commercial and residential integrators, specifiers and users in the northeast. We celebrated our twelvth year in business this past January. Since I’m responsible for both the commercial and residential space, I have separate sales forces covering each market. I pride myself on having the most experienced, knowledgeable and resourceful salespeople in the industry. And of course, I have women in both channels! I also have a small office staff to handle inside sales support for the dealers, and another person who runs the company from an administrative standpoint. One of those women, Lainie Mataras, has a very important and unique role for a manufacturer’s rep. She is Sapphire’s official consultant liaison, a position most of my manufacturers’ don’t even have. This is such an important position for us, as many of the global, influential consultants have headquarters in the northeast. Prior to joining Sapphire seven years ago, Lainie spent 14 years at Crestron, primarily dealing with the consultant community, so she is very well known and respected by all.

We support and attend all of the national industry trade shows, and I’m a member of InfoComm, CEDIA, NSCA, CEA and of course, Women in AV and Women in CE. I’m on the board of directors and the membership chairperson of IPRO, a professional sales representative organization. I’m very passionate about my support and endorsement of symbiotic relationships between independent manufacturer’s reps, and the manufacturers who hire them.

JW: How do you see the AV industry in being welcoming and/or encouraging women? What, if anything, do we need to do to bring or open the possibilities for women to want to join us and make a career of AV?

MS: When I first started, and even now to a certain extent, I struggled with my male clients who would preface our conversations with “How are your kids?” or, “Sorry to bother you with a business question, but…” I then decided that although it was great that I was ‘friends’ with my clients, but I needed to present a more professional front so they would respect my position as a businessperson. And I knew they didn’t really care about my kids anyway, nor would they ever preface a conversation with a male counterpart with the same question.

I think companies need to invest in intern programs to recruit bright young women, and look to the local colleges and universities to recruit candidates. Some of these kids will even work for free in exchange for college credit and to build up their resumes. Target the MIS, Engineering, Business, Theater departments — anything that involves IT, communication, facilities, etc.

I also think that now’s a great time for women to enter the field as it’s become much more mainstream – who can actually ‘survive’ in today’s fast-paced information world without having a fairly decent understanding of how computers & tablets work, IT networks, streaming content, cloud-based services etc.?  Even our kid’s schools are promoting a BYOD agenda.

Many of the women I encountered throughout my career were generally on the end-user side, and most of them came from the production or broadcast arena. Today, the majority of women I meet come from the business and/or IT channel. One of my closest industry friends, Elizabeth Taaffee Collins from Sonic Foundry, actually worked for the Venture Capital company that invested in them. She had a business degree, along with an innate understanding of technology, which are a very powerful combination.

JW: You are elite in being involved in both the consumer and professional side of our industry. What are the differences, similarities, and where do you see the two markets headed?

MS: Elite — more like masochistic!? It’s like running two entirely separate companies. The dealer channels think and react differently, the competitive landscapes are totally different, ‘best practices’ are totally different, and the personnel needed to be successful are also totally different. What’s similar is the use of technology to automate, communicate, entertain and be more productive.

When I first started and couldn’t afford two separate sales teams, it was a disaster! The dealers hated my reps, and vice versa! Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I now have salespeople supporting both markets (including very competent women in each team of course), which makes it even more interesting, as the worlds are beginning to collide.

There has always been the situation when the ‘rich guy’ wanted his or her ‘home guy’ to do their boardroom, or an executive wanted his or her ‘work guy’ to do their home, but the boundaries seem to be blurring now. I’ve heard the term ‘light commercial’ used to describe some of the new work the residential dealers are doing, like sports bars, clubs, retail, etc. But I have a fair amount of them who have also progressed into serious commercial integration and conferencing projects as well.

I’m fortunate in that I’m able to leverage one channel over the other, based on what’s going on in the real world. For example, after September 11th there was a lot of ‘nesting,’ and people wanting to spend more time in their homes, which resulted in them spending more money for entertainment, security and comfort. The commercial business was at a standstill.

After the ‘crash’ of ’08, there were less Wall Street bonuses to go around, which meant less money being spent on luxury or entertainment items. We did, however, see an increase in lighting, HVAC and shading automation systems because they saved energy, which was satisfying from both a financial and social standpoint. In the commercial world, the Analog Sunset provided us with huge opportunities as corporations and universities rushed to become digitally compatible with the systems they needed to communicate with in the future.

Both channels have their challenges and struggles when immersed in each other’s worlds. I think it’s hard for a commercial dealer to deal with a homeowner in his/her personal space, since they’re used to dealing with employees of a company who aren’t personally invested in their workspaces. And I think it’s frustrating for a residential dealer to deal with purchasing agents, ‘low bid’ mentalities, and often times having to work through general contractors, etc. in a commercial project to get paid.

JW: Most importantly, you won the 2013 Women in CE Award for your achievements and leadership in our industry. What does it mean to you to be recognized, what would you like people to know about being a what it takes to be a women leader in our industry, and what advice do you have for women who want to follow in your footsteps?

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2013 Women in CE Legacy Awards

MS: Initially, I was intimidated by the four other women who were honored along with myself for this award, because they worked for huge billion dollar corporations and associations. But then I realized how cool it was that our “niche” market was actually being recognized and applauded!

My advice would be if you have a passion for the technology or business side  — you should absolutely pursue the industry. People are still surprised when I open my mouth and spew my technical bits and bytes of wisdom about a product or an application. Right now, technology is hot, and so much more mainstream than it was when I started. iPads, Android, smart appliances, etc. are just a fact of everyone’s lives.

As much as you or I don’t want to hear this, residential dealers are often looking for women salespeople because of the end-user wife influence over the decision-making process for their home. Yes, the majority of the spouses are still women, who stereotypically hate ugly speakers, displays and wall ‘acne.’ There have been quite a few very successful female salespeople who can influence the buyer and sell the benefits of all the nasty stuff their husbands want to install in their home.

From a personal standpoint, there were definitely bumps along the way — like the time my high school daughter defiantly replied, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up…”a housewife so I can be home with my kids, and my husband will make all themoney.” Ouch! Insert knife in back, add salt and turn slowly…  The happy ending to that is, she graduated college with high honors, and was recruited by multiple firms to work in supply chain (normally a male-dominated position), and is currently happily working, excelling in all she does and making good money.  Life is about balance. I made the decision that I would be a better mother if I had a career outside of the home, and I still think it was the best decision I made for my family and me. Technology is exciting, it’s what our kids and society are weaned on, it’s mainstream, it’s a necessity and it’s cool.

JW: What advice would you have for women who want to be a business owner such as yourself, what do they need to know and do?

MS: My best advice is to play to your strengths, and hire the experts to do the rest. I have very talented business people that take care of the operations of the company, which frees me up to do what I love the most — working with my employees and customers to help solve problems and challenges they might be having. Hire the best people you can afford, and make sure they have the same passion and work ethic as you do. They are the face of your company, and can make or break your next opportunity. Although I love all my employees equally, my women employees are my most organized and responsible with reports, return calls, etc.

I had no formal training or experience in running a business; I just ‘borrowed’ the practices I learned from my prior bosses and applied the ones that motivated me when I was an employee. My basic motto is to treat my employees the way that I liked to be treated as an employee, and all will be good.  So far, so good.

You have to take risk to get the reward.

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sapphire-0313It couldn’t be more fitting for Women’s History Month to have such an amazing woman and business owner to teach us you can do whatever you want and that you will make mistakes along the way, but, with an awesome sense of humor — everything will work out!

To learn more about what Marla and Marketing Sapphire can do for you, visit http://www.sapphiremarketing.com and find them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/SapphireMkt