First things first: How did you get started in the AV Industry?
In 1989 my love for AV equipment began. I saved my bag of coins and, with the help of my parents, purchased a Sony Walkman, that I later traded for a CD player with an anti-skip feature (it still always managed to skip). I would ride my bike one-handed around the neighborhood blasting my father’s Beach Boys tracks on it. Since I was still a kid, my parents were obviously pretty upset about the possibility of me being hit by a car with earbuds in – so of course I convinced Santa to buy me a Huffy Street Rocker with built-in handlebar, AM/FM tuner and speaker.
Fast forward several years. Old enough now to shovel snow and mow lawns, I eventually saved enough money to purchase demo Technics equipment from Sears and Wards to piece together my own system. I had a 50 disc Sony CD changer loaded with about three discs that were always on repeat. I wired six speakers off of one receiver and surrounded myself with sound. It was a big deal getting my first color TV, too: my father took me to the Baltimore Gas & Electric Store where he got his company discount, and I became the proud owner of a 13” Color RCA TV.
I eventually grew out of my bedroom as the boxes seemed to keep appearing. I would make excuses to my mother about how good these equipment deals I found were, that I couldn’t pass them up. When my parents finished our basement I moved my bedroom and gear downstairs with plenty of room to sprawl out. Over the years the TV grew in size and the gear improved. I’d just paid for my first car and needed more money for insurance and gas, so my brother got me an interview at Sears for seasonal help in the electronics department. I outsold full-time employees there on a part-time basis; I was passionate about the gear so sales came easy, and I enjoyed surrounding others with big screens, the first flat panels, and what I thought was incredible sound.
Later in college I was approached by an employee of Tweeter and asked to send a resume in. When I started working there I was introduced to a whole other world of much better sound, gear, cables, and more. I soaked up everything like a sponge and grew with the company into management.
Sadly the housing downturn started to close doors at Tweeter. Having heard of this much cooler place called Gramophone, I looked into it and I sent a resume to Brian Hudkins. Yet again, I thought I knew it all, and wow, was I amazed at all of the equipment that had existed, that I had only dreamed of. I remember walking through the Timonium store saying “wow, this is like a scene from a 007 movie.” I tried to hide my amazement from Brian; I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t clearly aware this stuff existed.
When I started at Gramophone Brian’s brother Jeff took me under his wing and showed me the proper “way” of Gramophone. I knew I had landed at the right place, I knew our team was magical and I was amazed at the caliber of the finished products we delivered. Several years later as Jeff was winding down his career here and preparing for retirement, I was hired to run the Timonium store. Brian worked with me over the years on running the business, and teaching me the ways of our industry and the importance of our clients. One day I built up enough courage to ask Brian what his plans for the future were, and if there could be a way that I could be part of the plan to run Gramophone for the next generations.
I’ll leave the fun business side out, but we proudly put together a plan to make that possible. My passion has never let up, my drive has only increased, and my mission to deliver the coolest stuff remains my focus for the next forty years. Onward and up.
We recently expanded to Gaithersburg. What events facilitated this?
We knew that there was a large client draw in the Northern Virginia and D.C. market. We were spending a lot of time behind the steering wheel, and our technicians were spending a lot of time commuting from our Timonium location south. We started to look at the void in the area, and we knew that clients were seeking a higher level of service, and a quality integrator with a brick and mortar showroom. I sought to deliver a comfortable shopping experience for our clients and partners to experience amazing sound and technology that they would otherwise have no way of finding. Our mission was to show how technology and design can live under the same roof. This was just not present since the exit of several other companies over the past 10 years.
We knew that clients wanted exactly what we had to offer so we saw a phenomenal opportunity. The new design center is more than just an expansion for us, it’s more than just offering exactly what we did at our other two locations. I think it was most meaningful because we fully built the store and design center on our own. From the electrical, to the design, to the actual buildout and construction; that space is so near and dear and important to us because we can look at the quality of the finished result and point clients and industry partners and say, “look at what we have to offer, look at how awesome this is.”
We used to primarily sell Audio / Video products. What made our transition to automation, design & build and new divisions possible?
Our clients who we did work in their homes for, they would say “You did such an amazing job, I love your team and love the way you deployed the system in my house, I’ve got this conference room or need at my office and I’m just not very comfortable with the integrators that are out there, would you take a look at doing this for us?” We knew that the residential AV and commercial AV world were slightly different, and if you approached them in the exact same way you may not have a good result. So we sought to grow the new commercial division; we looked for professionals that had lived in that sector for a long period and convinced them to come help us build this for Gramophone. We felt that if we brought in the right resources on the system design side, and found the right directors for sales, it would be a logical expansion for us.
The same holds true for our new Electrical division and Design & Build. Clients for years would come to us and they would say “I don’t have a designer, I don’t have an architect, I don’t really know where to start but I do know I want one of your amazing systems in my house; how do I get there, and what are the steps I need to take?” And for years we would do all of the design work and pull the ultimate end result, but we’d say, you need to go find someone to do the construction, somebody to go do the electrical to make our vision a reality. And we saw that clients really just didn’t know where to start: we were forcing them to be project managers, forcing them to find people as reliable as us and it just really wasn’t turnkey. So we decided you know what, let’s make this super simple for our clients, let’s bring our resources in house so that this can be a turnkey process.
Clients now sign one contract, and deal with one individual that manages their project and sees to it that their final outcome is exactly the way we designed and proposed out of the gate. Our clients love this: we’re getting a lot of repeat business and referrals and just a level of appreciation [that it’s] this easy to take on pretty large scale projects with such a fast turnaround time from start to finish with a high level of execution. Of course we work with and encourage the use of local professionals, other designers and architects where appropriate, and we can either be the whole team for a client or part of the team, so it’s important to realize that our existing relationships with local business owners, other professionals, builders etc. are still very important to us. And when we have the right project we will still lean on them for their expertise. Otherwise if the client doesn’t have any ties or doesn’t know where to start, and the project is within our scope, we’ll handle it all within house.
Are there more divisions / expansions we can look forward to in the near future?
Really what we’re going to work on now is refining processes to provide the best customer service and the best support of our systems. We think the logical expansion into Design & Build, electrical, and commercial audio and video really rounds out what Gramophone has to offer. One of our goals in the future might be to construct a "Gramohome," which is a ground-up house completely built by Gramophone, designed by Gramophone, wired by Gramophone with an elaborate Gramophone audio video system in it. That’s not a next year plan; but it is a goal that could be close.
What do you think have been our biggest achievements so far?
Voice control technology, for sure. We just helped a client be able to control his whole home with his voice, from AV to lighting and shades, using technology by some of our premiere automation brands like Lutron, Control 4 and Crestron. Frankly it’s revolutionary… Imagine the good we could do for a client who was disabled or had other medical limitations that they needed a voice controlled system. It goes to show that the work we do is inaccessible to no one. That’s really an amazing thing that we’re proud of.
What are your goals for Gramophone?
So my goal in leading Gramophone, and my drive to pick up upon what Brian Hudkins started in this wonderful company, was to basically carry this amazing team forward for the next forty-five years. This year marks our 45th year of doing business, it’s very special to us. My goals are to provide the coolest AV systems, incredible sound systems, and to continue deploying the best equipment out on the market. I take a simple stance that just seems to be lacking from others these days… Take the best possible care at all times of your employees and your clients, provide a level of customer service that's second to none, cut no corners, and conduct every installation with professionalism; It was also important to me to provide our employees a home that they knew they could dedicate themselves to and retire from when it is their turn forty years from now.
How do you see Gramophone and its place in the industry looking 20 years from now?
I think Gramophone's on the forefront of really changing the definition of our industry. As I tour the country and talk with other integrators and other professionals around the U.S., there’s really nobody doing effectively what we are doing as a whole. The ecosystem we're offering to our clients and industry partners, and the level of execution that we have, I don’t see anybody closely matching or mirroring; I think we’re on the forefront of just an awesome awesome thing that I’m really excited about. Twenty years from now it’s hard to say where anyone will be, but the cool thing is we’re a small enough company that we can clearly turn the ship and navigate anything we see coming at us; we can refine processes and we’re deeply rooted in audio video, sound systems. That’s our core, and brick and mortar, we’ll always be true to that. These other areas are really important to us, but the neat thing is that if there's any growth opportunity or unforeseen downturn, we’ve cross-trained our employees to handle all aspects of what we do. Yes, the guy hanging drywall knows how to setup a router. Pretty neat!
Anything else you want me to know?
Being the leader of such an incredible team is very humbling. It’s a really cool experience getting to bring fresh ideas, concepts, and energy to the table with the diversity of our staff. I can’t explain what it’s like to lead a small business and I encourage everyone to come check us out, see what we’re all about, take a tour of our showrooms, have us out at their homes and really just get a taste of what our teams have to offer. We are so unique in our offerings and I don’t think people understand what they can have, and that they don’t have to pay a significant premium for us to change their lives. Shop local. Shop Small. And deal with a company that truly cares. Our average length of employment is 20 plus years, and I’m going to make sure that number continues to grow!