Brian Hudkins was a 20-something-year-old audiophile with a passion for music and the stereo business, as well as an idea that would change his industry and community forever. Since then, Hudkins’ idea has evolved into two nationally recognized showrooms, one of the top ten largest custom retailers in the United States, and Audio Video International’s Retailer of the Year for over 10 consecutive years. From selling great sound systems to audiophiles in the late 70s to ringing in the 21st century by providing the best home entertainment and automation, Gramophone has been meeting the needs of its clients since day one. Since then, Hudkins has become well known in the Consumer Electronics Industry for creating a business model that has stood the test of time, as well as become an industry standard.
Gramophone started out in a 3,000 square foot space, housing a warehouse space above the showroom, offices, and an in-house repair and service shop. As of today, Gramophone consists of three showrooms in Timonium, Columbia and Gaithersburg. The Timonium Location houses both the primary warehouse as well as the Design Center, staffed with a full-time interior-designer, lighting designer and technician, CAD technician, systems engineer, full-time installation staff, and programmers.
So how did such a small company stand the test of time and grow to include not just audio technology, but home theaters and television, interior design, general contracting, and smart home automation? The answer lies in the man behind it all, Brian Hudkins.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN HUDKINS
First things first: Why this business, and why that name?
The name’s easy. There’s a magazine in England called Gramophone that I was reading at the time because they reviewed music, and they also reviewed equipment. It wasn’t regularly sold in the U.S. so it was a rather uncommon name but it also, I realized, was the name of the very first music machine that Thomas Edison invented. The name came primarily from the reading this magazine and going “oh, I like that name, that’s cool.” At one point I was like, “It’s the 1970s, we’ll call it The Electric Gramophone!” Then I realized that sounded a little too faddish. We decided not to be The Electric Gramophone and just be Gramophone.
The idea of getting into a business like this began as I just loved music, and my first interest was getting into selling record albums, and I convinced myself that that was really good to do. But I also really loved the equipment - I was an equipment junkie. The first ever stereo I bought was from Montgomery Ward. I used to have by my bedside a Montgomery Ward record player that you could stack 6 records on, and I’d go to bed at night playing music from the early 1960s and listening to all that.
In 1964 or ‘65, a friend of mine had an Allied Radio catalog, a huge thick book. I picked up the catalog and asked my friend if I could take it - I don’t know why he even had it - but I found these parts about resistors and tubes but they had a part about just stereo equipment and I thought, “This was so cool!” And there were all these specifications that made no sense because they were all these acronyms - even to this day people struggle with them - but I would sit there reading it saying “Let me figure that out,” so I got into it. I was already collecting music but I got into the equipment part reading the catalog and learning about it, and I started saving up my money.
I was cutting lawns in summer time out of school - I was writing off to all the mail order places trying to figure out, “what do I want?” I’d read that catalog, started buying magazines. There was a magazine that was Hifi Stereo Review, then Stereo Review, and now is Sound & Vision Magazine - but I’d read the back and see advertisers saying, “write to us for a quote on your system.” And so I would send off all these letters, and finally I ordered my system. About a month goes by and it feels like maybe 10 years - I was 14 at the time. The system shows up. I had the speakers, I had the amplifier, I had the turntable - but it wasn’t just the
turntable, it came in a box and there was a wooden base that you had to mount to the turntable, then there was another box that had the cartridge with the needle in it and the wires, and there were 4 tiny little wires and the cartridge wasn’t mounted (nowadays most come mounted). And I had no clue how to mount the cartridge. It was 1966; a cartridge cost $60, and I was terrified I was going to destroy this thing. But I managed to get some tweezers - it worked, I’m listening to music.
Before all this I started hanging out at the local places that sold stereo equipment. There was a place called Lafayette Radio; they had stores all around the country and they had one right down at the bottom of the street. There was a guy I met there, Herb Johnson, and I’d hang out there and in his spare time he’d introduce me to all this new stuff. He thought it was neat that there was this young kid interested in all of it. At the time, when you wanted to buy turntables, you would buy a turntable and for a penny more you could get a cartridge, or for five dollars more you could get a better model. Herb said, “I used to work at a store in Washington DC where they wouldn’t just charge a penny for a cartridge, they’d charge the price of the cartridge. But they would mount it on a turntable, so you wouldn’t have to mess with those wires, and they’d check it out to make sure that it met its specifications, because a lot would come through and they weren’t doing that - they really provided a high level of service.” So he’s telling me all about this and so I asked what is this place, and he said Meyer & Co. And all I was accustomed to was going to Lafayette Radio where you bought it, took it home and that was it.
The point of some of this, bringing it back to us, is through Herb Johnson I learned about specialty and high service, and not do-it-yourself business. And that there was a whole world I was yet to be introduced to that was not do-it-yourselfers, but was there to do anything and everything you need to advise you on what you needed or help you get it all set up. And that to me was completely fascinating that there was a world there, and I had yet to see it - I had only heard about it.
So you decided to create it?
So fast forward a few years and I’ve gotten more and more into it, I’ve graduated from high school, haven’t figured out what I really wanted to do, didn’t want to go to college right away. So I worked for a couple of years for my dad, who had an engineering business, and I worked as a surveyor and I spent all my money - I’m living at home - either buying record albums or stereo equipment.
In the meantime I discovered a store over in the Catonsville area called House of Sound and I met the manager of the store, Bill Frick. Bill was very helpful to me and I would go in there spending my money that I was earning working for my dad, and he was doing what I had first heard about with Meyer & Co where [they said] “Hey, I can get this set up for you perfectly,” and he realized I was really into it and ultimately he worked with the owner of that store to persuade him to hire me. I guessed they figured “well, if he won’t spend money with us we can take advantage of the fact that he’s a young kid with hair down to his waist.” This is 1972 now, and in 1972 there were a lot of people who looked like me and they were all buying stereo equipment, and they were buying it for their college dorm rooms. And these were all older guys, and those were all hippies, so they figured I’d be a good person to put out in front of the world, and they hired me. I started doing deliveries and setting up equipment and helping people and I’d learned enough along the way because this is now
6 years since I started reading the Allied Radio catalog. They start showing me things, I start learning things, and the owner of that store started to appreciate that I brought a young person’s perspective into the business. He started letting me work with the manufacturers’ reps and helping them pick out new product lines and helping them make selections and they started letting me do that very early on. I thought “this is a great business,” and that’s pretty much when I decided I wanted to get into the business for myself. And part of it was just a certain cockiness that I frankly always had - I never envisioned that I would ever be able to work for someone else. My dad had his own business, I sort of assumed that well, that was what you did, you had your own business. So not too long after I started working at the House of Sound I said to the owner, “hey, if you ever decide to sell this let me know, I’ll buy it from you.” I’m 20 years old! But I’ve already decided I’m going to be in this business and that I’m gonna have my own company and maybe buy this guy’s company - hell, I had no idea.
How did Gramophone expand from audio to include audio, video, automation, etc?
So in 1981 we start to become a favored child, if you will, in the area; we start to get really good brands added into the mix, we’ve grown some in terms of the business we’re doing. In 1982, someone came knocking on the door and said “hey, I’d like to talk to you about PVI-” Pioneer Video Incorporated. And I’d been reading about it - Pioneer had, a couple of years before, introduced the first shiny silver disc - a laser video disc. And I was completely fascinated at the time with laser video discs because while VCRs had come out, the quality of picture and the quality of sound in VCRs was terrible, and Gramophone was never involved with that because we always were about quality performance in the audio side of the world. In 1982, PVI was looking to really get involved with specialty dealers like Gramophone so we started selling video equipment because now there was high fidelity video equipment. We had laser video discs, we had televisions that were designed as the first high resolution TVs that looked substantially better than typical TVS did, especially when you were playing the video disc. So, now we’re audio and video in 1982.
Fast forward a couple years one of the brands we were selling was the Danish company Bang & Olufsen, the first company to introduce remote controls for a stereo system. And by itself, the idea of a remote control for a stereo, that’s a new idea in 1985. They took it one step further: not only was it a remote control, it was a remote control that could be used from room to room. And what this meant was we could put a stereo system in the main family room say of a house and said “would you like speakers in the other rooms, because all you have to do is take your remote control in there and you can press it to turn on the radio, change stations, play a CD, select tracks,” and now we’re installing music systems that spread entertainment throughout the house. So that’s 1985, we’re installing remote controlled music systems in people’s homes.
Then back in ‘86 we were doing marketing by mailing out newsletters, and in one of our newsletters we were talking about putting surround systems in people’s homes hooked up with people’s televisions. We started using a name for that, that the industry was advising us was not a good idea, that it was too confusing -
we called it “Home Theater” in our newsletter. And we were told “no, don’t call it home theater, don’t call it home theater” - well obviously, as we know, the industry decided to call it home theater. I’m not here representing that Gramophone invented the term, but just as we were early users of speakers mounted in walls, we were very early people calling these connected systems home theaters.
What challenges have you encountered?
First we were the new kid on the block and companies said “we’ll wait and see.” Then, when we earned our stripes with those companies, they came on board. The second was the arrival of Circuit City at the same time that we opened a second location in Columbia and had a momentary economic downturn in 1987 - the first economic downturn we went through was 1981 but that proved to be beneficial to us because we were survivors of that. The one in 1987, I think, more clearly defined for us that our best opportunity was focusing on delivering a high level of customer service to people who wanted quality performance and quality service all rolled into one. The do-it-yourself market was not where we could provide the best benefit to a customer, but rather the do-it-for-me customer, that clarified it for us. Then in 2008 when the economy truly went through, as the world now refers to it, the Great Recession, there were a lot of companies that didn’t make it through - it certainly wasn’t the easiest of times. I don’t know if there’s anything we can say besides that we were survivors of that time.
Did you ever think you’d be where you are today?
No. I didn’t. And a lot of what I’m going to say sort of goes back to my dad, who started as a surveyor and ultimately ended up having his own engineering company. And he said “I love being a surveyor, I loved being out there doing that, I could’ve done that for years. I certainly didn’t expect to make any money doing this but I never felt like I worked a day in my life because work is something maybe you don’t want to do.” So I’ve always been able to do what I wanted to do. This is what I set out to do - it was never set out to be “I want to become rich and famous” or anything like that, I just love this stuff. At some level I do remember now that there was this game plan that I said to myself, “I’ll make some money doing the stereo thing, then I’ll go back and be this English teacher that I started off to be.” That never was really meant to be. I probably would’ve been a terrible English teacher and I think I was pretty good at this business then. I think I found the right place for myself, but it was never, in my mind I don’t remember thinking strongly, “this is so I can become incredibly successful.” I was because I liked the stuff. Here I am having finished my cycle of building a business and I still sit here today and go “I love this stuff.” And I still enjoy finding out about the technology and to some extent bringing it to people. One of the joys I’m finding today is being able to share that, and try to remind people that you know, what this is, what we provide is something that people are going to enjoy for years and years and years. And it’s a reward for their hard work, and we get to provide it which is pretty awesome in itself, and I get to now share it and hope that the ideas that started this, that if you take really good care of customers one at a time, that that will be what you need to push things forward as much as anything. We want to be the company that constantly gets referred and I constantly want to remind ourselves that of course you take care of the customer, because they’re the ones who take care of us, ultimately.
Would you have done anything differently?
I don’t have any regrets. It would be incredibly cocky to say that there weren’t mistakes made along the way, but the one thing that I always thought to myself about my experience working for someone else, was that I didn’t necessarily learn what to repeat - I learned what not to do. So I think that mistakes are a much more valuable learning tool than getting it right.
One of my favorite books is a Malcolm Gladwell book, The Tipping Point, and it makes the point that success is in fact a combination of things. If you don’t think that luck plays a role in success then you really are too cocky, and yet if you think you can just be lucky and that’ll get you by for forty years, that’s not gonna work either. But when luck and hard work get put together… I’m very appreciative of the opportunity, I can tell you that. I hope that over the years that I did put in enough of the hard work to earn the good fortune.