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How I Got Into The AV Business

For some, AV has always been a passion; for others, it was a job that turned into something more. Either way, it seems that AV workers tend to have a better-than-average chance for a diverse biography than some of their professional peers from other industries.

For some, AV has always been a passion; for others, it was a job that turned into something more. Either way, it seems that AV workers tend to have a better-than-average chance for a diverse biography than some of their professional peers from other industries. Each one has a unique story to tell about how they've come this far in their AV careers. What are the common threads that tie this industry together, including interests, backgrounds, and beliefs that keep AV pros coming back for more day in and day out? Meet five folks who were kind (and crazy) enough to share how they got into the AV business.

Doug Hall, chief operating officer, The Whitlock Group

Doug Hall, chief operating officer, The Whitlock Group

Doug Hall, chief operating officer, The Whitlock Group

Doug Hall attended Virginia Tech and graduated in 1983 with a business degree. Little did he know that 20-plus years later he would be involved in the sales, marketing, and operations of The Whitlock Group, a growing systems integrator based in Richmond, VA. Hall began his career as a certified public accountant with Ernst & Young (E&Y). He spent 11 years in E&Y's Entrepreneurial Services Group working with growing companies. In this role, he acted as a business advisor on growth strategy, finances, mergers, and operations. It was during this time that Hall stumbled into his AV career. “One year, John Whitlock [founder of The Whitlock Group] received the Entrepreneur of the Year award given by my firm,” Hall says. “Soon after we met, John offered me the opportunity to join the company.”

Hall came aboard as chief financial officer in 1996 and spent his first four to five months evaluating potential acquisitions for The Whitlock Group. “Our current president, Kevin Thompson, was focused on the broadcast side of the business at the time,” Hall explains. “I got involved and tried to grow the AV business. I've also been the AV sales manager for the past nine years. Over the years, I have also moved over into operations, sales, and marketing — I'm not really involved in the financials anymore.”

Out of necessity, Hall brushed up on AV technology and went out on the road to conduct product demonstrations and presentations. “Although I didn't have an interest in AV before I joined The Whitlock Group, I've come to enjoy the various AV technologies and spending time with manufacturers to learn more about them,” Hall says. “Everything we do is so closely tied into a client's network that you also need to have an understanding of computer networking. AV is no longer just crafting a three-gun projector.”

Hall's eclectic experience has given him a better understating of how to succeed in the AV business. “I was already involved in business development and have found that my most crucial role has been business manager,” Hall says. “Success comes when you focus on hiring good people. For salespeople, we look for folks that are professional and understand the technology. It's most important that they're willing to learn. For technical people, a strong interest in the technology is needed as well as basic technical skills. Overall, a candidate needs interpersonal skills and can understand how to communicate with clients and co-workers.”

The Whitlock Group currently has 17 locations, 300 employees, and $75 million in sales.

Bruce Christensen, president, Business Media Inc.

Bruce Christensen, president, Business Media Inc.

Bruce Christensen, president, Business Media Inc.

Like many young men, Bruce Christensen was drafted in 1969, and went into the Naval Intelligence Group. After his first introduction to electronics, he spent three and a half years using and learning the equipment. Following his stint in the Navy, Christensen spent 15 years in the corporate world in sales and management for the banking and financial services industry. “My friend worked in sales for 3M Corp., and told me I should get into this new industry called computers,” Christensen muses. “He told me there was a huge demand for computer supplies to support the booming corporate, educational, and government computer sales.”

So in 1988, Christensen founded Business Media Inc. (BMI), in Lincoln, NE, with the intention of selling computer supplies such as laser printer toner and inkjet cartridges. As the computer industry matured, BMI enjoyed brisk sales and close customer relationships. In 1993, Christensen got another call regarding a new product called an LCD panel. The manufacturer sent him a demo unit of an LCD flat panel that sat atop the overhead projector. He took it to his biggest client in nearby Omaha, and they bought two panels that day.

“There were much better profit margins on AV product then, so from a business perspective it made sense to go in that direction,” Christensen says. “There was a natural crossover into selling AV products when the computer market matured and computer supplies became a commodity. Now our sales are 99.5 percent AV products and very little in the computer supplies.”

About five years ago, BMI saw another change in the marketplace. “AV products were becoming commodity products, much like what happened in the computer market,” he adds. “Pretty soon, a customer could now buy a quality projector for only a few hundred dollars. The equipment also became much more user-friendly.”

BMI began its AV installation group and started searching for talents like CAD engineers, project managers, and AV designers. “Everything is so software driven,” Christensen says. “For AV design, we're always looking for people with hands-on experience. For installation techs, we'll hire people with experience in the construction or electrical trades who we can then teach the technology of AV. The challenge is to find good people. However, what has prepared me is the opportunity to grow up with the AV industry and see the new technologies as they happen.”

Dave Crane, new market development director, SG Integration

Dave Crane, new market development director, SG Integration 

Dave Crane, new market development director, SG Integration 

Growing up, Dave Crane always had an interest in tinkering, a trait most AV professionals can appreciate. In Crane's case, he coupled his interest in audio with an education in business and electronics. After finishing his courses, he heard that a friend was working for a phone company that wanted to expand its paging business and delve into basic audio systems for schools and churches. Crane was offered a job in sales. “It was more like a job in cold-calling,” Crane says. “After realizing the limited growth potential, I contacted Superior Sound in Kansas City [a place where many audio industry greats like Robert Scovill got their start] to see if they would be interested in hiring me.”

In 1988, Superior Sound created a sales/system design position for him working with consultants and TV/broadcast clients. A few years later, a personal change brought him to Branson, MO. “When I went to work for Mark Morton at SoundsGreat, I was put in charge of the Branson office,” he says. “I was selling and installing large audio systems during the ‘Branson Boom' of the early 1990s.”

One of his installations was at the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre. Tabuchi, a master violinist, is an international hit on the Branson music scene. Crane joined the Theatre staff as the department supervisor for AV, which meant responsibilities ranging from video shoots for DVDs to working as FOH engineer for the live show. “During my five and a half years there, I learned the ins and outs of signal flow, rigging, and many other hands-on essentials,” Crane adds. “The theatre trusted me to bring in the right equipment, which meant I could work with the latest technology on the market.”

After working more than 2,500 shows during his tenure with Tabuchi, Crane then moved over to a sales position at a manufacturing rep firm for a bit of a breather. This position allowed him close contacts with a full range of AV manufacturers and provided an incredible learning opportunity on emerging products. Recently, Crane re-joined the SoundsGreat staff as the new market development director for its new AV installation division (SG Integration). “Our aim is to get into burgeoning AV markets like our Incredible Pizza account,” he says. “Incredible Pizza caters to families, church groups, and schools and offers simulation games for kids and adults as well as go-karts, bumper cars, bowling, and mini-golf. The AV system we designed and installed for them is completely networked. We can dial into any Incredible Pizza location in the country and troubleshoot their AV system.” SG Integration also has a strong customer base in the house of worship market with services ranging from AV installation to TV-quality broadcasts.

“SG Integration is an opportunity to get involved in high-tech AV systems, which is where the industry is headed. My position spans sales, system design, as well as hands-on work,” Crane says. “What has most prepared me for my career is my ability to be flexible in my thinking. You can't be too set in your ways, and you have to listen to the people around you.”

Ken Dickensheets, principal consultant/chief technology officer, Dickensheets Design Associates

Ken Dickensheets, principal consultant/chief technology officer, Dickensheets Design Associates

Ken Dickensheets, principal consultant/chief technology officer, Dickensheets Design Associates

Ken Dickensheets has had an interest in all things mechanical dating back as far as he can remember. At the age of two, he took apart his mom's sewing machine and put it back together by the time she told him to stop. At three and a half, he figured out that if he stood on the family's record player it would spin him around. “It was all downhill from there,” he jokes.

As principal consultant/chief technology officer, Dickensheets has some involvement in every project at the firm. His background includes a mix of music, physics, accounting, and electronics classes he attended while a student at Brigham Young University, Casper College, and the University of Wyoming. “My first paying job in AV was at a TV repair shop when I was 12,” Dickensheets says.

During his high school years, his local church acquired a new building. “The sound was never good so they asked me to take care of it,” he says. “Even though live sound equalization had not been developed, I cooked up a narrow-band filter to even out the system's response and get some feedback under control. I really had no idea of the scope of what I was doing at the time.”

As an adult, he worked in radio, TV, film, studio recording, and live sound. In 1971, Dickensheets discovered there was a career in acoustics and AV design; in 1974 he joined an acoustical design firm and formed his own company in 1985. “Common sense and the ability to communicate with people have helped me tremendously in my career,” he says. “On a daily basis, I also draw on some basic knowledge from technology classes I took at Casper College in Wyoming — courses like basic computer science, electronics, technical writing, and mechanical fabrication.”

Dickensheets maintains that the next generation of AV workers needs to broaden their interests and knowledge and learn to communicate clearly and effectively. “The consultant's role in particular is so spread out over many disciplines that he needs to be well-rounded so he can apply his skills in real-world situations,” Dickensheets says.

Per Haugen, founder (retired), General Communications

Per Haugen, founder (retired), General Communications

Per Haugen, founder (retired), General Communications

Five years after the liberation of Europe during World War II, Per Haugen and his family came to the United States from Norway. As an 18-year-old immigrant, Haugen found a job as a shipping and receiving clerk for an electronics company. A few years later, he was elevated to the installation crew working on audio systems. “Then the Korean War started, and I was drafted,” Haugen says. “Although I was not a citizen at the time, I was honored to serve our country.”

Upon his return, he went back to his install job and used the G.I. Bill to attend night school. In Norway, he had graduated from business courses and found that a degree in electronics would serve as the perfect complement. In 1957, Haugen and a business partner founded General Communications. “The other company had gone bankrupt,” Haugen explains. “We were standing there wondering what to do, so we thought we could form our own company and avoid the mistakes we had seen.”

In addition to his partner's capital, Haugen borrowed $300 from his mother-in-law. Soon the pair began soliciting audio installations all over the country. “I remember crawling through a terrible basement in El Paso, TX, filled with snakes and spiders, wondering why I didn't take a desk job downtown,” Haugen jokes. “The answer to that is that I liked the work. AV is one of the most important things in a building. For example, in a church the most important element is the message. It was challenging and satisfying to build a sound system to help people hear the message.”

Haugen has also been involved with NSCA for the past 20 years — 18 of which he served in various roles within the organization such as a member of the board of directors and former president. “I joined NSCA in its second year,” he says. “The expo was all of a dozen booths in a hotel. After my presidency, they asked me to help start their educational foundation. We all saw a common problem that companies were just taking talented installers from one another. With an educational path, we could help develop new talent.”

Haugen stresses that the next generation of AV professionals needs to rely on education, but also on a good dose of tenacity and determination. “I feel like I have lived the American dream,” he says. “I appreciate this country and its opportunities. I still believe this is the land of opportunity.”

Although officially retired, Haugen's drive still keeps him quite busy. He was the Norwegian attaché for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, and is actively involved in other charitable organizations.

Linda Seid Frembes is a freelance writer who began her AV career working for a loudspeaker manufacturer; it's been a great ride ever since. She can be reached at linda@frembes.com.

 


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