The Integrator's Voice
Custom A/V installer shares his experience in building a successful custom installation company
- By Leslie Stevens
- May 01, 2006
GETTING started in the A/V industry isn't easy. There are setbacks and time constraints that get in the way. It's determination and a belief in one's self that can truly drive a person to success. For John Gilmore, the road proved a little rocky at times, but the reward at the end was sweet and prosperous.
Q. How did you first get into the electronics industry?
A. My career choice originally began when I was 17 years old. I was hired as a salesperson for a retail chain of stores selling items such as camcorders, ceiling fans and audio/video equipment. I thoroughly learned about the products not only for the sales aspect, but also to be able to answer more technical questions regarding repairs and mechanics of the items. It was important to me to not only earn a living, but also to provide the consumers with necessary information and ensure they got a fair deal on the products that best suited them.
Q. How did you move beyond your sales position to gain more experience?
A. I quickly gained the attention of the president of the company as my work ethics and skills were displayed. My affiliation with custom projects came as I transferred to another store location in the Inland Empire where my position was a sales specialist. I noticed that about 50 percent of the large projects that were sub-contracted out to a custom installer had a poor outcome because the work was poorly performed or would not get completed. Therefore, I felt that this left a negative reflection on me because I sent my satisfied customers to these individuals who would "drop the ball." I then took all of my jobs into my own hands and began doing the installations myself. This way, I would be involved from start to finish. After hours, my friend Steve Curley and I would install the products.
We trained ourselves through reading, research, technical support, hands-on, manufacturer reps and educational courses. Soon after, Joel Hunter, another friend of mine and employee of the company, also began doing installs. One day, a customer came into the store to speak to the owner and praise the work that Steve, Joel and I were doing. This caused an unexpected turn, as the owner demanded that Joel and I immediately discontinue any installations and only focus on sales. It was my belief then, as it still is today, that large retail stores only focus on dollars, sales, what items they have overstocked that they need to push to clear space in the warehouse, and they see customers as a number.
Q. How and when did you decide to go at it alone and why?
A. I enjoyed the custom work more than sales alone -- it offered me more interaction with the customer and challenges. So, I proposed a business venture to my boss that involved continuing in sales and also doing the custom installs, which he would receive 50 percent of the profit from. My boss wanted 90 percent of the profit and strongly felt that there was not a high demand in the custom market. After careful evaluation, I decided to take a leap of faith, quit my job and begin my own company. I was grateful for the experience my employer had given me and skills I had learned, but it was time to move on. Mind you, I was 21 years old, married, had a mortgage, my wife was finishing college and I had been making $80,000 to $100,000 annually. Therefore, this was a tough move. My wife, Deanna, supported my decision and helped me get organized, answer phones and prepare taxes while I began networking to get jobs.
Q. How did you start landing your jobs?
A. Soon after getting started, there was a large fire in Kinneloa Canyon in Pasadena, Calif. My stepmother, Robin, who was an insurance adjuster, introduced me to KJI Construction. I was hired to work alongside them in the re-building of these homes. Needless to say, I never looked back or regretted my decision. My friend, Steve Curley, then left his landscape and irrigation company to come work with me; his nickname is "MacGyver" for being so inventive. I then hired Brett Nutter, who was my race mechanic at the time; he is the "neat freak" of the team.
In 1995, I received another big break when Matt Barlow (then with Bose Corp.) contracted my services for a whole-house system for an actress from the television show "Friends." She was very pleased with the quality of our work and professionalism, so she then referred us to others. Elite Custom Audio Video then began working with a lot of high-profile individuals such as professional athletes, musicians, actors, actresses, producers and owners of major corporations.
Q. Why did you decide to open a showroom?
A. When were hired to do work at the Vidal Sassoon Academy, we then began concentrating on commercial contracts, as well as residential. Many celebrities want and expect the best of everything. It was clear that we had to become an authorized dealer for Runco International, although this would be a challenge because of their strict dealer specifications. My MK Marketing rep worked with me on obtaining this goal, which included having to open a showroom. I couldn't sleep for days, worrying about the increased expenses and overhead, but I knew it was necessary to prove myself an asset in this industry. So again, with a deep breath and faith in my team, in 1998 we moved in into a 2,000-square-foot showroom that was by appointment only.
Q. Where is the standing of Elite Custom Audio Video today?
A. Within a year of that showroom, we had grown out of our space and moved to our current location, which is a 7,000-square-foot showroom complete with a Eqyptian tomb-themed theater in Montclair. We became an authorized Runco dealer, Sam Runco took me under his wing and helped me with anything I needed, including business advice. We also became a dealer for Revel, Paradigm, Rotel, SpeakerCraft, Bryston, Integra and more.
We now have a team of nine. We display examples of the services we ourselves build and provide. We find it important to take the time to listen to our customers' wants and needs. A system is then designed specifically to fit those needs. We take the "prescription" approach as opposed to selling what's in stock or what is in old inventory. Our sales staff and installation crew make great efforts to stay educated and knowledgeable on the current trends and technology. We focus on quality of products and customer service. We strive to stay a notch above the competition and offer services that only a small number of companies are capable of. We are state licensed contractors, Cedia certified, ISF certified and THX certified.
As for me, personally, I generally work six days a week. Sunday is reserved for family and rest. I start about 7 a.m., get to the store, make sure installers are ready for their jobs, sell projects, hold meetings, meet with reps, do calibrations on the high-end jobs, do job walks and general overseeing of operations. I then end my day between 7 to 9 p.m. I also supervise the out-of-state job sites and attend continuing education classes. I play softball once a week and help coach my son and daughter's little league teams. Lately, I have been able to take day or weekend get-aways and vacations because I have a great team to take over and continue operations smoothly.