My Memories of Dr. Sidney Harman

4/13/2011 5:38:27 PM

by Michael Heiss

Hearing this morning of the passing of Dr. Sidney Harman, I was struck by the fact that this was news some of us thought would never come. Youthful in action and thought, it seemed as though he would outlive us all. Sadly, that is not to be.

Sidney Harman 
Dr. Sidney Harman

The rare combination of an astute businessman who was schooled in physics, yet an accomplished man of arts and letters, he was unique in his ability to combine those talents and more to create the company that bears his name and carries forward a vision of excellence.

A world-class public speaker, almost always without notes, though one could really say a great storyteller, it was always a marvel to hear him reach into a seemingly endless collection of stories to make a point or quote from literature or the speeches of historical figures at the drop of a hat. At the same time, this was a man who quietly backed up a public persona with philanthropy, endowing the Harman Writer-In-Residence Visiting Professorship at his alma mater, New York’s Baruch College, founding a major arts center in Washington DC, among other charitable ventures.

A demanding boss, Dr. Harman paid attention to detail from the appearance of products or their technical and performance specifications to the words used to describe them. He expected that same precision from those who worked for him, but to balance the sadness for his loss, I smile at an almost Puckish charm that showed the very humanistic side of this otherwise very astute CEO. Two examples of that come to mind that make me appreciate having had the opportunity and the honor to have known and worked for him.

While Dr. Harman demanded that same precision from his employees, he also understood and appreciated them, as the experience of the oft-cited “Bolivar Experiment” shows. On a personal basis, I recall a business review where in the middle of a story to make a point, I backed myself into a corner by quoting from a book by an advertising executive, but I just couldn’t remember the man’s name. Another CEO would have hung me out to dry for this and ask how I could forget the fact. Instead, seeing that I knew but simply had a brain freeze, Dr. Harman stared at me but then mouthed the right name. When I repeated it to the others in the room I saw a smile on a face that was normally stern in such meetings.

More than a few years ago, when the Consumer Electronics Show was a summer event in Chicago, Harman Consumer took over the Wrigley Mansion as its exhibit rather than display its wares on the show floor. The elegance of the project was pure Harman, both as an expression of the vision of the man and the company he created. I’m reminded of how unique a person he was by thinking back to my demo to him there of a high-end home theater system in the early days of multichannel sound.

I played a scene from “Wrath of Kahn” where Ricardo Montablan quoted Hamlet before being blown to bits in an explosion, which demonstrated decoding accuracy and the power of the subwoofers. After the lights went up, there were the expected questions, comments, and suggestions about every aspect of the demo from the picture and sound to the business metrics. Getting up to leave, Dr. Harman suddenly stopped and said in an almost Columbo-like manner, “Mike, I have one more thing I have to say…” I was expecting to be called to task on something, but was instead amazed to hear, “Good demo.” But, then with his serious demeanor turning to a bit of a grin, he continued by telling me “…but do you realize you’ve just blown up the last Shakespearian scholar in that galaxy?” Only Dr. Harman could temper the comments and critiques with humor to let you know you did well.

Perhaps the last of the founders of the modern audio industry is gone, and condolences go out to his family. We’ll not see his like again.

Residential Systems contributing editor Michael Heiss has worked with various Harman Consumer companies for more than 22 years. During those years he had numerous interactions with Dr. Harman.


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