This past October, Niles Audio invited 30 of its top dealers and distribution partners to share their thoughts about current products and to make suggestions for the future. Dealer advisory meetings like these are fairly routine for manufacturers like Niles, but the months leading up to this particular gathering had been anything but routine for the Miami-based manufacturer.
Most of Niles Audio’s manufacturing challenges were tied to the performance of its IntelliControl ICS system.
A spate of dealer calls to Niles’ service department earlier that fall had convinced president Frank Sterns and director of marketing Mike Detmer that something was seriously wrong with their flagship IntelliControl ICS system.
“It started just around CEDIA,” Detmer remembered. “Dealers were saying, ‘This thing is breaking; it’s losing amplifier channels; it won’t take a firmware update…”
Loyal dealers, like Sean Rosen of Stamford, Connecticut’s County TV, initially tried to work through the problem with the Niles team, hoping to find a solution. “I really don’t believe they realized that they had a manufacturing problem at that time,” Rosen recalled.
Sterns and Detmer initiated a major quality, eventually learning that manufacturing defects resulting from a transition to RoHS-compliant lead-free soldering, combined with changes in suppliers used by their China-based manufacturers at the start of the recession, were the cause
Late last year Niles completely overhauled its quality control organization, adding a new quality director and staff, new inspectors in China, new test procedures, and new inspection procedures.
They also tried to reduce the impact of faulty products on their dealer network, providing them with extended billing and extra lines of credit.
“They took back and swapped out whatever affected units we had that the customer would have been unhappy having serviced,” Rosen said.
The process wasn’t without its fallout. At least one veteran dealer, Tom Stone of Stone-Glidden in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, dropped the ICS line. And yet, Stone says, he never questioned the company’s leadership or motives in trying to be a valued vendor to its dealer base. “We plan on maintaining our relationship with Niles, with a slightly different focus, by redoubling our efforts to sell better speakers across the board,” Stone said.
Robert Ridenour went from Niles dealer to one of its new employees, recently.
New Technology Goals
Mike Strange rejoined the company to help develop new Niles loudspeakers.
Next, Niles looked at how it could change the way it designed and manufactured products based on what it had learned in its quality review and during its Miami dealers meetings.
One common request was to find a way for ICS, which was built with satellite radio and iPod docking in mind, to connect to “cloud content” from Internet radio stations, Rhapsody, Napster, and Pandora, and to integrate with RF-controlled light switches and thermostats. Sterns and Detmer liked the idea, but needed new engineers for the initiative.
A Fresh Perspective
Although they had just hired former Magnolia/Best Buy employee Sarah Kelemen to serve as Niles’ new director of HR, Sterns and Detmer used their own instincts to call some former colleagues back to the company. “Frank said, ‘I need to make sure that the new products we’re creating have the right look and feel and the right customer appeal,’” Detmer stated.
Al Burdett will guide Niles Audio’s product plans
Sterns suggested bringing former director of marketing Al Burdett back to the Niles to oversee product development. “Al has an eye for delicate look and feel, and he communicates visually very well,” Detmer said. “He provides good messaging and understands customers.” Niles’ product roadmap is now Burdett’s responsibility, while Detmer remains focused on “getting the customers and keeping the customers.”
New Custom Speakers
Another goal, according to Detmer, will be expanding the Niles loudspeaker line to offer products with “high design appeal and high quality.” To lead that team, Niles asked another former employee, Mike Strange, to return to Miami after spending the last four years with Boston Acoustics.
“You’ll see new ceiling speakers, new garden speakers, things that look like little Malibu lights, a new revolutionary backcan that goes in new construction, but is also retrofittable,” Detmer noted of Strange’s department.
New Control Products
Mike Anderson will develop a digital bridge for ICS.
Next, Niles looked at its current control offerings, determined to expand the capabilities of IntelliControl ICS to control lights, thermostats, and front-door cameras. For that initiative, Sterns and Detmer asked senior product category manager for home systems, Mike Anderson, to help develop a digital bridge that would enable ICS to receive digital content. He also will lead efforts to develop a standalone digital music gateway device called DMG1 that integrates with the Niles ZR6. The first product from his team, however, will be an IM NET card for the ICS that enables it to play iTunes music files, Internet Radio, Napster, Pandora, and Rhapsody.
Also within the control sphere, Niles hired long-time dealer Robert Ridenour to serve as senior product category manager for “installation solutions.” Ridenour, the former owner of Connected Technologies in Colorado, moved his family to South Florida to oversee the development and advancement of Niles’ assortment of remote controls and accessories, IR systems, Cat-5 baluns, and switchers.
One the biggest challenges, Detmer said, will be building relationships between these new staff members and Niles dealers. Just like what proved to be the case at the company’s October dealer meetings when concerns were expressed and ideas were shared openly, open lines of communication are the key.
“That’s where the real honesty comes from,” Detmer concluded.