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The Return of Runco

I learned two things during my visit with Runco in Beaverton, Oregon, last week. The first was to stay away from the rainy Pacific Northwest this time of year if you’re susceptible to seasonal active disorder (SAD). The second (and more important) was that Runco is finally back on the right course. I know it’s not

I learned two things during my visit with Runco in Beaverton, Oregon, last week. The first was to stay away from the rainy Pacific Northwest this time of year if you’re susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The second (and more important) was that Runco is finally back on the right course.

I know it’s not news that Oregon is a little gloomy this time of year, but unless you saw Runco’s demo at CEDIA EXPO in September, then my proclamation that the company headed back toward a market-leader position in video products might come as a surprise.

Matt Christensen, Adam Schmidt, and Pippa Edelen during my tour of Runco’s Beaverton, Oregon, manufacturing facility. For a slideshow of my tour, click here.

Like a lot of people, I was beginning to wonder if Planar had purchased a lemon from Sam Runco in May of 2007. Even Runco’s biggest supporters told me at the time that Sam had a reason for selling when he did. Perhaps he had taken the company as far as he could take it? The speculation was that what Planar purchased was held together so tenuously by the Union City, California, Runco team, that Planar would never be able to keep it together. And then when Planar quickly moved the new “operating unit” from the Bay Area up to its Beaverton headquarters, many wondered if the heart had been ripped from Runco’s proverbial chest.

Then, Exuberance at EXPO
After a relatively long dark period, Runco finally began to turn the corner after its big “reveal” at CEDIA EXPO this fall, where its team showcased an 80-percent overhaul of its projection line based on a new lampless InfiniLight LED technology platform, as well as a completely new flat-panel product line featuring ambient-light-resistant OPAL technology for LCD and plasma. All of it left a lot of dealers buzzing after the show.

Here’s an example of how enthusiastic the response was at CEDIA: invitation-only appointments were made with attending dealers that the Runco team deemed the best of the best. A special promotion offered the first 50 dealers who wanted one, a new “Q” projector for their showroom, for $5,000. The response, according to Runco, was so overwhelming that the company sold 50 in the first half-hour of demos. The Runco team quickly huddled and decided to extend the generous offer to any dealer who wanted one.

“We’d scheduled the meeting times,” said senior product marketing manager Matt Christensen. “It wasn’t a dealer’s fault if they weren’t in the first 50 meetings or so. We thought it was only fair to extend the deal.”

By the end of their EXPO appointments, Runco had sold six times as many as budgeted (that’s 300 orders at $5,000 a pop). Now the Q-750i (with integrated video processor/controller) and Q-750d (with outboard DHD controller) are in full production and are shipping “in quantities” (ahead of schedule). Now apparently the evangelizing by at least 300 dealers also has begun in showrooms around the world.

New Leadership at the Helm
As Runco embarks today on a road show of sorts to present its QuantumColor Q-750i LED projector, as well as multiple new 1080p flat-panel displays with proprietary OPAL (Optical Path Alignment), and it’s ultra-bright VX-33i projector at events in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, Portland, and Denver, the company also will be “introducing” Adam Schmidt to its reps and dealers.

Without much fanfare about a month ago (they do it differently at public companies) Schmidt was promoted to general manager of the Runco team at Planar. The fresh-faced and enthusiastic Schmidt most recently served the Runco brand as director of inside sales and customer support, where he was on the frontlines learning what dealers liked and didn’t like about the transitioning brand.

He got his start at the company in June 2001, then progressed through a series of product management, product marketing, and services business development roles. At the time that Runco was acquired by Planar, he was the global director of customer service for the company. He says he spent a lot of his time on the Runco brand after that day.

“I was there for some of the challenges and opportunities that we saw right away with Runco,” he said.

A little over a year ago, Planar reorganized and “dis-integrated” what had been central operations functions across the company. That’s when Schmidt’s former role was parsed up into many different businesses, and he was asked to dedicate himself to the Runco business.

“I was running our customer support and inside sales team, but was also a member of the core leadership team for Runco,” he explained. “So I was pretty intimately involved with all core aspects of the business.”

Planar CEO Gerry Perkel was his immediate supervisor while serving as interim GM of the brand over the last year. In October, Perkel handed off that responsibility to Schmidt.

How Does It Feel?
If Schmidt’s enthusiasm for Runco is contagious, then “the Q” might replace H1N1 as the virus of the year… at least in the CEDIA channel. Here’s what Schmidt told me about his reaction to being promoted to Runco GM:

“Throughout my nine years at Planar, every time I was asked the question of where I wanted to be [in my career], I always said that I wanted to run a business. I consider myself a businessman first and foremost. So when this opportunity came along, I was thrilled because I really dig this market and these customers and products. To have the opportunity to play such a substantial leadership role at a time when we need strong leadership it was very rewarding, and I was and still am very excited to be in this position that I’m in.”

His enthusiasm was authentic and it also comes from a foundation of very strong new products.

My Second Demo
I was in a room full of jaded members of the consumer and trade press during CEDIA EXPO, when we all first learned about the Q and other new Runco products. In Beaverton, we ran through it one more time, at my pace.

My impression on both occasions was that these products were just as impressive or even more than products from “old Runco.” The difference this time around, however, was a new, more humble style from company’s people.

I always loved the old Runco team, but there was a certain swagger that bordered on arrogance during certain demos. They were on top and knew it. I think the current team, including Matt Christenson and chief product architect Bob Williams (who walked me through the products in Beaverton), talk the talk, but also let the products speak for themselves. And, I’ll acknowledge again that the products are the real deal.

In the short time we had together, we ran through the company’s refreshed line of LCD and plasma flat panels, which feature OPAL as an option for high-ambient light environments and new sizes and price points; the QuantumColor demo (Q-750i and Q-750d), featuring no lamp and the broadest colors; the new “value-priced” LS-7, LS-5, and LS-3 projectors, which give Runco a more entry-level option; the VX-3000, which makes the VideoXtreme line more attainable; and the new ultra-bright VX-33 projector for large screens in more challenging environments.

Starting with OPAL
In an effort to provide dealers with a higher-margin flat-panel display (LCD or plasma) option, Runco’s Beaverton engineering team developed a proprietary process called Optical Path ALignment Technology (OPAL) that differentiates Runco’s panels from the commodity-oriented alternatives on the market.

In a nutshell, the process adds a layer within the panel itself (not a film layer on the glass) that “rejects” and diffuses ambient light to hold onto black levels, provide deeper contrast, and offer better color structure. The company’s engineers are able to measure a 20-times increase in usable contrast in high-bright environments as a result of OPAL. A demo proved the point, to me and for dealers who want to remove “price” from a flat-panel sales discussion.

“We’re allowing the dealer to maintain their mode of luxury selling and solution selling, and I think that through all of the platforms that we have now, our dealers are now able to do a specific needs analysis with their customers and clearly define a solution for that space,” Christensen explained. “It’s no longer one size fits all. In a high-light kitchen or bathroom area where you’re watching a lot of sports, or CNBC where there’s a ticker along the bottom, you can now say, ‘That sounds like a 55-inch LCD with OPAL technology.’ It’s a full-bright environment, and you want an LCD because there’s no burn in.”

The OPAL process is an option in all but one of Runco’s LCDs. There are 42-, 47-, 55-, and 65-inch LCDs, but the 70-inch model doesn’t have it. The outdoor model (WP-OPAL42) was obviously a perfect application of the technology.

In addition to OPAL, the new flat-panel line features a consistent industrial design with “no-distractions” features like a high-gloss beveled bezel with LED indicator lights that turn off during viewing and installer-friendly features like a removable handle for smudge-free mounting and an IR window on the back to hide IR “bugs” from view. Also, there are no tuners or speakers in any of the models, because Runco would rather leave that sale to their dealers and instead focus on what they do best, which is video processing.

As a side note within the flat-panel line card, Runco is now offering a rear-projection-based, in-wall VideoWall (the VW-100HD), which is designed to offer the “best of both worlds”: the fidelity of projection and the aesthetics of a flat-panel. The design enables a 100-inch diagonal image at only 32 inches in depth.

“It’s two-piece and takes less than an hour to install,” Christensen said. “It’s resistant to ambient light, and once it’s installed, the bezel is right on the wall.”

A special black bead screen material developed in Beaverton is not lenticulated, so there is no off-axis color shift or focal drift. Off-axis viewing only affects brightness, but it’s not dramatically bad.

The New ‘Game Changer’
Runco wants its QuantumColor lampless LED projection system to be a game changer like its CineWide lens option was a few years ago.

Designed specifically for home theater. The InfiniLight-branded technology features solid-state illumination with individual RGB LEDs that never need replacing. There are no moving parts in the light engine, no color wheel, and no mechanical pieces. Apparently there also is no color drift or degradation over the life of the product, like in a lamp-based system, because the LEDs don’t burn out.

Color is automatically calibrated at every start-up, (a speedy 20-second process to reach full brightness) and the projector turns off as fast as a TV. For us “greenies” the projector contains no mercury or lead and uses 70 percent less power than a lamp-based system, exceeding all new EnergySTAR requirements even California’s new stringent rules for video products.

Expanded Color Space
Runco wanted to create a color space that had never been seen before. Within the QuantumColor Series, instead of 71 percent NTSC colors, they’re using 135 percent, and there’s 12-bit color reproduction to reduce dithering, color banding, and smearing, according to the company. For calibration pros, included presets include the cinema-standard REC-709, SMPTE C, sRGB, DCI, and “Native,” which is Runco’s proprietary color space designed to look great for most consumers.

To create custom settings, an internal software tool called the “Personal Color Equalizer” (PCE) provides a six-axis (RGBCYM) individual color adjustment for hue, saturation, gain, and white point. A calibration “tweak” or dealer can set and save multiple custom settings by source, including ISF Day and ISF Night modes, dialing the color to a client’s exacting preferences.

Runco SmartColor (RSC) also offers a proprietary advanced hue-compensation curve and color gamut mapping system that allows for independent color correction. This, the company demonstrated to me, increases color saturation while maintaining accurate flesh tones. There’s no longer that sunburned look or gray flesh tones after trying to get other colors to pop more.

Did I mention that the Q is already shipping and features a 40-percent dealer margin?

A New Entry-Level Option
On a new platform homegrown by Runco’s chief product architect Bob Williams and the team at Planar is a “lite-style” projection line meant to combat “bottom feeders” on the entry level, with image quality that customers have never seen before for the price.

The line features the LS-3, LS-5, and a three-chip 720p LS-7. The difference between the 3 and the 5 is installation flexibility and contrast. The 5 has horizontal and vertical lense shift, while the 3 only has vertical. Because price is part of this story, I’ll mention that the 3 is offered at $4,995 vs. $6,995 for the 5. The $15,495 “7” is similar to the Runco VX-8 offering, but without DHD processor or CineWide options.

All three projectors break away from the traditional, boxy black metal Runco industrial design (ID) with stylish, rounded, plastic housing that is meant to be more of a design complement to a multipurpose room. The ID isn’t a future plan for all Runco projectors, but the approach keeps the price down for this line and makes the projectors more flexible for an interior designer.

Last but Not Least
The final topic of discussion during my Oregon visit involved the additions to the company’s Video Xtreme Series. First was the VX-33, a very bright projector (146.8 ft-Lamberts; 7,125 ANSI Lumens), which was designed for large screens in very large rooms. It’s two-and-a-half-times brighter than VX-22.

It also offers CineWide and AutoScope, an integrated or outboard DHD controller, and DLP-based SuperOnyx three-chip light engine. As impressed as I was with the Q, this product knocked my socks off with its “Cars” opening credits demo. Amazing stuff.

Final Thoughts
The final word, for now, about this Runco transition is that Planar was actually doing a lot more work behind the scenes than most of us gave them credit for. After several postponements of my trip to Oregon before CEDIA EXPO, I now understand what all of the mystery and delays were about. The company had big plans, but wanted to get their ducks in a row before making them public.

Planar has a very specific 14-step product development process. Each group has to validate and test whatever their responsibility is, reaching a consensus and collecting proper data before moving forward. It all leads to a much more reliable product, according to Christensen.

“As we’ve gone through the transition from the old Runco to the new Runco, the biggest benefit we’ve seen from the new portfolio and platform is driving to world-class reliability and the service,” he said. “It doesn’t diminish anything that Runco has done in the past, because it was a fantastic company and it was truly amazing what that team had done. But now it’s based on what we can provide and the organization in which we can provide it. I think that our customers will now see big differences in what we can provide now with our new portfolio and platform.”

I think he’s right, but I’ll leave the final word to GM Adam Schmidt:

“Fundamentally we believe that Runco is back,” he said. “We’ve taken some lumps over the last couple of years. There are some naysayers, and I know that some had written us off. But, I think that we also know from what we saw at CEDIA that some of the people that had written us off did a double take.

“The reality is that CEDIA was not the end game; it was the beginning. We’re here, we’re not looking back. We’re looking forward now, and we’re going to make this business fly.”