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Baumeister’s New Home

Over the past four months, John Baumeister’s stellar reputation as one of Chicago’s preeminent custom integrators has taken a beating. After his company, Baumeister Electronic Architects (BEA), fell victim to the worldwide recession this past January, an industry that usually prides itself on its cooperative spirit and friendly camaraderie

For John Baumeister the whole horrible, but eventually uplifting experience of losing his business and then being hired by Rob Kowalski at Automated Lifestyles, comes down to families helping families. In fact, the Baumeister family (on the right) is almost an exact match to the Kowalski family (on the left), pictured in Chicago’s Millennium Park. demonstrated a particularly ugly side when many seemed to revel in kicking the man when he was down. All the while, however, Baumeister was frantically digging out of a huge mess that was once a thriving firm of 20 employees with some of the best projects in Chicago.

Fortunately for Baumeister, after several months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to find a new way to feed his family and to help clients with their stalled projects, he was hired last month by former cross-town competitor, Rob Kowalski, owner of Automated Lifestyles. Kowalski not only brought in Baumeister to develop new business for his company, but also purchased BEA’s remaining assets and hired its former service and maintenance manager to work with BEA’s previous clients.

While Baumeister acknowledges that he still faces financial challenges, Kowalski’s business decisions and generosity have enabled him to take a first step toward personal and professional renewal.

The going was already getting rough for BEA at the end of last year when a series of calamities familiar to any CI business owner converged on Baumeister. On the heels of a once-in-a-generation housing bubble collapse and at the start of the country’s worst recession in 50 years, BEA’s cash flow stalled as several clients stopped paying their bills and jobs already in the pipeline were suddenly canceled. Baumeister was unable to downsize because so many other projects were wrapping up at the same time, and “project creep” was delaying sign-off on many others. Banks were already freezing credit lines on even their best accounts, and Baumeister was over his limit after a former bookkeeper had made too many uninformed decisions months earlier. This snowballing chain of events eventually forced the 20-year-old company that had survived so many challenges over the years, to shut its doors for good.

Looking back, Baumeister recalled some of his worst moments. One was having to tell his marketing director, and brother, Paul, that he had to let him go in an effort to cut costs. Another was calling his wife and listening to her scream and cry after telling her that the bank would not loan him any more money.

Then there was day he handed liquidators

John Baumeister (pictured, right) said that his number-one charge is to make things happen and bring in revenue for his new boss, Rob Kowalski (pictured, left). the keys to his company car and had to wait for his 85-year-old mother to pick him up and drive him back home.

Yet another was that lonely, scary night within the walls of his former company, when he was helping liquidators organize BEA’s assets. The office’s phones rang and rang, and someone kept pounding on a door that Baumeister was instructed not to answer.

And, finally, there was the industry blog that falsely implied that Baumeister was in cahoots with his liquidators trying to profit from his clients’ Crestron programming codes. The backlash by his industry peers was what hurt Baumeister and wife Mary the most. As business owners they had spent years building their reputation with clients and industry partners, only to have it tarnished when their liquidation company was unable to sell their company in one piece, within 30 days. Instead, John and Mary watched as their business was unceremoniously chopped up into little pieces and auctioned off in a prolonged three-and-a-half-month process.

Baumeister tried to find another job throughout his ordeal, but manufacturers who wanted him faced hiring freezes and/or salary cuts, and other Chicago integrators were simply trying to stay afloat or wanted to poach BEA’s former clients for themselves. One day, however, Baumeister got a phone call from an old friend and local competitor who he had known since they had crossed paths in the recording studio business and broadcast TV market 20 years ago. Baumeister and Rob Kowalski had both helped build Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo studios back then, and both had worked with Chicago’s Universal Recording. Kowalski’s day job back then was management consulting for the city’s “big-five” CPA firms, before switching to the custom integration business in 2000. Baumeister was already the big game in town by then, so Kowalski had called him for some advice about his career change.

“John had the choice of blowing me off or speaking to me back then,” Kowalski recalled. “Being the standup guy that he is, he helped me out. I’ve always had tremendous respect for him for doing that.”

Flash forward nine years, and Kowalski was calling Baumeister again, this time to check on his well-being after learning of his company’s demise. He reached out via voicemail, not really expecting Baumeister, who he figured had other things on his mind, to respond. About a month later, while attending CEDIA’s Management Conference in Carefree, Arizona, Kowalski’s cell phone rang, and it was Baumeister returning his call.

“John was looking for reputable companies that could purchase the assets of Baumeister from the liquidator and a candidate company to continue to serve his former client base,” Kowalski remembered. “I told John that I’d certainly be interested in talking. I had no idea how things would shake out.”

At their first meeting back in Chicago, Baumeister and Kowalski quickly rekindled their old friendship and realized that that they shared the same values in their businesses and families. They both had come to the conclusion that work was not “life,” but that treating customers with respect was a top priority. “Customer service is really what drives both of us, and that was obvious,” Kowalski said of their first conversation. “That, I believe, provided John with a little bit of comfort that we could be a candidate company to serve his customers.”

At the end of that conversation, both men returned to their respective lives, but Kowalski began to think more about something he had learned at CEDIA Management Conference. Baumeister, he realized, could be the perfect person to help him out.

“I contacted John to ask him to help us on an hourly basis with business process improvement tasks, and he said he would do it,” Kowalski said.

The irony of hiring a guy whose company had just failed to help improve his own business processes wasn’t lost on everyone. “In fact my wife asked me that same question,” Kowalski said. “To me it’s a non-issue. I knew right off the bat that John’s organization had simply been too large. When his company was the size that we are today [11 employees] he was incredibly successful.”

Kowalski added that he thought that Baumeister’s bad experience would actually prove to be more educational,

What 20 years in the CI business looks like at the end than harmful. “I was comfortable and confident that we were going to be stronger for it and learn from the past and not make the same mistakes,” he said.

With Baumeister’s consulting project underway, Kowalski put thoughts of the transfer of BEA’s assets on the back burner (though Baumeister was growing increasingly concerned about how long it was taking the liquidator to find a home for his former clients.)

One day, Kowalski had an epiphany about the need to develop better business development strategies, which brought to mind a greater role for Baumeister in his organization. Like so many custom companies, Automated Lifestyles had once thrived on referrals, with no business development plan. “Today it’s different,” Kowalski acknowledged. “I’m smart enough to realize that business development is the lifeblood of any organization and realized that John had the skills, the talent, the personality, the history, experience, contacts, and knowledge, to be an ideal candidate for director of business development for us.”

Baumeister discussed the offer with his family over the weekend, realizing that for nearly the same income that he was making as an overwhelmed owner, he could do what he’d always done best (selling and working with clients to make their lives better), while spending more time with his family than he had in years. “I realized that it was a quality of life decision,” he said.

After Baumeister accepted the job, Kowalski headed out of town for his scheduled vacation. “I was euphoric and was ready to focus 100 percent on the future of our company, changes we would make, and our re-branding,” Kowalski recalled.

Upon his return, Kowalski welcomed Baumeister to work for his first day as a full-time member of the Automated Lifestyles team. As he was catching up on e-mail from his week away, he noticed a document from BEA’s liquidator and read it for the first time. The file described the bidding process and minimu, dollar amounts for certain BEA assets. The deadline was the next day. Before hiring Baumeister, Kowalski had breifly considered buying BEA’s assets, but then figured he didn’t need them. Seeing the minimum bid numbers on the document, however, he began to imagine what it would be like having not only Baumeister on board, but also owning his customer’s original CAD drawings and all of the serial numbers for equipment that might need service work.

Baumeister said that when he learned of Kowalski’s successful bid, he thought of it as a good-will gesture from his new boss to all of BEA’s former clients. Kowalski said that he viewed it as a good business decision, but one that would also help put Baumeister back on track to finish what he had already started with so many customers.

For Baumeister the whole horrible, but eventually uplifting experience comes down to families helping families. His family and those of his employees have gone through a very difficult time as have the families of his former clients. “Since coming to work for Automated Lifestyles, I’ve been calling families to make them whole again, because they were left in limbo on some things,” Baumeister said. “And, Rob did something with his family, to bring me in and purchase the assets of my company to provide for them and for my family as well. The ripple effect is impacting so many lives and helping so many families stay intact.”

Going forward, Baumeister hopes to provide for both families, frankly, by bringing in more revenue. “That’s my number-one charge right now,” he said.

If the response from some of his industry associates and past clients is any indication, many of them will help Baumeister with his goals.

“I think the most important thing about John is his passion for this whole industry,” said former BEA client Jacob Kaufman.” He just gets what is going on out there, and has a real love for getting this stuff to work and putting it together in a way that makes peoples lives function better.”

David Goldman, a Chicago-based residential construction manager and developer who has worked with Baumeister on several projects, echoed that sentiment. “John has a lot of integrity, he has been an invaluable resource for me, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount working with him,” he said. “The next time I have a project that makes sense for John, he’ll be the first phone call I’d make.”

Jeremy J. Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems.