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Discovering the Mostly Untold Success Stories of the CI Business

Some of the fresh faces of the custom business began their careers in familiar places and others in refreshingly unique ways.

Travis Warner, owner of Muse Integration, in Dallas, says he had questions about the advanced side of home theaters that his colleagues at Best Buy “couldn’t answer at the time.” Some of the fresh faces of the custom business began their careers in familiar places and others in refreshingly unique ways. For example, there’s the home automation/smart home enthusiast that got his first taste of the trade while helping a family member install an AV system in his home. Then there’s the former Best Buy salesperson that went on to college to earn a degree in management. And there’s also the former Media Center PC expert that says he learned what it takes to work with high-demand customers while working in world-class resorts throughout the western U.S. But these are just a few of the stories uncovered when Residential Systems asked leading manufacturers to recommend dealers for its second-annual profile of successful, yet previously unheralded young custom integrators.

Travis Warner, owner of Muse Integration in Dallas, TX, says he had questions about the advanced side of home theaters that his colleagues at Best Buy “couldn’t answer at the time” he was working there in high school. Eventually his brother Zach introduced him to high-end AMX dealer Paul Beauregard with Design Engineering Group in Dallas, who showed him the ropes of custom integration. When he graduated from college in 2008, he met Conundrum Technologies’ Jason Perez, who hired him to run his Dallas office. He acquired quite a bit of business experience during that year on the job, but when the economy tanked, Warner was left without a job. So in 2009, at the age of 24, he started his own company. One job led to another, and “five years later, things are flowing great,” he said.

The RTI dealer who is currently implementing a 60,000-square-foot Volkswagen dealership with Davin Brown of Interlock Tech Solutions, noted that every business needs to learn business basics like maintaining proper cash flow.

“I was able to start my company with a line of people ready do to business,” he recalled. “I tell people don’t start a business till you have clients ready to buy, don’t think people will buy just because you started a business.”

Even though he’s relatively new, Warner has learned that integrators that sell systems without knowing how all the parts work often give clients poor products and systems.

“Quality systems can’t be guessed, and they need to be tested,” he said. “I have a more analytical approach and test products and designs before offering them. I won’t offer a product or install that I don’t feel confident in its ability to perform. Yes, that keeps me from taking some jobs and maybe even limits myself. But this keeps my brand quality as high as possible.”

Jack Thompson, owner of RevampIt Audio Video, in Scottsdale, AZ, took the big-box route to the CI channel.Entering on the Ground Floor

Jack Thompson, owner of RevampIt Audio Video in Scottsdale, AZ, took the big-box route to the CI channel, as well, entering “on the ground floor” in 2003 when CompUSA bought The Good Guys. He eventually moved to Best Buy and worked there through college and after.

“This is where I truly obtained a taste for custom integration,” he said about working for the retailer. “I really enjoy fitting the pieces together to create a customized solution for my clients.”

Ultimately, he aspired to own his own business, and in 2012 founded RevampIt Audio Video.

Thus far, the most important business lesson Thompson has learned is that you must build strong, lasting relationships. “Every interaction is personal; you must be trusted by your clients and have trust in your suppliers to be successful,” he said.

Wes Bradshaw (center) has a particularly diverse background, which helped him form the concept for Sunbelt in Atlanta. One key that allowed 2014 to be his strongest year yet was bringing URC’s Total Control system into his main offerings. “Not only do my clients love the easy-to-use interface, it allows me to start introducing them to so much more,” Thompson said. “It gets the conversation started for whole-home control and automation.”

Enterprise-grade networking is another area driving business for him. “With consumers becoming more dependent on Wi-Fi and media streaming, implementing a robust network has been a must-have on almost every project,” he noted.

Thompson said that keeping consumers aware of the CI channel’s existence is critical to the future success of the industry.

“The average consumer does not always grasp what it is that custom integrators do, or necessarily even know that we exist,” he said. “This will become important going forward with the release of new smart devices and other technologies at a price point that more consumers can afford. It will still take a qualified custom integrator to efficiently bring these new technologies together, to build a smart home that meets the high standards of our clients.”

Wes Bradshaw has a particularly diverse background, which helped him form the concept for Sunbelt, the integration company he founded in 2005 in Atlanta. He worked at several world-class resorts, sold books door-to-door, on commission, and even worked the technology trade association, NASBA, who put together marketing plans for industry-leading companies like Microsoft and Intel to reach out to the system builders and VARs nationwide. When Intel came out with its Media Center PC, he had the opportunity to work with Roland Graham, a TechHome Leadership Award winner, who was setting up different systems attached to the Media Center.

“Once I saw the theater solutions Roland designed in operation and learned from his approach, I was hooked!” he said.

In 2005 he left his position at NASBA and started Sunbelt, working out of his home office with one technician. Sunbelt’s first showroom opened in 2007.

“We’ve been working on the right mix of products and services while building one of the best teams in the industry ever since,” Bradshaw explained. “In the past few years our vendors have made significant improvements in their products, and we’ve finally reached the potential we envisioned nearly 10 years ago with smartphone control and simple interfaces. It’s been hard work but truly amazing and exciting to watch our concepts come to fruition.”

Sunbelt partnered with Control4 a few years back, and Bradshaw says his company has enjoyed watching them “dial in” their automated platform and “really take over the market.”

Over the years, Bradshaw has learned that “integrity is non-negotiable,” particularly in a reference and referral business. “A good reputation takes years to build but only a few minutes to destroy,” he said. “I’ve always been honest with everyone and tried to be candid on the costs involved in each project on the front end. No one likes unpleasant surprises!”

Bryan Bilgore says that New York City’s Sensorium AVR entered the integration business in 2007 after consulting with high-end audio manufacturers about server-based digital playback.A Track Record of Performance

Bryan Bilgore says that New York City’s Sensorium AVR entered the integration business in 2007 after consulting with high-end audio manufacturers about server-based digital playback. Prior to that he was a trumpet player and had worked several jobs in the recording industry and the internet world.

Recently the company began exploring technologies that monitor and promote health as a holistic approach to home technology, but Sensorium AVR is always exploring other industries in the technology sector for ideas. For instance, it had recent success with all of the innovations in facial recognition.

Bilgore, who says that his company looks for brands and solutions with “a track record of performance, reliability, and service,” believes that the CI channel can remain relevant to consumers as long as it leads by educating clients on the “value add” that a professional integrator has in specifying and implementing “state-of-the-art solutions in a reliable way.”

Carlton Fiorentino entered into the custom integration business in 2011 after helping a family member install smart home technology a few years earlier. He quickly developed a yearning to know everything about home electronics and oversaw the entire process for them.

“During the next couple of years, I kept up with the changes in technology and in 2011 started consulting for acquaintances as a hobby,” he said. “During that time, I met Acoustic Architects and decided to pursue my career in the industry full time.”

Since then Fiorentino, who serves as a system design consultant for the Miami, FL-based integration company, says he has learned to create relationships with his clients rather than just selling to them. “By creating a trusted business bond it is easier to develop a solution that fits their needs and desires without worrying what the bottom line will be,” he said. “Jobs tend to take longer to close this way but in the long run the client is happier and referrals are plentiful, leading to a successful future.”

With consumers having more access to mainstream home automation, Fiorentino says that Acoustic Architects is pushing more of a lifestyle rather than products.

“Companies like Vivant, Comcast, and ADT have started releasing custom integrator-like products that have brought awareness to our market and also created a challenge,” he said. “The positive to this is that the demand has grown as these systems are becoming standard in every level of home. We are seeing more families ask for these solutions and not having to explain to them for weeks why they need one area to control their lights from. We also have a lot of customers argue that they do not need a custom integrator as they can go to Home Depot and put together a system themselves. While there is truth to what they say, we are able to provide an experience that is unmatched by selecting our vendors and pulling it all together with Savant rather than be stuck with select items and limitations.”

Audio Intersection’s Michael Buckner got his start in the AV world working in the Walmart electronics department as a 16-year-old.Always Be One Man and One Van Short

Audio Intersection’s Michael Buckner got his start in the AV world working in the Walmart electronics department as a 16-year-old back in 1996, eventually moving to car stereo installations. Eventually he went to work for Pioneer Electronics Mobile Division, and when the new Kuro TVs came out, he got hooked on home electronics. After a stint at Audiovox (while still tinkering on the side), Buckner left the corporate world in 2007 and went to work for Audio Intersection in Canton, GA, full time. Since then, he says, the company has evolved into a smart home provider.

“We do just as much in lighting, HVAC, and security control as we do TVs and speakers,” he said.

His most important business lesson was learning to “always be one man and one van short; it keeps you lean.”

He also makes sure to attend CEDIA EXPO every year and takes as many classes as possible. “It never fails that every year I add something to my repertoire because of something I saw at CEDIA,” he noted. His favorite brands are Control4, Yamaha, Sony, and Revel.

Ponch and Amanda Wildman started their husband-and-wife business, called TruMedia, in 2003 as a retailer for DISH. In 2013, they began to grow into custom integration on request of clients.

“They saw the kind of work that we did and the projects that we could complete that others in our industry couldn’t,” Amanda said. “They trusted us and our opinion and they began asking us if we could do more and more projects in their home.”

In 2013, the Wildmans focused on learning as much as they could about the integration business and became members of CEDIA. They also attended CES and CEDIA EXPO to spend time really learning about the products they wanted to offer and to speak directly to the manufacturers.

“What a learning experience!” Amanda exclaimed. “In 2014, I became a COI (CEDIA Outreach Instructor) so that we could further educate not only ourselves, but the builders, designers, and architects in our community about this industry.”

As the company has gotten more established, there are a few things that Amanda points to as important to its growth and development.

“We’ve realized that it’s very important to continually learn about this industry…especially as it changes, so education has been a big part of our business,” Amanda noted. “We also learned that it is important to work with products and manufacturers that we believe in. As a family-owned business, we are in the constant pursuit of excellence, and our products and the manufacturers that we work with need to have that same vision because at the end of the day, even though it’s their product, if we’ve put it in a house it means that it has the TruMedia stamp of approval on it.”

URC’s Total Control is the company’s favorite product right new because it comes in at a price point that the mass market can feel comfortable starting with, and “it’s so user friendly.”

Amanda says that she tells all of her company’s customers that “the guys are going to love us no matter what, because most guys like electronics and gadgets.” How she knows her company has done a great job is when she sees women get that “a-ha” moment, where they know they can use all of these electronics and that they love them too.

“My favorite referrals are when the wife is telling all of her friends how they HAVE to talk to us because we made her life easier or better with custom integrated electronics in their home,” she said. “It’s not just a ‘boys club’ anymore!”

Jeremy J. Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems.