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HomeTronics: Thirty and Counting

It’s his passion for pursuing the next big thing that seems to keep things fresh for Greg Margolis, whose 10-person integration company, HomeTronics, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month.

Greg Margolis attended the commercial AVfocused InfoComm trade show last month even though his company works mostly with home installs. Margolis is always on the lookout for the latest/greatest in tech, no matter the venue. He had made his way from Dallas to Las Vegas to check out a bleeding-edge LCD video technology that he’d first seen in prototype form back at the ISE show in Amsterdam last February. It’s this passion for pursuing the next big thing that seems to keep things fresh for Margolis, whose 10-person integration company, HomeTronics, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month.

“The reason I went to InfoComm is that I keep looking for new technologies that might not necessarily be part of the CEDIA industry, but certainly have applications for it,” Margolis said.

HomeTronics, for example, boasted the first Auro3D home theater installation in the U.S. and also pioneered the residential use of a unique “artificial skylight” technology from CoeLux earlier in the year. Margolis’ latest passion is finding a way to move away from commoditized video products.

HomeTronics’ vice president Bryan Cruikshank (left) and president Greg Margolis

“It’s just adding a whole new performance and experience level to what we do,” Margolis explained. “It’s kind of like reliving the way I got into business. It reminds me of the days when home theaters came on the scene. It was such an evolutionary step to get that part of the business rolling originally, and now it has kind of come full circle with all of these new technologies available to us to sell, from immersive audio to laser video projection.”

Margolis, who was recently elected to the CEDIA Board of Directors, is also excited about house-wide audio developments from companies like Sonance. “Their speakers with discreet openings allow us to design rooms that “look nicer and sound better,” he said. “Clients appreciate the better quality and aesthetics.”

When Margolis opened his company back in 1986, he had just graduated from the University of Texas. Set on taking an internship with a stock broker, he was presented with an offbeat suggestion from his dad, Sonny, who wanted help installing a first-generation home automation system in his new home.

Sonny had been planning his new house for two years, when he and his builder attended NAHB show in Dallas, where they discovered a company called Unity Systems, which was one of the first home automation companies to come on the market. At first, the manufacturer agreed to install its Unity Home Manager at Sonny’s home, but several months later, after realizing they couldn’t properly support the system from California, declined to do the project.

That’s when Sonny called his mechanically and “electronically” astute son Greg with a suggestion.

“My dad thought it might be a good project for me,” Margolis explained. “He called me at school and asked if I was interested in getting into the home automation business. I asked, “What’s home automation?”

Bryan Cruikshank in 1995 sitting behind a large floor Runco projector.A 150-seat corporate presentation theater project using a dual-stack of Runco 1000s.

After pondering the suggestion for a few weeks, Greg agreed to give the home automation business a try. His dad set him up in a 10-by-12-foot space within his own office, but otherwise left the startup entirely in his son’s hands. It took time, but eventually HomeTronics amassed about 100 Unity installations, and when the first home theater processors came out (basically taking left and right audio outputs from a LaserDisc player) the company started calling itself a home theater company. When Greg told his dad that he was going to start looking into audio and video systems, he said, “Oh, no one will ever pay money for that.”

“It was great to succeed in an area that my father was skeptical of ever working,” Margolis said.

Then, when the first THX training class came along, Margolis signed up to learn about that pivotal technology from Lucasfilm legacies Tony Grimani and Tom Holman. “That’s when I started doing real theater systems,” Margolis noted.

He attended his first CES back when the show was held twice a year (summer in Chicago, winter in Las Vegas.) That summer of 1989, Margolis was looking for audio lines to carry, and there weren’t many from which to choose.

A rack shot from 1993 (with Margolis’ feet sticking out while wiring it).An early home theater design.

“Most of what people were doing were speakers in an intercom system or speakers in the ceiling with volume controls all over the place,” he recalled.

So when the HomeTronics team came across new company called Audioaccess, it was “mind blowing” for them.

“There was an eight-button keypad in the wall where you could do your basic controls of an audio systems, and it had zoning capability for as many zones as you wanted,” he said. “But there wasn’t any IR control.”

That’s where the “C” in CEDIA came in. With Audioaccess, dealers had to customize off-the-shelf audio components by taking them apart and soldering wires onto the rear of the front faceplate to mimic button pushes. Those wires would connect to an Audioaccess relay card that would interpret a “CD Next” button push, for instance.

“During our dealer training at Audioaccess, they’d bring us out some equipment and train us on taking it apart, running the ribbon cables through, soldering the connections, putting on the connectors, and tying in the relay card,” Margolis recalled.

The March 2003 cover of Residential Systems.An article features Margolis in Texas Driver Magazine.

Manufacturers of audio components weren’t too keen on this particular exercise. “It was challenging back then because when we were trying to get lines from manufacturers, we were telling them that we were going to take their CD players or tuners apart and solder wires into them. They were like, ‘What? You’ll void the warranty!’”

Business hasn’t always been easy for HomeTronics. In fact, the company launched right in the middle of an “oil recession” in Texas, admittedly not a great time to start a company. Then, shortly after HomeTronics moved into its own office, business was so “thin” that the company traded its landlord a year’s rent for free installation of magnetic security lock keypads in the building.

Five years into the launch of the company, Margolis welcomed his current vice president Bryan Cruikshank as partner in the business. A neighbor in his apartment complex at the time, Cruikshank had been working for an aviation company but always found HomeTronics’ business more interesting.

“Brian knew nothing about the industry at first, but he was able to grow into it and apply his natural project management skills and attention to detail. That’s not my forte,” Margolis said. “I like finding the equipment, designing the system, and putting the whole thing together, but not worrying about all of the details. He really picks up where I leave off. His ability to take over that part of the business and run with it has enabled me the luxury to go out and keep looking for new technologies and products.”

And finding that new gear seems to be what it’s all about for Margolis.

“It’s so much fun to be involved with the industry, and that’s what kind of makes it seem less like work and more of a joy to do what I do every day,” he said. “That’s what keeps it fresh for me. If you can show architects, designers, and clients a new take on home technology, it reinforces what we do in this industry and makes doing what we do every day that much better.”

Jeremy J. Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems.