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Interesting Times

There’s an old Chinese saying that, as it turns out, is not that old and apparently isn’t even Chinese. Nevertheless, during these troubling days for our economy and environment I’m often reminded of the quote, real or not, that says, “May you live in interesting times.”

At first glance, it seems like an innocuous line from a fortune cookie. When you examine the expression more closely, however, you realize that it is actually intended as a curse, not a warm-and-fuzzy proverb.

I first remembered the “interesting times” curse following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Prior to that, I’m embarrassed to admit that some of my friends and I had discussed our generation’s lack of a “defining story.”

Although we were all in our mid-30s and had experienced plenty of challenges, successes, and happiness in our lives, we believed that Gen X was missing a character-building event like those experienced by our parents and grandparents. After 9/11, an ongoing series of disastrous economic calamities, and finally some good news with the election of the first African-American president, we no longer worry about the lack of a “moment;” we just don’t know which one to choose.

Compared with the bigger issues of the day, our challenges in the custom installation channel may seem trivial at times. But the fact is that we all depend on this business to support ourselves and our families, so our successes and failures are no less important than anyone else’s.

I had the good fortune of talking with several thoughtful residential electronic systems contractors this month (p. 24), to find out what they are doing to work through the recession. In particular we discussed their new focus on retrofit projects in markets where new home construction in on hold. I learned from ESCs and from CEDIA CEO Utz Baldwin that the industry is not affected equally across every region of the country.

In our interview on p. 28, Baldwin refers to our current crisis as a “zip code economy,” and though my interviews were far from statistically accurate, I did see evidence to back this assertion that some markets are better off than others. I found less negative impact on ESCs in the metro markets of Texas and Georgia, for instance, and nearly no response from some of my friends in the rust belt of the Midwest and in California, where the housing market was hit particularly hard.

Looking for guidance rather than a broad assessment of the economic climate, however, I asked Baldwin what CEDIA members should be doing to survive and also to prepare for an eventual turnaround. The quickest path to increased cash flow right now, he agreed, is through remodel or retrofit business. Admittedly, these projects provide a whole new set of headaches. But, their lifecycle is shorter than new construction, and they offer limitless potential business as homeowners choose to renovate existing homes rather than build new ones.

Looking toward the future, Baldwin also encourages ESCs to improve their business processes and find core strengths that define the company. For its part, CEDIA is educating the market about the role of the ESC, making sure that it is a core component to the home construction process.

With the next wave of target customers coming from the Gen X and Gen Y demographic, Baldwin said, technology will shift from being an afterthought in homes to a top priority. If CEDIA members are engrained in the building industry as a key resource before this wave begins, then they will be well positioned to prosper in the next five years.

Our times are indeed interesting, and they also are changing.