“Life is too short to not do exactly what you want to do,” Bob Farinelli, president of Bob Carver LLC said. Farinelli, a veteran of the ELAN and Sunfire brands, epitomizes that motto having come out of retirement to partner up with legendary audio engineer Bob Carver in this latest venture.
One reason the Bobs make a great team is that Farinelli knows how to deal with Carver’s napkin sketches, apparently the latter’s preferred medium for recording his esteemed designs.
Starting up a business in general, and in particular, during this challenging economy and evolving industry, is no cakewalk. Knowing Carver’s history and his products well, many dealers are anxious to see what he’s up to next, and they have been the startup’s most valuable allies.
Farinelli said he is in the process of expanding his company’s current dealer network, especially in parts of the Southwest and Midwest. A global distribution network is also in the works.
What really makes Bob Carver’s designs stand out most is the 40-plus years of experience they are built upon and a deep understanding of the psycho acoustical perception our ears have. “He knows it’s not about the specs,” Farinelli said of his partner. “It’s about your brain, and how it receives information through the ear. When you listen to the end result, you can really hear the difference.”
Farinelli spoke candidly with RS about the unique challenges the Bob Carver LLC faces, great pride in creating American jobs, dedication to dealers, past mistakes, and future expectations.
While you and Bob Carver had worked together previously at ELAN, what inspired the two of you to reconnect and launch Bob Carver LLC?
It goes much further back than that. I owned Phase Linear amps when I was in college in the 70s. I have long appreciated the great things Bob has done so I jumped at the opportunity to work with him via the acquisition of Sunfire by ELAN in 2005. Bob and I got along great and released a number of new product lines (Cinema Ribbon, HRS, Subrosa–to name a few). We had complementary goals; he wanted to design things–I wanted to run the business.
Bob and I retired at the end of 2010, but I knew he still had a passion for tube amps. This part I hate to admit–I was the guy who killed the Sunfire tube lines after we acquired the business because the volume was too low to justify a transfer to the Linear China factory. In hindsight it was a mistake–we should have made the retooling investment. Now I think: “Gee–how great would it be to sell that same tube line volume out of our little office.” Even though I killed the line–I looked the other way when Bob was building and selling some newer tube amps on eBay in his spare time. These amps were hand built by “Tubular Joe,” sold on one-off auctions, and Bob was having fun. So, last spring I called him and said: “Hey Bob–want to come out of retirement and turn your eBay thing into a real business with me?” It was not a hard decision to make–for either of us.
What are some of the challenges of “starting over”–or coming out of retirement in your case–even with your legacy at ELAN and Bob Carver's legendary experience?
We chose to boot strap the operational launch, meaning we purposely did not dump tons of money in at the start. The discipline to grow a business using free cash flow forces you to make spending decisions based on the balance in your check book. But I knew Bob’s name was golden; I knew he still designed great sounding products; I know I can set up a factory–especially when production is 20 steps behind my office [literally].
Our biggest challenge is building a customer base from scratch, especially when we only have a few SKUs to offer at the start. We know that “if they hear it, they will want it,” but getting the word out takes money and a lot of effort.
How was the economic recession and changing market for home audio taken into consideration as you decided to launch Bob Carver LLC?
Two-channel is making a comeback, so we are fortunate that those who appreciate high quality sound reproduction have not all given in to the mediocrity of highly compressed formats for the sake of portability. With that being said, there are fewer high-end stereo shops out there as compared to the past, so we really have to target a select group of dealers with the right product at the right price point to wiggle the needle. We know dealers need good margins to cover their overhead and cost structure. I thought: “let’s make it simple.” Our demo deal is our everyday deal, and we do not require dealers to carry inventory once they get their first set on display. As we are a build-to-order shop here in the United States, we do not require stocking commitments from our dealer base.
The first products from Bob Carver LLC were 180-watt and 305-watt mono block vacuum tube amplifiers, shown here in cherry.
Have some of the challenges shifted since the new brand has transitioned from the conceptual phase to full production?
Every product is a perfect one when it still sits on paper–same with a marketing launch plan. The first challenge was to get the kinks out of the supplier network. The second and bigger challenge is new customer acquisition. I mistakenly thought this type of product could be sold both to dealers and retail (no programming required after all), and we would offer them direct in areas where we had no dealer base. I have since decided that when we get consumer inquiries where we don’t have dealers, we send them to potential dealer prospects, and we can be more effective at building a long-lasting customer base through dealer only sales. There is nothing more effective than calling a dealer that does not currently support the line, and hand them a consumer lead for one of Bob’s new amplifiers.
You’ve introduced a couple of new products already. Talk a little bit about those and how you see them fitting into your overall product roadmap going forward.
Our first products were 180-watt and 305-watt mono block vacuum tube amplifiers. We have a couple of lower power stereo tube amplifiers to be released soon. We are also introducing an 8-foot ribbon array line source tower speaker in April that will have unmatched realism and imaging. Clearly an integrated preamp is needed within the next year. So our road map is built on tubes and ribbons you might say.