Danis Fuelling, CEO of Phoenix Unequaled Home Entertainment, has worked relentlessly to prove to her peers in the industry that she belongs and deserves their respect.Most installers take a seat at the table for an average rep meeting, ask a good question, and receive a friendly, direct response, generally making eye contact or some semblance of it. It’s pretty routine etiquette. But for Danis Fuelling, CEO of Phoenix Unequaled Home Entertainment, she was appalled early in her career to watch responses to her questions continuously relayed to her male colleagues.
These incidents ran rampant for Fuelling, and she has worked relentlessly to prove to her peers in the industry that she belongs and deserves their respect. From the start, she said, “I learned this industry is a man’s industry…I used to face a lot of ridicule and no respect at all. I have earned respect from my peers and, in most cases, I am now an equal.”
Fuelling started with Phoenix when she was 28 years old, having begun her professional life in a completely different field, auditing ARM loans for banks. When her second daughter was born and struggled with illness, she started working from home. This corresponded with the time when her husband Scott Fuelling was starting Phoenix. She began helping him in the office, and “it just went from there,” she said.
Initially, Fuelling was doing light bookkeeping and scheduling for the new AV firm. Two years in, she went back to school and found a great deal of practical use from her studies. “I just changed and adapted along the way,” she said in describing the organic growth of her role at Phoenix.
Now as CEO, Fuelling oversees and manages day-to-day operations, including human resources, accounts receivable, scheduling, and purchasing–basically, everything except sales and engineering.
Fuelling also has branched out beyond Phoenix, in her professional life. She serves as financial controller and general manager of Wyrestorm, an international HDMI manufacturing and distribution company, which Scott Fuelling also founded, then eventually sold. (He’s no longer involved). She also serves as the director of a local competitive volleyball club, in which the youngest Fuelling daughter competes.
Reflecting on her rise to the top at the Memphisbased custom integration firm, company president and husband, Scott, swells with pride over his wife’s achievements. “When I asked her to take over Phoenix as the CEO, it was out of pure respect for her talents and abilities and how she had matured as a business person. She had already earned the respect and friendship of many industry peers,” he said, rattling off the names of executives from Stewart Filmscreen, Lutron, Control4, and Jamo.
“She participated on a CEDIA committee and understood the industry, but more importantly, how different business practices could be implemented to improve performance, productivity, and ultimately, profitability,” he continued. “So while I may be biased in some ways, her rise to the challenge was not only amazing, but also very rewarding for me to watch.”
Danis and Scott Fuelling cut loose at one of CEDIA’s Banquets.These days, Danis brushes aside the outrage she frequently experienced at the hands of male peers in the industry early on with the unique perspective and skillset she brings to the field as a woman. Take for example at one dealer council meeting she attended, where attendees were discussing a specific piece of equipment that was rather expensive. One dealer spoke up about how he couldn’t justify the cost, thinking purely from a technical angle. Fuelling considered the equipment on different levels, though, and she pointed out that it was a device they could rent out to others for a profit.
Another example is with a Control4 remote that Fuelling convinced the manufacturer to develop as a paintable solution for design purposes. This allowed her to sell them in all different patterns that they could customize for users, resulting in a great up-sell for Phoenix.
She chalks these scenarios and others up to her distinctively female point of view. “I have served on several dealer council meetings and have been able to offer suggestions or resolutions to obstacles a manufacturer may be experiencing. I was able to offer something the others in the room couldn’t, and it was a woman’s point of view or a mother’s point of view.”
From the management side of her job, Fuelling said her predominantly male staff can be one of her biggest challenges. “I have days where I am pretty sure I am running an adult daycare,” she said. “Do not get me wrong, I think we have the best staff in the business, and they are all very good at what they do, but dealing with all the different personalities can be trying.”
She has clearly grown adept at managing the different personalities while doing what’s right for her company. “Danis has a tough job, and sometimes she has to make unpopular decisions, but she is smart enough to know that unpopular decisions are better than wrong decisions,” said Mark Morris, director of operations and 10-plusyear veteran of Phoenix. “When she does make wrong decisions, she learns from them. Danis strives to improve what we do at Phoenix, and this trickles down into the entire company. No one is content to do enough to just get by.”
With all the success Fuelling has achieved for her hard work, other women in this industry looking to make a name for themselves would be wise to take a page from her book. There are many theories as to why the technology industry is so male dominated, but at the end of the day, knowing how to sell to the woman of a household or simply looking at a job from a different perspective are valuable skills many firms struggle with.
“Woman have a place in this industry just like men, they just need to be made aware of it,” Fuelling said. “I do not know if maybe it is intimidation or years of ‘this is no place for a woman,’ or what, but I have several clients of my own, and I will be honest, I did not necessarily win them over because of my ability to be able to engineer the system they wanted or tell them the specs on a certain piece of equipment. I sold them on me.”
But Fuelling advised that “If sales is not where you want to be, then look more into management, purchasing, accounting, marketing customer service, etc.”
Perhaps Danis’ biggest message to herself and others is to work hard without giving up and to enjoy doing it. “I had to fight to get to where I am, and I am not naïve,” she said. “I know I do not have everyone’s respect, nor will I ever get it. But I have a great relationship with a lot of our industry’s manufacturers, dealers and distributors in this industry. We are equals, and getting to that point was a whole lot of fun.”
Lindsey Adler is associate editor of Residential Systems, Systems Contractor News, and Healthcare AV.