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England’s SMC Takes CEDIA’s Top Dealer Prize

Steve Moore refers to his company as a "typical CEDIA dealer/installer." Just like most CEDIA members, his company designs and installs all subsystems in a home. Steve Moore Consulting (SMC) also gets all of its business from referrals and has loyal and wealthy clients, including actors, pop stars, politicians and bankers.

Steve Moore refers to his company as a “typical CEDIA dealer/installer.” Just like most CEDIA members, his company designs and installs all subsystems in a home. Steve Moore Consulting (SMC) also gets all of its business from referrals and has loyal and wealthy clients, including actors, pop stars, politicians and bankers.

There are really no big surprises about the latest CEDIA Dealer of the Year Award winner until someone asks Moore’s wife to describe her husband’s profession. “She tells people that I do stereos for toffs,” Steve Moore recalls.

Huh? Toffs? That’s right, this year’s top dealer is a typical CEDIA member in every way, except that they’re British. And even that fact is less atypical than it would have been five years ago. It has not taken long for CEDIA’s goal of creating a worldwide organization to materialize. Two years ago Australia’s Len Wallis took top dealer honors and this year’s award is proving that the little niche business of custom has gone global, with strong businesses such as SMC leading the way.

By the way, the Collins English Dictionary defines “toff” as British slang for a rich, well dressed or upper-class person–especially a man. So you might not have known the word, but you sure knew the demographic.

Moore’s “custom installation” career got underway back in 1987 back, “before the stuff was available to do it,” he said. “When I set up on my own (from my dining room) in 1993 I attended my first CEDIA EXPO, in Dallas, and I’ve been coming ever since.”

CEDIA, Moore noted, has taught him innumerable business and technical lessons, but most of all it has shown him that this industry is all about working together, and not just getting the “stuff” to work together. “I was amazed and heartened by the willingness of others to share ideas and to help me get along, and I hope that I’ve been able to share some useful ideas with my CEDIA friends, too,” he said.

If Moore sounds like a CEDIA pitchman, it helps to know that he helped establish a CEDIA in the U.K. in 1996 and also served as one of its first presidents. The U.K. started back then with six “wannabe” members, according to Moore, and now has around 250, or about a tenth of the worldwide membership. “We’ve been reaching out into Europe and had over 3,000 people at our last EXPO,” he said.

His own company has grown from a staff of one with around 25 people. The company recently achieved ISO 9001 (required for security installations) and “Investors in People” accreditation (a government-sponsored worker training program). And despite his wife’s tongue-in-cheek assertion about “stereos for toffs,” SMC also boasts an impressive rsum of housing developments work (around 1,200 dwellings in the U.K. have been wired for systems specified by SMC) and an honorable collection of “Robin Hood” projects, such as energy-efficient low-cost housing “to keep our souls clean,” Moore said.

Moore credits a part of SMC’s recent success to the hard work of his staff, namely company general manager, Gavin Harper and projects director, Kevin Wilton. Wilton came to the company as an apprentice chef from a restaurant chain and has been with SMC since 1996. “He’s now responsible for managing about $4 million of business, and he’s absolutely the best person I can think of to do that job.”

Harper, an architect by training, started out running SMC’s design department and is now the general manager. “He’s better at a lot of stuff that I used to do in-expertly,” Moore said. “He’s much better at dispassionately dealing with the money than I have been, even though that’s not his training.”

As the company continues to grow and evolve, the quality SMC’s employees has been even more important to its stability. “I’ve been lucky to have so many great people work with me at SMC, but never more so than now, when, as we expand, I need those guys to tell the story, and pass on the spirit of the company,” Moore added.

If it wasn’t already enthusiastic enough, then bringing back Dealer of the Year honors from CEDIA EXPO further buoyed the spirits of the SMC staff. “It’s fantastic,” Moore said. “We’ve done a lot of work in the past couple of years to ensure a high level of service for our customers–particularly formalizing our project procedure–and this hasn’t been without pain,” Moore noted. ” I think winning this award builds the confidence of our sales staff, particularly the relative newcomers. They’ve always been proud of how we work, and felt certain we could do as good a job as anyone, and this underlines that. The ability for us to say the we’ve been recognized as worldwide dealer of the year has been terrific.”

So what is the difference, if any, between an U.S. and U.K. dealer/installer? Moore believes that there are more differences in approach within each company, than between them. “The good companies in each market seem to share a lot in their approach, and CEDIA should take some of the credit for that,” he said. “I think that we all come across the same technical issues, and have similar management concerns regarding logistics, cash flow and growth. It seems to be a typical practice in the U.S. to run first-fix wiring [pulling cables] whereas we discourage our U.K. members from doing that. The avoidance of that work (made possible by improvements in our documentation many years ago) contributed hugely to our bottom line, and our ability to manage multiple projects.”

Three lessons influence any project that Moore’s staff does and these principles also have been critical to the company’s success. “First, if a project or client looks difficult or unpleasant at the start, then they will deteriorate by the end and become a Grade-A nightmare,” Moore explained.

With this in mind SMC has installed a “wanker filter” whereby they refuse to quote a project until they have completed a design, for which a fee proposal is produced. “This process seems to weed out most of the difficult ones, who don’t want to pay for it,” he said.

Secondly, Moore admitted to himself that he’s “not good at everything” and therefore has hired the right people to support him. For example, ever since he appointed Harper as general manager, Moore said, SMC’s business has gone from “strength to strength.”

The third guiding principle, Moore noted, is that the quality of design and documentation (which fuels good communication, both internally and externally) is the critical differentiation between companies, and, when properly addressed, allows the company to grow correctly.

As the British custom market is slightly younger than the U.S. and its economy has fared better of late, there is still plenty of growth. The challenges of low-quality workmanship and price-erosion, however, still challenge companies such as SMC as they compete in their marketplace. “CEDIA has helped attract people to this business, and helped train them, and as a result there are relatively few ‘trunk-slammers’ out there,” Moore noted. “Nonetheless there are a range of web-based vendors selling flat-panels and the like at ‘comedy’ prices, which is a challenge to those who still confuse selling stuff with selling solutions, which is what we hope CEDIA dealers do. I think that this is similar to what is happening in North America – good dealers transcend the ‘stuff’ marketplace and others get confused.”

IP-based products are one area slow to catch hold in the U.K., according to Moore. “The major difference, I think, is that your countrymen seem to have been quicker to notice that pretty much everything is a computer in disguise nowadays and therefore learned to speak IP much quicker than we have here,” he said. “We probably install a dozen home networks a month, and sell a lot of broadband, but it was a steep learning curve.”

And education has been a constant influence on Moore and SMC over the years. With the warm glow of his Dealer of the Year award still fresh in his mind, Moore again points back to the organization that bestowed the honor on his company. “Just being involved in CEDIA has helped my business enormously, and I’ve met some wonderful people around the world,” he said. “Even when my business really needs work, and my family haven’t seen me for a while, I try and make time for CEDIA. It’s always worth it.”

-Jeremy J. Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems.