Greg Margolis has never shied away from trying out the “latest and greatest” technology in his company’s high-end A/V integration designs. During his 16 years in the custom installation business, the majority owner of Dallas-based HomeTronics has found success, with Unity Systems’ automation technology, attended AudioAccess’ first dealer training, was privileged to attend the first THX residential certification course at Lucas Ranch and has been Runco’s top single location dealer for five years in a row. Margolis has been blazing new trails, most recently, with the innovative concepts created by two key manufacturing partners, California Audio Technology and Xplore Solutions.
“I’ve always tried to stay ahead of the curve as far as technology is concerned,” he said. “Usually I’ll be the first on the block to try something new. Sometimes it works out great, sometimes I get burnt, but you can’t present yourself as being a leader in the technology industry without taking chances.”
Margolis’ business partner, Bryan Cruikshank, added that by being the first to get your hands on new technology a dealer has the advantage of beginning their product learning curve before everyone else in the industry. “You figure out all of the nuances with the gear before it starts penetrating the market,” he said. “The disadvantages are that you become the test site for a lot of the minor bugs that are so often seen in the gear. Sometimes that’s a little more labor intensive than you planned it to be.”
In recent years, Margolis and Cruikshank have noticed clients becoming much savvier with their technology knowledge, further motivating HomeTronics to push the envelope with new products.
“People are getting much smarter about technology,” Margolis explained. “They can go buy a PC from Gateway or Dell and spend $2K to get a 15-inch display and all of the software and capability that they want. Then you come to them with a $12,000 touchpanel that can’t even stream video, and they say ‘Wait a minute, what’s the 10,000 dollar difference here?’ That is exactly the reason why we’ve never really sold touchpanels in excess of 5,000 dollars, because I have a hard time justifying its purpose other than that it’s got pretty graphics.”
Margolis realized that HomeTronics needed to find a system that would satisfy these savvy customers and could also become the centerpiece of the company’s new home theater showroom. Having held out making his decision, the dealer of AMX and Crestron systems took a chance with someone new, Xplore Solutions of Newton, New Jersey.
“I had waited as long as I could to put a control system into the showroom, and it wasn’t until I started talking to the guys at Xplore Solutions that my eyes just bugged out; I was so enthralled with what they were proposing to do,” Margolis remembered. “They were using an accepted protocol, which is huge because everyone in the world uses it.”
Being IP-based, the Xplore Solutions control system can be programmed in either HTML and Java (HTML for touchpanels; Java for controllers) enabling HomeTronics to provide clients and their own new showroom with A/V control that can seamlessly integrate with PCs, PDAs, cell phones or web tablets.
Daniel Kippycash, CEO/president of Xplore Solutions, credits Margolis for accepting the concept behind the technology before a product line was even in production. “He was one of the first dealers who realized the future of it,” Kippycash said. “He said that as long as we executed what we were trying to do and weren’t going to reinvent the wheel or have it be a proprietary technology, then he was willing to go out on a limb with us.”
Moving from concept to reality, HomeTronics laid out a showroom system for Xplore that would enable a whole new functionality set. This was going to be the manufacturer’s first installation outside of their own company, so they sent one of their engineers to install the system in Dallas. What happened next sealed the deal between HomeTronics and Xplore Solutions.
“The Xplore programmer showed up on a Monday afternoon, and they had planned on him being here for three days,” Margolis explained. “Within four hours he was 90 percent finished with the project. He came back the following morning, worked for a couple hours and we were done. It was the smoothest installation for a control system that I’ve ever done.”
In the short time since that installation, HomeTronics has had virtually no trouble selling IP technology to its customers.
“Everyone is so dialed in to using the web already, so they are very receptive to the technology,” Margolis explained. “It’s a just a ‘natural’ for them, because they comprehend it better. I had one guy say, ‘You mean I can be in my study and use my PC instead of a wall-mount touchpanel? Or I can control my A/V systems through my PDA or Internet-enabled phone? I’m sold.’”
Another compelling reason HomeTronics went forward with an IP-based system was the advantages it affords them when seeking out new technicians to program these systems, as the company grows and expands. Although HomeTronics still depends on Xplore’s in-house programming capabilities for now, Margolis plans to have his own programmers up to speed with HTML and Java programming, eventually.
“We’re continually having to change our skill-set to adapt to the new technologies and sometimes that a little bit challenging,” Cruikshank acknowledged, “but a good tech these days definitely knows all of the ins and outs on the Internet, is very PC savvy and is very receptive to working with this new technology.”
Margolis concurred, pointing out that the resource pool for that type of programming is enormous. “Once we get ramped up in full production speed with Xplore and it becomes our go-to system, then those programmers will be in even greater demand,” he said. “It’s so easy to grab some kids from out of college that are doing this stuff like it’s nothing. You can layout the flow chart for them, and they’re just completing the connections and making it all happen.”
Having opened for business in 1986, HomeTronics has grown from a company of two people to a total of 10 employees. Over the years the operation has evolved from functioning exclusively as a home automation company to one that installs home theaters and media rooms. Coming full circle back to home automation, first with AMX and Crestron and now with Xplore Solutions, the company’s focus on customer satisfaction and efficient processes has remained a consistent goal. That is where HomeTronics’ participation in California Audio Technology’s MBX dealer program has enabled the company to hone its capabilities even further.
“The basic premise behind CAT’s MBX program is to help dealers to design, build, install and service the best home theaters that they possibly can,” Margolis said.
Consisting of CAT’s top 30 dealers as well as Runco, ADA, Monster Cable and Cinema Tech, the MBX group meets regularly to hold product, protocol and sales and marketing meetings. Once together, the organization analyzes every facet of the home theater design process, from client introduction all the way to their own certification of the room. While this process ultimately enables CAT to sell more ultra high-end home theater audio systems, the participating dealers recognize much more long-term potential.
“We’ve figured out virtually every party that can participate in this process and laid out guidelines for them to work with one another,” Margolis explained. “The goal is to establish a higher level of understanding among everyone involved in a project, from the A/V guy to a plumber or an electrician. We all need to be on the same page to insure that the design, build and completion of our theaters is going to occur without any major incidents.
Dealers, manufacturers and other trades who have worked together on the CAT MBX initiation, are attempting to establish a series of checks and balances to make sure the home theater design process goes off without a hitch. Ultimately all parties reap the rewards, not the least of which is the end-user client.
“We’re utilizing not only some of the A/V dealers in the country but also some of the best manufacturers and best service providers,” Margolis added. “There have been too many experiences in the past where something goes wrong with a design and people start pointing fingers rather than working for a solution.”
In addition to serving as a co-owner of HomeTronics, Bryan Cruikshank is the person who makes sure all of his company’s projects come together as planned. The design process being created by CAT MBX, therefore, is a welcome addition to Cruikshank day-to-day operations at HomeTronics.
“It’s been a great improvement to me just in the documentation and the paperwork on the front end,” Cruikshank explained. “Now everybody knows what’s expected of them from the beginning, including the architect, the builder and even the client. The CAT MBX process definitely falls in line with how we do things because we were already a process-driven organization. We try to do the same thing, the same way, every time.”
Some of the changes that HomeTronics has implemented because of the MBX program are more detailed drawings of speaker locations on the front end of a project so that the company’s field techs know exactly where to put every enclosure. Cruikshank also has noticed that line level routing is resolved earlier in a project, because techs are encouraged to review the schematics long before they would in the past.
“Everybody is on the same page now a lot earlier and that’s helped a lot too,” Cruikshank said. “You’re explaining to a technician that an inch and half really does matter on that speaker location. We’re just raising the bar and raising everybody’s expectation for a ‘true MBX theater.’
“The challenge isn’t necessarily putting together a $300,000 proposal, it is finishing the thing on time, sitting down with the client when you’re supposed to and going through a completed project without any major oversights,” Cruikshank added. “That’s where we spend a lot of our energy–making sure that the whole process is enjoyable for the client. Providing cutting edge technology and satisfying clients at the same time is a pretty tough thing to do.”
HomeTronics’ ultimate goal is provide an enjoyable experience during the installation process and every time a client uses his or her A/V system. This win/win proposition will keep customers happy and will help fuel the new business referral machine for years to come. And growing the business is a long-range goal for Margolis and Cruikshank as they look to the future.
“I would like to expand and make HomeTronics a more desirable company, not only from a sales standpoint but also from a marketability standpoint,” Margolis concluded. “I’m not even 40 yet, but when it comes time to retire, I want to have a company in which others will find value. For now, however, there’s just so much potential in what we’re doing and where we’re headed.”
Jeremy Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems.