Industry Q&A Exclusive: CEDIA President Jeff Hoover reflects on his first year at association helm - ResidentialSystems.com

Industry Q&A Exclusive: CEDIA President Jeff Hoover reflects on his first year at association helm

n September 2001, the world became a different place. Greatly overshadowed that month by the tragic events of 9/11 was the custom installation industry's signature event, CEDIA EXPO, and the beginning a new presidential term for the association.
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n September 2001, the world became a different place. Greatly overshadowed that month by the tragic events of 9/11 was the custom installation industry's signature event, CEDIA EXPO, and the beginning a new presidential term for the association. Just a few days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, CEDIA's new president, Jeff Hoover, stepped into the leadership spotlight, assuming the post held by his accomplished successor, Steve Hayes. That night, at CEDIA's awards banquet, Hoover enumerated his goals for the future and spoke of leading the industry despite his position as a relative newcomer in the association, having attended his first EXPO in 1997. As he completed his first successful year in office, Hoover took a moment for a phone interview with Residential Systems, reflecting on his CEDIA achievements thus far and his leadership goals for next year.

Jeremy Glowacki: How has your first year as president measured up to your expectations? Was it like you thought it would be when you looked at it through the eyes of a vice president?

Jeff Hoover: The expectation of becoming president for me was exciting, and getting myself in the position to become president was fun and exciting. But you know that, like with a lot of things in life, the hunt is sometimes a lot more fun than the kill (laughs). The reality of being CEDIA president, with everything that is going on in the industry and the size that the association is getting to be, it is, from time to time, overwhelming. You can be prepared for that all you want, but there's so much to do.

Were you surprised by the amount of work?

Jeff Hoover: I was told what was coming, but I think that every year that goes by and the industry gets larger, CEDIA gets larger, there are more volunteers, more staff and EXPO gets larger and our global presence gets larger.... there's just more and more to do every year. It's going to be even more work for the person who takes over for me. Steve Hayes, to his credit, knocked himself out trying to establish a smooth and easier transition for me. But, still, when you have people who are as contrasting in their styles and personalities and the way they get things done as Steve Hayes and I, there's just a big shift, a big change.

How did your difference in leadership styles manifest itself when you took over?

Jeff Hoover: Well, it changes the tone and the type of board meetings or executive committee meetings. In my opinion, Steve is very strategic in his thought process, and he is very deliberate in how he speaks. He can be very reserved if he chooses to be. And I tend to lead with my chin out in front, saying whatever comes to mind. I want to get some things done. I still have trouble needing to be somewhat more hands-on than Steve was. Steve was very comfortable in that entirely strategic position. That was great because we needed to reinvent what CEDIA was going to be as an association, and the two years that Steve worked on that were perfect. So to me, part of the transition is to say, 'Okay, now we have a strategic plan. We have a global plan and thought process. Now, let's get some stuff done.' Even though the transition was odd for me, it was additionally strange because I had two past presidents sitting on the Board. When I was on the Board I was like, "Oh gosh, I'm sitting here with Mitchell Klein and Steve Hayes! Wake me up." Even though I'm waaaay over that (laughs) still, when you are president and you have your first Board meeting, there's the simple fact that you're sitting there with your last two presidents who were really in charge, and now you're the one in charge and they're waiting for what you have to say.

Do you think having former presidents on the Board is a bad scenario for a new president to face?

Jeff Hoover: No, I think that having the past presidents stay on is invaluable because there's a link to what happened before you. They can help guide you with what the thought process has been in the past. Realistically, being vice president and being president of CEDIA are two very, very different positions, so I think it's really helpful to have at least one past president available. Mitchell Klein, in fact, was not going to run this year, and when I looked at what was going to be happening next year, I asked him to run again. That was weird, because Mitchell and I have had plenty of battles. The reality of it was that as I would become immediate past president next year and Steve steps off the board, I would become the 'old man' on the board, and I'm not. We would, in effect, have no real link to the past and no real link to some of the 'formational' stuff, original values and foundation of CEDIA that I was not involved in. I said before many times that the first EXPO I ever went to was Atlanta [in 1997]. I'm not a founding member. I've met some of the founding members, but I hardly know them. I just say, 'Oh, you're that picture on the wall.' So I think it is nice to have some relationship to that past, but it doesn't make it any less intimidating when you're sitting in the room with 15 really bright people, and you have to tell them when it's their turn to talk and when it's not. It was an interesting transition.

Remind readers of the goals you set when you took over as president. How far along are you in reaching those goals?

Jeff Hoover: One of the things that I really wanted to get launched that we created before I was president and was sort of my pet project, is the Idea Bank. It is launched to the Management Conference attendees, and it is fully functional and I think that people are going to be blown away with it when they start to use it at EXPO. I've gone in there and looked through some of the documents and the caliber of stuff that all of these dealers have put up to share with the industry is incredible to me. It's an absolute gold mine to a new person starting in our industry or even somebody who's been in it for a few years and is trying to refine their process. We also just had our program committee meeting. It was started by Steve Hayes and was something that we wanted to carry along as a way to really refine our ability to handle our non-U.S. members. Exactly how that's going to continue is not yet determined, but we have such a good plan and good focus. The biggest thing that I wanted to do is to make sure the membership is aware of what is going on and aware of the opportunities that are coming. That includes some of the negative things like what is going on between the IBEW and NECA or some of the unions and their fight to become more dominant in the low-voltage market. And that's all over the country. CEDIA and CEA partnered to hire a lobbyist to fight this thing in Massachusetts and haven't won, but at least got it delayed.

What are some of the other goals you've tried to achieve?

Jeff Hoover: Think that being the eyes and the ears for the membership is a huge goal, and we're getting substantially better at that. We've grown the staff a lot, and I think we need to continue to grow the staff because again the needs of the membership and the opportunities of the marketplace are so huge that we can't do it as thin as we used to be. Another big thing we've been trying to do is to have a substantially more open-arms policy toward other associations and other companies so we can eliminate a lot of the redundancy that's going on in the industry and be the most beneficial to our membership and improve or grow our industry the best that we can. So we have strategic alliances with CEA and CES that are working really well. We have been working for a number of months on a strategic alliance with the EH Expo, so we can potentially be doing our Regional education at those expos. We just finished a meeting where we had the new TechHome Division of CEA come to Indianapolis with the other members of the CEA, and we had a really good kickoff meeting on how we can share resources and responsibilities and move forward in a more unified way and make sure we maximize what we're doing and not waste our time. A few years ago these kinds of things were not as openly pushed.

What was the motivation behind forming these alliances?

Jeff Hoover: There's so much consolidation in this industry. Everybody is starting to do everything. You don't have that many separate phone companies and audio/video stores and lighting control stores. So these individual associations that served a small or a niche part of that market, it's getting harder to be relevant. Just like in different marketplaces dealers go in and out business as they lose relevance and manufacturers go in and out of business as there's more competition, associations will wind up doing the same thing. Because there is so much potential for growth and opportunity in this 'space,' right now we need to try and make sure that relevant associations don't duplicate services or have any redundancy that isn't planned. In this industry I don't know if you could possibly offer enough training, but what we don't want to do is be redundant on the training offerings or be redundant in the areas where we're not bringing benefit. As long as multiple services by these different services are part of this thought-out plan, then that's great. We're just trying to have a lot of open conversations so that we can start to move that forward.

So far, have those groups have been pretty receptive to CEDIA?

Jeff Hoover: We had a conference call with the IHA [Internet Home Alliance] to try and make sure that CEDIA's certification is going to be aligned with what they're doing with CompTIA [www .comptia.org]. Why do you want to have CEDIA come up with certification that's the same thing and as the IHA and CompTIA. We want to try and make sure that they're complementary to each other. Maybe one is more specialized than the other. So there are a number of groups with whom we're trying to get these things done.

What are some of the other goals you've met or would like to meet with CEDIA?

Jeff Hoover: We're completely reinventing our education process. We are actively culling it and trying to invent and move forward with the CEDIA University where we create distinct career path tracks for members. We asked our education Deans to come up with classes that fit those goals. For instance, we want to be able to say, 'if you want to be a project manager in a custom installation company, this is the series or courses you take or the track you need to be in to do that best.' That's where we're really trying to go with our educational offerings. We already have this full-time training facility in Indianapolis where can have Boot Camp and a number of other things. CEDIA is focused on two things: education and EXPO. EXPO is really the primary driver behind the organization. It's where our money comes from and is our absolute, number-one priority. But number two providing quality education, and we're reinventing that so that it's not the same old thing. We not only want to continue to teach some of the classes that have become classic within this industry for new people, but keep pushing the envelope so that some of the best high-end custom companies can still send their people for relevant training.

Do you care to admit anything that has fallen short for you this year?

Jeff Hoover: I believe that we've almost started too many agendas. Maybe some of the things that we've attempted to do haven't been as good as they could have been if we were somewhat more focused. So right now what were are really trying to do is get focused, but it's kind of hard. We went through a period where focus was an issue, because CEDIA was formed to get the custom installation business recognized. Ten or 11 years into that process that mission has been accomplished. We're done. Our core purpose is over. Everybody now knows that custom is a big, growing market. Everybody wants to be in it. But that truly was the foundation of CEDIA. So what do you do next? There was a fair amount of brainstorming about what to do next, and we came up with a strategic plan that was started at 30 years and moved forward to today. So many good ideas come out of something like that if you try to attack them all at once it's hard not to lose a little focus.

What's the biggest challenge facing the industry right now?

Jeff Hoover: Challenges facing the industry right now are legal issues from groups who will try to limit competition by eliminating competition. I mean laws getting passed in states that require licensed electricians be on premise for low-voltage wiring. Laws getting passed that give licensing benefits or exemptions to existing unions or existing occupations without taking into account other occupations. The reason that [CEDIA director of operations] Nicholas Pasyanos was recently promoted as our director of finance and public policy is because a huge amount of his time is going to be spent in the legal arena monitoring what's going on, meeting with state and some national politicians. We have to keep ourselves wrapped up in that to make sure we cover it for the membership; the membership is busy running their businesses. This is what they can count on us for. I guess another threat...maybe it's not a threat because to me it's a reality, is that every week that goes by, we as custom installation companies better be focusing our future business on knowledge and expertise and not on products. To me, one of the things that is eventually coming is the reverse E-Bay where somebody just puts their list of equipment that they want to buy out on the web, and then the dealers bid for the lowest price. That's coming and it's already here in some ways. The more commoditized the equipment becomes the more dependent custom installers will become on the business process and their expertise and their knowledge.

Are you seeing many dealers improving in this regard?

Jeff Hoover: I think that more and more people are incorporating it into their core business plans, but you sure don't see a lot of people who could pull it off today. Not companies of any size. Certainly there are some small consulting firms that that's all they do, but I think there's still a lot of work to be done by our association and by our industry to truly establish us as professionals to help set up an expectation from a client or an architect or a builder that they go into a relationship with a low-voltage contractor or custom electronics specialist expecting to have to pay for their time. That's not how it started with a huge part of this industry coming out of retail where the model is 'make all your money on product, then deliver and set up for free.' A vast majority of companies don't charge for their design work. They'll just do a proposal that can take days or weeks to finish, if it's going to be reasonably accurate and give it to somebody and cross their fingers and hope that they get the job. A paradigm shift has to happen in the whole home building industry for us to be treated like an architect or like an electrical engineer or like anybody else whose primary product is design.

How is CEDIA, as an association, and EXPO, as its trade show, addressing these challenges?

Jeff Hoover: I think CEDIA's doing it through its education process. I think that CEDIA's doing it through its certification process, so that you can begin to establish yourself as a certified installer or designer to give yourself some credibility. You can't graduate from college with a CEDIA Degree... yet. So that's what you're missing compared to an electrical engineer of to an architect. You're missing some level of acknowledged certification. So that's why certification has become second to EXPO, which is just what keeps us alive--our primary product. Because the way we think that we can make the best difference for our members is by all forms of education, from business management all the way through hardcore technical issues.

From your standpoint, what are some of the other issues that are we should be aware of?

Jeff Hoover: Well, I recently wrote an article about branding your company, but it was more than just branding. Instead, it was taking advantage of the fact that we're the brand, which is happening a lot in our industry right now. What's happened is that we've become so strongly 'the brand' that clients are only buying 'an Audio Advisors System' or a 'this' or a 'that.' There are many dealers out there who are taking advantage of that, taking it to an extreme. They're charging $800 for $400 in-wall speakers. They're charging $800,000 for this system that should have been $500,000. My point is that now that you've become a "brand," is it a brand that you're proud of? Not necessarily brand that you're just making money with.

You mentioned that everybody who signs up for membership with CEDIA agrees to a code of ethics. Could you explain what this should mean to CEDIA members?

Jeff Hoover: Well there is sort of a split of opinion within CEDIA, because CEDIA means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. You have what we'll call the core member or the founding member thought process that's says that membership regulations need to be stronger. In other words, it should be harder and mean more to be a CEDIA member. There are a lot of people who feel that is important. This group says that 'being a CEDIA member' needs to maintain an air of sophistication and quality. But with the way the rules are right now, there's no check and balance to achieve this; it's not difficult to become a CEDIA member at all. It's not as difficult as it was in the past, because the other camp thinks that CEDIA shouldn't be a high-end, elitist organization that restricts membership, it should be an association that's all education and raising the potential business opportunities in our industry, and we should attract anyone we can into our membership, anyone who is interested in being better and learning and growing the business and working in our industry. If you listen to both camps make their arguments, they're both passionate and smart, and they both have great points to make. We're stuck in the middle, as president and Board of Directors, trying to decide which direction is best for the industry to go in. We actually have a task force right now that we created to do a study of our membership requirements and see whether having some higher level of requirement to be a member is reasonable or not. Or if by being so completely inclusionary instead of exclusionary, are we doing the right thing?

Changing the subject back to EXPO, what are some events that attendees should look forward to?

Jeff Hoover: We had a huge push to reinvent the classes, so even a lot of the classes that have some of the similar names, because the topics were relevant, were reinvented so we wouldn't have a problem with redundancy. I can't say that there's going to be a ton of new and wonderful and exciting things this year, because we basically just went back to basics with this year's EXPO. It says 'Excellence Through Education' on all of the brochures because to us that is back to basics. We have a great show floor. It was fundamentally sold out in February, so as far as vendor participation we don't have a problem. We are not having a concert. We're not having a golf outing. We're not having a Jam Session. The banquet is back to the standard banquet that has served us very well. All of our other efforts have been put into education and limiting distractions for the installers. There's a good thing and a bad thing for the city of Minneapolis. If you're an owner, Minneapolis shuts down at 1 o'clock. To mean, with as many people as I take and as much as it costs to go, that's a blessing, because they can't stay out until 3 o'clock in the morning and come in hung over for a class. What CEDIA has really tried to do is make sure the education offerings are the best we've ever had and make sure the networking opportunities for the manufacturers with their dealers are maximized. So we are having as few CEDIA-based functions as we can because there's just not a night where there's not just party after party or important dinner after important dinner with your key dealers or manufacturers. The networking is sometimes 50 percent of these types of events. Our members need a great education and networking experience, and that's what this is going to be.

What are some the new goals that you're going to set for your second term?

Jeff Hoover: Proceeding into the second term I really don't have anything new that I'm trying to introduce. I don't want to get distracted from our focus and our focus is to continue moving forward with our re-invented education program, to continue forward with our outreach program with these other associations and other businesses to maximize our product, to always maximize and make sure that CEDIA EXPO is, without question, the single, primary show; if you're going to pick one, that's the one you're going to go to. And then to resolve the issues and get beyond strategic planning and move full into implementation of what our global process in going to be. That's so much to do. I don't want to go back to the strategic planning. I want to work really really hard on implementation. I want to get a lot done--take a big bite out of what we've created.

Jeremy Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems.

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