Keeping Technology Simple is Maryland Firm's Key to Success

t's logical to assume from the company's name, that All Around Technology is a widely diversified systems integrator, a firm that tackles anything and everything, never saying no to a new market or technology development.
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t's logical to assume from the company's name, that All Around Technology is a widely diversified systems integrator, a firm that tackles anything and everything, never saying no to a new market or technology development. Yet that is far from reality for the Bethesda, Maryland, firm. For good reason. In this fast-paced age of systems integration, many leading-edge systems integrators increasingly find themselves in a quandary: how to provide their clients with a total systems solution while maintaining specific areas of expertise. Technologies allow for more integrated and related products that consumers find exciting, easier to use and desirable, yet the technologies and products created from them continue to become more complex for designers, installers and technicians. And if not considered carefully, they will be too complex for end users as well!

Seeking the right balance is one of the many challenges that Rob Shapiro and Tim Rooney regularly ponder at All Around Technology. As one of the leading custom installation companies in the country, Rooney and Shapiro know that technology and what it can do for their clients is important. Yet they never lose sight of what has made them successful: providing their clients with systems that are simple, elegant and fun.
All Around Technology actually began as Audio Center in 1959 in Bethesda, a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC. Its 41-year history makes it the oldest company in Maryland dedicated to residential audio/video entertainment, and among the oldest such companies in the country. Originally part of a commercial electronics based business, Audio Center was a pioneer in custom installation in the 1960s and 70s. The company soon realized there were booming market opportunities in quality hi-fi components, later to become stereo. With a well-heeled clientele in the shadow of the nation's capitol, this is often described as a recession-proof local economy. For decades, Audio Center did little-to-no advertising and prospered on referrals and word of mouth.

However strong competition from aggressive DC market A/V retailers in the 80s and early 90s stunted the company's growth, and a new direction was needed. In 1992, Audio Center was purchased from its parent company and through Shapiro's leadership and vision became more focused on high-end home theater and custom installation. "We were doing fairly well with the retail store but it was becoming clear that custom installation was where the new specialty opportunities were, particularly in this market." Shapiro recalled. "We could have continued with retail sales and the showroom, however it was more important for us to concentrate all of our resources on the design and installation business. So in 1996 we closed the retail showroom and focused on high-end custom. It turned out to be a great decision."

At the same time Rooney, who went on to be a principal of All Around Technology and its CEO, served as installation manager at Audio Center. Together, he and Shapiro quickly built the company up to where it is today: a dedicated team of 18 employees in an impressive 8,000-square-foot facility. On this transition and rapid growth of the past four years Rooney commented, "The key was putting the selling of boxes behind us and focusing on system solutions and all that entails. There are more than enough challenges in systems integration without having to worry about a retail business too!" All Around now combines design, engineering and integration capabilities with complete project management as well as extensive installation capabilities. The company handles about 25 projects annually. All of their projects are supported with an in-house service department to keep their demanding clients happy. On service and its importance to their business. "We take service and support very seriously because our clients expect the best," Shapiro noted. "Keeping them satisfied is what drives our success. Everything we do has long-term serviceability, along with the ability to upgrade, as top priorities."

Unlike some firms which don't set a minimum price for the jobs they will do, All Around focuses primarily on large, high-end projects. The company's philosophy and entire focus is on simplicity and customer satisfaction. "A key factor in our success is simplicity," Rooney explained. "The best equipment in the world will make no one happy if they can't operate it. That may sound obvious but how many times have you seen systems that their owners don't know how to operate? They won't be happy, and that is a real long term problem for the company that sold it."

Rooney added that all of the systems they install use keypad and/or touchscreen control devices for easy and intuitive operation. "This simplicity of operation and the customer's willingness to go this route is the deciding factor in accepting a project--not the price," he said. "A sophisticated entertainment system should be simple enough for a house guest to operate."

Because their systems wind up in some of the finest houses in greater Washington DC, aesthetics are of prime importance for All Around. Shapiro, Rooney and their team go to painstaking lengths to ensure that their designs are clean and unobtrusive, as are the actual installations themselves. Wires and cabling is always properly bundled, labeled and routed. The back of equipment racks are given the same level of detail as the front. Attention is given to all areas including some that the client will never see.

Simplicity also extends to All Around's philosophy of what products and services they will and won't offer.

Their primary specialties are state of the art home theater and distributed audio and video, typically integrated with custom lighting and control systems.

Shapiro and Rooney feel that these areas, given their complexity and change, are the most they can and should concentrate on. Regarding their philosophy Shapiro explained, "Tim and I are of the firm opinion that no one company can do everything to the highest level of quality. Therefore, at All Around we concentrate our efforts around our strengths of audio, video, video distribution, lighting, control systems and project management."

Like most high-end custom installation projects, most of All Around's designs include, or typically interface with, products such as security, phone systems and computer network distribution. However, as Shapiro pointed out, his company's business plan in this area is somewhat unique. "The way we help seamlessly provide all these to a client is through partnering via strategic alliances in these other fields," he explained. "Some of these relationships can be difficult especially on large projects with overlapping deadlines and surprises. The key is in our strong project management capability to coordinate with other partners in a project."

Another one of the company's guiding principles is to achieve its goals through teamwork. According to Rooney, "the only way to get the quality levels that we are able to achieve in our production is by cultivating a company-wide culture of quality and learning. We understand that the people responsible for doing the work of the project are the ones most likely to recognize a better way of doing something. The knowledge and the skills and the cool tricks that are the successes of one job are transferred to other team members in in-house training seminars and project reviews so that our efficiency and impact improves dramatically with each new job."

Audio Center has indeed come a long way since 1959. But what hasn't changed with All Around Technology and their 21st century clients are the time-honored values of focusing on what you do best while keeping it simple.

Peter Hoagland is an industry marketing consultant based in Warrenton, Virginia.

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