Ask Craig Trice about his management style, and there is a common thread that runs through the conversation. For Trice, who recently purchased the custom installation firm where he has served as manager and vice president during the past five years, the topic always returns to understanding the people around him and developing better leadership for and communication between those people.
Unlike many other custom installation business leaders, Trice is not a “propeller head” who became a manager of people by default. Yes, the sincere and soft-spoken owner of Nashville’s Audio Video Environments has possessed an appreciation for music and high-quality audio gear since his high school years growing up on military bases in Europe. And, yes, Trice also earned his college degree in electrical engineering. But even after his own six-year stint in the military where so much “technical training” takes place, it was not technology that ever made Craig Trice tick. Instead, it was his hunger to understand people and to help them solve their problems that has motivated Trice and eventually led him to custom installation.
“I’ve ‘majored’ in trying to communicate with other people,” Trice said. “During my junior high and high school years I went everywhere-Germany, Spain, France-and it really helped me to be able to understand different cultures and the way people think and to be able to hone my skills at being adaptable. I was often put in situations where I not only didn’t know the culture, I didn’t even know what they were saying.”
Those situations in the formative years of Trice’s life helped define what type of person he would become. They would, Trice believes, also help him confidently face future business challenges.
In addition to his military service, Trice’s path to custom installation business ownership has also featured management stints with United Airlines and Circuit City. The common thread throughout these jobs has been Trice’s thirst for leadership development training and desire to “relate” to people as much as possible and to help them solve their problems.
His interest in high-end audio having never left him, Trice took note of the growing custom install field while working for Circuit City. Then, in 1995, he took a job with an ADT dealer, where he continued to hone his management and technical skills. With the ADT dealer, Trice not only learned the alarm, security, CCTV and the access control side of the business, he also developed an understanding about the process of working with builders and architects.
“I knew that there were some things that I needed to learn,” Trice said. “I had a feeling that that the installation side of the business was going to gain a lot of momentum.”
The job also taught Trice more about how to interface with people, to coordinate an installation schedule and to identify what types of people an installation company needed to employ to be successful. Trice may have remained with the progressive-thinking alarm/audio company had its owner not decided to exit the business. Fortunately, a fateful encounter, in 1997, with Audio Video Environments’ sales manager, Don Barber, provided Trice with another new opportunity. “I had been into Audio Video Environments a couple times as a customer and had met Don Barber who was a [minority] partner in the company,” Trice remembered. “He and I had talked and he had told me that if I ever wanted to make a change that I should give them a call.”
When Trice told Barber that he was looking for a new job, Barber said that he should consider the company’s vacant custom installation manager post. “That’s when I met the company’s majority owner, Omar Racy,” Trice said. “I wanted to understand their vision-where they sawthemselves in the market, how they were growing their business and what they were doing after the sale.”
This after-the-sale service concept was something that Trice really wanted to explore. Trice told Racy that while custom installation products are inherently easy to sell, it is what is done after that sale that can enable a company to truly succeed or fail. “They were kind of blown away by that question, because they really had no plan,” Trice recalled.
When Trice came on board as custom installation manager, he hit the ground running. His first goal was to convince the company’s retail and custom installation sales teams to work together as one group. “They were really two separate companies at that point,” he explained. “My goal at that point was to try and bridge the gap and sell one solution.”
To accomplish that goal, Trice implemented programs for customer follow-up and for selling extended services and turnkey solutions, after the sale.
“We were becoming listeners to our customers,” Trice said. “It really helped us to qualify and sell them what they wanted instead of what we wanted.”
Most companies that go through such aggressive cultural changes will experience fall-out from employees who are unwilling to change or to learn something new. However, Trice’s years of training and experience as a “people person” helped him to minimize the fallout. “I think a lot of companies make a mistake when they want to introduce change, because it can send employees into shock,” Trice said. “I knew that I was going into an existing structure of people who had been together for a lot of years, and I knew that if I went into it trying to make a lot of wholesale changes that they would be rejected.”
Instead, Trice set small goals, listened to his staff and allowed changes to take place gradually over the span of a year. “I was really just feeling my way around, listening to what the company was saying,” he explained. “Once I had a better idea of what people were saying, it was easier to make suggestions.”
Once the company’s 12 employees were on track, Trice and his key managers set out to narrow the company’s product list and to pull in new business. “We really started to focus more on building our custom installation department, but to do so we had to reach outside of our physical plant,” Trice said.
The company started conducting builder seminars, then began to reach out to architects. “We just really got active outside of our facility,” Trice added. “Before that, we were just waiting for business to come to us.”
Although it was far from easy at first, the effort eventually paid off. A year and a half later, the business was growing at 20 percent and the decision was made, in 1998, to move from the “mature” north side of Nashville to the south side, where most of the new homes were being built. The move, while risky, helped Audio Video Environments’ business continue to grow.
Trice was eventually promoted to vice president of operations and began to reach out to other trades. “We started really working with the interior designers at that point,” he said. “We went out and formed a partnership with the local American Society of Interior Designers chapter. We knew that everything we were designing was going to have to have their blessing, so we started conducting seminars and bringing them into our facility, learning a lot about colors and patterns and what would be acceptable in a room, within a decor.”
Learning what designers did and did not want to see helped Audio Video Environments to better sell full-featured Acoustic Innovations theaters. In fact, Trice credits his company’s dealer/vendor relationship with Acoustic Innovations in Boca Raton, Florida, as a true turning point in his company’s ability to step up to the professional standards of architects and builders (see sidebar on p. 30).
“We would take the dimensions of the room and send them down to Acoustic Innovations where they put them into a CAD program and drew everything to scale,” Trice said. “We were presenting back to the client something that over-reachedtheir expectations. We were giving them a set of blueprints.”
Then, last October, just when it all was really clicking into place and the business was headed in the right direction, Audio Video Environments’ owner, Omar Racy, began hinting to Trice that he was going sell the company and return home to Brazil.
At first, Trice says, he had little interest in buying the company. But after many days of soul-searching, and a key trip to Florida to consult with Acoustic Innovations president Jay Miller and CEDIA president Jeff Hoover, he started to warm to the idea.
“I had gotten to know Craig over the years at different industry events, and we had developed a friendship,” Hoover said. “When he talked to me, he was nervous about the risk of moving into an ownership position and having that type of responsibility and debt to service. We discussed the upside and downside of being an owner and an employee, and I told him that a lot of it had to do with your personal tolerance for risk. Some of the things we talked about just pushed on that to see if he was really suited to be an owner. It was pretty clear to me that he was energetic, entrepreneurial and hard-working and that without question he could do a really good job owning his own company. I was very excited when he said he would do it.”
From last October to June of this year, the deal slowly took shape as other vendors and his own fellow employees gave their glowing endorsements. However, the key component to his successful July 2002 acquisition was the addition a silent partner, Jim Pierce, who agreed to ownership arrangement with Trice.
“I met Jim Pierce in 1998 at a Parade of Homes, years ago, not knowing that we might end up in business together,” Trice said. “I would call him from time to time and ask him questions about to his experience with people and what he had seen over his tenure as a manager.”
At first, Trice says, Pierce was not interested in disrupting his retirement with a new business challenge. However once he heard Trice explain that he wanted the new company to become a more full-service-oriented company and a solutions provider instead a simple audio/video installation company, Pierce showed more interest. “That’s what he’d been doing in his organization for 30 years, and that excited him,” Trice said of Pierce’s change of heart.
The goals that Trice established, and what inspired Pierce to join him are still a work in progress. But Trice hopes to build a full-service staff with design, engineering and sales capabilities and to add programmers and service support personnel. “We will offer extended services in access control, security, videoconferencing, networking and boardroom and conference room designs all with a focus on the client after the sale,” he said.
It’s much too soon to judge the success of the merger, but Trice is proud to say that he only lost one of his 30-plus employees during the transition, and all of his vendors are happy up to this point. Also, Trice’s sensitively to his employees has made the impact of the change less noticeable to them.
“I think that because I’ve worked in a lot of different positions within this company I have a feel for how a certain person is going to embrace something new,” he explained. “I’ve been part of the team, so it’s easier in some regards and it’s very tough in other ways because now I’m not the employee who everyone has grown to know.” Trice has begun the process of evaluating employees and the positions that are best suited to them and the company.
“In a small business the thing that you are most concerned about is how are you going to promote people and how you are going to retain key people,” Trice said. “If you’re still doing the same things, you’ll still have the same positions, but if you can continue to grow your services and continue to work on your skills from within and be able to offer additional solutions, then you can promote people.” As that part of his story continues to develop, Trice will keep doing what he does best: communicating with the people around him, learning what makes them tick and what they need to make themselves more successful an evolving industry.
“The products in this business are great; they’re exciting and we need them. But if we don’t focus on our internal communication, all that stuff means nothing,” Trice concluded. “You can’t assume in this business. You’ve got to be as clear as you possibly can. I believe that that’s why we’ve been successful.”
Jeremy Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems.