Thiel CEO: ‘We Need to Evolve Our Product Offering’

Thiel Audio is making big changes to its organization, including the relocation of its headquarters to Nashville, TN, and a new CEO, as part of an effort to revitalize the legendary brand. Residential Systems reached out to CEO John Wittman to learn a little bit more about his plans for Thiel.
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As reported on last month, Thiel Audio is making big changes to its organization, including relocation of its Lexington, KY, headquarters to Nashville, TN, a new CEO (John Wittman), a new sales and marketing senior VP, and new engineering, marketing, purchasing, and operations employees, as part of an effort to revitalize the legendary brand.

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 John Wittman, CEO, Thiel

The high-end audio company also intends to “broaden the audience” for its products by “making the line visible to luxury buyers as well as the traditional audiophile,” the company said.

Many have wondered if Wittman, whose business background includes “consumer packaged goods,” manufacturing, distribution, and most recently publishing, understands enough about consumer electronics, in general, and high-end audio, specifically, to lead a team in returning the brand to prominence in the market.

Hoping to learn just a little about Wittman and his plans for Thiel Audio, Residential Systems reached out to him with the following interview.

Residential Systems: What aspects of the Thiel brand and the company itself inspired you to move from your advisory role into the CEO position?

Wittman: As a business executive, I am enticed by the challenges and opportunities that the Thiel brand represents, as well as the broader state of the high performance audio industry. Rejuvenating a brand after the passing of its namesake and merging the principles of the past with modern advances in engineering to effectively compete in today’s competitive market is without question an exciting opportunity.

RS: What strengths as a leader and executive do you bring to Thiel, despite your limited background in the consumer electronics and audio business?

Wittman: While I haven’t worked specifically in the CE industry, I have worked extensively with consumer packaged goods and the publishing industry. I understand how to determine the needs of the end consumer while working with an extensive retailer network. There are many parallels from my work history that I can effectively apply to this environment. Also, given my education background in engineering and physics, I appreciate and grasp the technology more readily than others outside the industry. This combination and my passion for music make me uniquely qualified for this opportunity.

RS: In the short time that you've been at its helm, what aspects of the brand do you think need to remain in place as new products are developed?

Wittman: We need to stay committed to Sound Above All. We need to maintain the level of quality that has been established for the Thiel brand in the high-performance audio segment and ensure that our speakers deliver the performance sought after by the most discerning customers. We will also continue to deliver a premium product that represents superb value for the price—a critical part of Thiel’s brand legacy that will be a point of emphasis under my watch.

What are the areas where the brand needs to change and evolve?

Wittman: We need to evolve our product offering. Not only do we need to update existing products for consumers in the two-channel environment, we need to develop a full complement of speakers that work together in surround sound applications. We also need to embark on a more focused, concerted marketing effort. This brand has targeted the audiophile segment in the past and we want to also introduce the tremendous sound of Thiel to a broader audience.

RS: In what ways will the company's move from Lexington to Nashville help you in achieving your goals for the brand?

Wittman: Relocating the company headquarters from Lexington to Nashville is extremely important for the brand as it puts us right in the middle of the action in the music industry. Nashvillians are extremely discerning when it comes to sound, audio, and entertainment—and having access to that market and the resources it represents is invaluable. In addition, there is an incredible pool of talent here in Nashville that can help move Thiel forward as we grow. Not only in finding personnel to work for Thiel but also partners in the community that can help us. We have already initiated relationships with many local companies.

What changes, if any, do you have planned for your dealer partners and distribution strategy? Who is your point person for your dealers?

Wittman: We are in the process of better understanding our dealer network in order to craft a distribution strategy. The performance audio industry has experienced a degree of volatility, and it seems that consumers in this segment have moved away from traditional channels. We need to keep the end consumer in mind and understand this market from their point of view to formulate any effective strategy. We’ll be looking to work with our dealer network to understand the challenges they face, the opportunities that they have identified as viable in the marketplace, and then make a determination of where and how Thiel can bring value to the AV dealer and CI channels both domestically and internationally. Paul Fisher is heading up our sales and marketing efforts, and Lana Ruth continues to be our primary point of contact for retailers.

RS: Do you have an estimated timeframe for when you may have new products available that reflect the new focus of the company?

Wittman: Mark Mason, our VP of engineering, is in the process of developing our new line of speakers. We demo’d the TM3 Bookshelf speakers at CES this past January. This was the beginning of our new product line and we plan to demo one of the new floorstanding speakers at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October. From there, we hope to reveal the entire line of speakers at the 2015 CES this upcoming January. We should be ready to begin shipping new products in December, 2014.

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