By profiling Marla Suttenberg, Commercial Integrator is excited to continue our series celebrating the women and men who’ve made our industry what it is today. The founder of Sapphire Marketing, she is one of the most respected figures in commercial AV manufacturer representation. One half of a true AV industry power couple — her husband is Randy Klein — Suttenberg has worked with some of the most respected technology manufacturers during her multi-decade career. That, of course, includes a long relationship with Crestron.
Here, CI and Suttenberg walk down memory lane, recounting her career trajectory, reflecting on women’s empowerment and meditating on core values.
Commercial Integrator: What motivated you to join the commercial AV industry? Tell us about your career trajectory, as well as what has kept you motivated in the decades that followed your AV entry point.
Marla Suttenberg: I graduated Clark University in 1978 with a psychology major. I chose that small liberal arts college in Worcester, Mass., because Sigmund Freud had presented his papers on psychoanalysis in 1909. It was the only university he visited in the U.S.
While I was deciding on which graduate school I wanted to go to, an opportunity presented itself. My friend’s father worked for a car dealership in Queens, N.Y., and his boss also owned an audiovisual dealership in New York City named Reliance AV. There was a small trade show at the Hilton in New York, where my friend and I wore a “Miss Reliance” sash over our dresses. I decided that was the first and last time I’d ever be a “booth babe”!
Luckily, at that show, I met a manufacturer based in Oconomowoc, Wis., which manufactured filmstrip projectors and wanted to open a New York office. I agreed to be the sales coordinator and worked in the office for them in midtown Manhattan. I had no clue what was entailed!
There were two salesmen who reported to that small office. To a young woman like me, one of them seemed “old” — he was probably 45 or 50! — and used sales phrases like “Don’t spin your wheels over that.” Anyway, this was way before email was invented, and I was responsible for answering the phones, checking travel expenses and sending the paperwork to headquarters. I ended up getting “the bug” for the technology and decided I really liked this industry. So, I never went back for graduate school after all.
I went from filmstrip projectors to Audio Visual Laboratories (AVL), which made computerized multi-image slide projector controllers. The old timers will remember them because this was the first solution to provide presentations on a large screen, before “large-format video” was even invented!
Meeting Randy Klein
Anyway, this was a big time for me because I first met my husband, Randy Klein, when we were both working at AVL. Actually, I was living in Greenwich Village with two roommates at the time, and my round-trip commute to the Jersey Shore was 100 miles a day! I ended up moving in with Randy, and the rest is history.
Finally, I moved on to control systems, starting at the time by representing AMX. When I was representing AMX, I worked for Arthur Milanese of Milanese Associates in Philadelphia. His two daughters now run a very successful integration company in Pennsylvania called Video Visions.
Then, I went to work for the local Crestron manufacturer’s rep. A couple years later, George Feldstein came to me and told me that I should open my own rep company and that Crestron would be my first manufacturer. Since my birthstone is the sapphire, that’s what I named my company!
A year ago, I joined forces with another independent representative firm, Audio Associates, based in Maryland, and I’m having a blast!
I love the people, and I love the technology. I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be part of an industry and technology that shapes and influences people’s lives, that creates and builds businesses, and that is the foundation for building so many lasting relationships and friendships.
CI: Reflect on your role as both a mentee early in your career and as a mentor later in your career. Who helped shape the trajectory of your professional life, and how have you tried to help shape others’ careers?
Marla Suttenberg: The sad part is that there really weren’t any “Women in AV” at the time, with the exception of Jan Sandri at FSR. However, the owners of the manufacturers I worked for were all very supportive of me, and they promoted me accordingly.
“The Honor Roll” feature in Collaboration Today and Tomorrow has also been very cathartic for me, as well as for Lainie Mataras, who is my partner in creating it. We’ve learned so much, especially by spotlighting people who are new to AV, who reflect diversity, who are under 30, etc. We’ve met so many interesting and intelligent people.
CI: What’s the most memorable story/anecdote of your career in commercial AV?
Marla Suttenberg: I had been the Crestron rep for a few years prior to Randy first joining the company, and I was using my maiden name professionally. (In fact, I still use it.) Sometimes, people would complain about him, and I would just “grin and bear it” — or agree with them!
With both of us at Crestron, it became our life. It was my business, it was my husband’s business, our daughters worked there during the summers and my son-in-law was also a Crestron employee. It was our life and our love.
CI: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment to date? What has been your biggest professional regret to date?
Marla Suttenberg: I was honored by my peers, receiving a 2013 Legacy Award from Women in CE. I was also a 2019 Hall of Fame inductee for Systems Contractor News. I’ve been involved with the AVIXA Women’s Council, and I’m looking forward to working with the new WAVIT group!
I don’t really have any regrets, since I’ve worked so hard and always did the right thing — be it for my manufacturers, integrators, consultants or end users. My only regret is that I would have loved to be new to the industry now, so I could take advantage of all the education classes, networking groups, etc.
CI: What’s the best advice or pearl of wisdom you either received during your career or came to realize on your own?
Marla Suttenberg: Always be responsive, honest and forthright, no matter how it might get someone mad at you. In the end, that’s what our legacy will be. Keep your promises and, as The Golden Rule says, treat others how you would want to be treated. But keep your promises is number one.
Would you like to nominate a peer or colleague — or perhaps yourself! — to be featured in this #AVLivingLegends series? If so, just email Dan Ferrisi, editor-in-chief of Commercial Integrator, at email@example.com.
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