We’ve written a lot lately about the race between perennial AV integration industry powerhouse AVI-SPL and hard-charging Diversified in the race to be the first $1 billion integrator —and it’s possible Kenilworth, N.J.-based Diversified lapped the field with its acquisition of Rutledge AV in Australia.
But, while there’s a bit of a dichotomy in the way the firms think about and discuss their quest to achieve an AV integration industry first, one thing that links AVI-SPL and Diversified is the way they’ve grown over the years to be in position to reach that industry milestone.
“What’s great and challenging at the same time is our customers’ global growth has made us better by implementing new standards, processes and tools for our mutual success. Nowhere have we seen this more evident than in AV and the connected workplace,” says Diversified founder and CEO Fred D’Alessandro.
Both AVI-SPL and Diversified have been strategic in finding opportunities that allowed them to expand into new parts of the world and have been unafraid to pursue the largest AV firms in a particular corner of the globe.
In a way, they’re building regional versions of themselves around the world.
They aren’t the only ones…
They’re certainly not the only AV integrators who’ve figured out that to succeed in today’s market, you need to have global capabilities.
That’s more than taking what you do in your headquarters and trying to replicate it around the world. It’s about finding partners you can trust to work on your behalf and learning about the customs and traditions that are important to customers in other parts of the world that you might have never before considered.
We asked a few of the AV integration industry’s so-called “super-integrators” how they’ve adapted their operations—successful operations in all cases—to meet the changing needs of their global clients.
Meeting Customers’ Evolving Needs
Workplace technology is “no longer a luxury,” says Diversifed president Kevin Collins. “It’s a requirement and global multi-national companies realize they need to connect their employees effectively and efficiently.
“The decision-making process is being centralized and it doesn’t have to be in the U.S. There’s a small group responsible for the user experience, technology, budget, warranty and maintenance for global deployments. They’re looking for a partner that can deliver predictable results globally,” he says.
Diversified has invested recently in subject matter experts and cloud-based tools “that we can deliver anywhere,” says D’Alessandro. The tools are specifically developed “to support our customers and our global organization in a multilingual environment,” he says.
Part of succeeding globally is understanding global pricing, customers, work visas and delivering solutions in various countries. That includes issues related to tariffs, political climate and workforce experience levels.
“Having these tools creates efficiency, breaks down barriers, shows our commitment to our clients’ success and builds trusts across the board,” says D’Alessandro. “The challenges we face mirror what’s reported every day in the news. These challenges are minimal compared to the opportunity to deliver our unique portfolio of services to our global clientele.”
Diversified recently launched ViewPoint, an online configuration tool built on multiple room standards applications. Executive VP Tom Spearman calls it “a bridge for customers just starting the standardization process.”
“Our global growth has created challenges but made us better,” says D’Alessandro. “The bottom line is, to truly build a global organization, you must own the process no matter where in the world you go.”
Diversified has become strategic about where to open offices and invest in personnel, equipment and infrastructure. The company now does business on four continents and has 500 employees outside the U.S., leading to double-digit international growth. In other areas, Diversified finds partners, says Collins.
“When you think that just four years ago, we had one office outside the U.S. with 50 people and now we have 15 offices and over 500 people, you know our business plan is working,” says D’Alessandro. “We will always go where we can add value and our customers need us.
“It’s a simple concept. Being the best at what we do as a true partner is how we’ve benefited from globalization—and we’re not done,” he says.
Surprised It Took So Long for AV Integration Industry
While many in AV are just now catching on to the power of global AV opportunities AVI Systems president and CEO Jeff Stoebner is surprised the worldwide flurry of activity took so long. The employee-owned company has followed its North American clients to about 25 countries in the past three years.
Stoebner says it’s possible AVI Systems will add an international office at some point, but says to be a truly global company, they’d need about 600 or 700 locations. So far, global deployments represent about 10 percent of AVI Systems’ business.
“The world became a smaller place a long time ago, but [global AV deployment is] also difficult for our clients,” says AVI Systems’ Jeff Stoebner. “It would be pretentious to think all the shots are being called from the U.S. It’s really a global market with global decision-makers.”
“Generally, we’re serving a North American customer base, but they’re doing work globally and asking us to do work globally,” he says.
“I think it’s taken a little longer to get where we’re at. I would’ve thought we would’ve been pushed to work globally longer ago. The world became a smaller place a long time ago, but [global AV deployment is] also difficult for our clients. It would be pretentious to think all the shots are being called from the U.S. It’s really a global market with global decision-makers,” says Stoebner.
Because “what we do is so white–glove and so high–touch, to do it well would take a lot of global infrastructure,” he says.
So far, AVI Systems has done installations in Canada, Mexico, Europe, China and Australia. “That makes it challenging because you never know where you’re going to go,” he says. AVI sometimes sends its own staff to handle jobs, particularly for repeat clients or on highly specialized projects, but relies on partners for the more basic jobs, says Stoebner.
International work can have its own unique challenges, he says.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Stoebner. “You might find your staff gets there but their tools get detained and there’s a fee to release those or there’s an issue in getting work permits. That kind of work can be fraught with surprises. The nature of the work we’ve all done for decades has required us to be pretty adaptable.”
AVI Systems relies on AV integration industry organizations and its global manufacturer partners to build its partner network. They talk to the prospective partners and their customers before agreeing to work together, says Stoebner. They don’t try to pass off their partners as AVI Systems employees, he says.
“To try to pass another entity off in another country as an AVI entity would be a mistake,” he says. “Global is global. We’ve got to be thinking of this global business as one that’s really reciprocal, not just originated in the U.S.”
Focus on Increasing Customer Value
AV globalization has been “a really large investment area for us” in the past three to five years, says Carousel Industries CEO Jeff Gardner. He says this slice of the business is about 10 percent of the company’s overall operation, but “but something we have to continue to make investments in to drive value for our customers.”
“It’s happened relatively quickly,” says Gardner, noting Carousel worked in about 75 countries in the past year or so, including in Canada, Europe and Latin America.
“I think it’s an opportunity for us. It’s difficult for anybody to be able to do this, but over the years we’ve gotten better at it. It puts us in a nice place to be able to drive value for the customer. Our customers see the value when we’re able to deliver for them.”
To succeed in global AV deployment, integrators must overcome issues related to customs, exchange rates, taxes, time zones, service and staffing.
Carousel boasts about 800 global partners in a network it’s built over the last decade.
“What we’ve found is many times it’s the clients who are expanding their businesses and it’s our goal to be able to support them,” says Carousel executive VP for services Paul Pinto. “It really has become a center of excellence for us.”
Carousel uses quarterly reviews, a rating process and background checks to find its partners, seeking those with financial viability, size and skills [technical and customer-facing].
“We put a big emphasis on customer success and life cycle management,” says Gardner. “The way we do a deal in Boston should be the same way we do it in London and Asia PAC. Global customers understand this is the way it’s done. Very few have an office in every town around the world.
“Customers are expecting you to be able to do it, especially Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 customers. It’s not without its challenges, but for the most part, it’s been a good experience. The risk is, if 10 percent of the project goes bad, that’s what the customer remembers,” he says.
These days, Carousel is hiring and training people to work globally, says Pinto.
“Culture plays a role in this,” he says. How do you hand over something as simple as a business card? There are subtleties but it’s important that you understand them. We have relationships at the executive levels. We can’t allow our client to suffer. You’d be surprised at how days turn into weeks.
“We always ask ourselves, ‘how do we make it easier for the customer to do business with us?’ As our clients’ business plans evolve globally, we’re there to enable them,” says Pinto.
A Surprise Global Adventure
Jeff Irvin, principal at Spinitar and president of PSNI Global Alliance, is one AV integration leader who has been surprised at the proliferation of global AV opportunities for his company and the alliance that he once viewed primarily as a resource for AV integration industry insights.
“I didn’t have any grandiose expectations that [AV globalization] was going to be important to our customers or to us,” says Irvin, noting most of the company’s early international work came through federal government contracts that took them to U.S. consulates, embassies and military bases.
Carousel Industries boasts about 800 global partners in a network it’s built over the last decade.
“The ability us to deploy globally has opened up a number of opportunities we were probably guarded about pursuing in the past. It was a bit of a hot potato that we danced around,” says Irvin.
“Even though you hear a lot of conversation about the world getting smaller, I guess I wasn’t truly experiencing it. It’s amazing to me that we find ourselves deploying for customers outside the southwest U.S. much more regularly,” he says.
Before PSNI became a global alliance with 74 members in 175 offices on six continents, Spinitar relied on what Irvin calls “a mish-mash of subcontracted labor or partners” for its global deployments. Now, with enterprise clients increasingly asking for global AV installations, it’s something Spinitar does better.
“It’s about better educating our sales and operations team and trusting in our ability to do this work,” he says. “There’s a lot at risk. We don’t want to jeopardize our relationships with a large enterprise account.”
Establishing a Global Presence
Julian Phillips, executive VP at Whitlock, is among the pioneers in thinking about AV globalization as a founding member of the 11-year-old Global Presence Alliance.
“The reason for the GPA was not just because we wanted to be global and thought the business would follow,” says Phillips. “There was a need and we wanted to be able to meet that need. We’ve tried to develop plans around our customers.”
Before PSNI became a global alliance with 74 members in 175 offices on six continents, Spinitar relied on what Jeff Irvin calls “a mish-mash of subcontracted labor or partners” for its global deployments.
Because the GPA lets its 25 members around the world take the lead on projects in their regions, Whitlock’s global AV deployments represent about 10 percent of its overall work. That’s OK with Phillips, though, who says the company and Alliance have bigger goals in mind.
“We don’t want to be in a death race to $1 billion,” he says. “We have a much longer-term view. If we can be a trusted advisor for many enterprise customers over many years, the value will be much greater.
“If you’re looking to drive enterprise value, you can’t just ask how much money you’re going to make out of a customer in six months or a year. Taking that long-term view means you have the ability to invest resources and reap the benefits. Short-term thinking doesn’t allow you to achieve that.
“We don’t see global as being a revenue model,” says Phillips. “It’s no longer a surprise when an opportunity comes up. We’ve been working on these opportunities for a long time.”
GPA members share a customer relationship management portal that allows them to understand more fully what each member is pursuing and what their roles could be in those deployments, he says. The GPA followed the OneWorld and Star Alliance model of airlines pairing up to improve global service.
GPA University represents a way for members to learn best practices when it comes to AV globalization.
“We saw the opportunity for global integration several years ago,” says Phillips. “We had that view that what global enterprise customers were looking for was simplification, standardaztion and scale across the enterprise. The old adage ‘get big, get niche or get out’ plays out on a global scale.
“To provide truly global service for collaboration, you have to be able to bring together organizations and people from diverse range of cultures who are embedded in local countries,” he says.
More AV integration industry insights: 2019 State of the Industry Special Report
And, while the GPA has been thinking global for a while now, that doesn’t mean they’ve done everything right for the past 11-plus years. Their first mistake was what Phillips calls the Imperialist model of thinking the way business is done here is the way it’s done around the world.
“We learned very early on that the way people collaborate is very different,” he says.
Phillips also knows the idea of being global is about more than real estate. “Just having offices in a few key locations doesn’t necessarily meet the global need,” he says.