Dave Meneely dropped out of high school 23 years ago. Today, he is principal of DGI, a firm he purchased with colleague Mike Walsh in 2015 that earned $47M in revenue in 2019 and was featured on the cover of Commercial Integrator magazine in April 2020.
It was during the interview process of that DGI Communications profile that CI came to learn about Dave’s incredible rise to success from humble beginnings.
Climbing the ranks of the AV industry step by step, Dave took chances, bet on himself, ventured out, returned, made some mistakes and experienced great triumph on his path. He hopes his story can be an inspiration to those that might not have had the typical path.
All You Need is a Start
“I wasn’t the best student. That started falling apart for me in my sophomore year of high school,” says Meneely. “I was just falling behind. I was always a hands-on learner, so I was just struggling.
“I probably wasn’t hanging out with the best crowds back then as a teenager. I dropped out of high school, ultimately,” he says.
“My father’s neighbor at the time was working at a local college in the AV department,” says Meneely. “I had decided I was going to get my GED, was able to get that done, and then he offered me a job basically lugging TV monitors and slide projectors around campus.”
Meneely had no idea that he had already found the industry where he would spend his career as a high school dropout in 1997; he simply needed to work.
As an 18-year-old on a college campus, Meneely took part in some of the same experiences the students did: socializing, scraping by and enjoying the freedoms of early adulthood. He worked hard and was reliable, and after a couple years earned a promotion as a result.
“When I started to understand it was an opportunity was after I moved into a salaried position,” says Meneely. “One of my jobs was to work with the AV integrators that were implementing the projects.
“That’s where I started to get my first real deep dive into integration. I spent a lot of time with the different integrators, just kind of learning the trade. That’s where my interest started to pique,” he says.
Meneely acted as a makeshift field technician as he learned how the AV systems were built. When professors had problems with equipment, he would work to resolve them before calling in the AV company if the solution was too complicated.
It was his first taste of what being an integrator would be like.
“I took a real liking to it because I realized that this was something you didn’t go to school for, and it was very hands-on,” says Meneely. “There was physical work involved, but a technician on-site was required to read engineering drawings. There was an element of programming.
“It kind of took a lot of things and tied it into one role,” he says.
Entering the AV Industry
One of the integration firms that was transitioning from selling boxes to true integration offered Meneely a job as a field technician in 2001. He was one of only about five field technicians at the company.
“It afforded me a lot of opportunity to dig into projects,” says Meneely. “I started to get my hands into the technical side of things. Initially I was out slinging cable and doing the grunt work, but once I learned a lot more, I was overseeing the closeout and training on the projects.”
Meneely saw a number of technologies he’d never seen before. He spent time with coworkers that had several years of experience to absorb their knowledge.
He started to learn how the systems go together, became familiar with the products, and spent his own time digging into technical specs of projects to learn how to implement those into a design.
“I just got really interested in how to put these systems together, and how to improve the process,” says Meneely. “Being a tech, I would spend time out there, hear feedback from customers, go to service calls.
“I had a lot of exposure to how customers were using the systems and why it was important to them. It was all very interesting to me,” he says.
Meneely looks back fondly on the camaraderie in that small group. The entire team would come together and had to figure out how to do things. It was only a handful of technicians working together constantly, and that brought the team closer together as a result.
Though younger and with less experience, Meneely’s ideas were as valued as anyone’s because of the nature of the team.
“I’m a pretty vocal guy, which back then was a positive and a negative for me,” he says. “I was vocal about my thoughts and ideas, and how to do things. It was such a small group, so I had everybody’s ear at that point—not that I was always right.”
One Step Back, Two Steps Forward
“I had taken my career as far as I could take it at that time as a technician,” says Meneely. “I was running some of the biggest projects that the company had. I was working with some of the most important customers.
“I got to a point where I would see salespeople put together systems, and I would implement those systems, and it didn’t really achieve what the customer wanted to achieve. I saw gaps in communication, and that’s when I got interested in taking my career to the next phase,” he says.
While strong on the technical side, Meneely was still green when it came to business. Sales seemed the perfect bridge to learning more about how businesses run, not only within the integration firms, but within the customer organizations they served.
“When I was a technician looking at a salesperson I had these assumptions,” he says. “Then when I went to look at sales, I realized that they are working really hard, and from a dollars-and-cents standpoint I was actually going to make quite a bit less money.
“It was a tough decision for me. I was a top earner as a technician, and part of the company did not want me to move into sales. And I’d be taking a pretty big pay cut,” says Meneely.
“I ultimately did it and it was tough,” he says. “You think you’re going to go to dinners and entertain clients and collect big commission checks, but I quickly learned that’s not the case. I had to develop some type of strategy, and at that point in my career I hadn’t had to think through a long-term strategy.”
Meneely found himself making less money, with the only way to make more money being through commission. Just picking up the phone and trying to find an opportunity was daunting. Meneely thought it would be easy, and the relationships he made as a technician were customers of colleagues. He had to learn to prospect and deal with the rejection of sales.
With no formal training program in place, Meneely leaned on his technical knowledge from the field, and found that having that technical knowledge was something customers appreciated. He began to look at himself as a sales engineer, helping to develop systems with customers.
It took about a year and a half, but that approach finally led to more sales for Meneely. His most successful strategy came with larger projects. In order to win bids, Meneely convinced senior leadership to offer projects with a reduced commission rate for himself.
His plan was to help manage those projects, retain customers, earning their trust first and earning the large commissions down the line.
“When I mentor younger people now and they’re struggling with decisions, I try to tell them that sometimes in order to make a move, it’s not always going to be an increase in salary,” says Meneely.
“It might be a lateral move, or you may have to take less money to advance your career,” he says. “So I always try to encourage them to be smart with how they’re spending, especially earlier in their career so they have some flexibility.”
Venturing Out on Your Own
“I ended up getting into a pretty big argument with the gentleman that was in charge of operations,” says Meneely, “And I didn’t handle it well. The COO, who I was pretty close with and was a mentor, asked me to take a couple days off.
“I remember showing up to that meeting with my notepad ready to hit the reset button, and he fired me,” he says.
The CEO told him not to burn any bridges, and that he believed what was best for Meneely at the time was to go out and see what was out there. While Meneely was upset at the time, he ended up working for them again down the line and this was a defining moment for him
In the interim, he worked for another integrator for nine months in sales before deciding to start his own company.
“I started a sub-contracting business from scratch,” he says. “Essentially, I was sub-contracting installation work out to the larger integrators. I started to learn more about business. We were never very big, the most employees I ever had was ten, but we were doing a significant amount of work for a small group.
At one point I called the gentleman that had fired me to let him know about my new business, they were growing, and he gave me a chance. We started doing a lot of sub-contract work for them and several other integrators,” says Meneely.
Meneely started that business in late 2006 and things were going well. Then the financial collapse of 2008 hit.
“My daughter was born that year, we had just moved into a new house and everything tanked,” says Meneely. “It was the worst possible timing. The good thing about it was that as a sub-contractor our team had come up with methods to work a little bit faster and smarter out in the field translating into cost savings to the integrators.”
Meneely offered fixed rates and was able to continue to earn work even while the economy collapsed. At the same time, one of his key employees had a daughter born with a life-threatening illness, and Meneely felt compelled to keep paying him while he was out with his family for several months. They worked around the clock, cut back, but ultimately survived.
“It was a difficult time,” says Meneely. “I think I learned a lot about running a company and what it truly takes to be a leader both in life and in business. We survived the recession, our employee’s daughter recovered and we found ways to adapt through it.”
Things began to pick up as the economy recovered. Meneely found new customers, hired new employees, and began selling again for his own company. He quickly realized that it was a whole new animal from only subcontracting labor – credit terms, getting signed on with manufacturers, and so on.
He did so for a while, but ultimately ended up talking with his former employer and agreeing to a merger-acquisition where they would purchase his firm.
“I had picked up some pretty big customers,” says Meneely. “We had talked through it, and we ended up coming back together and my entire company became their employees. We created a new division based out of New Hampshire. I was running that group and we ended up managing many of the strategic corporate accounts.”
“I had gotten a good dose of reality of what it took to own a business, and what it took as a leader to get through challenging times,” says Meneely. “At that particular moment in time I was extremely happy. We were doing huge amounts of business. I had a great team.
Everything was awesome and the thought of doing anything different never even came to mind—then that company was sold and that’s where things changed. Nothing against the new owners, but at that point, I had developed an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says.
That’s when Mark Rue approached Mike Walsh and Meneely about DGI.
DGI was mainly a large-format digital printer at the time, with a fledgling AV communications division.
Walsh and Meneely, then colleagues, purchased the entire company, and have since built it into a $47,000,000 powerhouse.
Walsh handles things like discovering new technologies and developing new business plans and Meneely handles the logistics and business operations.
The two have been able to build synergy within the company’s disparate branches working alongside the leaders of all the divisions to continue the company’s growth
Their 70,000 square foot expanded corporate headquarters in Billerica, Mass., houses a manufacturing facility for large formatprint and acoustic treatments alongside the AV
operations and 140 employees. DGI Communications is always innovating, recently entering an exclusive reselling partnership with Modus VR, which allows firms to build spaces in virtual reality for clients to experience before going ahead with a project and acquiring ACT Associates an AV consulting firm in 2019.
From a difficult beginning, Dave Meneely has forged a path in AV that has brought him to the top of a successful company, and that’s just what he’s done thus far.
If nothing else, his story should serve as a demonstration of how anyone with the right work ethic and understanding can come to the AV industry to grow.
CI: What are the biggest challenges to a new employee starting off in the AV industry?
DM: If you’re just getting into the industry today, the most difficult part is the education side because it’s changing so rapidly. You need to stay current.
CI: What can new members of the AV industry do to grow?
DM: It’s all about ambition and motivation. Wanting to be able to invest some sweat equity. I always say look at it like you’re running your own little business within a business. You need to invest in yourself and put the time in. From the business side, it’s about giving people who demonstrate that an opportunity to grow.
CI: What is your favorite thing about the AV industry?
DM: It’s changed over the years, but my favorite thing now is that it’s truly something businesses need. It’s really making an impact. What I love about what we do is it’s not so much an afterthought, and it’s really impacting businesses and people in a positive way.
CI: In what ways do you think the AV industry needs to change?
DM: AV is really becoming part of a company’s strategic business plan, so in the AV world I think what needs to change is more focus on design. Looking at how these systems are going to benefit the customers’ business objectives. Moving away from looking at a single room into looking at the overall architecture and solution.
CI: What’s your favorite type of AV technology?
DM: Right now, it’s the virtual reality technology. It’s exciting, and that’s one of the things I love.
CI: What would be your one piece of advice that everyone should follow to be a better employee?
DM: Self-invest. Demonstrate motivation and self-awareness of what you want to do. Then, one of the big things for me that I didn’t do well early in my career, is focus on communicating in a positive, professional, meaningful way.
CI: What would be your one piece of advice that everyone should follow to be a better manager?
DM: Having a better understanding of your team. Having a good professional relationship with your staff and really demonstrating that you care. You have to have the ability to know when something’s off with your team so you can communicate effectively and help them navigate through challenges.