About five years ago, Jesse Abbott realized the company he founded was at a critical juncture. Not because Scarborough, Maine-based Advance Technology was failing. It was the opposite predicament.
After launching as a security integration firm in 1994 and adding audio-video a decade later, Advance Technology’s business had reached a tipping point by 2009.
A company can “grow to $3 million as a mom-and-pop, but when you get to $5 million there’s an invisible barrier that most entrepreneurs can’t grow beyond,” Abbott says. “You can’t let go of what you need to let go of — control.”
Determined not to let his company and employees fall into that trap, Abbott searched far and wide for a sales manager to take some leadership tasks off his plate. He settled on a 30ish-year-old former security systems technician and salesperson from Toronto who had already owned and sold his own company — a Sonitrol franchise.
Rob Simopoulos turned out to be a good hire. It wasn’t long before Abbott, realizing that “I’ll want to back out eventually,” shifted Simopoulos from sales into more of an operational role, and he’s now president. With 38 employees, Advance Technology reached $7.7 million in revenues for fiscal 2013, and its executives have positioned it for continued growth.
“Rob and I are very different souls,” Abbott says. “He’s 20 some-odd years younger, but our minds run on the same sort of path and we can finish each other’s sentences.”
They were on the same page when it came to recognizing that both the security and AV integration industries were changing, and that it would be better to reorganize sooner than to try to play catchup later. There are three major market trends that most AV integrators can’t seem to effectively react to:
- Becoming more IT-centric as clients’ IT departments get more integral in their tech purchasing decision processes
- Earning more revenue through service as product margins dwindle
- Finding elusive young, technology-trained employees to choose a career in the AV industry over omnipresent IT
Advance Technology has turned each of these challenges into competitive advantages. For the $7.7 million firm, it wasn’t an option to throw money and resources at the issues. Instead, it relied on strategic planning and commitment.
‘We’re an IT Company’
As a security integration firm, Advance Technology didn’t touch the AV side of projects during the first decade of its existence.
Jay White, who worked for one of the AV integration firms it often crossed paths with on projects, came to Abbott with a premise that if he came on board as AV manager the company could excel by selling security and AV cohesively.
Abbott was intrigued but resisted. “I thought it was important to stay within our core competency,” he says, but White was persistent, insisting that the synergies between security and AV would make the risk worthwhile.
White overestimated. “At that time [a decade ago] I thought there were more synergies than there really were,” he acknowledges, and creating a security-AV integration firm proved more difficult than he expected. “Leveraging the skillsets that were in here was a challenge. It took a while to get ramped up.”
Combining security and AV integration did eventually prove to be a catalyst for Advance Technology, but not for the reasons White envisioned. When customers’ IT directors began to assume greater purchasing roles, it put Advance Technology in a compelling position. For security and AV solutions, “we’re calling on the same individuals in most cases, under the IT umbrella,” he says. “So that’s kind of our value proposition.”