Owning Up to Bumps Paved the Road To Success for This $48 Million Integration Firm

Under an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, Unified AV has rectified what could have been a fatal flaw in its project management structure to become one of the model integration firms in the industry.

Five years after Atlanta-based Multi Media Services and Charlotte, N.C.-based Video Systems of the Carolinas became Unified AV Systems in June 2011, the company has become one of the model integration firms in the industry.

But that doesn’t mean the road to being a $48 million company in 2015 was smooth by any means. In fact, Unified AV Systems has gone through a number of changes and challenges on the road to greatness, but now seems poised to continue the growth trajectory in 2016 and well beyond.

Along the way, Unified AV adopted an employee stock ownership plan model and has completely revamped its project management structure to streamline the process and put the right people in the right places for customers.

“I think one of our differentiators is our process,” says Barry Goldin, who became president of Unified AV in June 2014, a move that made founding partners Bruce Banbury and Jim Pressley principals of UAV about a year after Goldin arrived.

Giving Employees a Stake in Success

The 2011 sale that brought together Multi Media Services and Video Systems of the Carolinas as Unified AV Systems allowed founder Roger MacWhirter to retire and join the board of directors and made Pressley and Bruce Banbury the new leaders of Unified AV; it was their strategy to hire Goldin to lead the company.

Additionally, the new company was structured as an ESOP to benefit and strengthen the employee relationship, according to Goldin. The employee group, Pressley and Banbury each own approximately one-third of the stock; the eventual plan is for the company to be 100 percent employee owned. 

Unified AV Systems 
Primary Location: Atlanta
Additional Locations: Regional Offices – Columbia, S.C.; Greenville, S.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Greensboro, N.C.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Knoxville, Tenn. Marietta, Ga. – Purchasing, billing and other business functions.
Principals: Bruce Banbury – Principal/Founder Partner; Jim Pressley – Principal/Founder Partner; Barry Goldin – President; Mark Fennell – CFO; Ken Colson – Sr. VP of Sales and Marketing; Tom Taylor – Sr. VP/PMO; Scott Wood – Sr. VP of Technical Services
Years in Business: 40
Employees: 135
Total Revenues: 2015 Actual Revenue – $47.8M; 2016 Budget Revenue – $53M
Number of Commercial Installs Last Year: 900 total projects in 2015; about 500 were for commercial clients
Top 3 Markets: Corporate, Higher Ed, K-12
Top 5 Brands: SMART Technologies, Crestron, Epson, NEC, Cisco

“My company does design/build engineering and custom installation services better than any other company.”

The creation of the ESOP was “a very dramatic step” for Unified AV, says Goldin, who calls it “an integral part of our story.” The idea to try it, he says, came from talks involving Pressley and Banbury when they were discussing succession plans.

Both knew each other well from years of participating in USAV Group meetings and activities. Neither Banbury nor Pressley had children with interest in the industry so they needed to find another way to keep the company going after they were gone. Protecting the intellectual capital of the employees and rewarding the long-term relationships were key factors.

“The ESOP was a great way to accomplish everyone’s individual objectives,” says Goldin. “You’re rewarding your employees for what they do to make the business viable.” Shares are distributed to employees based on their compensation in keeping with federal guidelines for such a program.

After all of the first batch of one-third of the company’s stock is distributed, Unified AV plans to purchase more stock from Banbury and Pressley, says Goldin. He sees the ESOP model, one that’s relatively rare in the integration world, as a differentiator that helps not only with recruiting talent, but also with retention.

“It certainly helps you offer a better value proposition to those who are looking for long-term employment and not just another stop along the way to their next job,” says Tom Taylor, senior VP and project management officer at Unified AV. “You don’t have to compete dollar for dollar because you’re offering something more.

“The common theme among the people here who stay here for a long time is ‘we’re building something good and I don’t want to start over.’ Five years in, the value and the vision of this is being seen. Now they see how many shares they actually own.”

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In the summer of 2015, for instance, Unified AV was able to recruit an employee who had more than 20 years’ worth of industry experience largely because of its ability to offer him an ESOP opportunity while his other suitors didn’t have one.

“He saw the ESOP as an integral reason to join the company,” says Goldin. “It’s one more chance to build up your wealth beyond your salary and savings.”

Unified’s ESOP is still in the early stages, but it’s to the point where some employees are realizing its potential.

“We talk about the projections of what it could be,” says Goldin. “We’re not retiring as millionaires yet, but could be at some point.” Goldin says about 75 percent of Unified’s employees “act and think like owners,” a percentage that’s steadily increasing.

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