Our 2020 Integrator of the Year is a Little Different This Year

Published: 2020-11-30

There are a lot of quotes that spring to mind when thinking about a decade of covering the AV industry, starting with, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” 

Another one that fits when looking specifically at the Integrator of the Year profiles we’ve done every December since 2011 is, “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” 

We like to think we’ve tapped into some of the brightest minds in the industry and gotten them to share (some of) the secrets of their success with us—and with you—in an effort to bring the entire industry up a notch through their AV business advice. 

Instead of singling out one Integrator of the Year for 2020, we decided to look back into our own history and pluck some of the AV business advice we’ve gained from the previous honorees.

It’s no secret that 2020 has been a very different year for everyone across the AV industry because of the coronavirus and that led us to think differently about how to handle this year’s annual honor. 

Instead of singling out one Integrator of the Year for 2020, we decided to look back into our own history and pluck some of the AV business advice we’ve gained from the previous honorees. 

It’s hard to believe that something AVI-SPL CEO John Zettel said in our first Integrator of the Year profile in 2011, for example, would have any application to the AV industry nine years later, but we’ve found that actually to be the case. 

Did he have a DeLorean, or is he just a smart guy who thinks ahead? 

Let’s dive into our prior Integrator of the Year profiles and see what we’ve learned from those illustrious business leaders.

If we didn’t learn it the first time around, here’s another chance to grab some needed AV business advice from some of the smartest and most well-respected people in your profession. 

2011: AVI-SPL 

Unlike future years, there wasn’t any debate among CI staff when it came to choosing AVI-SPL as our 2011 Integrator of the Year.

The Tampa, Fla.-based company was clearly the largest company in the AV integration world and Zettel had plenty of insight he was willing to share about how they got there. 

“The way we embrace (the convergence of AV and IT) today will affect our success greatly in years to come,” Zettel told former CI editorial director John Zettel for the first Integrator of the Year interview. 

What can you learn from Zettel’s words?

It’s not surprising AVI-SPL was one of the leaders in embracing AV and IT convergence and the results speak for themselves, with the company continuing to be at the top of the list when it comes to annual revenue every year since (with a brief dip to #2 when Diversified became the industry’s first $1 billion company, but more on all of that later). 

What’s perhaps more surprising is how many AV companies didn’t follow AVI-SPL’s lead and embrace the convergence when they had the chance.

Most of them are footnotes in history at this point but there are still some companies that just can’t figure out how to bring the two disciplines together. 

2012: Applied Visual Communications 

A lot of readers might look at this pick as a miss on CI’s part since the company has since gone out of business, so really, what could they know?

AVC was the integrator InfoComm International (now known as AVIXA) chose to outfit its training room at the association’s Fairfax, Va., headquarters.

The room was named in former InfoComm executive director Randy Lemke’s honor as he stepped aside in favor of current AVIXA leader David Labuskes at the end of 2012. 

So while it’s true AVC hasn’t installed any AV systems or signed any recurring revenue deals lately, the impact of the company’s work comes through every day in the education thousands of AVIXA members get both in the training room near D.C. and online through the ever-expanding online catalog. 

“My job is to make sure every employee has the tools and resources available to do their jobs,” AVC CEO Carole Peters told me back then. “In that regard, I feel like I work for them, not the other way around.” 

Leaders know their success hinges in large part on the people who work for them. It’s not just a one-person operation. 

2013: CCS Presentation Systems 

There is no company in the AV industry quite like CCS Presentation Systems, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

While many of the corporate-type functions are run out of the hub office, each location is run as an independent entity under founder John Godbout. 

He’s clear this isn’t a franchise situation but an arrangement where entrepreneurs have the opportunity to live out their dreams of being business owners while also having a lifeline to Godbout and the rest of the CCS leadership team whenever they need it. 

It comes down to trust for Godbout. CCS vets all owners before handing them the CCS brand and extends their vast knowledge to them whenever they need it.

“We have a bunch of people who really care,” Godbout told me when I asked him the secret of his company’s success.

That humility certainly downplays the challenges of managing a business that’s in all corners of the U.S. while also letting those in charge learn from their mistakes. 

It comes down to trust for Godbout. CCS vets all owners before handing them the CCS brand and extends their vast knowledge to them whenever they need it.

He loves watching these owners succeed and not just because he knows it helps CCS. He likes it because he wants people to do well. 

There is no ego in John Godbout. One person I interview for this profile described him as “a proud papa” and that’s even more evident now as CCS continues to grow and expand its reach to this day. 

2014: Electrosonic 

We chose Electrosonic as our 2014 Integrator of the Year in part to link the selection with the company’s 50th anniversary, but the truth is they were a perfect choice in any year as one of the pioneers of the AV industry as it stands today. 

“When [Electrosonic] started, there wasn’t really an AV industry,” since-retired president and CEO Jim Bowie told me in the interview for this profile. “We helped to shape the direction.” 

In the early days of Electrosonic, “you couldn’t go to the store and get boxes” for an AV installation, says Bowie.

So, instead of watching the new company fizzle almost as quickly as it began, “we made the equipment ourselves,” he says, noting a trend that continued until a few years ago, when Electrosonic spun its manufacturing arm off to Extron. 

“That gave us a unique perspective and a unique role in the industry,” Bowie told me. 

Without Electrosonic, who knows how different the AV industry would look today? 

2015: Yorktel 

This was another controversial Integrator of the Year pick for many in the CI audience, but it came at a time when much of the focus in the AV industry was just starting to turn to recurring revenue.

It’s still slow going in that area, but many have made some good progress. 

Yorktel CEO Ron Gaboury told me at the time the company didn’t sign an integration contract unless it included a recurring revenue component.

Yorktel CEO Ron Gaboury told me at the time the company didn’t sign an integration contract unless it included a recurring revenue component.

That’s part of why about half of Yorktel’s revenue in those days came through service rather than installation. 

Sure, that’s a lofty number for some AV integrators to even consider, but there’s an example to follow.  

“It’s a way of helping people manage the products they’ve invested all of this money in,” Gaboury told me, but he knows it’s not easy and takes time to do well.

“There’s an investment that goes along with providing these services, both in terms of infrastructure and the talent pool.” 

2016: Diversified 

This year marked the start of what became almost five years of nonstop industry-changing mergers and acquisitions and Kenilworth, N.J.-based Diversified kicked off the flurry of activity with a whopper when it acquired previous CI cover subject Technical Innovation of Atlanta. 

They weren’t done there, either—and founder Fred D’Alessandro has learned over the years how to balance the idea of growth and synergy with the core values of the company he started. 

“Obviously, before we closed any of the deals, our No. 1 priority is the culture,” D’Alessandro told me.

Diversified has since grown to become the first in AV to reach $1 billion in revenue but D’Alessandro continues to say that was never really what he was trying to do by adding more talent to his organization. 

“Obviously, before we closed any of the deals, our No. 1 priority is the culture,” D’Alessandro told me then and continues to tell me every time Diversified makes another acquisition.

“That’s made the transition much easier. We’ve got people who put the company and our customers ahead of themselves.” 

Some deals don’t work as well as other, but Diversified is learning how to make the transition smoother for all involved and seems to have the formula down at this point. 

2017: The Mega Integrator 

We went in a little bit of a different direction with this choice, focusing on the AV industry’s massive growth at the time and the idea that a company could soon reach the $1 billion revenue level, which happened with both Diversified and AVI-SPL within the same week in 2019. 

Private equity and venture capital firms were just starting to become a factor in AV in 2017 and that dynamic helped to accelerate the growth in many cases and speed the pace of change in a lot of ways.

It was a fun time to be covering AV because the news just kept on coming. 

“We’ve got a David and Goliath story, with a whole lot of Davids and a few Goliaths,” SCA executive director Chuck Wilson told me. “I don’t see it slowing down at all.” 

Outside investments in the integration space “makes sense,” Wilson said at the time, knowing it affected NSCA members.

“They’ve seen success in our industry.” The increased importance of AV over IP, intelligent building and building automation were attractive to investors. 

“The more our stuff touches the network, the more appeal we’ll have with the investment community. We’re now a source of profitability for them,” said Wilson. 

2018: Ford Audio-Video 

This family-run operation has pretty much the same leadership team it did when Jim and Claire Ford started it in 1973, but don’t assume that means the company is stuck in the old days.

They do some things the same way they always have but there’s plenty of innovation going on too. 

Still, the thing that separates Ford AV from the increasingly crowded pack of AV integration firms is the way they treat their customers. Sure, everyone says their customers are their top priority, but the Ford AV team proves it by their actions. 

Related: Scaling Up Your Growing Firm: A Systems Integration Business Model for Growth

“Our primary focus is keeping our promises to customers,” Jim Ford told me in a rare interview for this profile. “It’s easy to talk, it’s easy to sell, but it’s hard to do the work 

Once you get to a certain point of success, it’s good for your employees to believe in a company that’s interested in doing the right thing. It’s good for your customers, too.

“The day they believe you’re working on their behalf is the day they’ll trust you more,” he said. 

2019: Solutionz, Inc. 

Our most recent Integrator of the Year honoree is a company most people still might not know, although they’ve certainly made their presence felt in the past 12 months or so, including a high-profile acquisition late in 2019 of former CI cover subject Unified Technology Systems. 

And it sure sounds you haven’t heard the last of Solutionz, if CEO Bill Warnick has anything to say about it—and he does, since he leads the company. 

“If you’re going to do something, you want to be the best at what you do,” Warnick told me.

“We want to eat more than our share. If we drive each other in this industry, the people that will benefit is our customer base. 

“There’s a lot of pie out there to be eaten. If we keep going the route we’re going, if we keep growing through a combination of acquisition and organic growth, and we keep our eye on the ball and keep moving forward, we’ll be #1 in this industry,” says Warnick. 

We’ll have to see about that bold prediction from Warnick, but a lot has happened across the AV landscape that no one could have possibly seen coming so who knows what the next decade will bring? 

One thing is for sure: there is no shortage of talented, driven people leading AV integration firms today and we expect that to continue unabated until 2030 and well beyond.

It’ll be exciting to see the journey they take us on in the next decade and look back on how they predicted it all. 

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