On his 40-acre property halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, Ron Prier oversees far more than just the rolling hills and horses that dot the land. It is here that Prier manages what began a decade ago as an uncertain venture, a commercial integration firm that he began without a deep technical background.
But not only has RPAV succeeded, it has sprouted: Today Prier manages four corporations that tie into the RPAV umbrella, a four-pronged integration outfit that Prier oversees from the comfort of his Bowersville, Ga. estate.
The first of those four prongs is the original enterprise, RPAV, an integration firm that specializes in retail, hospitality and restaurants. There is Pathway AV, the newest spinoff, an integration firm focused solely on the house of worship market — fertile territory in Prier’s neck of the woods. There is R&D Manufacturing, a rack fabrication company that builds and ships custom-built A/V racks domestically and to Europe. And finally there is Technology Infusions, a hospitality solutions company that installs and services the A/V systems used in timeshare presentations and is the only one of Prier’s four businesses that is not headquartered on his farm.
So how did a guy with little firsthand experience as a systems integrator start his own instantly successful integration firm and one that was so successful, in fact, that it grew into a quadruple-headed integration hydra?
The beginnings are humble, and involve a chain of Italian restaurants.
Chain Restaurant Roots
The short version of a long story that involves a string of corporate acquisitions, failed spinoffs and one set of crooked business owners is that in the early ’80s Prier owned several franchises of an Italian restaurant chain in Atlanta, for which he sourced his music from an early satellite music provider.
RPAV/R&D Fabrication/Pathway AV/Technology Infusionsrpav.netPRIMARY LOCATION: Bowerville, Ga.PRINCIPALS: RPAV: Ron Prier, owner; R&D Fabrication: Ron Prier & Don Wilson, co-founders; Pathway AV: Ron Prier, CEO; Charles Prier, principal; Technology Infusions: Ron Prier, Robert Kenny, Chris Conlon, membersYEARS IN BUSINESS: 9EMPLOYEES: 14
2012 COMMERCIAL PROJECTS: 135
TOP 3 VERTICAL MARKETS: Retail, Hospitality, HOW
TOP 5 BRANDS: Lab.gruppen, Rane, Lowell
“My company builds racks and does roll-outs better than any other company.”
Before long he got out of the “grueling, terrible” restaurant business and went into business with the guys he had sourced his restaurant music from. He travelled the path of mergers, failed spinoffs and new startups — all in the music systems installations business — for over a decade, working his way up various ladders until he was the East Coast regional operations manager for AEI Music.
Because his job involved a lot of travel and he owned some horses with his wife, he bought a 40-acre property in North Georgia. Eventually AEI Music merged with DMX music service and the AEI entity eventually folded in 2003, which is when Prier’s semi-nomadic professional journey began to come to an end.
Silo 1: RPAV
Done with the corporate thing, Prier decided to go into business for himself, though not quite by himself. He and his wife, Angela, started RPAV in 2004. She did the books; he and a partner did the installs.
“My wife and I sat down and talked. We said, ‘Hey, we’re going to try this, and we’re going to do it for a year, no matter what. No matter if we make any money,’” he says.
If it seems a stretch for someone with a corporate and sales background to go into the installation business, Prier says that his time in operations actually paved that path for him.
“All during this time I became a very technical manager,” he says. AEI began developing its own technical resources, and Prier was part of a team that helped train A/V integrators in how to install and operate those products. “I managed people but also was very much involved in the technical side,” says Prier.
And so began RPAV in 2004. That first year Prier relied on the network he’d built in his operations experience to find work.
“I started as a contractor, because that’s the business I knew. I had enough contacts that I was able to contract for lots of different people. I didn’t even sell anything,” he says. It was an uncertain and arduous beginning, and in some ways a return to the trying times he’d tried to leave behind in the service industry. But he and his wife were determined to give it a go.
“Make it or break it, we knew that it would take a year for us to make a decision,” Prier says. “We actually did really well the first year. It almost killed me, because I was doing a lot of the physical work.”
Since then Prier continued to use his old contacts and relationships in the digital music franchising business to earn contracts across the country, developing RPAV into a thriving business (Prier declined to share financial data of his company, so just how thriving is unknown).
RPAV’s success is driven by Prier’s networking, as well as certain business practices that Prier says makes for more efficient operations and happier customers. First, he believes in having core products that his technicians work with repeatedly so they are expert in them and can install and service them flawlessly.
Second, Prier has developed what he calls “the systems narrative,” an agreement between the installer and the customer that establishes ahead of installation what a system will do, then provides a checklist to evaluate post-installation that the system in fact does everything it was intended to do. This doesn’t just satisfy customers, it eliminates the problem of sales people selling systems that can’t be delivered, Prier says.
“It stops scope-creep, because we have an agreement in the beginning of what it’s going to do,” he says. “‘You asked for this, and we delivered this.’”
Silo 2: Technology Infusions
One of RPAV’s first national contracts was installing the A/V systems that Wyndham Vacation Resorts uses to make its timeshare sales pitches. The work was lucrative and intensive enough that Prier eventually partnered with a company called Steel Beach Productions to form a new company that they named CaptiveEye, dedicated to the Wyndham account. This was RPAV’s first spinoff silo, later renamed Technology Infusions, based in St. Augustine, Fla.
“To this day Technology Infusions supplies the sales technology and the content for Wyndham vacation resorts,” Prier says. The key to Technology Infusions’ success, he says, is a quarterly service contract for hardware maintenance and software upgrades.
“It’s an interesting concept because we get that money up front, so it’s a matter of managing our resources and our expenses,” he says. “It’s different than anything else. It doesn’t really have peaks and valleys. It’s really even.”
So even and steady, in fact, that Wyndham is still the only client that Technology Infusions has, though Prier says the company is actively courting additional contracts.
“For so long it’s been a one-customer company. And we’ve done very well with it, but if that customer ever goes away the company is just gone. So we’re presently trying to resolve that.”
Silo 3: R&D Fabrication
A concept that Prier says he developed and implemented while working with AEI was building racks to spec for companies with nationwide franchises — including Red Lobster restaurants — and shipping them to job sites, ready to roll essentially as plug-and-play components.
Fast forward to the RPAV days, and Prier had a contract with Bose to install audio equipment in Hollister chains, the youth clothing company. Bose would specify and ship all the parts of a rack to a job sites and have them assembled by whoever was on hand. To Prier this was nonsensical and inefficient: Each rack was built slightly differently and its quality depended on the skills of the particular crew on site. Prier, harkening back to his AEI rack-build days, pitched Bose the idea of building all its racks off site and to a uniform standard. The company agreed.
Later, Bose and Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister’s parent company, became entangled in an argument over which company had the intellectual property rights to the rack design and concept (Prier says that this dispute led to A&F’s existing policy that every vendor that works with A&F signs an agreement stating that their work product belongs to A&F). Prier says A&F fired Bose from its contract over this dispute.
The firing happened on a Friday. The following Monday, Prier flew into Columbus, Ohio to meet with A&F officials. He brought along with him Don Wilson of Wilson Audio Video Engineering (WAVE), who was servicing the A/V systems for A&F’s Midwest franchises, and who was a friend and former colleague from AEI.
“We sat down, they said ‘Bose is out, we fired them. We know you’re building their racks. Will you build them for us?’” Prier recalls. Since Wilson had been doing the service, A&F wanted Prier and Wilson as a team. “Don and I looked at each other, said, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’ They said, ‘Well what’s the name of your company?’ In about 30 seconds we came up with R&D Fabrication. Ron & Don Fabrication.”
That was in 2008. In 2012 R&D was the most profitable of all the RPAV-related companies, due primarily to the growth of Hollister stores in Europe. The racks are built on Prier’s rural Georgia property in a shop that has transformers that enable the technicians to program, test and burn-in each rack to the power specifications of the country the rack will be shipped to. When complete, the racks are packed into crates assembled by Prier’s team.
And while Prier’s property may be in the middle of nowhere, it’s actually conveniently located for shipping: He says it’s eight miles from the nearest stoplight but just 10 miles from I-85, the main corridor between Atlanta and Charlotte. A big help for R&D’s principal client, A&F.
“Abercrombie actually handles the shipping logistics,” Prier says. “We just call for a transportation request. They come with a truck and pick it up and we bill them for it.”
Shane Carlson, senior specialist of A/V systems for A&F, oversees the A/V installations and upkeep in somewhere between 900 and 1,000 A&F-associated franchises. He says that he has no doubt his company’s international expansion of the last decade-plus would have been much more difficult without the help of Prier, Wilson and the team at RPAV and R&D Fabrication, which handles the rack design and installation for all Hollister and Gilly Hicks stores, domestic and international.
His company has a strict design and implementation process that is routinely reviewed through internal audits, and Carlson says that the rack design and installation is one component of a project he never has to worry about — and having one less big thing to worry about in those reviews is a huge weight off his shoulders.
“That’s probably the biggest thing on our end,” Carlson says. “Finding people you don’t have to constantly check on every step of the way is the only way we can possibly make it happen.”
Silo 4: Pathway AV
Three years ago Prier installed an A/V system in Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, where he is a deacon and a Sunday school teacher. Most equipment was donated and it was a test lab, of sorts, for working in the house of worship market, though that vertical was a market he had for years resisted getting into — too much red tape, too many skeptics to be won over and church committees to navigate. The members of Prier’s church were similarly skeptical about bringing video into their 300-seat congregation, but they quickly came to love it.
That enthusiasm, coupled with two other factors, drove Prier to consider the HOW market. First, he had virtually no local contracts for any of his businesses — RPAV did most of its work elsewhere across the U.S., R&D Fabrication shipped its products overseas, and Technology Infusions did its business in far-away resorts. Save for a couple of local banks, Prier had nothing close to home.
The second factor that made Prier reconsider his reservations toward the worship market was a gross excess of opportunity.
“I live in the Bible belt,” Prier says. “Here there’s a church on every corner… within a five-mile radius of us there’s 58 churches.”
And beyond the scores of churches in close proximity to Prier’s home in Northeast Georgia was the fact that there was a dearth of meaningful competition for their business. A company in Atlanta did installs but wouldn’t do service. Another company in Greenville, N.C. did service but charged for travel time, including the two-hour round-trip drive. Churches had come to view these companies as inconvenient and exorbitantly expensive, Prier says.
“So I said, ‘Hmm. No competition, heavily saturated with this vertical and we already are a vendor for products that we could use,’” he says.
It was a no-brainer.
Pathway AV opened for business in October, 2012. Prier created a packaged solution of Harman products — microphones, amplifiers, monitors, consoles, loudspeakers — targeted at churches of 250 seats and fewer. Just as it does for his RPAV work, using the same products repeatedly creates a level of familiarity and simplicity for his technicians and makes it easier for them to train their customers.
So far the company has met success. Prier launched it in October of 2012 with the goal of doing $1 million in revenue in its first year and at the end of August Prier said the company was on pace to hit that goal.
Four Legs Better than One
If it sounds like it’s been all sunshine and puppy dogs for Prier, he assures you it has not.
Just as it was for the industry as a whole, the recession took a toll on his enterprises, and he is particularly frustrated with what he sees as a national political climate that is hostile toward small businesses. But almost unquestionably, the way in which he quickly diversified his company from one entity into first three, and now four, semi-independent business silos helped him weather the storm and has positioned him for long-term stability.
The proof: Prier says that a different company has been his top earner each of the last three years.
Dealing with Illness
Just as CI went to press with this story on Ron Prier and RPAV, Prier called to say there was something he’d been deciding whether or not he wanted to share. He decided to tell us, and it is that he has end-stage renal disease (ESRD).
The implications for Prier are that his kidneys have failed and he is on dialysis. He is also on the transplant list for kidneys and says he expects to receive a transplant this year. He doesn’t tell everyone about it but told CI, he said, because he wants to offer counsel to anyone who may be going through something similar. He also hopes he may be able to provide some inspiration to anyone in such a situation.
“Here I am, I have all these different irons in the fire, different enterprises, and [am] able to handle all of that along with my medical issues,” he says. “They can have a normal complete life.”
Prier’s disease stems from his lifelong diabetes, which he says also left him blind at one point until two surgeries restored his eyesight. Now he undergoes dialysis at home five to six days a week, three hours at a time; his wife, Angela, is his caregiver. His situation is made somewhat easier by the fact that his office and home are on the same property. A former member of the U.S. Coast Guard, he also enjoys veterans’ benefits and has a private insurance policy to manage cost overruns. He also has supportive employees, he says, who understand his situation.
“It’s part of our culture, everyone knows what my limitations are,” he says. Those limitations include knowing when to pack it in — the days of getting four hours of sleep at night are gone.
“In a sense it’s a blessing, in a sense it’s just an inconvenience,” Prier says. “It has made me look a little closer at what — and I don’t want to get churchy on you — but on what God has in store for me.”
Prier credits the National Kidney Foundation with advancing research and cures for kidney disease. To learn more about the National Kidney Foundation visit kidney.org.
It helps that between the four companies he employees just 14 full-time staff, most of whom are capable of switching from one enterprise to another as demand warrants.
That model of stability earned Prier a 2012 Excellence in Business Award in the area of Growth Strategies from the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA; Prier is a member of the NSCA board of directors).
“When one is busier than the other I can shift my resources on a dime. It’s wonderful. Now if all enterprises were hitting on all four cylinders and they were all successful, I would be in trouble,” he says. “But that has never happened and I don’t anticipate it.”
Prier tries to draw his staff from diverse backgrounds, preferring both the focus of former military men — Prier, himself, served in the Coast Guard before getting into the restaurant business, and he comes from a military family — as well as creative musician-types.
“The guys at RPAV are great,” says Wilson, who in addition to being Prier’s partner in R&D Fabrication also works with him on integration projects around the country. Wilson credits the RPAV team with being flexible, responsive and reliable.
Finding the Next Pathway
The beauty of Prier’s success is reflected by his idyllic surroundings, where he is able to enjoy the unbeatable convenience of having his personal and professional lives so closely stitched together on 40 acres of idyllic countryside.
“The shop is built at the end of the road, the office is at the end of the road. And the house is up on the hill,” he says. There is also a warehouse built out of two converted 80-foot shipping containers where that warehouse the fabrication parts and the contracting inventory.
How everything came together seems an amalgam of intense hard work, ingrained business practices, opportunism, and good fortune.
“I don’t know if it’s luck,” he says. “Some of it wasn’t by design but it certainly came out correctly.”
It’s probably a safe bet that the RPAV umbrella that exists now will look a bit different a few years from now. For one thing, Technology Infusions has become a headache to manage remotely.
“If I had any advice to any entrepreneur, it would be never have more than one roof. It’s too much. It’s a challenge, and sometimes it’s taxing.”
But the biggest reason that RPAV will likely continue to evolve is Prier’s entrepreneurial nature.
As always, Prier is looking for his next opportunity and isn’t exactly afraid of expanding further — he sees an IT division as the next logical step, quite likely following a model similar to the one he pursued with Pathway AV in tapping into the underserved market all around him.
“IT in a rural area? I mean, my goodness,” he says. “There ain’t anybody that does it.”