When one sets out to encapsulate 50 years of a company’s history in a 297-page book, there needs to be a couple of elements in place:
- The right person to write it
- The right structure
Both fell into place easily for global integration firm Electrosonic as it set out to capture five decades of influence on and witness to the AV world.
Co-founder Robert Simpson was the obvious choice to write “Electrosonic – 50 Years on the Audio-Visual Front Line.” The former chairman of Electrosonic remains an active board member, enabling him to provide first-hand perspective for all 50 years.
Since Jim Bowie became CEO of Electrosonic in 2008 he had lobbied for some sort of historical document. “The company has been around a long time and the history was beginning to disappear and the truth is the only person who really had firsthand knowledge of the whole company’s history is Bob Simpson so he was not the best choice, he was the only choice,” he says.
Memories are tricky things, however, as Simpson points out. From 1980 on, the company put out a bi-annual newspaper style publication called Electrosonic World. “That was a terrific memory jogger because we could see the projects that went on. It was a little bit more difficult trying to remember the earlier stuff. Of course, as anybody growing older can tell you, often you can very much remember anything that happened when you were in your 20s much better than you can remember what happened last week. So the pictures of what we did in the early days were pretty vivid anyway.”
Simpson also leaned on a “quite comprehensive” archive of photos and press releases that “enabled me to verify the dates and verify that we got the facts more or less right.”
The structure of the book “fell out naturally when I discussed it with my colleagues,” Simpson says. There’s “A Short History” chapter, which recalls Electrosonic’s humble first office in London’s Greenwich Market. There are also sections on “Products and Technology,” “Projects,” “Services,” “People” and “Contribution to the AV Industry.”
The Greenwich vegetable market, home to Electrosonic’s first office.
Attempting to write a timeline of everything that happened every year would “be ludicrously complicated,” Simpson says. Each of the sections provide for nice narratives on their own. “So the structure really fell into place once you decided it wasn’t possible to literally do a straight chronology.”
The 297-page book, which reads like a history not just of Electrosonic but of AV technology, far exceeds the expectations Bowie had when he asked Simpson to compile something. “I was hoping to get a 10- or 12-page kind of condensed history of Electrosonic. Bob went off to see what he thought he could produce and he came about with an outline for this and I was blown away.”
[Editor’s note: It’s a really interesting read. From the mini-profiles of the countless folks that you may or may not know once worked for Electrosonic to the rundown of projects that show the evolution of technology, it’s tough to put down. It’s worth checking out.]
Simpson and Bowie talked to CI about “Electrosonic – 50 Years on the Audio-Visual Front Line” and their perspective on the integration industry.
On wrapping their heads around the role Electrosonic plays in AV’s historical narrative …
Bowie: [The book] is a technology timeline of the audio visual world. I think we have been part of that. When Electrosonic started there was no AV industry. We were trying to do things with audio and visual technology, but the industry didn’t exist, so Electrosonic’s history should read as a parallel to the audio visual history because it is the same thing.
We did a lot of work as a product company where we took a lot of risk and we worked a lot with new technologies. We were won of the first people in the world to create big video walls. We were one of the first companies to make low-cost, high definition video players.
Then if you look at the other side of the page on the system integration, to some degree we implement ideas that come from some of our design clients. We have to be a little bit careful claiming that we were the people who thought something up. Many times we were the ones who built it but the idea comes from the creative design, so there are many things that are memorable. Whether or not we can take all the credit for them we have to be very careful.
On Electrosonic’s dual businesses – products and integration – until its products division was acquired by Extron in 2010 …
Simpson: It was amazing to me that we were able to carry on doing products for so long, but that was a testament to the fact that we have always been pretty flexible and always tried to present the company in the way that the customer would like us to be. We didn’t waste time pretending to be a mega products company when clearly we weren’t. Of course, in the end, they actually did have to split.
Electrosonic was also a product manufacturer until 2010. Shown is a two-speed dissolve unit for slide projection, the ES2002 from the late sixties.
On being a service company …
Simpson: [At the end of a magnificent project] you would have a bit of anticlimax on now what to do next. The sort of people who can keep a site going, who can do the regular maintenance on it are a different breed of person and you have to recognize that. Providing a level of service on a continuing basis is a different thing than the excitement of building the big system and I would say that the main lesson is to choose your staff carefully so that you get the right mix of attributes to be able to offer the broad service that people want.
… I think the more difficult thing and which certainly we’re very conscious of is what services we can now offer? There were services that we could offer which are no longer needed because nobody needs somebody to come and service a 16-millimeter projector anymore. So you do not need those kinds of skills, but the question is what services are needed and identifying new services. Most managed services and things like that, well even they are vulnerable to new developments. The need for some of these services may go away and I think that is what people like us have to be very aware of.
Electrosonic founders Robert Simpson, Michael Ray and Denis Naisbitt in 1974.
Bowie: We provided service to our customers as a separate entity, as a standalone piece of the company pretty much our whole history and what makes us different from systems integrators is we were a product manufacturer so we had to support the customer, we had to have guys in vans go out on calls. We had to have a repair bench. We had to have all of that because we were a manufacturer so what makes us different is that we had that for almost all of our 50 years. [Our service] business and very well developed, we know each other’s clients, we understand when they scream that we have to run and I think most systems integrators basically try and use the system integration resources to service their client’s other needs and to maybe help them establish contracts for onsite technicians and things like these. They see it as part of their one business whereas we don’t. We absolutely see it as a completely separate thing and has a general manager in each of the locations and we have dedicated staff. I see even very large companies who say they provide service, but they mix the blood and I think that is where they shouldn’t because it is not a business to them.
On projects they’re most proud of …
Bowie: We do work in the financial markets with the big banks and we do work with government and that does not tend to be as cutting edge.
But the work we do at museums and theme parks typically the designers they are wanted as something new and different and so almost any job we work on in that arena is to some degree groundbreaking because that is sort of the nature of the business, everybody wants something new. Almost every job we work on is memorable.
Simpson: There’s a picture of it is on page 184. The section is called “The Two Newseums,” and if you look at the bottom of page 184, you will see this very wide screen thing, technically at the time  that was more than cutting edge. In fact, we were biting our nails as to whether it was going to work, but that is another story. That was a hugely influential project and one we were terribly proud to have been able to achieve.
If you look on page 164 there is a table of expo projects and one of my favorites has to be the telecommunications pavilion at Expo 92 where we built an 850-monitor videowall, which I think still holds the record for the most number of glass monitors. These are CRT monitors and it was interpreting an exhibition designers concept and actually literally doing what he wanted, which was you would have a pixilated wall where every pixel [represented part of the globe] and that was fun to do. Again, I am very proud of the fact that not only could we do it, but we could do it for the price, because it is all well to say you could do something, but can you actually do it on time and on budget so those sort of things are fun and these are projects that I personally was very much involved with.
Electrosonic built the world’s largest videowall at EXPO 92 in Seville with 850 CRT monitors.
On finding the technical people to get Electrosonic off the ground in 1964 …
Simpson: I think that is very difficult, particularly when you see it through the lens of having lived through 50 years. Obviously when you start a business in your twenties, there are two things—first of all, nothing is impossible, but equally you have no idea what is possible or impossible.
You meet things as they come and you just do your best and I think we were very fortunate in having a nucleus of skills between us when we started that enabled us to actually get some very good work, which in turn then attracted one or two bright people to work with us and it took some time to work out the kind of people that we wanted.
Did writing the book cause you to reflect on how different office environments have become?
Simpson: Yes, that is certainly true, but of course we were never any kind of bureaucracy really, because the nature of the work was rather developing products where the productivity was definitely people working at lab benches and terminals of one sort or another and those sort of people did not have any kind of office culture if they could avoid it.
I think the sort of big difference, which we forget, is that we always used to have people called secretaries. Well, who has ever heard of a secretary today? Nobody expects somebody else to key our own correspondence and so you do all of your own keying now, and that has been true now for a number of years, but the transition was quite [and some] never got used to the idea that they had to type their own letters.
I remember when the personal computer first came out. I went along to the headquarters of a major company in London to find that the managing director actually had an IBM PC in his office, and it was there for show. He had not a clue how to use it. His secretary had a vague idea of what to do with it, but it was quite clear that it was there to show he had got a personal computer, not to actually do anything with it.
What lasting impression do you hope the book has on the integration industry?
Bowie: One of the things I would say is that it is not about the technology. One of the things that we do today [as Simpson says] people were doing in the 1890s. They just used different technology, so it is not about technology. It is about trying to create things for the client, and the systems integration is really when it all gets pulled together.
… We’re not a big harmonious beast like many of the big integrators in the world. We’re more like a collection of small entrepreneurial businesses.
… Electrosonic is a company that is willing to take risks, going to take risks in the size of the project, of the location, of all the technology. We are willing to really take on groundbreaking things, but what comes of that is we also take on the responsibility to deliver it and our history is of delivering for customers, so hopefully [the book shows that] we have taken on a lot over the past 50 years, but we have also delivered it and we’ve had a lot of happy clients out there, clients we have worked with for 20 or 25 years, so hopefully what the people take away from that book is just that, that we are a company that [is] entrepreneurial and we like to take risks and we do take on the responsibility and we deliver.
Simpson: What I hope is that it is a story worth telling.
The very last thing, of course, that I want to suggest that it is a complete story. The thing is, who knows how the business might develop further? It is going to depend on the staff. It is going to depend very much on identifying new opportunities. I think my colleagues have got quite a variety of options as to what direction to take the company in and I would hope that they will see it as a continuing story, not as a story that has in any way come to an end.
Otherwise, I hope that people will just find it interesting that it is possible to keep something going that long with such a variety of activities.