Setting up audiovisual equipment for live performances is no longer just about sound checks and copper wires. “Audiovisual signals travel in IT systems now,” says Randal Tucker, CEO and chief operating officer of Montreal-based AV equipment distributor SFM. The company’s clients include producers of live events at concert venues including Montreal’s Bell Centre and the city’s International Jazz Festival, as well as governmental, corporate and educational facilities. “Sound quality is still important to our end users, but less than security,” Tucker explains. “We need to move packets of audio and video all over networks without messing them up.”
Founded by owner Sol Fleising in 1978, SFM distributes everything from keyboards to fog machines. When Tucker took over as CEO in 2012, his goal was to put the company ahead of the curve in the quickly evolving AV universe. “We went from being the rock ’n’ roll guys who tinker with gear to the people who have intelligent conversations with clients about their computer information needs,” says Tucker, a classically trained musician who discovered a second passion for business when working in Silicon Valley.
That decision has helped annual sales grow from $50 million to $85 million. “Learning what new technology is around the corner has been key to our growth,” says Tucker. “To do that, we build open relationships with the companies who manufacture AV equipment so they’ll tell us what they expect in the market in five or seven years.” Tucker finds transparency is the best approach when asking manufacturers to prognosticate. “We’re honest about the fact that our value as a distributor changes over time. It’s like admitting your own mortality.”
Having a heads-up about new products gives SFM time to hire and train the people who will ultimately sell the equipment. “We’ve had to swap out employees who were great in the analog audio world,” Tucker says. “We had to make sure we had employees who could speak the IT language even before we had products to sell.”
To keep SFM’s 145 employees engaged in their work, Tucker relies on OKRs (objective and key results), a tool Google used during its rapid growth period. “We set two or three quarterly objectives with measurable results for the company, then share them with everyone,” he explains. “It keeps employees focused on our strategy as we scale up.”
SFM also shares detailed financial information widely. “Our employees need to understand why we’re asking them to do certain things,” he says. “It makes a real difference.” Beyond numbers, Tucker strives to foster an “emotional connection” to the company. For instance, last year he invited Juno-winning musician Gord Bamford to perform at head office. “Employees see there are people out there using our gear to do cool stuff.”
Finally, as a leader, Tucker himself sets the example that constant flux is normal and, in fact, a good thing. “I tell everyone here that if I explain the company the same way in two consecutive meetings, the owner should fire me!”