Effective July 1, Blake Augsburger takes the title of President of the Harman Pro Group, consisting of JBL Pro in Northridge, CA; the Salt Lake City, UT-based dbx Pro, Lexicon Pro, BSS Audio (under the Harman Music Group umbrella, including MI brands Digitech and DOD) and the HiQnet team; Crown International in Elkhart, IN; Studer in Zurich; AKG in Vienna and Soundcraft in Potters Bar, UK. Blake AugsburgerAugsburger’s most recent position was President of Crown International. On the eve of stepping up the Harman International corporate ladder, he spoke with Pro Sound News editor Frank Wells in this exclusive interview.
Q: What was your experience prior to these past five years at the head of Crown?
A: I was the Vice President/General Manager for a group of public companies that manufactured high voltage test equipment. Brands like Hipotronics, Haefley [both Hubbell brands], and Robinson Instruments. Hubbell does have businesses that serve the pro audio industry mainly in wiring devices and electrical connectors.
I’m pretty much a generalist. I’ve held VP level positions in engineering, manufacturing, sales and marketing. I have a BS/MS in electrical engineering. Before coming to Crown the markets I served were different, but everything else is pretty similar in terms of operations, engineering, sales and even marketing.
Q: Were there any surprises you found in the audio industry?
A: Not too many surprises. Both industries require a great deal of knowledge about technology, even if they come to it through different ways. Before Hipotronics I was with a company called Maxell Laboratories in San Diego, which was a defense contractor, and typically people in this industry are all required to have advanced Masters and PhD degrees. In pro audio you have a lot of highly technical people who have acquired their knowledge base after starting with either an Associates Degree or Bachelors degree.
It’s just a different structure to deal with, and a different set of challenges in terms of leadership. Many of the early issues that we dealt with here at Crown were operational issues like new product development and integration, as well as international sales growth strategies. My prior experience was well suited to guiding Crown effectively through these issues.
Q: You didn’t find it difficult to make that transition at all?
A: No, I thought it was pretty easy. The real thing for me to learn was the market itself. There’re great people here. I spent a lot of time with Mark Terry and the [leadership in place] at that time. [JBL President] John Carpanini knows a lot about the business, so I was with guys that had been around for awhile and coaching me through it pretty quickly. Also, I spent a lot of time in the field. I do a lot of the sales work here, too, and spent a lot of time with our distributors. One of my goals when I came was to grow the business internationally. To do that, you’ve got to travel a lot. The more time you’re out in the field, the more you learn.
Q: Did you spend a lot of time with end users as well?
A: I’ve done quite a bit on the contracting side, less so on the touring side, but I do know the big guys. I know Troy Clair and Barry Clair real well and I know Dave Shadoan real well.
Q: What do you think are some of Crown’s most significant accomplishments during your tenure?
A: There’s several things that should be mentioned. I came in right after Harman bought the business and the first thing we did was put in a solid executive team. We created a fabulous factory, very efficient. We did a lot in that area in terms of changing the process and I think we’re pretty much state of the art today. Through Harman we became part of a very strong rep and distributor network that we didn’t have before. There was a lot of transition in that and a lot of issues to deal with in terms of old relationships and changing relationships. It’s amazing what it’s done for the business. [And] the products that we’ve put out into the market over the past five years are amazing. They’re very innovative. We’ve basically redone our entire line through all the vertical markets.
Q: Was the lead free, RoHS initiative [EU regulations requiring manufacturers to substantially change their manufacturing processes and changing the materials used to non-hazardous substances] a part of the factory retooling?
A: Yes. We went lead free this past month. We just finished our final turnover. We’ve spent about a year working on that. But that was in the last stages of what we did. We changed the process from a batching cue process to a continuous flow and rationalized what we did. [Under] the family that owned Crown before Harman bought them, Crown was very vertically integrated. They did everything. They wound coils, they did toroids, they did power transformers, they did plastics, they did everything you could think of. We just rationalized what we did here and really focused on doing printed wire assemblies, printed circuit boards. And we do sheet metal also. But [we] just focused on what we’re good at and changing the process.
Q: What do you see for Crown over the next few years?
A: I think Crown’s in a great position to grow based on the current product offerings. The goal of the new products such as I-Tech and XTi has been to offer the traditional Crown power and sound, but through an intuitive digital interface. And I think with HiQnet we’re now in a good situation to develop complete Harman systems that are really application specific and easy to use across all the vertical markets and then from the entry level all the way to the top venues. Crown’s a key player in that initiative.
Q: Current VP of Marketing & Product Development Mark Graham is moving up to the Crown presidency. He joined the company shortly after you?
A: Yes, I hired Mark about six or eight months after I started. He’s a good guy. I think he has all the necessary experience and leadership skills to be successful. I’m sure he will continue with more of an operation and engineering agenda–really pushing on the quality improvements and customer service and factory efficiencies that we started.
Q: Was most of the management who came in with you from outside of the industry at that time?
A: No, Mark’s the only one. Everyone else was here prior to my arrival.
Q: So there’s continuity as well as fresh blood and new ideas?
A: Most definitely. There’s also a lot of younger people here that have come in over the past year. We’ve made an effort of hiring kids right out of school. That’s really starting to take foot and play a big role in culture and the attitude. So a lot of the engineers that you see nowadays have been out of school four or five years. We have the older guys and the younger guys which helps a lot.
Q: Why do you think you were chosen for your new job?
A: Tough question. I hope it was because of the success we’ve had at Crown over the five years coupled with my leadership and operational skills. I also think Mark Terry was very influential in the choice. Mark’s always been very supportive of my work and ideas and taught me a lot about the market and the customers and kind of let me have the flexibility to be creative and do some fairly innovative things here at Crown.
Q: Do you have short and long term goals in mind for Harman?
A: What we want to do is continue to build on what Mark started, the HiQnet side and the systems focus. That agenda is something that we were all part of. It makes a lot of sense and we are seeing some real serious buy-in from the marketplace. It’s definitely where everything is headed and we’re going to continue to build on that in a big way.
At the same time, we want to pursue operational excellence at every brand. Nowadays it’s all about quality, it’s all about customer service, and we want to continue to do better there at each individual site. I think the other thing that’s kind of made Crown so successful is the product innovation and I think that that’s important to expand into all the groups–not to say that there’s any brand that’s not innovative, but that should be a priority. And then, leadership development—we’re getting to be a fairly big business. To be successful–at any size, but it becomes more important as you become larger and larger—you’ve got to have good people and so we’re spending a lot of time developing the people coming up the ranks. How are we going to manage this big machine? Leadership development will be part of that.
Q: Are there other personnel structure changes that you see soon or …
A: No, I don’t see any, nothing specific at the moment. Like I said, one of my objectives is to develop people and we’re only as good as the people we have on our team so that’ll always be in play, but at the moment I don’t see anything specific.
Q: What challenges do you think you’ll have to face in the next year or two?
A: I think the biggest thing we have going right now is really developing innovative systems versus developing innovative products. All the brands are one or two in their bracket and they’ve gotten there by developing really innovative things. Going forward, the key is going to be to develop these solutions that are full systems that are intuitive and easy to use and that’s going to be a challenge. That’s one of the things Rob Ury’s going to do [Harman Music Group President Urry is assuming the additional title of Harman Pro Group Chief Technology Officer] is play a big role in this area. A lot of his job is going to be bringing all these things together into user’s systems.
Q: Do you think that, at least from the Crown perspective, the Harman campaign to promote all-Harman system solutions has been a big part of making Crown successful? Has that been a factor in growth?
A: Most definitely. If you look at the numbers, the place that it shows up the most is really in Europe. If you look at our business in Europe five years ago and look at our business today it’s dramatic. And that was all due to change in distribution partners. Whenever you group Crown with JBL it really makes it a pretty easy sell as opposed to grouping Crown with other brands that the distributor might be carrying.
Q: And the technology itself is actually facilitating that in many ways, too, like the database of JBL parameters that’s built into the I-Tech amps.
A: I think that that plays a big role in decisions to buy individual products. I think you’re going to see that a lot at the Guitar Center level with new XTi because, when you’re dealing with entry level guys, anything you can do to make it easy is a plus.
Q: Is there any particular message you’d like to convey to Harman customers in parting?
A: I think from a customer’s perspective the key take aways would be quality improvement, customer service, innovation and systems. I think if we can do well on all those things everybody should be pretty happy.