Elkhart, IN–Mark Graham assumed the presidency of Crown International in early July, stepping up from his former position as VP of Marketing & Product Development. Mark Graham, president of Crown International Graham’s new position opened up after former Crown president Blake Augsburger was named president of Crown parent, the Harman Pro Group. After a month into his new role, Graham spoke exclusively with Pro Sound News.
Q: What was your background prior to joining Crown?
A: I began my professional career in pro-audio during the eighties, when I opened up a small contracting business. We primarily focused on systems for small churches and schools. I also had a small pro-audio shop that outfitted local club bands with PA gear. It took me about six years of that to realize that I wanted to participate in the pro-audio business on the product manufacturing end. That led me ultimately to Kansas State University where I acquired a degree in electrical engineering. Fully intending to seek a job in the pro-audio business, I got side-tracked and spent four years with Hewlett-Packard in technical marketing. That was a great experience, but not what I wanted for a career. Ultimately I starting looking for other career opportunities and as it turned out, Crown was looking for a VP of marketing at that time, and so here we are. Blake Augsburger (left) and Mark GrahamBlake Augsburger hired me as the VP of marketing. Eight months later, he then asked me to lead the engineering organization as well. November 5th of this year will be my 5th anniversary with Crown.
Q: What do you feel were the most significant accomplishments of Crown during your time there, to date? In what ways were you directly involved in this progress?
A: It sincerely isn’t possible for me to talk about personal accomplishments; it really is all about the team here at Crown. Over the last five years the marketing and engineering teams have really scaled some tall mountains. During this time 46 new products were defined, designed, and successfully launched. I’m sure you can appreciate the tremendous effort required from marketing and engineering to pull that off. And the results have been phenomenal; these new products have been warmly received by our customers all over the world and gone into the majority of the most demanding high-performance sound systems created.
I’m just grateful to have been allowed to be part of the team.
Q: In addition to your new position, what other personnel changes have occurred?
A: It has been a value and internal focus at Crown to develop leadership internally. And I’m happy to say that we have been successful, and were able to back-fill the open positions internally. Additionally, we decided that with the growth of Crown over the last five years, that it made sense to separate the marketing and engineering leadership, and so have promoted Marc Kellom to Vice President of Marketing, and Scott Potosky as Vice President of Engineering. These guys are outstanding with very strong track records of success, and will without a doubt be big contributors in achieving our vision for Crown.
Q: Things are going well with your transition into the presidency of Crown?
A: Crown has been doing very well and so I inherited a very healthy patient–the biggest deal is to not break what’s already there. When you get new leadership it gives you the opportunity to evaluate yourself fairly objectively. We’re feeling very good about it-there’s a great team here.
Q: Crown has been a notable turnaround story over that past few years. While still an industry standard, the product line was fairly static for quite a number of years. With Harman’s takeover has come a new vitality and new technologies like I-Tech giving Crown a leadership role once again.
A: Five years ago Crown wasn’t profitable and today they are. The (Crown founding) Moore family were just great people who did a lot of good things. They were a religious-focused organization so their objectives were not as business-oriented as Crown is today. It was a good approach. They made, I think, a great move in selling it to Harman. I’ve been in pro audio for a long time and we tend to have a skeptical look at the big corporations–be a little cautious about them. But I can tell you that Harman has really done the right things here at Crown. What they’ve brought to Crown is organizational discipline; they’ve taught Crown to be a good, sustainable business, then they’ve also brought investment. They have invested a ton of money into this place.
Q: A lot of that investment has gone into modernizing your factory.
A: When I arrived five years ago, if I took you out in the factory it looked like a garage sale. It was just huge plant and hundreds of people–with assembly workers that knew the black magic; they knew how to put that amp together and make it work, of course no one else could, and it wasn’t documented. Today, we’re as world class as you can get. We’ve got the best surface mount technology possible; we’ve produced almost twice as much product in less than about half the space with about a third fewer people. It’s really been good I think not just for Crown, but I think our customers are benefiting and will benefit well into the future from the fact that Harman’s engaged.
Q: At this point on the technology curve, it seems the small entrepreneurs who largely built this industry, the stereotypical “guys tinkering in their garage,” are in less of a position to make large leaps in progress. It’s to Crown’s, and Harman’s, in general, credit that they’re investing heavily into product development.
A: The adage inside of Crown is that anybody with a garage and a soldering iron can make amplifiers, and they often do. What we end up with is that, if you go all over the world, there are more amplifier manufacturers than you can believe. This diffuses the industry to a point that I actually think it hurts customers. A monopoly is bad for customers. A too-diffused industry is bad. You want an appropriate amount of momentum, you want to have companies that are substantial enough that they can invest, that can do things to get you optimal product Today we’re a little too diffused, but I think that going into the future that that’s going to change. There’re big players involved–it’s not just Harman.
Q: Are there new technologies or technical initiatives that Crown will focus on in the immediate future?
A: This is a tough question to answer, as you know, due to the fact that it is not good to discuss new products before they are ready for customers. Having said that, Crown is very fortunate in that we have a wealth of patented technology and continue develop more all of the time. So you can count on Crown to employ these technologies in new products to help our customers solve their audio problems.
Technologies that are on the shelf now that will see the light-of-day in products soon will include new high-performance power supplies that are lighter and smaller than their predecessors, higher level integration that will make our best switching amplifiers smaller, cheaper, and more reliable, and a wealth of new mechanical technologies that will also make amplifiers lighter, cheaper, and more reliable.
Q: Are there particular market segments that Crown will focus on in the immediate future?
A: Crown will continue to focus on all areas where high-performance amplification is needed: touring, corporate A/V, performing arts, sports venues, retail portable P.A., Cinema, broadcast, etc. We also see an opportunity to bring our technology and competency to the commercial sound market, and will continue to focus some energy there. The recent introduction of our powered XM receivers is a good example of where we think we can bring value to the commercial market.
Q: With fellow Harman company JBL, you’ve worked together on products such as the I-Tech based DrivePack for the VerTec line array. Is that an indication of increased cooperation in the future?
A:The partnership there is really taking on a head of steam. You’ll see a lot of new PowerPacks come out. The VerTec PowerPacks were the flagship. They’re basically I-Tech technology, purposed for VerTec. You’re going to see a lot of others this fall for other JBL products. We realize at Crown and at JBL that we’ve got to partner and take our two brands together into the powered speaker market.
Q: We have so many areas in pro audio now that are driven by the MI market because that’s where the big money is–where it used to be that technology trickled down from the top. Crown seems to have concentrated more on making the best possible products they can at the top of their class, as opposed to a bottom-up approach. But given market realities, will we start to see more attention to MI category products by Crown?
A: If we don’t talk about Crown for a minute, and just talk about it in the sense that we’ve described this fractured market–it makes sense that in that market you go after the retail space. You’ve got a few large retailers in there who are very good at their business. If you can just reliably deliver them something that hits the volumes they need and the price points they want, you don’t have to be much of a technology company. I could step out of Crown and go to Asia and have something OEM in a matter of months.
So I think that you see a lot of that going on, and even with companies that had established a bit of a brand, I think you really see that they weren’t truly technology companies. They were really what I refer to as productization companies, and I’ve said that most of our competitor’s products are built off our expired patents. If you go find a [Crown Sr VP of Research] Gerald Stanley patent and you pull it out, you can say ‘yeah, you know, that’s 30 years old but it’s still good’ and you can make a product. That’s what you see predominantly in that regional space and there’s a lot of fight for it and there’s good business there. Crown is pretty fortunate. We’re unique in that we are a true technology company with a good financial backing and so what that allows us to do is both. Our strategy, which is an obvious one: we want to launch a flagship like an I-Tech. We want to do it and be successful with it and sort of set the standard, and then leverage off that. It won’t be long before we will take the technologies we pioneered in I-Tech and we’ll get the cost and complexity down and we’ll get them into retail.
Q: That leads us to another market which is really booming, the contractor market.
A: Crown has a lot of our success there. We’ve put a lot of I-Tech in various segments of the contractor market, but it’s really our CTS lines and our install products where a big bunch of our business comes from.
Q: The elite touring folks have demands that are based on power, based on sound quality, based on weight and based on interoperability features like Hi Q net. For that traditional Crown audience in the recording studio and high-end broadcast where end users might still thinking maybe Class A, maybe all discrete and those sorts of approaches–do you think that you can convince these customers that the I-Tech solutions are going to give them the elite quality that they demand?
A: The reality is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and regardless of the technology you turn out, some people will love it, some won’t and that’s just human nature. I-Tech has really already crossed the chasm in that sense. We’ve landed the biggest most prestigious tour installs around the world and done quite well. We’ve taken some of the golden ears–the guys where you don’t even understand how they hear the nuances and differences, and in listening tests, we’ve been very pleased with how we’ve faired.
Q: Does Crown have a clear plan for the next few years?
A: Crown does have a clear plan for the next five years. Our first objective is to continue to give our customers a steady stream of new products that will help them solve the problems they are facing in new and creative ways. Our second objective, which has been going on behind the scenes for some time, is to take our best technologies and develop packaging that will make them even more flexible and reliable than ever. These efforts will bear fruit in the coming months and enable Crown to deliver high performance amplifiers in new and exciting ways.
Q: Do you have a personal vision for the future of Crown that you bring with you into your new role?
A: I see Crown as a company with a great brand that still has a lot of places to go; we still have room to get better in a lot of areas and Crown is really passionate about doing that. Even though we’re part of Harman, we’re this little company out in the cornfield in Elkhart, Indiana, and it’s just an amazing place. Walking in to the ‘Gerald Stanley shrine’ is an amazing experience. He’s just the most humble, amazing guy who has this mad scientist rack of gear, where he does things to semiconductors that ought to be illegal. When you continue on through and you meet the people and see what’s going on here-you get a sense of the excitement we feel for the future.
Vision for the future is an issue that the executive leadership team and myself have been discussing for some time. We do have a very clear, but simple vision: that Crown will grow from a good to a great company. And we know that the only way we will become a great company is if we are a great company for our customers. So we are focusing on delivering innovative, high-performance amplifiers that are a great value, and on building our reputation for sonic excellence and outstanding quality. While that may sound like a platitude, we want our customers to know that we take this vision very seriously, and are focusing all our energies on achieving it.
Mark Graham spoke with Pro Sound News editor, Frank Wells.