In March 2016, Dominic Harter became managing director of Martin Audio, one of the UK’s most historic pro audio brands and one that figures alongside Soundcraft and Turbosound in all of those potted timelines that show long-haired pioneers in some corner of a field that is forever Glastonbury. Later on, the timelines reveal a lot of corporate acquisition and consolidation, but now? Things are changing.
In fact, Harter has worked for all three of those legacy-drenched brands and came to Martin Audio with considerable experience in the effects on brand equity, one way or another, of corporate ownership. A management buyout from Loud Audio followed two years later, heralding a return to what could be seen as the founding spirit of the marque that launched a thousand guitar solos.
“It was pretty much on the agenda from the start,” he says. “In fairness to the management at Loud, they knew Martin Audio needed fixing and that it probably couldn’t be done from 5,000 miles away. They were very fond of it, but Loud was very centralised and there was competition in house. I much prefer the structure we have now.”
That structure places Martin Audio under the complete control of Harter and his management team, given that this now includes two investment directors from Lloyd’s Development Capital (LDC), the private equity arm of Lloyds Banking Group that backed the buyout to the tune of £12m. The results are in.
“We grew over 20 per cent last year and we should do the same this year,” states Harter, “and we can thank our new City of London partners in large measure for that burst of energy. Over the last four years the company has turned what, frankly, was a decline into very healthy growth, and on a personal level, I’m proud of that because there isn’t a great deal of pro loudspeaker manufacturing left in the UK. Even 10 years ago the landscape was rather different and, with all the turbulent press around at the moment, to have a British export business doing so well is quite good news.”
For mature global businesses, the more insightful economic correspondents say, it’s the uncertainty rather than the final consequences of a deal, no deal or even no Brexit that are doing the most long-term harm. Individual crises and changes can be ridden out, but the kind of prevarication that the UK has seen for over three years simply prevents constructive planning and demands interim and fire-fighting contingencies instead. As such a global business, especially one with fresh investment and a nice blue sky to think against, Martin Audio knows this only too well.
“It’s true, from our point of view,” says Harter. “To give you an idea: in the run-up to March 29, we’d bought a huge number of speaker drivers we didn’t need yet; we’d arranged a third-party warehouse in Belgium, and we didn’t ship anything to it. Now, we’re doing the same thing: we’ve bought an awful lot of stuff just in case and it may turn out that we didn’t need to. It’s an annoyance that just adds to the upheaval of leaving the world of Loud, ironically: this place was owned by them for a decade, so we’ve had a massively transitional year-and-a-half anyway.”
But the original business plan instigated by Harter remains more or less as it was in 2016. “The basic principles are the same,” he reveals. “What LDC did was allow us the bandwidth to get on with it but also to make a clean break from the Loud infrastructure – by which I mean expensive processes like getting all the computer systems off the Loud ERP software and setting up new accounts. We were the London office of an American company, but we were able to show LDC that we were putting the brand back together and the business was doing the numbers.”
The cornerstone of that business plan, according to Harter, is “running Martin Audio for Martin Audio”. The quoted turnover is now around £20m, not including the North American business, and the staff figure 80, so with the company’s flagship Multicellular Loudspeaker Array (MLA) system winning admirers around the world it would seem that the engine room was always perfectly well stoked. It just needed new hands on the wheel.
“MLA is a powered loudspeaker solution, which is great for touring,” Harter expands. “But the market
for fixed installation needs passive speakers, so we developed Wavefront Precision using MLA technology so both touring and install get the full benefits of the optimisation. That’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s where the growth is. Our analysis of the brand revealed that it has swung between the two, from the big touring rigs of Dave Martin’s day to the install focus of David Bissett-Powell, and then back to touring with MLA. What it hasn’t done before is fairly weigh up which markets it wants to be in; which ones people expect us to be in; and our product life cycles in those markets. We can, in fact, adapt this amazing technology to all of these sectors and satisfy everybody – and it boils down to the level of granularity needed: a DSP per driver; per box; or per two to three boxes. The automation involved makes it an attractive proposition for busy AV technicians.”
Speaking of granularity, Martin Audio’s strategy regarding immersive audio, so far, has been to become one of potentially several partners of Dutch pioneer Astro Spatial Audio in some groundbreaking projects. It’s the economical way, it’s on the right scale, and it exploits MLA’s a priori fitness for processing. “Bjorn [van Munster, Astro founder] is a great guy to work with,” Harter observes, “and there are 26 patents in there, so we need him! We’ve focused on improving our optimisation technology, without any further distractions. But immersive audio is going to require more sources, and that’s of interest to us – although it may not be loudspeaker manufacturing, or even live sound, that pushes this forward. I think the console brands and the playback-orientated installation sector are both going to have a big say.”
Meanwhile, Martin Audio’s factory open days have become important fixtures on the calendar, reflecting the renewed focus on the brand, its heritage and its identity. “We make things out of wood that are big and heavy, and if you can’t listen to them it kind of defeats the object. We do them twice a year in the UK and the US, and it’s in the factory so our visitors can meet the staff and watch the processes that go into the whole range.
“Brands have a soul and a culture. If you wipe enough of that out you’re just left with a name. It’s not all about consolidating around the largest businesses. The professional sound system market is about solutions and relationships – always was, and always will be.”