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QSC’s founders on 50 years of pro audio innovation

US pro AV systems pioneer QSC celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. But rather than looking back, the company is very much looking to the future...

For a company to reach 50 years in business is a noteworthy achievement in anyone’s eyes. We exist – particularly those that ply their trade in the world of professional audio, video and control products – in a world where technology and innovation is changing the rules of convention at a rate of knots, whether its manufacturing processes, marketing techniques or service provision. What’s more, the tumultuous financial climate of the past decade, precipitated by the global recession of 2008, has proved perilous for so many, making the achievements of those able to weather the storm and come out swinging on the other side all the more exceptional.

It is perhaps understandable then that when some companies reach their 50th anniversary they tend to do so amidst a panoply of bells and whistles, harkening back to former glories and reminding the world of what made them the company they are today.

And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating one’s 50th birthday in such fashion, it’s fair to say that QSC, in line with the values of innovation woven into its DNA, has approached this milestone from a different angle.

A company rich in experimentation and with a pioneering spirit coursing through its veins, QSC has its gaze resolutely fixed forward. It’s an attitude that has served the business well since Pat Quilter, John Andrews and Barry Andrews formed Quilter Sound Company in a bid to, as Quilter puts it, “take over the world with high power guitar amplifiers” in the late 1960s. Identifying a gap in the market, Quilter’s endeavour wasn’t without merit, yet the presence of some already established major players in the field at the time presented a major challenge in attaining significant market share, eventually forcing them to re-evaluate his plans.

However, according to fellow founder and board member John Andrews, guitar amps’ loss would soon become sound reinforcement’s gain.

“Not having early success in that market was one of the keys to our ultimate success, because we really had to learn how to run the business,” he explains.

Having failed to achieve world domination at their first attempt, the company’s founders were forced to review not only their approach to the music market, but also their philosophy of experimentation and creative pursuit.

Founder and board member Barry Andrews elaborates: “It’s never been a story of sky rocketing success. It’s consistently a story of determination over failure. As we dealt first-hand with musicians, we developed this ability and passion for taking care of our customers.”

Though the power amplifier business proved hugely successful virtually from day one, the founding trio’s ambitious streak soon manifested itself in the decision to once again explore the opportunities available in the speaker market. Years of honing QSC’s collective engineering prowess ensued, resulting in the launch of the first K Series, which almost immediately became one of the most popular and indeed revered products of its kind, as John Andrews illustrates: “The business wouldn’t be the size it is today if we hadn’t made that decision. Part of our hallmark is the ability to have a vision and to keep investing in the future.”

So, in keeping with the QSC spirit, PSNEurope hears from the company’s founding fathers not to present a highlights reel of the past 50 years, but to find out how they have kept the business surging forwards and what the next five decades hold in store for one of the world’s leading pro audio manufacturers…

A huge part of the company’s longevity over the past 50 years has been its pioneering spirit. How important has it been to the company to instill that ethos throughout the company during that time?

Barry Andrews: Instilling innovation has been a crucial element in QSC’s DNA from the beginning. When you are the small guy competing against the big guys your only hope is to do things differently. It is important to note that innovation doesn’t just apply to products, it is just as important on the operations side of a business. In other words, how a company does business is just as important as what it does.

John Andrews: We all realised we had to become excellent operationally, excellent at product development and our sales and marketing efforts. We also had to become excellent at manufacturing. We’ve always been devoted to building a brand known for unmatched reliability and quality.

Pat Quilter: QSC has always looked for better ways to do things so we can get results with lower costs and impacts. One of our key learnings as managers was to understand and support the different personal temperaments you get within an organisation – to provide roles for those who like to drive forward into the unknown, those who solve problems, those who like keeping the house in order, and those who thrive on team building and fostering relationships.

During that time, QSC has established itself as one of the most influential players in the audio, video and control market. What are the key factors behind this?

Barry Andrews: For much of our early years we were a power amplifier specialist. Two factors drove a fundamental change – digital audio/networking and the advent of powered loudspeakers. Once we were committed to addressing these threats (if we didn’t change) and opportunities (if we changed successfully) we were willing to invest deeply over a long period of time to build both the talent pool and the market understanding that are required to be a leader.

John Andrews: We really developed a deep passion for taking care of our customers. Even when we weren’t that great at everything else. But our customers trusted us. We really developed the brand from there.

Pat Quilter: Subject to the need to pay our own way as we go along, we have always tried to follow long-term strategies that produce lasting value for our customers. This is a somewhat more cautious and thoughtful course than the true pioneers who generally ‘go for it’ and hope for the best. As a privately held company, we have been able to do what we think is right without artificial pressure to “make the quarter look good”. This has given us time to learn and expand into new disciplines, where a more financially- oriented owner might have cut their losses when the going got tough.

What have been some of the most important product launches over the years? And why?

Pat Quilter: I always go back to our first big strategic decision in 1972, when we decided to get out of guitar amps and move into a steadier business. We got away from building loudspeaker cabinets because we needed a product that didn’t require a major capital investment (which we didn’t have), yet we needed something that exploited our most hard-won knowledge, so we could get a sustainable competitive advantage while we grew. The choice was to go into power amplifiers, a relatively unglamorous product which must solve all of the major problems in electronics, all while delivering a clean, technically accurate output signal. Most of the details that make an amplifier stable and profitable to build at a fair price are discovered only after much testing and experience, which became my principal role at QSC.

Barry Andrews: In power amplifiers, it was Series One, Series Three and the PLC Platform. Series One gave us our first large scale market success, Series Three showed we could build class-leading touring amplifiers, and PLC based on switching power supplies and build-to-order manufacturing exploded the business and provided the financial resources for long term investing in digital and speaker technologies.

John Andrews: On the digital side it is the Q-SYS Platform. This was the industry’s first digital audio signal processing and networking solution that brought new capabilities to large-scale commercial applications. We are currently market leaders in both these areas.

What have been the biggest changes you have seen in the AV market?

John Andrews: Certainly in recent years, it has been the rise of network and the importance of this new customer, the IT industry. For so long, AV has been the outlier in the IT guy’s equation, as these AV systems seemed to exist in a silo. AV systems in corporations were completely unstandardised, built on AV specific technologies that did not integrate with the rest of that IT equipment, and were next to impossible to manage. Any viable manufacturing player in this industry knows that the IT guys are now in charge of these larger systems and protect the stability of that infrastructure. That means creating solutions that are built on IT standards, and can be monitored, managed and serviced by internal IT mechanisms.

Which areas of the market are you most excited about as you cross the 50 year mark? Where are the big growth opportunities?

Pat Quilter: The consumer product companies are relentlessly feeding the public’s desire for more capacity, interactivity and apps, even at the expense of chronically buggy software and endless, intrusive “update” patches. Our biggest problem and opportunity is to meet customer expectations that are shaped by highly connected smartphones and tablets, but with the reliability and security demanded by businesses, at a price that is not too out of line with consumer equipment.

How does the company intend to stay ahead of the curve for the next 50 years?

Barry Andrews: Recruit and retain the best talent: treat them like gold, make sure they have the resources they need, motivate them to run like hell, get out of the way.

John Andrews: While we are in the middle of another technology transition, we will look to deliver sophisticated network-based solutions to the audio, video and control space. Our aspiration is to be a technology platform leader.

Pat Quilter: QSC has the resources to develop increasingly sophisticated products and systems, and our goal is to continue fostering our
reason-based culture that relies on facts and analysis to make sound decisions that hold up in the long run.

Which areas of the business are you looking to expand?

Pat Quilter: QSC’s historic mission has essentially focused on delivering a high-grade audio experience, usually involving music, from performers to audiences at clubs, cinemas, and concert venues. This remains a very important part of our focus, but we also see a growing opportunity in improved peer-to-peer communication using audio, video and control to allow people to relate to each other as if they were in the same room, without the expense and impact of worldwide travel.

Success in this mission will improve business management and hopefully political relationships around the globe, making the world a better and safer place.

QSC has been a global company for many years now with a key focus on further international expansion. How do you plan to take on additional territories and adopt new selling strategies?

Pat Quilter: This too will continue to be a steady process of finding the right people for each new territory, and providing the resources to build local organisations to serve regional customers and utilise regional engineering and manufacturing resources.

The company is currently expanding beyond simply manufacturing products into providing technological solutions and services for the market. How do you intend to develop this side of the business?

Pat Quilter: I have always been a hardware developer, and ultimately, there still needs to be some kind of device that interfaces with the customer and the outside world, but it’s obvious that software is the new frontier, and is the engineering discipline that will deliver truly amazing new capabilities and responsiveness.

What initiatives do you have in place to help produce the pro audio, video and control genii of tomorrow?

John Andrews: Tomorrow’s AV genii are working on the front lines right now! It is incumbent upon manufacturers to nurture that talent to bring them to their fullest potential. We are very proud that QSC consistently looks inward to fill important leadership positions at all levels and within all departments and have internal career growth programmes for those individuals who aspire will take their own personal careers, as well as our industry, to the next level.

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