It’s always a fascinating thing to break bread with people; somehow adding food to the mix makes any conversation expand and grow in insight. So it was all the more interesting a few weeks ago when I wound up in a restaurant beneath New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, sitting across from John and Helen Meyer—the namesakes and CEO and executive vice president, respectively—of Meyer Sound.
While I’d met them briefly in the past, it was an opportunity to chat with the people behind the name on the boxes, which puts a different spin on things. Real people aren’t just a logo; they have opinions and make jokes and carry memories of their successes and the occasional misstep, as do we all.
If talking with them cast a new light on their company, well, that was part of why they were in New York in the first place. The couple have spent a good portion of this year on the road, hosting events in places as disparate as New York, Miami, San Diego, Mexico City, Switzerland and more. “We really want to connect with a lot of our old and new customers,” said Helen. “We want to bring people to the factory in Berkeley as well, so it’s a two-way thing. We’re celebrating by reaching out to people.”
What they’re celebrating is the 50th anniversary of both San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” and, as it happens, the year that they met. “We were neighbors,” she recounted. “He asked me out on a date, and took me down after hours to the Hi-Fi store where he was working and played The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band. He said ‘This is the way it should really sound’ and it was great—so I knew from the beginning that he was passionate about sound.”
That passion had been ignited a few years earlier at Oakland High School when John was on the Sound Crew: “We’d buy speakers and some didn’t meet the specifications that they were advertising,” he recalled. “When you buy stuff with your money that you earned in high school, if it doesn’t do the job, it’s really disappointing. The tubes you could buy were good, so we thought everything was going to be like that! So I think that was a big influence on me later on.”
As the meal progressed, there was a string of stories from the early days of his career, littered with names like Frank [Zappa], complaining that the PA was too clean, or Steve [Miller], for whom he built a wah-wah pedal that could control tape recorders while onstage. “I built a box for Tower of Power with a little Altec car radio speaker in it and a Shure microphone, resonated the box, and built a bigger box so that we could run it through their system. They loved the sound until I told them what it was; then they felt really bad, like ‘We liked that?’ I said, ‘Why do you guys even care? You should be thinking about results that you want, not how you get it.’”
Decades later, Meyer is building far more complicated products, but is still focused on their results. Case in point: Meyer Sound purchased LCS in 2005, accelerating its move into the digital realm, but it was all about the outcome. “I’m not interested in buying companies; I’m interested in how each thing will fit and help us to be better than trying to do it all on our own,” he explained.
There are other ways the Meyers learn from other companies. “I like Leica and Zeiss,” he offered, “because they’ll try to fix almost anything they’ve ever made; I said ‘Let’s try to do that.’ A lot of people say ‘Isn’t that defeating selling new things?’ I don’t know, sure, but people like that they can repair favorite gear.”
Whether repairing equipment or reaching out to customers—as they will when their world tour continues this fall, visiting Russia, Asia and elsewhere—the goodwill engendered is one result that is clearly important to the company as it looks ahead to the next 50 years. Well, maybe. “Generally I have two-week plans in my head,” joked John. “After that, it gets kind of blurry!”