Home-grown talent

As a new year starts in AV, we turn our attention to Europe’s largest economy to get a feel for the year ahead. This month Chris Fitzsimmons spoke to Hans Fischer, a key account handler for Berlin based integration firm Pro-Video Berlin.

Following the England football team’s abject failure to qualify for 2008’s EUFA European Championship competition there has been the traditional, thorough, and in many cases, bitter inquisition into the reasons for its inability to progress to the tournament.

Variously the culprits have been identified as the manager, long-since sacked, the players, roundly booed up and down the land in the following weeks, the Football Association themselves and finally the influx of foreign players in the Barclays Premier League. England, we are told, is not producing enough native players of a sufficiently high standard. As our local insight in November’s issue demonstrated it’s a malady affecting the UK’s systems integration sector as well as its football team.

The same criticism however cannot be levelled at Germany’s thriving AV market place. By whatever measure, the country boasts the largest expenditure on AV products and services in Europe and meeting that demand is a highly professional and competent AV services sector.

Germany’s economy flourished in 2006 posting a GDP growth of 2.7% driven by its continuing success in the global export market. Car manufacturing, banking, machinery and heavy industry all providing growth. For the AV market then this is reflected in strong business in the corporate sector, whilst a tightening of government spending has reduced public sector opportunities.

Hans Fischer, key account handler and clairvoyant for Pro-Video Berlin explained how this was affecting the company’s bottom line.

“I’m in the business of predicting what kind of projects will be coming along in two or three years time. We’re seeing an increase right now, running parallel to the development of the German economy as a whole. There is one important tendency, which we are seeing - a development of the relationship with the IT industry. It’s not taking over completely but we are moving closer and closer.”

And Pro Video has IT expertise of its own in certain areas: “In the field of control systems we are enough of an expert, but in other fields we are working closely together partners in the IT sector.”

Like many of Europe’s AV market places, there has been a certain amount of consolidation and maturation of the business, however in Fischer’s opinion this has largely finished. “The market has really been cleaned up already. If you take the example of Berlin, we have had a wide range of companies who came in during the time that Berlin was being built up and invested in. However, now nearly everything is built and finished. The largest and fittest companies remain, and the others have returned to the areas that they used to work in.”

Whatever the general state of the market there are a few truths in any business, one of which is that margins never go up. In order to alleviate the pressure companies are having to find new ways of generating business, be that through service contracts or finding new niche markets. Fischer identifies another cause for optimism: “It has been the attitude of those responsible in organisations that technology can be treated like the consumer media market – have a warranty of two years and you’re fine. Now we have a learning process that this type of business doesn’t work, and more and more people are coming to realise companies like ours have more value because of their technical input and expertise.”

Being such a large country it’s hard to tar all of Germany with the same brush, but Hans was confident that his colleagues in the south were enjoying an even better time than himself as the southern German economy continues to do well.

Fischer estimates that the AV market is probably eighteen months to two years behind the main economy and as such hasn’t seen any effect of the much written about credit crunch. If anything business is still increasing and the delay gives companies time to see any slow down coming.

Technology-wise Fischer reports the same trends observed across the region. HD adoption is somewhat slower than expected, or at least slower than technology providers might like. On the broadcast front, despite the tonic of the FIFA World Cup, public service broadcasters have been slow. However, in the top end of the corporate market Pro Video are seeing considerable interest in HD videoconferencing applications. The company remains as supplier neutral as possible. As Hans puts it: “It has been wise not to connect to one of the suppliers too firmly, in order that customers don’t think only one system is available from us. We can react without any problems to most requests. However I can say that Tandberg is probably at the forefront right now with its HD cameras.”

Digital signage is another big opportunity. “It is becoming a big business, and one that we are well prepared to take advantage of now that we have a partnership with another company in place. Sometimes new markets can be a little slow to open up but certainly there is a lot of potential to grow in this area.

“There are some regulatory restrictions on advertising and also some reluctance from the public to be exposed to this kind of media. That’s one reason we don’t have too many LED screens here. They are considered a distraction to motorists.”

And so back to the sustaining force behind Germany’s AV industry – that home-grown talent. Fischer puts the reasons why the industry is so professional in uncompromising terms: “We develop our own staff in house. Out of a total of thirty employees, we have seven apprentices. We start then at 18 or 19, they usually have already a basic training in electronics. We apply constant training all the way from apprentice to senior designers, using an source of information we can – that includes training from manufacturers and distributors as well learning from our older, more experienced colleagues.”

Against that backdrop how important at the efforts of InfoComm to regionalise its training? “I don’t know how well it would be received,” remarked Fischer. “We have close relationships already with people like Comm-Tec and our suppliers directly for training, if an additional one is of help, I have no idea.”

That’s easy to say in a company seemingly so well geared towards developing its own talent, but look around you. Does your company start new staff as soon as they leave school? Do your competitors? It has been said that the job for life is a thing of the past, but in Germany it appears alive and kicking.

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