Thinking systems

Comm-Tec has been at the forefront of European AV distribution for over twenty years now. Chris Fitzsimmons spoke with President and CEO, Wolfgang Lenze of Comm-Tec international about his company’s past, present and future, as well as life after AMX.

For those that don’t know it, can you give us a little history of Comm-Tec and also Wolfgang Lenz.

Well, for 19 years I worked for Kodak and held positions in Germany, the UK and in Rochester, New York. My final position, however, was European Business Manager for AV markets. The AV market for Kodak meant slide projectors and related products. I eventually became frustrated working for Kodak because for them, the AV market was less than one percent of the total business. You can imagine the kind of level the senior management showed in that.

So, in 1984 I presented a business plan to do what I finally ended up doing with Comm-Tec – To become more involved in the AV market than with just slide projectors. At the time it was visible that slide projectors would die. They either weren’t very interested, or they didn’t understand, or I miss presented it. I don’t know, anyway I decided to leave Kodak and start Comm-Tec in 1986. The objective at that time was to provide a distribution platform in Europe for foreign companies, mostly at that time from the US because I was most familiar with the US manufacturers.

The initial product portfolio was still dominated by slide products and screens, but at the time it was still good business. When I left Kodak it was a $100m dollar business. But in 1988 we started to bring Crestron to Europe, this was our first attempt to get involved in control systems and it was still in the very early stages. In 1992 we then switched to AMX and this was really because of a difference in marketing approach. Crestron was very product focused and AMX aimed all its marketing messages at solutions. That very much appealed to us, and also I have to admit that I knew Scott Miller [Founder and former CEO of AMX] from my time at Kodak. This change coincided with the adoption of our “Think systems” motto.

Since then we have grown in Europe, forming Comm-Tec in Spain and the UK in 1993 and then Comm-Tec Italy in 1998.

What do you think the most significant changes in the AV systems business have been since you began?

I think the most significant change could be summarised in the transition from analogue to digital. Also electronic imaging became a lot easier to use and very, very cheap. This led to the whole box shifting, throat cutting situation but fortunately we were able to steer clear of it. The final thing was the replacement of the component remotes by control systems as the likes of AMX and Crestron appeared. This was really the train that our “Thinking Systems” idea was able to travel upon.

What led to the decision to part-company with AMX, who has been one of your most important lines for so long?

After the purchase of AMX by the Duchossois group, it had significant funds available at its fingertips. So, AMX aggressively executed its acquisition strategy with the purchase of companies like Autopatch and Matrix Audio and so on and so on.

So, with every new acquisition Comm-Tec found itself with another portfolio conflict. Eventually I ended up with two options. Firstly, to fully commit to AMX only. This would have meant Comm-tec UK wouldn’t have been able to sell any product in the UK, because AMX they already had their own business there. The same applies to Italy, where they have Intermark to distribute AMX products and Comm-tec Italy would have been affected.

We therefore arrived at option two, which was to separate the AMX business from the Comm-Tec portfolio. We started this discussion with AMX some time ago, it wasn’t a sudden decision. I had to look after my own company, and I didn’t want to become dependent on a single manufacturer. So, we developed a plan for a professional separation between AMX and Comm-Tec, the outcome of what was the establishment of the AMX Centre Europe business in Germany.

I want to make it clear that there’s no war going, no argument, just a parting of ways. I believe we should all behave professionally in the market – who knows who you will be working with in the future. I’m not saying anything bad about AMX, it’s a company that has defined its objectives, and those objectives no longer match our own. I had to accept that we had a conflict of objectives and portfolio so we had to separate.

You offer a range of Comm-Tec branded products, how do these fit in with your other lines. Do they cause any conflicts?

We always tried to develop islands of competence in the various applications or technologies. Therefore we always want to offer a whole range of solutions from low-end to high-end and from low-cost to high-cost, and whatever we represented we didn’t have the feel that we had everything. For example Autopatch didn’t have any small DA or small switchers, so we needed to develop something else. And then while we were launching these products, AMX picked up Autopatch. It was a very difficult situation.

We wanted to complement our lines with some Comm-Tec labelled products. If we had picked up another full line from a manufacturer then we would have been left with other conflicts with our existing lines.

What plans do you have to fill the gaps in your lines left by the AMX portfolio?

First of all, we will stay in the control systems market, definitely. We see a major step in the convergence between AV and IT and we also believe that we should support standards. In this case the IP-based standards. We are going to become the European distributor for Stardraw Control, and we also will become the distributor for Global Cache. This is part of the answer, but not the complete solution since neither of these companies manufacture touch panels. So Comm-tec will complete the offering and market these products to complete the solution. We are quite confident that we will show something in Amsterdam at ISE. This will be different from the approach we have worked with AMX, because it will be a pan European distribution opportunity.

In 2008, what do you think will be the technologies to keep an eye on from a systems perspective?

To my mind it’s standards, standards, standards. AMX and Crestron may not want that, because they lose critical margin on the touch panel. They can only maintain that high price level while they start in a proprietary mode. They may claim that they are using open standards, but they are not. Do you think a client will be prepared to pay £10,000 for a touch panel if he can get the same functionality for half? Not in the long term, and I think that this is what will change. IP-based systems will be the future.

Finally, training. What are your thoughts on InfoComm’s efforts to promote, localise and develop its CTS scheme in Europe?

First of all we definitely want to support the development of more training. Without training, the industry cannot serve the market well enough, and there’s still a big, big lack of training throughout Europe. The market is growing and we are not even in a position to serve the market well today, so there is an absolute need to improve that.

I understand from Uwe Röddinger (who is serving as a trainer for CTS), that the work of the international group to define content based on European needs is 90-95% done. So, the next training will be European training, based upon our requirements. I believe that it’s very important that the final examination will relate to European issues as it will increase its acceptance amongst European integrators.

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