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CE Pro’s Original Top 10: Sam Runco

Eight years ago we published a list of the 10 most influential leaders in the custom installation industry. Today's spotlight: Sam Runco


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Top 10 from 2004: Tom Doherty, Jeremy Burkhardt, Julie Jacobson (CE Pro), Jeff Hoover, George Feldstein, Sam Runco, Doug Fikse, Theo Kalomirakis, Joel Silver, Jay McLellan, Ivan Zuckerman, Jason Knott (CE Pro)

In 2004 CE Pro published a list of the top 10 most influential industry leaders from the previous decade, in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of EH Publishing, the parent company of CE Pro, Electronic House and others.

In 2013, we are celebrating the 20-year anniversary of CE Pro, the first issue of which appeared as an insert in a 1993 issue of Electronic House. The following is a tribute we wrote in the October 2004 issue of CE Pro, honoring these contributions of these 10 leaders. Are they still relevant today? Will they make our Top 20 list (survey), appearing in the 2013 issue of CE Pro?

In 2004, our Top 10 of the decade were:
Sam Runco, Runco
Tom Doherty, Doherty Design Group
Jeremy Burkhardt, SpeakerCraft
Joel Silver, Imaging Science Foundation (ISF)
Doug Fikse, OnQ/Legrand
Jay McLellan, Home Automation Inc. (HAI)
Ivan Zuckerman, Niles Audio
Jeff Hoover, Audio Advisors (now Ask the Advisors)
Theo Kalomirakis, TK Theaters
George Feldstein, Crestron

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll resurrect our write-ups on each of these industry leaders, starting today with Sam Runco.

Take the CE Pro Survey: Top 20 of Two Decades

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“We never did anything to protect the intellectual property on the ARC IV. We developed an aspect ratio controller that will probably be a worldwide standard, and we did nothing to protect it.”—Sam Runco on his worst business decision

FLASHBACK: OCTOBER 2004

Sam Runco, Runco International

Tinkerer Turns Video Visionary

We hate to be trite, but there’s a reason Sam Runco has made every credible list of “Who’s Who” in custom installation. He invented home theater. Literally. Runco trademarked the term in the State of California in 1990.

That was three years after he and his wife Lori founded Runco International, and about 20 years after Sam Runco, a consummate tinkerer, began creating bigscreen projectors that would eventually find their way into tens of thousands of homes worldwide.

One of his earliest creations, Cinemabeam, was the first projector to feature external convergence controls. That product gave way to the Runco International HT (Home Theater), which evolved into the enduring line of CinemaPro projectors, featuring enhanced brightness, improved convergence circuitry, and a time-saving access panel.

By the time the first CEDIA Expo rolled around in 1990, Runco was on to its next great thing—the world’s first high-resolution projector (the IDP-800) with a companion line doubler (SC-1050).

Runco never expected to sell many of these costly machines. “We were really just trying to show our technical superiority, and maybe sell a few,” he recalls. “What happened was, sales took off on that model, and the projector defined what home theater was going to be. People were looking for that kind of quality for their theaters and that’s what dealers wanted to sell.”

To be sure, Runco was not the first to offer line doublers, but the company popularized them by incorporating them into projectors for the big screen. He says, “I remember seeing a demonstration of line doublers at a retail store. They had a side-by-side demo of a 31-inch TV without line doubling, and a 31-inch TV with line doubling built in. The TV with the line doubler was twice as expensive, with no detectable improvement in video quality. I had determined this was because of the small screen size. With a small screen you couldn’t see lines anyway, but when you project video at seven or eight feet, the lines are there big time because you have magnified the picture so greatly.”

And so the bigscreen high resolution video experience was born. But in such a nascent industry, who could know the shape of things to come? As it turns out, Sam Runco.

In 1991, he created the world’s first aspect ratio controller, the ARC IV, which incredibly enough predicted the very formats that dominate video market today: 4x3, letterbox, 16x9 and 16x9 anamorphic.

“Years later, when DVD came around—DVD had gone with anamorphic—boom, you could plug it into any ARC IV projector that was seven or eight years old, and it looked fantastic!” Runco says.

There followed the rapid development of 16x9 screens, and a surge in home-theater adoption.

So, we’ve established that Runco is a visionary, although he’d say, “I had a lot of lucky calls.”

But there’s more to Runco than vision and luck. There’s also commitment. Throw out a worthwhile cause—be it CEDIA, the Elf Foundation, or the Consumer Electronics Association—and Runco’s the first to donate product or volunteer for the board.

But even the guys that don’t get free stuff from Runco are crazy about the company and its leader. “They have taken an interest in my business and our people, which is a diminishing quality in our industry,” says Mark Ormiston, principal of Seattle-based Definitive Audio, one of the first Runco dealers. “We appreciate that level of interest, so we reciprocate. We focus exclusively on Runco projectors.”

He adds, “Sam has a great eye, which stems from his enthusiasm for home video. … The company consistently makes a great picture, regardless of the technology, going back to the very first systems we bought from them.”

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Why he’s a Top 10 Leader:
Sam Runco is behind many of the most important innovations in home theater video. Runco dealers credit the man for being single-handedly responsible for their forays into the home systems industry, and for their continuing success in the business. Beyond that, Runco is valued as a generous industry volunteer.

Bio: Sam Runco, a lifelong tinkerer, once dismantled a small television set and found he could manipulate it with a Fresnel lens to project a big picture on the wall. That discovery eventually led to the launch in 1987 of Runco International. From then on, it’s been one invention after another, and the company to this day remains the most popular video supplier among CE Pro Top 100 Integrators. 

Best business decision: We decided a few years ago to get into fixed-pixel (non-CRT) displays. Even though they’re all over the place now, at that time they were getting blamed for having poor picture quality. We figured it wasn’t the device but the processing, so we spent a lot of time and money on processing, eventually creating a VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) standard. As a result, fixed pixel displays are now at the core of our business.

Worst business decision: We never did anything to protect the intellectual property on the ARC IV. We developed an aspect ratio controller that will probably be a worldwide standard, and we did nothing to protect it.

Key opportunities and challenges moving forward: Our dealers have direct access to many product lines, and are probably buying direct from other manufacturers that have pretty tight distribution. As they get exposed to large manufacturers, they may find themselves tempted to get into overdistributed lines, thinking they can compete against some of the mass marketers. My job is to make sure they don’t do that because the continued success of specialty manufacturers and dealers alike depends on the limited distribution, customer-centric formula. The Runco dealer has a finite amount of resources. They have to try to fill their limited man-hours with the highest possible margins and per-hour rates in order to have the resources to provide the high level of customer support necessary in our segment of the business.

Favorite books: “The Count of Monte Cristo,” by Alexandre Dumas. I had to read it in prep school but I read the “Classics Illustrated” version instead. That got me interested so I read the book and I’ve liked every version of the movie. There’s also “The Godfather,” of course, and I like everything Peter Drucker has ever written. Oh, and “MAD Magazine.”





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Article Topics

News · People and Places · Runco · 20 Years · Sam Runco · All topics

About the Author

Julie Jacobson, Co-Founder, EH Publishing / Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson. [More by Julie Jacobson]

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