Most Influential People of Past 20 Years
In selecting the Top 20, we sought leaders who had (or have had) a dramatic impact on the direction of our industry. Perhaps they introduced margin to the channel. Maybe their technological breakthroughs significantly influenced the industry. Or maybe it was their sheer evangelism that gave the custom business a boost.
We turned to the CE community to help us pick the most influential leaders of the past two decades.
In the nomination process, dozens of candidates were recommended. CE Pro narrowed that list down to 43 individuals, based on the number of mentions, any compelling pleas, and a little bit of editorial license. We then put those finalists up for a formal vote, inviting any industry participant to rank each candidate on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most influential.
In the end, we selected the Top 10 vote getters based on quantitative calculations. We then selected the next five by taking the quantitative figures and weighting them based on written arguments, the credibility of the respondents who signed their names, and the length of time the respondents have been in the industry.
Finally, CE Pro editors selected five wild cards among those who were nominated … and those who should have been. So without further ado, here are the 20 most influential people in the custom electronics industry from the past 20 years, in no particular order (except for the top three).
1. Sam Runco, founder and CEO,Runco International (retired)
Claim to fame: Popularizing front projectors and line doublers in the home theater market
Sam Runco may be the most popular guy in the custom installation business, and that may well be why he won this “contest” by a landslide. But Runco is much more than an affable, generous, party-throwing, joke-telling, baby-hugging friend of the industry.
He invented home theater. Literally. Runco trademarked the term in the state of California in 1990. Long before that, Runco introduced Cinemabeam, the first projector to feature external convergence controls, allowing video images to be projected onto screens much larger than previously possible.
In 1991, Runco delivered Improved Definition TV (IDTV), a scaler and widescreen processor that would forever change home theater.
“That innovation, more than any other, put home theater on the hockey stick growth that it experienced through the early 2000s,” says Robert Ridenour, a longtime integrator now with Elan Home Systems.
Because of Runco’s success and reputation in high-performance home theater products, Sam Runco was the guy that major technology developers turned to for launching their own innovations. Most notably, in 1995 Texas Instruments looked to Runco to co-develop and deploy Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology for the home theater, sparking a DLP revolution. Likewise, THX used Runco to launch its certification program for home theater projectors.
Beyond technological innovations, Runco – the company and the man – set the standard in customer service, dealer relationships and charity. So long as Sam Runco was at the helm, otherwise brand-hopping dealers remained fiercely loyal to his company.
Runco International was sold to Planar in 2007. In 2012, Runco joined the board of the WiSA (Wireless Speaker and Audio Association), which was launched in 2011 by HDMI developer Silicon Image and wireless technology developer Summit Semiconductor.
2. Noel Lee, founder and CEO, Monster (formerly Monster Cable)
Claim to fame: Marketing wizard who brought margin to cables and accessories; father of the “attachment sale”
No other company has taught dealers how to sell like Monster, purveyor of high-priced cables of every variety, starting with speaker wire in 1979. Before Monster came along, A/V integrators and retailers were afraid to charge more than a pittance for “attachments” – those little things that actually generate profit.
Monster taught dealers that “there is money/margin in cables and accessories,” says Brent McCall of competitor Ethereal Home Theater.
Like scores of vendors, Ethereal has benefited from the doors opened by Noel Lee. Not only did Monster bring high-performance cables to market, the company deployed (and continues to deploy) skilled trainers to A/V shops to show dealers how to demonstrate and sell high-margin accessories.
The Monster empire expanded from cables to other accessories that previously held no value for consumers and no margin for dealers – like $25 TV screen cleaner. The company famously brought out Beats by Dr. Dre, sparking a major movement in celebrity-endorsed headphones.
Today, Lee’s legacy is more important than ever, given the declining margin in televisions and other staples of A/V.
3. George Feldstein, founder and CEO, Crestron
Claim to fame: Major innovator in home and building automation and multiroom audio/video
Eventually the custom electronics business and the home automation category would have gotten where it is today, but if not for Crestron and founder George Feldstein, we’d be a decade behind.
Founded in the 1970s to market control systems for commercial applications, Crestron put its faith in the residential market in the 1990s, believing that consumers would spend big bucks on ultra-customized home automation systems … and that home systems integrators could deliver. The company at that time developed an entire line of products for the home under the Total Home Technology banner.
Crestron is clearly a trendsetter in custom home systems, setting the standard for touchscreen GUIs, keypad design, multimedia management and video distribution, to name a few.
What is perhaps most legendary about Crestron is its pioneering work in third-party integration. This capability inspired scores of manufacturers to develop new products that could be part of a whole-house Crestron ecosystem.
“George Feldstein took what everyone else on this list made or developed and made it work with each other,” says Chris Tyler, Aurora Technology, Omaha, Neb.
4. Jeremy Burkhardt, former owner and president, SpeakerCraft
Claim to fame: Innovations in loudspeaker technology, and tireless energy and passion for the custom channel
Industry newcomers may know Jeremy Burkhardt as little more than that bearded, tattooed loudmouth leader of SpeakerCraft. But industry vets know better. He brought passion, customer service and relationship-building to an industry that was once devoid of it.
SpeakerCraft started as an installation company, and went on to make in-wall speakers for brands such as Sonance and Niles Audio. In the 1990s, SpeakerCraft slapped its own name on speakers and became one of the most dealer-friendly manufacturers in the custom channel.
Although SpeakerCraft makes fine audio products – and it was one of the first to embrace the iPod for music distribution – Burkhardt is known for putting people before products, helping dealers to succeed so they could become stronger customers.
“Pioneers like Jeremy Burkhardt have not only advanced the industry, but taught solid business practices and ethics,” says integrator Scott Fuelling of Phoenix Unequaled Home Entertainment in Memphis, Tenn.
When we interviewed Burkhardt nine years ago, he said of SpeakerCraft customer service: “We’ve empowered our entire company to service the dealer. If a dealer has a speaker that doesn’t work, he just calls us and we ship him a new one, same day. We don’t ask to see a copy of the P.O. and invoice; we just send the product. I don’t think the big-box retailers will empower their order-entry clerks to give away product.”
5. Scott Struthers, founder and principal, Sonance, iPort, Trufig
Claim to fame: Introduction of in-wall loudspeakers, inspired architectural designs
Just who invented the in-wall loudspeaker has been debated, but Sonance has largely been credited for introducing the product to the industry.
Founded in 1982 by Scott Struthers and Geoff Spencer, the company claims to have done “something that no one in the audio industry had done before: move the loudspeakers off the floor, off the shelf, and into the wall.”
That legacy of architectural appeal continued with the development of even more pleasing designs, starting with trimless speakers and ultimately speakers that disappear entirely into the wall (after acquiring patents from Sound Advance Systems).
From there, Struthers went on to found iPort, the first in-wall music system for the iPod. Most recently, he launched TruFIG, developer of flush-mount solutions for a wide range of keypads, electrical devices and other in-wall devices.
Struthers “recognized an entire industry before it was one,” says an anonymous respondent to the CE Pro survey.