CE Pro’s Original Top 10: Tom Doherty

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

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)
Julie Jacobson · December 28, 2012

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. Today, we feature Tom Doherty, who continues to thrive as an integrator.

Take the CE Pro Survey: Top 20 of Two Decades

“My insistence on operating a lean one-man business has kept me disorganized, inefficient and a general basket case.”—Tom Doherty on worst business decision (gracing the cover of the first standalone issue of HA Pro, now CE Pro)


Tom Doherty, Doherty Design Group

Dealer, Manufacturer, CEDIA Founder

Seems that everything Tom Doherty touches turns to gold. He ran one of the most successful custom installation companies from 1985 to 1996, got CEDIA off the ground in 1989, launched arguably the first robust music-management system in 1996, and most recently established a one-man integration firm that could represent the quintessential business model of the future.

It all started in the early 1980s when Doherty, while working at a hi-fi store, began installing stuff on the side. He had this great idea—like many of his A/V box-pushing peers—to get into the custom installation business. The trouble is, when he started Tom Doherty, Inc. in 1985, “all of us dealers had a tough time getting products,” he recalls. “Many of us were getting products through the back door from PARA [Professional Audio/Video Retailers Association] guys. Our primary challenge in the 1980s was getting people to understand us.”

When Doherty became an Audioaccess dealer during that time, he enjoyed a three-day dealer summit organized by Audioaccess founder Chris Stevens. “It was the first time there was any real collaboration and idea exchange among fellow integrators,” says Doherty.

With Stevens and Doherty leading the charge, the idea of an association for integrators blossomed. In 1989, the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) was formed, and Doherty became its first real president (after a short stint by an ousted predecessor). Some 500 people came to CEDIA’s unveiling during the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1990. Today, the association is a tremendous force in educating integrators, promoting the channel to consumers and home builders, influencing legislation and providing a plethora of services that benefit the custom installation industry.

We have Tom Doherty—and a host of his peers—to thank for that.

All the while, Doherty continued to grow his custom-installation business—by all accounts a model for the industry—but he had other pursuits as well.

The story is too complex to recount here (suffice it to say that Chris Stevens again played a defining role), but in 1996 Doherty formed Escient, a company that produced one of the most innovative pieces of entertainment gear this industry had ever seen. The Escient Tune Base would connect to a Sony CD changer via RS-232 and automatically read each CD’s table of contents, linking the discs automatically to a database of albums, artists, cover art, songs, genres, and other data. The intuitive interface allowed users to manage their CD collections via the television. It was the first music management system to have an impact in the marketplace.

Escient and Tom Doherty Inc. merged into a single business under the Escient banner and later, in another stroke of genius, the company acquired the leading CD database aggregator, CDDB (now Gracenote). Escient was purchased by D&M Holdings in 2003, a couple of years after Doherty decided to take a breather.

In fact, Doherty is the only Top 10 Leader on this list to have taken a hiatus in his home systems career. But he’s returned with a vengeance, pioneering a new business model that others are sure to follow.

The gist: “I love Lutron lighting control equipment,” he says. “Lutron is my only vendor. Period. I evangelize the stuff and convince people to buy it. I supply the hardware, design work and engineering. I do all the programming. Then I leverage others to do the installations. … And the beauty of Lutron is, the stuff doesn’t break, so there’s no associated service needs.”

In his one year of business, Doherty should make the list of top 10 Lutron dealers. Not bad, considering he’s the only person in his company.

“A true visionary and industry pioneer, Tom’s lifelong dedication and contributions to the consumer electronics and custom installation industries are unparalleled,” says Cat Fowler, a former Doherty colleague at Escient, and now vice president of marketing for Elan Home Systems. “Tom is an undisputed leader and founding father of both ‘CE convergence’ and integration, and has been responsible for many of the most significant turning points in the history of the custom installation industry.”


Why he’s a Top 10 Leader
: Doherty’s original custom installation company, and his latest integration venture, are the envy of many a dealer. But he also founded a successful manufacturing company to market the industry’s first viable music-management system, which he co-developed. On top of that, he was a driving force behind the establishment of CEDIA, and has been a board member through much of the association’s 15-year history.

Bio: Doherty jumped from hi-fi store to hi-fi store in the early 1980s, then began installing Bang & Olufsen multiroom audio on the side. He opened his own custom installation shop, Tom Doherty Inc., in 1985, turning that into a $2.5 million business by 1996. That’s the year he brought in a partner and co-founded Escient, bringing to market the Tune Base music management system. Doherty took a break between 2000 and 2002, built a house, rediscovered Lutron lighting controls, and now runs a one-man business that will put him among Lutron’s top 10 dealers nationwide.

Best business decision: Taking the risk and starting my own installation business after doing it on the side.

Worst business decision:
Not hiring a personal assistant to help oversee all of my business and personal affairs. Having a company with many employees and my sister Nora veiled this need in the past, but my insistence on operating a lean one-man business has kept me disorganized, inefficient and a general basket case.

Key opportunities and challenges moving forward: The opportunities are endless because of this new business model. I can do work beyond my usual comfortable geographical range. As a full-service integrator, I would never take jobs outside the area. The biggest challenge is that there are opportunities to open up other offices, and it’s too tempting to start adding people.

Favorite book: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” by Robert Pirsig

  About the Author

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. Email Julie at [email protected]

Follow Julie on social media:
Twitter · LinkedIn · Google+

Julie also participates in these groups:
LinkedIn · Google+

View Julie Jacobson's complete profile.

  Article Topics

20 Years · All Topics
CE Pro Magazine

Not a Magazine Subscriber?
Subscribe Today...It's FREE!!