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Most Influential People of Past 20 Years

Counting down the people who have shaped the CE community over the last two decades.


Most Influential People of Past 20 Years
Julie Jacobson · January 23, 2013
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6. Joel Spira, founder and CEO, Lutron Electronics

Claim to fame: Inventor of the solid-state dimmer, father of residential lighting control

Lutron is the undisputed leader in residential lighting controls. It’s that simple. The domination began in the 1990s, long after Spira invented the solid-state dimmer and incorporated Lutron in 1961.

Lutron holds over 2,700 patents for such things as a dimming ballast for fluorescent lights and a self-contained preset lighting control system – seemingly mundane innovations today, but hugely significant at the time.

Perhaps the biggest game changer came in 1997 with the introduction of RadioRA, the first viable wireless RF lighting control solution. Before that, there was the finicky powerline-based X10 and virtually nothing in between.

Related: How Lutron Landed in the Smithsonian

Lutron was one of the first companies to tout the energy-saving capabilities of dimming and later motorized shades, a category that Lutron dominates in the high-end market.

“I will say that I honestly had no idea that my invention would lead to this – the energy savings, the job creation and retention and the spawn of new ideas and technologies that make our homes and workplaces run better and more efficiently,” said Spira in accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award from CEDIA in 2010.

Beyond its technological innovations, Lutron is famous for its focus on aesthetics and sets the bar on industrial design. The company was arguably the first in the industry to build design centers to court the architect and interior design communities.

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7. Tomlinson Holman, Founder, THX

Claim to fame: Standards for high-quality audio products and sound

If no one cared about audio, where would our industry be today? We can thank Tomlinson Holman and Anthony Grimani for bringing standards to sound reproduction and evangelizing high-quality audio in virtually any venue from the theater to the car to the home.

In the 1980s, under the umbrella of George Lucas’s Lucasfilm, Holman created the THX standard to ensure movie theaters could accurately reproduce soundtracks from – at the time – “Return of the Jedi.”

The THX certification eventually extended to screening rooms, home theaters, computer speakers, A/V receivers and other spaces and devices. Today, integrators and A/V manufacturers now aspire to create THX-certified products and spaces, ensuring the most faithful audio/video reproduction possible.

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8. Joe Kane, founder, Joe Kane Productions

Claim to fame: Creating standards for high-quality video

In the 1980s, Joe Kane taught studios and integrators how video is supposed to look, with his laserdisc “A Video Standard,” an important tool that translated tech talk into practical tools. Prior to that important work, video standards were just a bunch of mumbo jumbo from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), with whom Kane has worked closely for decades.

He continued to spread the good word about video, releasing Digital Video Essentials in 2003.

Kane’s famous test patterns have helped many a manufacturer and integrator hone their displays. In addition, over the past two decades, Kane has trained integrators on providing the best possible video experience for their clients.

“Joe Kane really helped me maintain the ‘Super’ in Supercalibrations,” says Dallas Dingle of the integration firm Supercalibrations in White Bear Lake, Minn. “We were able to deliver a new level of picture quality not really attainable until Joe started his famous seminars.

Currently, Kane’s company JKP is advocating “Proof of Performance” for video equipment, supplying test materials and “known quality source signals” for the cause.

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9. Joe Piccirilli, formerly of AVAD; currently managing director at RoseWater Energy Group

Claim to fame: Orchestrating the first national network of custom-oriented distributors

The distribution network AVAD “completely changed the way products and technology are delivered to dealers,” according to an anonymous respondent to our CE Pro survey.

We completely agree, but the big question is: Who gets the credit? Co-founders Bob Gartland and Wally Whinna, leaders of two regionals in the AVAD network, were instrumental in the organization’s launch and success. But the face of the organization, and the guy doing much of the wheeling and dealing, was managing director Joe Piccirilli.

He recruited new distributors and negotiated with vendors to create a network of regional distributors focused on the custom installation channel. Prior to AVAD, the distribution scene was entirely fragmented. Manufacturers either had to sell direct or place their products with one distributor at a time.

Under the AVAD umbrella, niche manufacturers could gain a national presence relatively painlessly, and dealers benefited from easier access and lower costs. AVAD helped many a small dealer get into the home systems industry and better manage their businesses. In addition to products, these dealers enjoyed – and continue to enjoy – important services such as attractive credit terms, training, returns, stock and more.

Ingram Micro acquired AVAD in 2005 for up to $200 million, based on performance. That sale prompted other regional distributors to form their own networks.

As our anonymous respondent comments, “The industry is now fundamentally served by local distributors, who could never have existed without the trail-blazing of AVAD.”

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10. Chris Stevens, founder of Phoenix Systems (integrator), AudioAccess, PowerFile, iControl; president of Harman Kardon; co-founder and president of CEDIA

Claim to fame: Stimulating the custom electronics channel, innovating in multiroom A/V

Chris Stevens isn’t the household name he used to be in the custom channel, but his positive contributions still linger, starting with his founding of the integration company Phoenix Systems, which is still alive and kicking in Palo Alto, Calif.

He went on to found AudioAccess, “the first manufactured multiroom/multi-source audio system,” according to Jeff Zemanek, a former integrator, Lutron executive and CEDIA president. “Before AudioAccess, we all had science projects which included matrix switching, multiple amps and either contact closure or IR - none of which were very reliable or profitable.”

Stevens’ next company, PowerFile, might be long forgotten in our channel (it closed shop in 2010) but it was a pioneer in digital content management and storage.

In addition to those achievements, Stevens was a founder of CEDIA, and “without his guidance from the beginning, along with Rob Gerhardt and Tom Doherty, we would not be having this conversation,” Zemanek says.

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11 & 12. Will West (left), Eric Smith, most recently co-founders of Control4 (Will as CEO and now chairman, Smith as CTO)

Claim to fame: Launching home control for the masses. Also co-founded PHAST, which was sold to AMX in the late 1990s; co-founded STSN (now iBAHN), a leader in broadband services for hotels

For some reason, Will West and Eric Smith, the founders of Control4, were not mentioned in the initial call for nominations. But the two pioneers of easy-to-configure home control systems showed up several times in the write-in section of our ballot. They may be controversial figures because their first company, PHAST, collapsed shortly after AMX acquired the company. Nevertheless, the drag-and-drop software formed the backbone of AMX’s flagship Landmark control system.

There is no denying that Control4, founded by the duo in 2003, has catapulted home automation and multiroom A/V into the mainstream. The company was hardly the first to market low-cost home control, but it was the first to invest the millions of dollars necessary to make a major impact in the marketplace.

Referring to the most important technological innovations of the past two decades, integrator Rob Gillespie of the Fidei Group says, “Without PHAST and Control4, several of [those] products have no purpose.”

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12. Tom Doherty, Founder, Doherty Design Group

Claim to fame: Launching the CEDIA channel, popularizing lighting control, creating the first music management system. Also the founder of CEDIA and Escient; visionary behind Gracenote

When we selected Tom Doherty as one of our Top 10 most influential people in the custom electronics industry nine years ago, he was a one-man shop.

We wrote back then: “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.”


  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]

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