A quarter century ago, Scott and Jennifer Ross were a young idealistic couple with a grand vision of creating the leading custom installation company in the nation. And after 25 years, the duo has certainly achieved that lofty goal via its unmatched work ethic, energized company culture, and a jaw-dropping 12,000-square-foot design center dubbed “Swaybranch Castle” complete with secret passages, a dungeon, and one of the most expensive showroom theaters in existence.
In 2000, four years after the Rosses first opened their doors, Atlanta Home Theater became, and still is, the youngest company ever to win CEDIA’s “Dealer of the Year” award. That, combined with the “Best Home Theater” award in the $250,000 to $1,000,000 category, earned them the covers of CE Pro and other industry publications that year.
More recently, the company branched off to create its own custom home building company, its own wine label, and its own brand of multisports theaters and gaming suites for residential and commercial clients.
On the management and operations front, Atlanta Home Theater has fostered a thriving company culture that leads to long-tenured team members, via special touches such as its monthly Friday morning meetings, its original team approach to employee reviews and its coveted annual “Mystery Day.”
Scott was born with a passion for sound and technology. It snowballed throughout high school and while in the military and once he completed his accounting degree in 1993, he entered the market first through the lens of a regional consumer electronics chain, then through employment with two companies, considered at that time to be Atlanta’s best. But he came away disenchanted with how clients were being treated, the smoke-and-mirror approach and how budgets were being distributed.
Meanwhile, Jennifer had earned a dual degree in marketing and communications cutting her teeth in human resources followed by several years of recruiting high-level CEOs and executives for “big six” consulting firms, Coca-Cola and a scientific R&D firm. So, combining Scott’s accounting experience plus audio and home theater knowledge with Jennifer’s marketing and communications savvy they founded Atlanta Home Theater in 1996, back when home theater was just evolving from what had originally been a two-channel audio-dominated industry.
“We wanted to run an honest business and make our work matter,” recalls Jennifer. “We wanted to crack the mystery of which design strategies truly made the biggest impact on system and sound performance rather than blindly following manufacturers’ claims or simply selling for margin. We wanted to operate with integrity and win big and fairly to prove it could be done in one of the fastest growing industries. We had no children at the time and relished every moment we could spend together working … and the hunger of potential and success overtook us both. We never looked up … we were just having a good time and success found us.”
25 Years of Evolution
Like many integrators who launch into business, Atlanta Home Theater has experienced many of the common growing pains related to running a custom installation company. “Everything has changed over the past 25 years,” says Scott, “from the way we manage the business and team, to the projects we choose to accept. We focus on simple and reliable system designs and continue to raise our standards. We have worked hard to become the best home technology company our clients have ever worked with.
“Our current processes are completely streamlined compared to a quarter century ago,” he explains. “Where we once fumbled, we now operate with extreme detail and accuracy. We use system templates for proposals to reduce engineering time and we focus on consistency so that the entire team is always on the same page.
“Our philosophy is, ‘fewer black boxes equals fewer service calls,’ and our systems are rock solid. We have mastery in every division of the company. The winning strategy is placing our talent in positions they enjoy where their skill sets are the strongest instead of the popular ‘Han Solo’ approach where one individual is compromised with handling consultations, proposals, drawings, training, collections and service. We have dedicated teams for each of these divisions now,” says Scott.
The company’s coveted concentration of high-profile clients keeps its pipeline both stacked with six-figure projects and with clients who bring one or more vacation homes. This extravagant niche clientele has not only broadened the company’s philanthropic fundraising capacity, but has allowed Atlanta Home Theater to thrive on word-of-mouth referrals without any need to advertise for decades. One big benefit from that business model is that it has allowed Atlanta Home Theater to afford larger salaries and more challenging projects to keep its team stimulated and incentivized.
Without the need to devote resources toward finding projects or responding to bids, the company’s design engineers operate like a white-glove concierge service, rolling out the red carpet for clients, entertaining them with wine and spirits, demonstrating systems on display in its ornate showroom and delivering the best overall experience available. Their perfectionist culture has propelled them into a truly international business with signature home theaters in Egypt, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Canada, the Bahamas, Pakistan and all across the United States.
12,000-Square-Foot Enchanted Swaybranch Castle
Atlanta Home Theater started out in a strip mall facility. The Rosses were on the hunt for real estate when Scott hit gold; a monstrous unfinished building in the center of Roswell that was ready to go to the auction block. The bottom floor was still dirt, the second floor was only framed — only the third floor was finished.
Using a team approach, the company’s engineers, designers, technicians and office staff were tasked with creating something spectacular. After two years of their sweat equity and creative vision, “Swaybranch Castle” was complete — undoubtedly one of the most unique and grand integrator showrooms anywhere. Only 20 minutes from downtown Atlanta, the 12,000-square-foot facility displays smart home solutions via myriad exhibits and demonstrations of home theater, home automation, lighting, HVAC, shade control, distributed audio and video, virtual reality, outdoor sound and security and surveillance integration.
The showroom was tactically designed to support the company’s growing operations and training, while showcasing their comprehensive capabilities, unique style of consulting and proprietary, trademark secrets. The facility provides prospective clients with an arousing, interactive experience exemplifying the extent of Atlanta Home Theater’s competencies.
Swaybranch Castle is audacious proof that no design element is outside the company’s capability. The castle boasts eight theater systems, 16 media zones, two conference areas, five individual offices, six restrooms, an elevator, and a grand stairwell that spills into a lush, five-star lobby where a captive alien peers at guests through the dungeon door. Swaybranch Castle sits on the second-most traveled road in Georgia on an acre of land in the center of Roswell. The property is lined with exotic cedars and other hardwood trees amidst a pristinely groomed courtyard, complemented by a concert-level outdoor audio system surrounding the building.
There is also a beautifully landscaped nature trail which snugs Willow Creek with resting benches where employees retreat for lunch or to make personal calls. On cool mornings the team sometimes conducts their monthly morning meeting around the fire pit where the trail ends bonding over coffee and donuts in nature.
At night, colored LED lights illuminate the building’s exterior in seasonal hues while the Atlanta Home Theater sign on the front gleams in 14-karat gold. The Design Center, with its unfathomable history, secret passageways, large fleet of black Mercedes Sprinters and 40+ parking spaces, is also a rented venue for fundraisers and special events, as well as a field trip destinations for local high schools and universities. In the centrum, Scott hosts several celebrity poker nights where players who don’t win take home a complimentary bottle of 20th Anniversary wine.
Showroom Includes Engineering Bay, Sound Lab
Among the many showroom highlights:
Scott’s office in the Executive Suite area sports a $15,000 desktop concert system and original stone fireplace between two walls of windows overlooking Roswell.
The glass-walled engineering bay features nine, sound-treated, rising Mac workstations canopied beneath a jewel-tone celestial galaxy. Each workstation is partitioned to minimize noise and its three walls contain 12-inch acoustic squares to eliminate simultaneous phone calls from sounding like a marketing call center. When the design engineers want to speak to one another they simply lean their heads outside of the sound-treated cubby.
There are over 1,000 individual acoustic squares in total that took three days to glue in, rotating each for aesthetics. The showroom also has two functional kitchens, an employee lounge, three training rooms, and the automated “client-only” cosmic lavatory decked out with a $12,000 sound system and a mirror TV behind the sink, scrolling a reel of before-and-after photos of some award-winning projects.
The Sound Lab
Fashioned in a masculine and contemporary motif, the Sound Lab is a multi-channel, audio-only experience with $250,000 in gear referred to as “the ultimate McIntosh and Sonus faber love affair.” There are a variety speaker brands on display which are rotated for comparison.
On the terrace level, Blue Houdini is where CFO of 17 years Tiffany Barr, “one of the hardest working women on the planet,” operates. Its name speaks for itself with blue-tinted windows, blue lighting and a blue-glossed, stained concrete floor. The room is a dual demonstration of two interworking theater systems — one static and another that descends from inside the ceiling synchronized with the lowering of the blackout shades.
Translated as “man heart” in high Valyrian (the language created for “Game of Thrones”), Vala Prima is the signature theater and crown jewel topping out at just over $800,000. It’s best described by Jennifer as “a plush gentlemen’s club with over 17,000 watts of paralyzing power.” Scott says he has no idea how loud the system can get because even he, whose volume preferences exceeds most, cannot endure it wide open.
The second story has a 3,500-square-foot warehouse with two raised workstations, an employee shower, an outdoor, two-story, 2,000-pound capacity hydraulic cage-lift called Hauss and an impressive supply of inventory.
Technology as a Seduction
All the custom details — from the giant 3D-printed themed theater entryways and hand-crafted chandeliers to the custom carved doors and chic room transitions — enables the building to haunt, seduce and close deals before the proposals are ever seen. Jennifer says clients’ reactions to the showroom goes hand-in-hand with the company’s mission.
“Seduction is what we’re doing,” she says candidly. “It starts from the moment you click on the website, watch one of our videos, see our work, or hear the vintage fountains in the courtyard in stereo with ambient music. As you come through the front doors, you are met the castle’s treasure chest of candy and an individual takes your coat and drink order. The hooks are already in. Then during your tour of the design center someone refreshes your drink.”
“Our lavish approach really helps clients dream and imagine themselves in a home having an elevated experience,” remarks Scott. “Relaxing into the imagination is a key component of our clients expanding their original budgets and submitting to what they really want. When they can see how precisely we space each zip tie in our equipment racks, and see how absolutely pristine the Control4 panels are installed, how even in our restrooms the plates and keypads are straight and perfect, it helps them know who we are as a team.
“A showroom is an important opportunity that allows clients to look under our hood to confirm we can deliver the high quality that we promise,” he continues. “They don’t have to wonder if we are still going to be around tomorrow or if our team members care. They don’t have to wonder if a subcontractor is going to walk off the job with all their passwords or if they are paying higher labor while the company trains subs on their dime. Seduction achieved. Fear diminished. Inspiration open and running. A showroom is everything and separates the short-term runs from the serious players.”
Atlanta Home Theater installed a system for a winery that wanted to play music to its grapes through high-quality speakers. From that experience, the winemaker keeps AHT stocked in red and white blends. For the grand opening of Swaybranch Castle and for AHT’s 20th anniversary, the winery designed a special label featuring the company’s Vala Prima signature theater. Over 1,500 bottles were distributed to guests.
The grand opening of Swaybranch Castle was hands down the most exciting event in AHT history. With over 1,000 guests, it was a concentration of AHT clients, Fortune 500 CEOs and VPs, celebrities, exotic car manufacturers and vehicles, pro athletes, enthusiasts, family and friends, AV manufacturers and reps, builders, architects, artists and craftsmen, interior designers, realtors, police officers, fire fighters, philanthropists and Atlanta-based restaurant chain owners. City Hall even came to see the spectacle.
The event wasn’t even hampered by a massive hailstorm that surged past while guests lined up on the red carpet waiting to receive their credentials and be checked in. Over 100 pounds of sushi were served and over 200 bottles of wine were cracked.
The music and demos were so loud that those inside had no idea there was a tornado warning. Guests lined up for the golf, driving and flight simulators, as well as for the VR exhibits that wrapped around the building. Tesla, Maserati, Lamborghini, Slingshot, Harley Davidson, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari and McLaren automobiles were all parked under large white tents and giving test drives. Every guest went home with a commemorative bottle of AHT wine. All the theaters were manned with manufacturers giving demos while the AHT team mingled in ball gowns and tuxedos and senior officers donned 007 headsets for communicating.
Three commercial projectors on scaffolding across the street displayed a giant video presentation on the front of the building. The video began with a “Star Wars” tribute, which featured AHT’s history in the movie’s classic opening text scrolling in space to the original music. The event closed with a champagne toast from Scott and Jennifer, congratulating the team and thanking their clients.
Becoming a Homebuilder; Multisports Theater Provider
Every integration company works with homebuilders, but a year ago the Rosses decided to become custom homebuilders themselves with the launch of Atlanta Elite Homes. “It was a huge expansion for us to become a custom home builder,” admits Scott. “We have spent the last 25 years creating a well-oiled machine and applied that experience straight to Atlanta Elite Homes. People seek out highly reputable companies to build their custom homes and AHT’s reputation precedes it.”
The newest venture for the Rosses is Atlanta MultiSports Theater for both residential and commercial applications.
“We’ve been installing golf-simulators for the last decade,” states Scott. “Golf simulator companies may know golf, but they know very little about AV. They were specifying subpar equipment to increase margin and were consistently making rookie mistakes that our team invested time correcting. You don’t have to know golf to design and build a simulator. It simply requires a competent design team.”
And now, AHT MultiSports Theater packages extend well beyond golf simulators to include dodge ball, hockey, soccer, baseball and even firearms training with recoil-enabled laser shot weapons used for police training. AHT also specializes in racing simulators, virtual reality arenas, exercise and yoga studios, as well as bicycle and Peloton training.
“Add to that a custom theater system in the same arena,” Scott says, “and you have a MultiSports Theater enriching the experience with everything in one room.”