31% of CE Pros Have Taken a Stab at Commercial Projects and Here’s Why

Professional Audio Associates owner Lew Freedman, a Class of 2014 CE Pro Master, encourages his residential clients to test the waters of the commercial business with events like PAA Tech Day.

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Especially this year, if you’re a political junkie like me, you eagerly await every new poll. The raw top line numbers with their margins of error and number of respondents are fine but it’s fascinating to dig deeper.

How can anyone live without knowing that the Donald beats Hill with independent LBGTQ unregistered voting age citizens from New Jersey who live within 10 miles of a Garden State Parkway on ramp that doesn’t require a toll? And by over 15 points no less! I love this kind of stuff.

A little less drilling down is required to ascertain lots of facts about the recently revealed CE Pro 100. One specific factoid really jumped out at me. Five years ago, only 15 percent of this vaunted group did anything at all in the commercial field. This year that number has more than doubled to 31 percent. That’s a significant jump.

It’s likely that there was some sort of natural evolution of just business expansion that contributed to the increase. But many feel it was fueled by the Great Recession of 2007-2008.  Left with virtually no residential building, precious few retro renovation projects, the home CI looked for whatever work was out there. Commercial, while not booming, offered some steady days on the job.

In 2009, sensing something of a trend, CE Pro published a supplement on the commercial world, sort of a primer for anyone unfamiliar with the concept, and released a sister publication called Commercial Integrator Magazine. With more encouragement, more and more people looked into the category.

It’s 2016 and though 31 percent is a strong number it still means that over two thirds of the remaining integrators have yet to try their hand at anything much beyond a residence.

This wasn’t lost on Class of 2014 CE Pro Master Lew Freedman, the boss at Pro Audio Associates, an independent distributor out of Woburn MA. Freedman is no stranger to the commercial installation side of the business.

In the 1970s, when he was operating what was then the largest volume single shop retail stereo store in the country (K&L Sound), he was persuaded by a couple of associates to turn an under used section of his second floor into a retail pro shop, selling merchandise for commercial installations as well as gear for musicians. 

In fact the shop became a hangout for many of the bands who were credited with creating “The Bosstown Sound.” Members of Orpheus, The Beacon Street Union, Ultimate Spinach and others were often seen in the K&L Pro shop testing new gear. All the while his pro crew was working installations in Boston clubs, bars and restaurants that ultimately led to bigger gigs in stadiums, schools and houses of worship.

The success of the retail pro shop spurred Freedman to try his hand at starting a manufacturers’ representative firm for commercial products in New England and upstate New York. When Freedman closed the retail business he expanded the rep firm to include home vendors on his line card.

The next logical step was to stock and distribute the products that the rep firm, named Professional Audio Associates (PAA), sold. The rest is history.

Fast forward over three decades and PAA is solidly in the commercial end of the business distributing major brands to clients large and small. It was the success of a number of smaller residential installers who had tested the waters on the pro side that convinced Freedman he should reach out to more members of the home only holdouts and persuade them to give the pro side a try.

Bringing Commercial Ideas Home

The result was PAA Tech Day, recently held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Windsor Locks, Conn., near Bradley International Airport.

Why Connecticut? Freedman was asked. “It had been a while since we’d had a event there. When we started many years ago we had rotating hotel shows all over the territory. My Connecticut guys convinced me it would be a great venue and it was. We had sales and tech attendees from not only Connecticut but Vermont, greater Albany (NY) as well as western and central Mass. Over 60 guys turned out for our first go at this. I was thrilled but more importantly so were the accounts and the vendors.”

PAA Tech Day. Photo courtesy of Chuck Schneider.

The vendors included (in alphabetical order) Bose Commercial, Electro Voice, LG (both Commercial and Consumer), Omnimount, Origin Acoustics, Peerless, RDL, Sonos, Sound Machine, and TOA.

Most of these participants are well known in the pro space but a couple were, like many of the PAA clients, looking to expand their vision beyond residential. Sonos, for example, brought along relative newbie Sound Machine who uses the tag line “music service for business.” Not only was that a market niche perfect for Tech Day, but it also offered an entrée into the increasingly important monthly recurring revenue (MRM) arena.

Origin Acoustics, for its part, has elected to leave no category of the architectural loudspeaker business out of its increasingly comprehensive assortment. On display at Tech Day were the “Seasons” collection of outdoor speakers and 70-volt in-ground subwoofers which the company touts as simple and perfect for the hotel pool area or al fresco dining spaces at restaurants and bars.

Not only did the event make PAA even more visible to the pure play pro clients but it exposed, in some cases for the first time, aspects and ideas from the commercial side to some home only clients.

“I’m encouraging all my residential clients to take a stab at the commercial business. Start slowly. Stay in the neighborhood and try their hand at a local restaurant or bar.” Freedman calls the concept “Commercial Lite,” which is now the nickname of an entry level commercial display series offered by LG.

“But I also wanted to show resi guys some of the potential.” Freedman continued.  “That’s why we had a video wall and signage products on display.” Those SKUs made for more than just conversation pieces as the day went on. Freedman and his crew saw some eyes open and he thinks he'll see positive results shortly.

As mentioned previously, the vendors were impressed. Impressed enough to commit to more events.  Expect to see more pro stuff on display during the annual PAA Open House at their headquarters in Woburn MA later this spring as well as another commercial oriented event in the fall.

I wonder what the Presidential polls will show by then?