Even in this post-recession growth economy, Technical Operations And Development, or TOAD for short, has discovered that lean and mean is the best business model. And you can’t question their logic.
The Barnstable, Mass.-based two-person custom integration company successfully manages both over-the-top $300,000 projects and small subcontract installations for the cable company, all the while continuing to build its own reputation and value by selling 90 percent of its clients service agreements.
So how is that even possible? In a nutshell, you might say, it’s all about “command and control.”
“Commanding officer” Mark Hooper is the very definition of discipline. The former Navy SEAL drives himself to maintain focus and concentration despite suffering a career-ending injury in the military. That attention to detail can be seen vividly in TOAD’s projects, where the wiring and design are virtual perfection.
On the “control” side, systems engineer and right-hand man Peter Robbins has off-the-charts technical know-how to pull off even the most obscure client requests. Robbins’ technical prowess is so extreme he will, if necessary, hook directly into the motherboard of a particular component to get the desired control results, bypassing the available connections.
There is no better example of the symbiotic duo’s command and control business acumen than a recent $300,000 “mancave house” project that includes a golf simulator, multiroom audio, and the conversion of a regulation-size indoor basketball court into a giant theater. But we’ll get to that.
Discipline and Attention to Details Pave the Way
Hooper and Robbins “run the show” at TOAD with reliance on a team of subcontractors, but that wasn’t always the case. At one point prior to the housing collapse, TOAD had eight employees.
“I was getting projects from all across the state,” Hooper recalls. “I soon realized that I could not babysit all those projects. I ultimately had to depend on someone else to do the same level of work just like I would do. But during the course of that I found out that it’s not possible to rely on someone else. Plus, I’m a control freak, so the quality of the installation has to be something I can stand behind and put my name behind.”
Hooper humbly adds, “The reason I’ve succeeded is because I’m honest with people. I am the dumbest guy that’s ever survived in a technology company. [But] I can cut in a gangbox with a RotoZip straighter and more precise than anybody else. That’s how I get my work. Customers see how meticulous I am and wonder what else I can do for them.”
One example of his military-style discipline is that TOAD tries to install conduit on every job. “I put it behind every fireplace. I don’t even charge for it, but it allows me to service the system better,” he notes.
Hooper also focuses on using high-end products. “I want clients to know I put in the best products available for them. I offer a good/better/best on all the lines I carry,” he says.
If you are a subcontractor for TOAD, you have to meet their superior standards and expectations. Hooper estimates he has gone through 40 subcontractors over the years. He recalls one particular supervisor he hired from now-defunct Tweeter for a prewire.
“I went to the basement and he had run the cables all twisted, folded over and pigtailed, using multiple colors. I said, ‘You’re going to have to take all that down.’ He responded by saying, ‘Why? The cable is still going to work.’ I told him he was correct, ‘The cable will work perfectly, but you don’t work for me anymore because you’re the supervisor and ‘OK’ is not good enough.’
“That attention to detail has fed my business,” he continues. “I am also resourceful — I know what I know and I know what I don’t know. I know how to sell and I know how to deliver on what I say I’m going to do. Then I know how to deliver even more than what the client has asked for.”
Two-Man Team Offers Flexibility
The evolution of the company’s business model began during the recession, when it became evident that there just wasn’t enough work to go around. The project pipeline dried up, according to Hooper, and an eight-person staff did not make for a sustainable business model.
So today, TOAD is a two-man shop with heavy use of subcontractors. “We subcontract out to guys that we know in the industry, or people that have contracted on and off throughout since 1999. For example, I’ll bring in electricians to put in outlets when we install surge protection. Or I will bring in a certified Aprilaire integrator to do the HVAC,” Hooper explains. “Using a subcontractor can make my job easier, too, because I have discovered that if you do everything, you are responsible. This way, I can call the HVAC contractor to fix it if there is a problem.”
Hooper equates his use of subcontractors even for certain low-voltage needs to a general contractor hiring a plumber, roofer, or the foundation contractor.
Go Inside TOAD's $300,000 Mancave Project
“We are basically automation contractors or technology contractors. I have my ‘go-to guys’ that I bring into projects. Most clients will listen because they want a project to go smoothly and they want someone to manage it,” he adds.
Robbins is the company’s technology guru, especially for anything related to its predominant control brand of the past seven years: Savant. Hooper says many of the other systems TOAD tried involved too much programming, which he defines as “babysitting.”
“It’s very hard to justify to a client when the Blu-ray player and installation is $500 but the programming is $1,000. It didn’t make sense for me. I try to stay away from systems that are very programming intensive,” Hooper says. “Customers can’t necessarily see value in sending someone to the job to program for a month. They don’t feel comfortable with it.”
Achieving Success with Service Agreements
That striving for efficiency is also what drives TOAD to sell service agreement to customers.
“We try to implement [a service agreement] every time. When they don’t want one, I explain the costs of a service call and the replacement equipment.
“Do you want to pay $220 an hour for a service call or pay $220 a month for a service plan instead?” he asks rhetorically.
The agreements vary depending on the client’s needs. TOAD’s seasonal clients on Cape Cod don’t have need for consistent attention. But other projects, like the giant mancave house, need 24-hour response.
“Those types of clients can call me at midnight. I keep my phone on. Pete keeps his phone on,” remarks Hooper. And when those clients do call in the middle of the night, Hooper isn’t angry. Instead, he sees that as a big win.
“That’s how we have succeeded. Those customers are not going to be able to call Best Buy and say, ‘My Apple TV is not working right now. Can you talk me through it?’ We’ll talk them through a solution. Now we build systems with remote technology like SnapAV’s WattBox that will auto-reboot.”
Using WattBox, TOAD can remotely reboot cable boxes that might freeze by shutting down the power and restarting. Often those calls from clients happen in the middle of the night. So, TOAD has learned to charge its clients via service agreement coverage for that remote capability.
Currently, Hooper estimates as much as 90 percent of his clients have some form of service contract in place.
“It really depends on the size and scale of the system. I find the smaller ones definitely don’t purchase an agreement … they may not require it, although we say to them that everything requires an update. The typical price is an annual fee between 2 percent and 5 percent of the project cost. The agreement covers equipment and labor,” he explains.
“I include everything. I’ve had systems where I’m climbing ladders in the middle of winter because the client wants to have a Christmas party and the dielectric is corroded because it’s five years old. But I’ve got to change a part out because I cover everything soup to nuts.”
Despite his success, Hooper says he still faces an uphill battle with many home-builders in New England.
“I have knocked on more doors and gone old school more than anyone I know. For some reason or another we have a very conservative building contractor base here. A lot of them don’t do any home technology, and many of them still believe electricians are integrators,” says Hooper, who adds that he recognizes he needs to groom relationships with builders and architects for the long-term viability of TOAD. To do that, he has created an AIA-certified course that he presents to builders.
Inside a $300,000 'Mancave House'
A recently completed project by TOAD in the Boston area demonstrates how even a small two-man shop, if it is run efficiently, can handle a mega-project.
There are mancaves, and then there’s this “mancave house,” which is built in the back of a residential property for a family and includes a full regulation-size gymnasium/home theater, lounge and golf simulator. In all, it was a $300,000 project for TOAD.
The home is entirely controlled by a Savant system, from multiroom audio to lighting to the home theater that includes the Savant video tiling system for multiple picture technology for viewing either the gym zone or the golf zone.
The gym converts to a theater using a custom-made portable Middle Atlantic cart with an NEC PX602WL projector and NEC NP37ZL lens that beams from 28 feet away onto a 110-inch Draper HD Gray screen. The 350-pound cart is rolled out to its position at the free-throw line for viewing, but there was a roadblock that needed to be overcome.
The homeowner did not want a power outlet in the middle of the gym floor, nor did he want to unravel a long extension cord from a power outlet on the wall to the cart. Also, the wood used for the floor is the “bounciest” possible, which means it is soft and the weight of the portable cart on wheels would potentially damage it.
So, first TOAD outfitted the portable rack/cart with a $6,000 Falcon portable power unit capable of delivering six hours of continuous performance. The content is distributed to the cart from a Peerless-AV HD Flow wireless transmitter with a receiver on the rack. TOAD also modified the cart with soft “tires” and, as an extra safety precaution, plastic runners are laid out like a puzzle from the utility room where there is a custom charging station to the position on the floor where the cart is parked.
“It is unique; we are pretty proud of it and the client loves it. Seating on the gym floor is taken care of by giant bean-bag chairs. The kids have a lot of parties,” says Hooper.
Audio was another challenge. The expansive gym has 30-foot-plus-high ceilings and hard surfaces everywhere, so needless to say acoustics are less than ideal. TOAD designed a balanced XLR 5.2-channel system consisting of 12 professional-grade Bose RoomMatch RMU208 speakers and two Bose MB12 subs powered by two Bose PowerMatch 8500 amplifiers delivering 8,000 watts.
“The commercial amps allow you to group together any speakers you want. So the two speakers over the screen are grouped together as center channels for the theater, and two speakers are grouped as lefts and two as rights. Bose sent out engineers to help calibrate the amps,” explains Hooper.
The system is controlled by a wireless IP Savant 008 controller, and there is even a Sennheiser microphone set up.
The lounge, which includes memorabilia from Boston Celtics great Larry Bird, has a 75-inch Samsung flat panel with a custom Bay Audio soundbar with power being delivered by a Savant 125-watt/channel amplifier.
Hooper also added a fun touch; since the house is modeled after a YMCA he thought it would be great to have the Village People’s “YMCA” play every time someone walks through the door. It is also a doorbell interrupt so if the homeowners are in the gymnasium or golf simulator room, they will hear it.
Upstairs in the exercise room, which includes memorabilia from boxing legend Rocky Marciano, there is a Peerless-AV articulating mount holding a 40-inch Samsung flat panel with four Monitor Audio in-ceiling speakers, also powered by a Savant amp. In the 15 x 15-foot golf simulator room, a Panasonic PTVX600 projector with an AcerT232HL touchscreen overlay drive the $50,000 About-Golf.com golf simulator. A Klipsch soundbar and subwoofer behind the screen provide the audio.
The Middle Atlantic rack housing the gear is in a tight closet off the golf room. The wiring is a thing of beauty, as TOAD “spiderwebbed” together the shielded Cat 6 Belden wires with separators for an ultra-clean look. The rack houses two HD cable receivers, an Oppo DVD player, two Apple TVs, CD player, Pakedge Fortigate R60D router, and Pakedge SX-24Port switch
connected to three enterprise-grade WAPs broadcasting at 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz. As is their custom, TOAD has SnapAV IP WattBox with auto-reboot and Panamax BlueBolt remote management devices in the rack, which is cooled by two Modular Thermostatic Middle Atlantic fan tray systems and one Active Thermal Management Cool Cube unit. Each zone has a built-in iTunes media server.
Anything missing? “One thing we would have liked to have done is shading,” admits Hooper. “It is one of those things that sometimes people don’t realize they need until after they are into the space.”