QSC_MFG_Elec_A_01With our monthly “Five Minutes With” feature, The Retailer tries to find an individual with a long, storied career in the MI and technology space, from a company that’s an established leader in its field, whose organization either has reworked or is currently revising its strategic positioning to further reinforce its leading position. With Ray van Straten, Vice President, QSC Professional, we find all of the above. Within the MI, audio and technology fields, van Straten is recognized as a seasoned, knowledgeable veteran whose passion for high-quality products, and for our industry, is unquestioned. In this in-depth interview, van Straten shares his musical journey with us, while also pulling back the curtain on a major internal restructuring that will strengthen QSC for years to come.

The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s start with your background. Trace your history with music, audio and technology, touching on what initially captured your interest. How did you translate that into a successful career? Discuss a bit about your career trajectory, mentioning some of your key past positions and bringing us up to the present day.

Ray van Straten: I’ve always loved to play the piano and actually got my degree in piano performance as well as jazz composition and arranging. I’ve played with many large pop/rock artists and have “lived the dream” of spending long hours cramped in tour bus bunks and eating sweaty meats in stadium green rooms. I actually had way more fun playing local gigs in the New York Metro area, with some of the most talented musicians in the world.

Ray_vanStraten_webBetween gigs, I worked in a local music store, Musically Yours, owned by my friend Ed Decker. He gave me the flexibility to work my own hours, provided I was available to help service the store’s high-profile customers. At the time, MIDI was the big thing and digital audio was just in its infancy. Compared to today’s technology, this stuff was laughably primitive, but, if you were into making electronic music, it was a very exciting time. If you were the local “expert,” you were very busy; you were also making good money if you were selling, designing, supporting and playing electronic gear.

I love music, I have a passion for selling, I’m a technology nut and, because of a few electives in college, I was introduced to advertising and marketing fundamentals that sparked a keen interest that actually put me on my career trajectory. To put all that together, I started a company writing and producing radio and TV commercials. Jingles, music beds, copy and voice-over, etc. I had the big studio in the house and a beeper [Laughs] for on-call sessions in the city. Life was good. Then, my wife and I had a baby and the very first thoughts of a “real job” entered my mind. If I were to have a full-time gig, what would it look like?

Enter Mike D’Amore, the Yamaha District Manager for New York Metro and the only company rep who I could honestly say added value and enhanced my day with each visit back in my music store days. Apparently, I had mentioned to him at one point that if ever Yamaha was looking, to give me a call. I had completely forgotten about that, but Mike hadn’t. And he was persistent! Next thing I know, I’m working for Yamaha as a Field Sales Engineer for digital hard disk recording products, calling on accounts in the Boston, New York and DC Metro areas. After nine months on that job, the company called me into the head office in Buena Park and offered me a territory as District Manager for the Pro Audio and Combo Division, working for Rick Young. Rick is a real stand-up guy and I learned a lot from him. (I also had the pleasure of serving on the NAMM Board with him some years later.) I loved that District Manager gig. I had a company car, an expense account, benefits for my family and a retirement savings plan. Cool! But no good deed goes unpunished as they say! When the District Manager in an adjoining territory left the company, I found myself with not one but two territories to manage. Maybe a little less fun now. [Laughs.]

Before long, Rick asked me to move to California and create a National Accounts program, managing our business with Guitar Center during its period of very rapid expansion. I did that for a couple of years before moving on to Sonic Foundry, once again to work with Mike D’Amore, who had left Yamaha some number of months before. This was during the tech bubble and our company dot-bombed. Boom. Just like that, I was out of a job. Divine providence intervened and, on the day when my severance benefits ran out, I got another gig with a different company, selling digital pianos. One year later, the company changed their mind about the entire program and…again…bye-bye gig.

A few months later, I got a call from my friend Gina Bergmann at QSC that there was an opening and that Paul Gazarian, the Retail Market Manager and a really fine human being, wanted to talk to me. Apparently, his technical guy had left and he needed someone. I assured him that I knew absolutely nothing about amplifiers, which really was all QSC sold at the time. He said it didn’t matter—he wanted me and told me to write my own job description. That is what “opportunity knocking” looks like. With Gina, Paul and our small team, we worked together to essentially recreate how QSC did business in the Retail space.

When Paul retired, I took the helm of our Retail business and continued the work we had started, creating new programs and policies. We built a very robust channel-management function and even created one of the first industry online badging systems to help end users identify authorized dealers. We parted ways with low-performing accounts that weren’t supporting our brand and created end-user programs that funneled business to our best partners. We reshaped our marketing strategy to create more of a call-to-action-type approach, working together with our dealers to develop compelling and unique offerings that represented the best of both brands. Our training program improved. Our marketing improved. Our sales tools improved. And, by the time K Series hit, we had lined up our ducks nicely in a row to benefit from the hard work that had gone on before.

Fast-forward a couple of years to a point in time when the QSC Marketing Communications function was in real trouble—lots of dysfunction. Our CEO, Joe Pham, and the company’s Founder, Barry Andrews, asked me to take the helm there and see if we could right that ship. Actually, I wasn’t really asked. I like to say that I was “voluntold.” Three years later, our department is staffed with talent and expertise, people are having fun, we have a new design language, we have an improved Web function, we’ve injected meaningful creativity that “sells” into our advertising vehicles, customers are coming to learn about our amazing integrated systems offerings, we have a robust social-media footprint and more people recognize our brand the world over than ever before.

About 18 months ago, I also inherited the Training and Education department, and these guys absolutely rock. If you want to see state-of-the-art training, look no further than qsctraining.com. Creating close synergy between our training function and MarCom has closed the gap on what previously looked and felt like the work of two different companies. Now, we look like one QSC, and I’m really proud of the collaborative effort by both teams.

The Retailer: The story of how QSC came to be born is pretty well known in music and audio circles, but tell us a bit about how its creation and its founding ideals shaped the company over the decades. How do those principles still affect QSC today?

van Straten: QSC is a learning organization and, of course, some of the best lessons are learned as a result of mistakes—and we’ve made our fair share over the years. But I think the strength of character of this company is that we allow ourselves to make mistakes and then work together to resolve our challenges—even those that are self-inflicted. [Laughs.] We’re also very tenacious in that, when we set our sights on a goal, we play to win. When we told the industry that we were entering the loudspeaker business, people told us we were crazy…that we had no idea what it would take to be successful and that, for the most part, we’d be eaten alive. The truth is, in many respects, we didn’t know, and we stumbled in a lot of areas. But that tenacity kept us focused on the prize and, today, we are recognized globally as a leading manufacturer.

The same is true for our mixer business. We shared our plans with the world four years ago and stated that we expected our first product to be announced in 2011. Clearly, our expectations were out of sync with the realities of what it would take to bring a quality, innovative product to market. As we’ve learned, the path to success in that space is not for the faint of heart, and there were many setbacks along the way. But each setback only made us more knowledgeable, more capable and more determined, the result of which is a very robust mixer program that will serve QSC and our customers well into the future.

The Retailer: Within the last several months, QSC has undergone something of a major reorganization with the formation of three distinct Business Units: QSC Professional, QSC Systems and QSC Cinema. Provide a high-level overview of the three Business Units and discuss how this internal restructuring will enhance QSC’s ability to serve both dealers and end customers.

van Straten: QSC provides products and solutions to customers in the Cinema, Integrated Systems, and Retail/MI and Portable/Production channels. If we desire to remain a leading manufacturer, we need to be exceptional in all these areas. Within QSC, we have, across the broader organization, people with vast experience and expertise in, and passion for, a particular segment of our business.

Some number of years ago, we determined that our global Cinema business was not meeting its potential, so we created something of a Cinema “mini BU” with a team that focused exclusively on that business: end to end, from product design and development to pricing, channel management, sales, marketing, etc. That has served us very well and, today, our global Cinema business thrives. Our Cinema team is quite expert at what they do, and the results speak for themselves.

Our recent reorganization into the three Business Units does this very same thing, only on a far grander scale. Eventually, our entire product portfolio will be fully segregated; this will allow us to not only offer products and solutions that meet the very specific needs of the customers served, but also market and sell them through very well defined channels. Each customer or dealer will, in essence, have “its own QSC”…one that looks, feels and acts in integrity with the channel.

Speaking on behalf of our Pro team, serving the global MI community, I am excited to see just how far and deep we can go. The Pro management team, as of today, has exactly 200 years of combined experience in the MI channel. The group is extraordinarily talented, is well respected in the industry and is highly motivated to have a real impact on QSC and our customers’ business.

The Retailer: In conjunction with the Business Unit announcement, QSC also announced that you were promoted to Vice President of QSC Professional. Explain what your responsibilities will be relative to this role. What new challenges are you preparing to tackle? What are some of your initial goals and what’s your timeline for achieving them?

van Straten: This is a period of enormous change for QSC, and managing change is priority number one. Across the world, our dealers, reps, distributors and other channel partners are awakening to a sort of new reality relative to QSC. As John Andrews, one of our Founders, was fond of saying during our last major period of change, “What got you here won’t get QSC_ext_07_rgb_hiyou there.” People and organizations respond to change in different ways and, often, with unpredictable results. So, anticipation and preparation are critical right now.
Also high on the priority list is to grow and enhance our global brand presence. We don’t enjoy the same market share overseas that we do in the U.S. There are myriad reasons for that, not the least of which is that we’ve not done a very good job articulating and demonstrating our brand values beyond our own borders. If we can deliver in a few important areas, it will have a significant impact on our business.

The Retailer: Over the last several years, QSC has consistently held a leading position in its market segments, in terms of market share, product perception, etc. What are the secrets to QSC’s continuing success? How has the company maintained its sales numbers, market share and other metrics of leadership?

van Straten: Product perception is easy: just build great products that perform exceptionally well within their category, that offer high value for the customer and that are reliable beyond expectations. I say that tongue-in-cheek because there’s no “just” anything. It’s all hard work. If it was easy, everyone could do it, right?

With respect to brand presence and market share, you’ll recall from the last question that, as a company that considers itself global, I don’t think we’ve done such a great job. Here in the U.S., we do know what it takes to be successful with our customers because we’re so close to them. We’re among them and, in many cases, we are them. Our end users and channel partners experience QSC in a very personal way here. We have a direct relationship with our dealers. We can walk out the door and talk to the market. We can resolve customer issues quickly, in the customer’s time zone. Those things, I believe, lie at the core of our success here at home.

Today, great product is table stakes. It’s the “everything else” that wins, at least for us. As mentioned earlier, finding a way to deliver the brand internationally is the big challenge, but, with our new Business Unit orientation, it can be made a reality more easily.

The Retailer: Relative to the music products market and, in particular, the brick-and-mortar channel, what are some of QSC’s hottest new products…those that either just came out or, alternatively, continue to attract widespread attention months after having been released?

van Straten: Certainly, the TouchMix digital mixers are a game-changer for us. Not just as our first entry into the mixer space, but also a real game-changer. This product series is nothing short of amazing, and I believe it will reset the bar in the mixer category the way K Series did for powered loudspeakers. It’s that good! And, our K Family of loudspeakers keeps surprising, despite some good competition. Professionals use these things as business tools and, like any professional tool, you want it to work well, work every time and help you make money. That’s the value proposition for K, and thank goodness there’s enough business out there to keep the professionals working.

The Retailer: When you look at the pro audio segment—the segment you’re serving through QSC Professional—what is your level of optimism regarding the direction of broad market forces? To what extent are you feeling cautious about the general outlook? Or, conversely, do you feel like the pro audio segment is one whose potential is far greater than what’s yet been realized?

van Straten: I do believe that there will continue to be new customers for what the industry makes and sells, so I suppose that, from that perspective, I’m bullish. As long as there is a need to be heard, there will be a market for PA, even if some products are barely capable of being better than shouting. Improvements in global manufacturing narrow the gap between brands’ ability to deliver existing technology at low cost. And, inevitably, after any product has been in the market for a while, someone will figure out a way to get close, but at a lower price to the customer. Lower price creates easier access, attracts new customers, etc. It’s a never-ending cycle. Always has been. We prefer to innovate. We’re perfectly comfortable with targets on our backs. There’s a reason why the windshield is larger than the rear-view mirror.

The Retailer: What does the future hold for QSC and, more specifically, for QSC Professional? What can company-watchers expect over the next six months? One year? Five years?

van Straten: The TouchMix release is going to be huge and, a year from now, there will be a large segment of the customer base that will have no idea we weren’t always in the mixer business. Our international efforts will help build a brand that looks and feels more global in nature, further strengthening our brand here at home. Our product Core Teams will be working in concert with sales, marketing and our channel to define, create and bring to market products and solutions that are spot-on for the customer segments they are intended to serve. Our Pro team will put its vast experience to work enhancing our dealer partnerships and strengthening the integrity of our market channels. Work should be fun and rewarding. So far, I think we’re off to a good start.


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