Home Automation Unplugged Episode #217: An Industry Q&A with Tom LeBlanc
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Tom LeBlanc, Executive Director at NSCA shares his journey from working in journalism to landing in the AV industry.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Tom LeBlanc. Recorded live on Friday, July 15th, 2022, at 9:00 am. EST.
About Tom LeBlanc
Tom has supported the integration market since 2003. He was the editorial director of Commercial Integrator from 2010 to 2019 and held various roles at CE Pro before that. Throughout his career, he specialized in developing content to help integration firms improve their businesses. At NSCA, LeBlanc is focused on executing the visions of the NSCA Board of Directors and NSCA community by providing resources and spearheading events to strengthen members' business and networking opportunities.
- The Business Leadership Conference and the upcoming Pivot to Profit conference in the fall.
- Tom’s journey from working in journalism to landing in the AV industry
- NSCA’s strategy to help its members during the COVID pandemic and the current supply chain issue that is being faced by the industry
Ron: Hello, I'm staring into the void here, folks. I got a warning message from my YouTube channel. So before I bring my guest in, let me just click on this link and see if I can follow the directions here. I'm looking for feedback from my team right now. Don't worry. Oh my gosh. Wouldn't you know that YouTube rolls out a streaming software update, right here as I am going live? You got to love technology, folks. Yeah, live on LinkedIn. Hi, LinkedIn family, good to see you. Nothing on YouTube It's telling me that it wants me to authorize streaming into YouTube. So I think we're going to proceed with our LinkedIn stream here and we will upload to YouTube. Because you know what we do? We roll with the punches. That's what we do. So today is Friday, July 15. It is a little bit after 09:00 a.m.. So, yes, this is a unique day and time and that is because I really wanted to have this guest on and he is a busy man and I am a busy man and this is when we could get it done. So we have no idea, we're completely in the dark as to who's going to be able to tune in live with us on LinkedIn. But if you are out there and you are tuning in live, would love to hear from you. Drop into the feed on LinkedIn where you're coming to us from and if you have any questions for my guest, Tom. So without further ado, let me get my guest introduced. Today we are recording Show 217. So, Tom, I don't know if you know, we've been doing this for five years. So this is Show 217 and we are featuring today Tom LeBlanc, the executive director of NSCA and We, One Firefly, just recently joined NSCA at the beginning of the year. It's been awesome getting to know Tom and his team and we're going to talk a little bit about NSCA initiatives as well as where did Tom come from and his background. So without further ado, let me go ahead and bring Tom in and we'll get started. Hey, Tom. How are you?
Tom: Great, Ron. And hey, it's great to be here, but also great to be working with One Firefly as a partner for NSCA.
Ron: I'm honored as well. I'm glad that you guys would have us. I know a couple of years ago I had talked to Chuck Wilson and anyone listening, maybe you can describe who is Chuck, and then we'll bring that to you and your role and responsibilities and maybe we'll start there.
Tom: Yeah, well, Chuck is my colleague and my friend. Chuck was executive director of NSCA since the 90s. He would not like this term, but he is most certainly an industry icon. The great thing about him, and the reason we're friends, we're friends before we were colleagues, is he's just such a great guy to ask questions, to, about the industry. He used to run an integration company, and after he did that, he decided to volunteer his time to make sure that NSCA would be successful and valuable for other integrators running their integration companies. He did that for many years, and he continues to do that. He's now CEO of NSCA. We work side by side. He's trying really hard to step into retirement. I'm not sure if he has it in him, but Chuck is great. He's a great friend and colleague.
Ron: Awesome. Just for our audience sake, what is NSCA, and then what is your role as an executive director? What does that mean?
Tom: So NSCA, National Systems Contractors Association. We're a nonprofit trade association that supports the integration industry. So, yes, the AV integration industry, but also the security integration industry, I.T and light safety. So NSCA is a little bit different than a typical trade association in that we don't really get involved in product and technology stuff all that much, except for supporting integrators to make sure that the partners that they work with are supporting the channel and providing a good depth of solutions. We don't do technology training so much. We don't do trade shows. NSCA used to have a trade show years ago. When NSCA shifted from working on a trade show, what it did was it really zeroed in on what it does best, which is focused on helping integrators run their businesses better. So NSCA is a trade association that's purely focused on finding ways to help integrators run their businesses better. One of the ways we do that is we have a couple of conferences that a lot of people have probably heard of. Definitely, the business and leadership conference is an executive conference that we do every year. It's well known, and it's great. You kind of ask people to check their technology at the door so they can go in there and they can focus on big picture thought leaders. We identify what are the biggest business obstacles and challenges and visions that are important to the NSCA community, and then we align them with speakers, usually from outside the industry, that can help us to think a little bit bigger and connect the dots. It's a really great conference.
Ron: I want to give you props, Tom, we joined in January NSCA and your business leaders conference; I want to say, was it February?
Ron: February. So Jessica, from my team and I went to that conference, I think it was the most polished, professional, well run conference I've been to in the industry in 20 years. It was a great conference. I mean, kudos to you and the team. I know you have a big team and you guys, or you have a small team that works really hard, and it was really well done. It was first class from beginning to end.
Tom: Yeah, small but prolific is how we like to describe it. So Chuck is really the person who developed what you see when you go to Business and Leadership Conference, you talk about it being really polished. We also have a great events planning team. Chuck has done a really good job, I think because he used to be an integrator of understanding why it would be worth it for somebody who's really busy running their integration company to take a couple of days and travel to Dallas or in some cases it's in Florida or Arizona and why it would be worth their time. We're really proud of that conference.
Ron: Over on LinkedIn. We have Winter Yu from Transparent Led display, says "Hi, Tom".
Tom: Oh, that's nice. Hello.
Ron: Yeah, hello. All right. So there's the Business Leaders Conference. Is it typically always in February?
Tom: Yeah, we've done it usually the very last week in February. Usually it starts at the end of February and then touches March at the end. So usually it's right around that time frame.
Ron: There was a really unique once in a lifetime golfing event that happened this year. But you're saying that no, it was very unique. I'm going to be telling this golfing story for probably the rest of my career, but I'll let you tell your version of the story.
Tom: Well, you know how everything happens for a reason, Ron?
Tom: Well, when you go to Dallas in February, it's supposed to be because it's going to be nice weather and people are going to enjoy being outside playing golf. Maybe they're traveling from somewhere in the north and they want to enjoy the nice weather. Well, we got a freak ice storm for pretty much the entire time we were in Dallas during the Business and Leadership Conference the day before BLC, we typically do an NSCA Education Foundation fundraiser golf tournament. And boy, did it get rained out. Like, boy, did it get rained out. There was no chance anybody wanted to be outside. But what we ended up doing and this is a credit, well it's a credit to the NSCA team for being able to be Nimble. But it's also a credit to the membership and to the attendees for understanding. Yeah. We're there to play golf. But we're really there to raise money for the Education Foundation and being willing to instead of playing in a beautiful, beautiful golf course; Transitioning to play at Top Golf and deal with the wind and the cold and just make the most of it. I think people had a lot of fun in the end. We jumped in shuttles that were quickly arranged and headed over there, and I thought it was fun. What did you think?
Ron: I thought it was very well organized, and I think the fact that it is by far the coldest air temperature I've ever gone outside and hit golf balls in, it was in the 20s. But what happened is that all the folks that went huddled up so closely, we had really good conversations. I met some people and probably had conversations because we were all the icebreaker was how darn cold it was, and I thought it was well done. You guys accommodated the situation well. But the speakers that you brought into that conference and the activities, it really was neat. I mean, you guys do something many don't; You went out and got first class speakers across a plethora of topics and categories that are relevant to the business operator. I'm new to this, so I'm giddy about, man, that was so good. I know you guys have been doing this for a long time, and that is what it's known for, but it was really neat. You mentioned there's the other big conference.
Tom: Yeah, just in September coming up, so people can already sign up for it. The Pivot to Profit event. So 2022, Pivot to Profit. That's a smaller scale conference. So BLC, as you know, we headed out of Four Seasons, and we really do it up. It's a nice event for executive travelers. Pivot to Profit is more like, let's get in there, let's put our heads down, and let's focus. We do it at a Marriott not too far from the airport in Chicago, so it's easy to get in and get out. Lots of flights. So Pivot to Profit; The big difference between that and BLC is I mentioned how you check you kind of check the integration business at the door when you go to BLC and you try to open up your mind and think big picture about what can be done with your company. Pivot to Profit is very much about what you should be doing right now for your company. So we identify very specific business opportunities and new revenue opportunities, and we build sessions around how Integrators can go there and understand, what's the next thing for my company and how do I take advantage of it? So the theme for this year, we tried to build it around the fact that everything is so critical right now. We're asking people to leave their offices for a couple of days and go to a conference. We want to make sure that they leave with a notebook full of not ideas, but more like a playbook of things that I can do to take advantage of what we're talking about. So we identified certain things like, do you have a cyber resiliency policy? Will you be able to go back to the office and think about what you have right now in place and take steps to improve it? What are you doing to build a better identity as a company that provides service? So this industry has for so long been talking about that transition from product and project based revenue models to more of a service revenue model and that's fine, but do your customers understand the value that that offers them? Are you building a brand around that? Are you transitioning around that? And Ron, I think you might be participating in a session around that.
Ron: We are. I believe you and Mike Abernathy and staff have invited us to participate in a, I think a facilitated conversation with a number of folks on stage. Jessica on my team has the full itinerary, actually. I'll ask her to message me here on Slack, and that way I can eloquently define that here for the audience.
Tom: I can define it for you.
Ron: Give it to me.
Tom: Basically, we're going to lean on you. We want folks to understand how to make that transition not just from the business side, but also from the branding side. And we've got companies that are in the midst of that, and we're going to ask you questions about, okay, what should a company be doing to make sure that the customers understand, why have I made the shift? Why is it valuable? Why can you trust me as an organization that can provide ongoing service versus thinking of me as a contractor who's going to come in and provide the solution and walk away? So we're going to talk to you and others about the importance of making that transition not just from a business standpoint, but from a branding standpoint.
Ron: Yeah, to give a preamble on that. I'm looking here at notes; Jessica is slacking me messages. So she says it's me and a member of the team over at Supervox, great marketers out of Minneapolis and plus integrator. There'll be an integrator on the panel. It's going to be a lot of fun. What I find so often is that the businesses we work with are so busy being busy, they forget to stop and step out of the business and look at the business as an advisor. You could do that across all disciplines of business, and it sounds like you're looking at a lot of those disciplines at Pivot to Profit. But as it relates to marketing and branding, the business, really understanding who they are, what do they stand for, what are their marketing differentiators and what are they doing to them in an organized, consistent way? Tell that story across all their brand touch points. It sounds obvious anyone listening or watching to this conversation go, of course, that's what you're supposed to do. But a lot of these smaller businesses in the integration space, they don't always do that. Or if they do that, they haven't maybe updated it or refreshed it and really taking a fresh look at who they are and what they stand for and or looked at, all right, we know who we are and what we stand for. We know why someone should engage with us, but then they haven't necessarily taken the time to define that across their website, across any marketing collateral, across the way they present their voice on social media or in their email outreach. So it's just looking at that and that is going to be and so there have been a lot of internal meetings on there. There's a lot of moving parts here at One Firefly. So I appreciate you Tom, refreshing my memory on that particular conference, in that particular discussion. That's going to be a lot of fun.
Tom: It's an important one for that event. So the transition to more of a service based model has been a primary focus of Pivot to Profit since it launched before I was at NSCA. Originally when they launched it, this was a conference that was about pivoting to recurring revenue. It's evolved beyond that a little bit. Now it's a conference about pivoting to other new revenue opportunities. In some cases, it's about pivoting to be able to overcome obstacles that prevent you from building revenue opportunities. I mentioned the cyber resilience; Companies aren't going to make a lot of money because they have a good cyber resiliency strategy in place, but they're going to protect themselves. This is an escalating need for integration company. So it's not always fun. It's not always about pursuing profits, but it's about doing the things that you need to do to move your company forward. So that's what Pivot to Profit is all about.
Ron: At a high level, a lot of businesses, and I'll say even a younger, I'm not willing to say I'm experienced, but I'll say less experienced version of myself would chase top line revenue. I got to sell more, I got to sell more, or I got to have new product categories so that I can generate new revenue. And that is relevant and it's important. But of the equation that is to generate profit, a business's purpose is to be a profit generating enterprise, is that you bring it in the top. But if you're losing it all on the bottom, well, then what do you have? The measurement, the net is what you need to be watching, which is profit. So I love the name Profit in Pivot to Profit. And to your point, and you mentioned cybersecurity, my business just invested in cybersecurity. So for our 15 years, we didn't have the right type of coverage and protection in place. As a part of when you start to evaluate how do you protect the Fort, I always refer to the business as the Fort. Like, how do you protect the Fort? Well, sometimes you got to put defensive measures in place to protect the Fort. You can't be all purely offense and out fighting battles because what if someone comes in and attacks the Fort? And then what do you have? So I think the idea of looking at operational efficiencies is the hard set of conversations that are often ignored in so many different environments, so many different organizations, so many different meetings. So Pivot to Profit having that purpose, I think that's quite differentiated and smart. What are the logistics? What are the days, times, again, locations?
Tom: September 19 to 21st. The conference really kicks off on the 20th, the 19th we do kind of like a community event. This year we're going to be focused on working with an organization that provides refurbished computers to folks in need, kind of do a small part to help in the effort to bridge the digital divide. But the conference really kicks off on the 20th, and it's a two day conference. Like I said, we purposely put it near O'Hare so people can get in and out, because people might be able to get in even that morning if they need to, and get out that afternoon at the end of the conference. So it's in Chicago.
Ron: Awesome. Tom, if you don't mind, let's go into your backstory. How did you land here as executive director? What's your path been like personally?
Tom: Well, I've had a very strange path into the industry, so when I got out of college, I had no goal related to working in a technology industry or anything like that. I was a journalist. That's what I went to school for. When I got out of college, I worked for one of the local Boston newspapers, the Boston Herald, which people from Boston area know, that's the more tabloid style of the two major Boston newspapers. But that's where I got a job. I worked for the sports department, so I wrote sports articles. Not that I was covering the Red Sox, the Patriots, or the Celtics. I was writing about high school and college sports and having just an awesome time. I loved it. So I'm very much a journalist by trade. I did get to the point where I realized that the lifestyle wasn't exactly what I wanted for a career. I didn't want to work nights and weekends all the time, which is what it takes to be a beat writer in a sports department at a newspaper. I started to get more excited about the other aspects, not just about writing, but about building a narrative within a publication and working on kind of the smaller elements, not just the article, but the other elements that lead to audience engagement. I got really interested in magazines. So what I ended up doing was I ended up continuing to work at The Herald at night, but I took a job at a magazine. It was two magazines, a Golf magazine and an outdoor sports magazine. So I would go into Boston, I lived right outside of Boston. I would go into Boston in the morning and work all day at the magazines, and then I would walk across Boston Chinatown to where The Boston Herald was back then, and I would work until about 01:00 in the morning doing the editing and writing for that sports department. I absolutely loved that. That was a lot of fun. I didn't have a lot going on, a young kid, I didn't have a lot of responsibilities outside of work. I loved it. It was so much fun. But I did get burned out eventually.
Ron: I just say. How many hours? Just out of curiosity, here at One firefly, we have a lot of writers on staff and some of them are ex newspaper writers and they talk about some of their schedules. What was your situation like at that stage in your career?
Tom: I think I had to go into the magazine job at eight and I worked until five. The only thing that made sense would be for me to walk over to The Herald and start. But I don't think I had to start until seven. So I would maybe grab dinner or something. But I'd be there very early and then I would work until about one. So basically I know it was a long day.
Ron: 5 hours of sleep a day? Was that 18 hour days? 16 hours days?
Tom: Yeah. I mean, I didn't do it for that long. Maybe a year or something like that. And then I decided to focus on the magazine position because I decided that's what I liked doing more and I could see myself as some kind of a magazine editor. So I stopped doing The Herald probably within a month or two of me stopping at The Herald, I got laid off from the magazine. So that turned out to be not the best move.
Ron: Well, you couldn't predict the future.
Tom: Yeah, both those magazines went under. So then I'm out of work, right? I'm out of work for way too long, several months I think, and I can't get another job in journalism, for some reason I didn't want to go back to The Herald because I knew the reasons why I didn't want to work there in the first place or the reason I stepped away. So I tried really hard to find a job in journalism. I couldn't find one. So I ended up taking a job in the marketing department of a custom audio video retailer in the New England area called Tweeter. So there are some people in the audience who might remember Tweeter. So especially if you're in the Northeast, you would remember it if you're like over 40. But it did expand to other parts of the country. So there are some people that would identify with Tweeter or some of the Tweeter brands and know what I'm talking about.
Ron: They bought all the Sound Advice stores in Florida.
Tom: Exactly. Yeah. Brynmar in the Pennsylvania area, I think. United Audio in the Chicago area. There were several acquisitions, High Fi buys in the Atlanta area. That was probably my foray into kind of the technology industry. So what I ended up doing was writing about audio and video solutions and automation solutions. To a certain degree they were kind of like a custom integrator, but they were kind of a hybrid between a retailer and somebody that did a little bit of custom stuff for a customer. So I did that for a while, writing copy, and I enjoyed it, but I didn't want to do it forever. I wanted to be in journalism. So, you know, things work out. It was actually after that Sound Advice acquisition. So Sound Advice was well known for their great marketing department. So they basically took Sound Advice marketing department when we acquired them, and I'm out of a job again. So what I ended up doing is, because of that experience; writing about audio, video and that sort of thing, I ended up landing a job at CEPro. So CEPro, I think people know now owned by Emerald, is basically a magazine, a publication for the custom residential integration market. So I came on as the managing editor for CEPro, and I wrote a bunch of stuff. I worked with Jason Knott, who is the longtime editor of CEPro, and he gave me an opportunity to start to write about the companies. There was somebody else, this gentleman, Bob Archer, who was great at writing about the products and the technology. I was more focused on writing about the businesses that provided these solutions to customers, and I loved it. Jason had developed this monthly feature that was often the cover story called The CEProfile. So what that was, was the writer, in many cases me, would spend a lot of time talking to an integration company, the leaders of an integration company, about what makes their business unique and what are the unique challenges that they face and how do they overcome them. I got to really enjoy that. I really enjoyed learning not just about the businesses, but about the people who are staying up all night worried about their business and worried about making sure that they keep their business up and running, their employees who are counting on paychecks, their employees who probably have mortgages that rely on their paychecks; And just the weight of the world that so many of these integration company leaders deal with. It was also interesting because so many of those folks got into the industry because of their passion for technology. Then the business side was the thing that they maybe didn't enjoy spending as much time on. I felt like what Jason had created with CEPro and CEPro taking a very business oriented focus with the publication, I thought that was exactly what that industry needed, and I thought it was great. I really enjoyed the opportunity to work on that.
Ron: What were the years? When did you join CEPro, approximately?
Tom: 2003, I think. And I worked on it until 2010, maybe something like that. What happened in 2010 was for the previous couple of years on CEPro, we had been writing a lot about, like, the light commercial market, we were calling it. So a lot of the residential integration companies were trying to diversify and find new revenue opportunities. A lot of them were doing things like putting AV in doctor's offices and digital signage and a local sports bar and stuff like that. We started to realize that so many of our readers were doing that and we should focus more on that light commercial market. So we started to do that for kind of the last couple of years that I was at CEPro before we realized, well, you know, what we're not doing is we're not providing a publication for the very focused commercial integration companies out there that represent a completely different industry than the residential integration market. So we explored that market a little bit and decided that we could launch a publication. There were great publications already out there that served that market, but we thought there was a niche that we could help to fill with a more business focused publication. What ended up happening was we launched commercial integrator. Commercial Integrator, I would say, is even more business focused than CEPro, largely because CEPro, they had Bob Archer and his brilliant analysis of products and technology. Commercial integrator was very focused just on the business side. We felt that there were other publications out there doing some of that other stuff for the commercial market. So I became the editor of Commercial Integrator, and I even more so enjoyed the time that I got to spend learning about the companies and the commercial integration market. We launched something similar to those CEProfiles that we did with CEPro. We launched CI profiles. I stole it from Jason.
Ron: That's a good idea.
Tom: But it was great deep dives into commercial integration companies, and I just really enjoyed it. We also built a lot of other content around business challenges in the industry. Now, how did I understand what those business challenges were, not ever having been an integrator? Well, I was lucky because very early in the time that we were working on Commercial Integrator, I developed a relationship with Chuck Wilson, who we mentioned at the beginning. So Chuck told me about NSCA as I was learning about the associations and different groups in the commercial integration market. He also became a very reliable source because we were very aligned, right? So Commercial Integrator was focused and is focused on the business of the commercial integration market. NSCA is a trade association that's very focused on helping integrators run their businesses. So we were very aligned. So whenever I had topics that I needed resources for, Chuck could either help me or point me in the right direction and we talked an awful lot. It was over the course of, let's see, so I was the editor of Commercial Integrator from about late 2010 until I started to get a little burned out in 2019. What I ended up doing was taking a job outside of the industry, running a different publication, completely different market. And boy, did I hate. It. Sometimes it's just not the right fit for you, I knew that almost from the beginning, not from the interview. The interview process was great. I thought, this is perfect. But almost as soon as I became immersed in that company culture, I realized it's not what I want to do, and I'm not going to do it for very long.
Ron: When you were feeling like that, what did that mean? Were you just feeling lost? Like, oh, man, did I mess up? Or do you remember during that phase?
Tom: I don't remember feeling like I messed up. I mean, on the surface, I probably should have, right?
Ron: We have to try new things in life. So it's all about, in my opinion, mindset when you face it.
Tom: I knew I was getting burned out at Commercial Integrator, and that wasn't going to change. If that continued to happen, I wouldn't have continued to do a good job leading it. I think I knew that pretty well. I knew it was time to try to do something different. And, you know, I kind of felt like I had been with that company since 2003, and here we are in 2019. I kind of felt like, maybe if I'm going to try something different, I should do it now. And it didn't work for me. So I don't think I felt the regret that I probably should have. But one thing I did do was I had always had conversations with Chuck about Chuck kind of joking with me, like, when are you going to come work for NSCA? And I'd always kind of laughed it off. But as I was sitting there on the train going into that job that I didn't like, I would spend a lot of time thinking about what would I like to do, what are some things that I would enjoy doing with my career? What I did enjoy so much at Commercial Integrator was helping companies with their business, and I associated that with NSCA in many ways. So I ended up texting Chuck, just kind of we tested anyways, and he asked me how I like my job, and I said, I don't. And I said, you still want me to work for NSCA? And then here we are.
Ron: That probably clearly fit smartly into Chuck's plan, right? In terms of him trying to take a step back, he's been at this a long time.
Tom: Yeah, he's been at the transition for a long time, too, so I forget now, but I think it's essentially an eight year transition plan that he developed with the NSCA board of directors, including a committee that we have on leadership development to try to help Chuck make that transition into retirement. I think one of the final pieces was identifying somebody to be the executive director. And yeah, I think that was part of the plan, for sure. I didn't come on as executive director I came on in a position called, I think, director of industry outreach, which was largely a content development position. And I enjoyed that quite a bit. But it also sort of led to the opportunity of executive director.
Ron: It's fun. I watched you from afar move through those positions and zero expectations to remember this. You actually did a profile on me in 2010, probably right before you left.
Tom: Yeah, I guess so.
Ron: It was like maybe the summer of 2010 or so. Yeah, it was a feature on Firefly Design Group, which was the predecessor company to One Firefly. That's when I first met you over the phone. Then to watch your progression to Commercial Integrator and then to NSCA. So for us to finally be working together and with us as a member of the advisory council, and to be able to talk a lot more often and see each other at events and your passion to help businesses grow, that's my passion. That's why I've been in this space for 22 years. It just feels right.
Ron: You can do so much with your time and energy, and it's a choice, right? So you could be in the passenger seat or the driver's seat, and I choose and you choose to be in the driver's seat to help others. It feels good and it helps to align your personal skill set and passions with need. Running a business is terribly hard. It's harder than most people ever could fathom. I've learned more running a business last 15 years, I purchased more mistakes, I've gained more gray hair because of the stress and anxiety and the fears, where there are nights where you can't sleep or you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night because of X, Y or Z. Most people in society can't relate to that. I'm not saying it's good or bad. I'm just saying those that are adventurous and choose to be leaders and entrepreneurs, they need help. They need help from A to Z across their business. It is rare in life that someone that is a great salesperson also is great at financial management or a person that's a great technologist or programmer or system designer is great at sales and marketing. Right? And, and, and you could keep running that. So the fact that your organization is aligned around helping the businesses out there and these are not small businesses. These are larger, sophisticated businesses that still need help and coaching and peer mentorship from others, it's really neat to jump into. Another observation that I had, and I'd love to get your take, is that we have COVID. I'd love to say past tense. I look forward to the day I can talk past tense. Currently, it's present tense. I was just reading this morning it's July 15, 2022. I just read this morning that there are some new derivatives of the virus and the virus has evolved again, I think, two major evolutions and they're now talking about it potentially being, well, we've witnessed it this summer, it's been blowing up. That's because when you don't kill it or stamp it out, it has the chance to evolve. So there's this environment, business climate we're in now in the residential space. You mentioned CEPro magazine. So the residential space, what has happened for the last two years is that the consumer, the middle to upper market, the luxury consumer has spent more on their home, and so the technology in the home has expanded. So there's just a tremendous surge in activity, which means residential integrators are generally doing more revenue. Assuming they can get supply chain issues aside, assuming they can get product, they're doing more revenue, more business than ever before. What is the commercial space, what is your orbit at NSCA witnessed the last two years and then bring us to the present, what's the state right now?
Tom: Yeah, so it's interesting because my time at NSCA coincides with the pandemic for the most part. I came on in January of 2020 and the pandemic hit really, people started talking about it in March of 2020. So what I immediately witnessed was integration companies kind of experiencing this enormous lull in demand and this big concern about being able to keep employees on the team. So NSCA kind of went into what we called a business continuity mode. So that's not for NSCA, that was for our members trying to provide resources, advice, and sometimes an ear when it comes to what they could do to kind of keep their business going, business continuity. We did a lot of round tables and that sort of thing and we issued a lot of documents that might be helpful and we did that for a while and that seemed to be really useful. What we experienced was seen NSCA members really persevere and really battle through that, basically seeing their pipelines completely drain up or dry up. So that happened for a while, but then as the pandemic started to shift, it changed from commercial customers just simply not wanting to do anything to desperately needing to do stuff in order to get their businesses ready for that return to work, right? So from an audio, video and communication side, being able to improve experiences, improve collaboration, facilitate remote workers, but also from a security and life safety side, there were big demands in terms of creating spacing and that sort of thing to get the offices returned to work. But here's the thing, right? So now the pipeline is starting to fill and all of a sudden the supply chain issue completely puts a wrench in those opportunities. So these companies are so dogged in their determination to get through their pipelines drying up and to get back, keep their employees employed and get back to business, only to find that now they have these project opportunities. But there's like a product missing or there's a part missing, or there's a thing that they can't get in order to provide what they need for their customers, and they have to deal with this tremendous challenge of having to communicate these delays to customers. What we're finding now is we're having so many conversations with companies about what they're putting in their contracts in order to prepare to protect themselves for product availability challenges, force major language for when there's a reason why a project just simply can't go on, having them be legally prepared to exit that project. Dealing with supply chain challenges and talking to customers about better communication with their customers, but also talking to their company and to the customer, facing employees to make sure that they're saying the right things to the customer and they're following through with the executive message. They're not just telling the customers what they want to hear because that's going to result in everybody being disappointed. So working really closely with customers on supply chain issues and just getting through the pandemic in general, a couple of other things related to the pandemic. We worked very closely, especially at the beginning, on making sure companies know how to apply for PPP loans and do what they can to protect their business. And then it shifted to working with companies on employee retention credits, which we are shocked at. How many integration companies are eligible for employee retention credits? I think it really comes down to like if a company had to do something to dramatically shift their way of doing business in order to keep people employed and keep the business up and running, and who didn't, right? You might very well be a candidate for an employee retention credit.
Ron: I'm going to make a note on that.
Tom: Yeah, please do. Actually, you had mentioned One Firefly coming on board as a member, advisory council member. So one of the things that NSCA does is we try to assemble a team of companies that can help with different aspects of running an integration business. I mentioned we have a small but prolific team. We don't have the expertise when it comes to marketing that One Firefly does, and we don't have the expertise when it comes to legal documentation as a partner called Alliance Group does. So when it comes to working with companies with an employee retention credit opportunity or something like that, NSCA is in a position where we can point members to somebody that we trust, somebody that we've vetted and trusted that can help them with that aspect of the business. We've been pointing members to a Lion Group to help them figure out if they qualify for something like the employee retention credit. We've got a great group, and One Firefly is a great example of a company that we've brought in because they offer expertise that's available to our members that we don't have in house, that we think integration companies need it. So we have the Member Advisory Council, which you're a part of, and we have what's called Business Accelerators, another group that brings in that helps us to create a well rounded team. You had mentioned sometimes a person or a company might be great at one skill but lack another. I always think of it like you're not going to bring in like a seven foot center who's also great at shooting threes. If you find that person you hang on to them because that's rare. Of course now everybody shoots threes so the example is not as good. But with NSCA, we don't think that we're experts in all these different areas where we have this team of member advisory council members and business accelerators. So we vet companies that we trust to work with our members and we bring them in to provide those solutions. We thank you for helping us to do that.
Ron: No, it's an honor. And we've been meeting so many members; We One Firefly, have been doing more and more business. We started residential and then for the last ten years a lot of residential and light commercial. Then about two years ago really around the pandemic, we started just through life and experiences, getting exposed and then ultimately signing up and doing business with more and more pure commercial operations in various spaces security, life safety, automation, you name it. What we've learned very quickly is the commercial space is it feels exponentially more diverse, exponentially more types of customers and stakeholders, so many more solutions and technologies. Again, it's dramatically different than the residential, the pure residential luxury technology contractor space. The commercial space is just from our perception and now that we're working with dozens of companies around the country, around North America, and hopefully soon to be hundreds of companies around North America, we are learning; My staff, we're now 70 people strong and all marketers supporting integration companies. We're feeling that we're learning so much every day and it's because we don't pretend to have all the answers. We're not that company but we have methods and techniques and when we lean in with our customers and in a collaborative approach connect their needs with the tools and solutions that we know have a high probability of making a difference for them, good things happen. When things that are put into play don't work, we do less of it. When things that put into play are gaining the traction that's desired by that business operator, then we generally lean and say, well, how do we do more of that? It's just that collaborative approach. Marketing is not something that's static. It's not you go do X, Y and Z and magically all your outcomes happen. If you do X, Y and Z and then you constantly evaluate and evolve and maybe you need to kill X and add A to the equation. Or to continue that example, you continue to modify things as necessary but, yeah, we're honored to be a part of NSCA. I did have a quick question on workforce, I'll call it workforce development. Kind of the challenges around people, hiring people, growing people, finding people. What's the current state, from your perspective out there?
Tom: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, from being around the industry for so long that it's always been difficult for the integration, both the residential and commercial markets, to bring in new talent. We ask companies, what are your biggest business challenges? They always seem to say, it's finding new talent to help us with the opportunities that we have, and sometimes it's to find new talent to be the next generation of leadership. So that's been an issue with the industry for a long time, but I think it's gotten a lot worse during the pandemic. One of the reasons is you add in the element of escalating labor costs. The job market is such that there's a lot of jumping around, unfortunately. A lot of skilled technicians or installers, programmers and that sort of thing are getting opportunities to jump to another company for higher pay or in some cases, higher positions. It puts the company, the current employer, in a tough spot because now you've got to figure out. Like. Okay. Well. I don't want to lose my top talent. So you got to start paying more. Then profitability becomes more of a challenge on projects, and sometimes you're having to pay, like, stay bonuses to match, like, a signing bonus that somebody has on the table in order to keep them in house. So these costs are escalating, and meanwhile, business is so critical right now, so the profitability matters an awful lot. So what we're seeing at NSCA is we're just seeing companies really challenged right now more so than ever when it comes to workforce development, and we really kind of point people toward our Ignite program. So the Ignite program let me back up a little bit. So one of the reasons it's been hard to bring in people from outside the industry, I think, is I always described the industry as being in a bubble. So you and I know about the great career opportunities in this industry, and the folks in the audience who are in this industry certainly know about it as well. But if you ask your neighbor or somebody that...
Ron: Never heard of it.
Tom: Yeah. They have no idea what the heck this integration market is, or they have a different idea.
Ron: My dad still thinks I sell light bulbs.
Tom: Yeah, exactly, great example. So it's really how are you supposed to recruit people into this industry that they don't know about, right? So that's kind of the reason why NSCA launched our Ignite program. So the whole point of the Ignite program is to go outside of the normal places where recruiting is done and provide NSCA members who become ambassadors for the Ignite program and arm them with educational materials that allows them to go to these job fairs or colleges or technical high schools, what have you, and educate people about these opportunities and cast a wider net for the industry. So there's also an internship program that's available to NSCA members through the Ignite program that helps them to provide that next step. After they do that, they cast that net in terms of educating people, then they can bring them in and get their foot in the door. It's a great program because it's an internship that we've developed that's very industry specific and very hands on and we think does a better job of creating potential great team members than just having somebody like deliver the mail or whatever a typical intern does. So we're really proud of that Ignite program. But there's another element I want to quickly touch on, and that's the bubble that I mentioned. There must be something about the way that bubble is constructed or the way we get messages out about job opportunities within that bubble that leads to a lack of diversity that is obviously a big problem for a lot of reasons and from a workforce development standpoint in an industry that very much needs to cast a wide net and bring in all the most qualified and best people possible. We need to do a better job of thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion when it comes to our workforce development plan. We have our NSCA Dei Action Council, which we're trying to come up with ideas to help the industry. One of the things I'd like to mention is another member, advisory council member that's on that group with One Firefly is a company called LivingHR, which NSCA points NSCA members to because if you think about a big company like a Deloitte or Google or something like that, they most certainly have a Chief Diversity Officer. That chief diversity officer probably provides a system of checks and balances within the company to make sure that the way they're hiring, the way they're providing opportunities, the way they're creating equity. Leads not only to new, diverse people coming into the organization. But make sure that they are providing an equitable path for folks to rise up and become leaders of companies and create more diversity throughout company cultures. Most integration companies can't afford to hire a chief diversity officer, so that's why we brought on Living HR, because they can kind of provide that on a more affordable contracted basis. So a lot of facets to the workforce development challenge, but it's an important focus for NSCA right now.
Ron: I think that's nothing short of amazing. I think when you look across the space you look across, I'll say all of the integrators that I know and that I work with and that I am aware of, there's no other way to say it than there's a lack of diversity in our industry. I'll even call a spade a spade. It's an industry of Caucasian, middle aged males. But yet that's not fair. It's not fair comparison to society. It's only going to change if work and energy are invested in figuring out how to change. And so I think that's the right thing. I had no idea, by the way, I had no idea you were going to bring that up. There are discussions happening at One Firefly. What do we hire? We hire marketers of different disciplines and we're having the same conversations, but we are having it internally at our business, and we're having it how do we increase the diversity of the talent pool that we're hiring from. Because we do believe that a more diverse workplace means there's people with more diverse backgrounds and experiences and we're going to have better ideas. If there's more ideas being put into the pot, we practice a meritocracy here at One Firefly; Best ideas win. Well, we need great best ideas to be surfaced and critically discussed so that we can continue to advance as a business. I believe what you believe, that our industry at large needs that. So I think that's nothing short of fantastic. You're doing that and kudos to you and all of your staff at NSCA that are making that happen and your volunteers on your committees that are working on that, because I know it's a team and an industry wide effort to make it happen.
Tom: Yeah. Especially those volunteers who carve out time to work on this with NSCA. We appreciate that!
Ron: Amen. Tom, we're at the hour here. I thank you for coming and joining me on Show 217, our audience that wants to get in touch with you directly or learn more about NSCA. This is your chance to do some handoffs here and then we'll drop these contexts down into the show notes and on the notes on social media.
Tom: All right, well, our LinkedIn audience can most certainly find me on LinkedIn and also just go to the Nsca.org and you'll find me there. And I look forward to connecting with folks in the audience.
Ron: Awesome! Tom, thanks for joining me on the show.
Tom: Thanks, Ron. It was great being here and thanks so much for what One Firefly does.
Ron: And we're just getting started. Thanks, buddy! All right, folks, there you have it, one and only, Tom LeBlanc, Executive Director at NSCA. They're really doing awesome things to help businesses, to help you, the folks that are listening to this, watching live or on replay or listening to the podcast in your ears, they're doing really impressive things. They're laser focused on helping businesses. And if you were to be in the rooms behind the scenes when we're doing planning and strategizing at One Firefly, it is music to my ears to hear Tom talk about helping businesses because that is what we are very focused on. We're very mindful that if our customers are winning, then we're winning. If our customers are winning and our team is winning and the business is winning. We're all aligned to reference a Lencioni, quote Patrick Lencioni. We're all rowing in the right direction and that really is the key to getting there faster. So I appreciate you all tuning in. Sorry about I guess if you're on LinkedIn, you don't even know that this should be sorry because you're watching me on LinkedIn, but we're going to try to get this streaming thing. There are all sorts of technical, this is and that have led to some challenges with Facebook and challenges this week with streaming into YouTube. It is one of the penalties of streaming live, right? We do have the option to record this and then upload this and maybe we'll even reevaluate that. But I appreciate everyone sticking with us. We are now past our five year mark and now we're cruising into our 6th year of content production for Automation Unplugged. So if you have not already done so, make sure you go to your phone or wherever you consume your podcast and just search up Automation Unplugged to follow us. We are historically doing about a show a week. I'm not going to lie. The last couple of months we've eased off the gas pedal a little bit and it hasn't been one every week, but approximately one every say two or three weeks. But we're going to ramp that back up here once we get our technology woes behind us and I look forward to seeing you all soon. We will not do a show next week. I will be in Texas with my team. We're doing some video shoots at Lutron and Ketra facilities downtown in Austin. So we won't be doing a show, but I will see you the week after signing off. For now, everyone, it is Friday. Hope you have a wonderful weekend and we'll see you soon. Bye.
Tom has supported the integration market since 2003. He was the editorial director of Commercial Integrator from 2010 to 2019 and held various roles at CE Pro before that. Throughout his career, he specialized in developing content to help integration firms improve their businesses. At NSCA, LeBlanc is focused on executing the visions of the NSCA Board of Directors and NSCA community by providing resources and spearheading events to strengthen members' business and networking opportunities.
Ron Callis is the CEO of One Firefly, LLC, a digital marketing agency based out of South Florida and creator of Automation Unplugged. Founded in 2007, One Firefly has quickly became the leading marketing firm specializing in the integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team work hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution, Mercury Pro.
Resources and links from the interview:
Tom can be reached directly by email at