Home Automation Podcast Episode #178: An Industry Q&A With Chris Pearson
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Chris Pearson, President/CEO at Service Tech Lighting, Shades, and AV shares the danger of opportunity, and how he is managing Service Tech's growth.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Chris Pearson. Recorded live on Wednesday, July 14th, 2021, at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About Chris Pearson
Chris Pearson is a distinguished entrepreneur focused on providing superior automated AV, lighting, and shading solutions to the Austin market. He founded Service Tech in 2003 and built his business by creating a company culture that embodies hard work, fun, respect, and inclusivity. Chris attributes much of his success to fully understanding his client's lifestyle before designing an integrated solution that fully meets their needs. He has also won many prestigious awards and recognitions over the years, including CEDIA Best Lighting System of the Americas, Lutron Excellence Award, Home of the Year Gold Winner for Best Media Room, and - most recently - recognition as a Lutron Black Diamond dealer.
- His humble beginnings as a projector Rep and journey towards becoming one of the largest integrators in Texas
- Chris' philosophy on expanding his skill set portfolio based on his client's needs
- The danger of opportunity, and how he is managing Service Tech's growth
- The importance of having the right people in the right roles to reach growth goals
- Why continued training takes priority in his business
Ron: Hello, Ron Callis here with another episode of Automation Unplugged. I'm here to bring you Show 178. Today is Wednesday, July 14th. It is just a little bit after 12:38 p.m. Eastern time. I'm here to bring you, Chris Pearson. He founded Service Tech, and they are based in Austin, Texas. Austin is, at least to my knowledge, one of the hottest cities on the planet for growth. You can better believe that the world of technology, both residential and commercial, are booming in that city. And I actually have quite a few of our team here at One Firefly, based in Austin. Our second-biggest hub outside of Florida between South Florida and Central Florida is right here in Austin. Without further ado, let's bring in Chris Pearson, and let's say hello. Chris, how are you, sir?
Chris: I'm good, how are you?
Ron: I am good, my friend. You and I were joking before we went a life that we're good, we're staying calm, but. Oh, my goodness. Is there a lot of moving parts going on right now?
Chris: A lot, including my mouth.
Ron: Alright. Let's jump right into the gap. What's going on there? What's going on with the mouth?
Chris: As a surviving child of British parents, it didn't occur to fix my teeth. So now that I'm approaching the second half, I had a procedure to expand my mouth. I'm not actually missing a tooth. My mouth is being widened at the top. It's a nice little four-year journey.
Ron: I need more details now. How are they doing it? Is it just braces, and they stretch it a little bit, or is it something more intense?
Chris: They put a metal bracket at my upper pallet, and they screwed it into the top part of my mouth, and they drilled holes along my jawline right down the middle. And they'll take this thing and expand it three times a day to go 13 mm. I got my maxillary skeletal expander, so I can just crank it open. I might even do it for you.
Ron: Do you use a hex wrench? What do you do? Do you put a hex wrench in your mouth and crank it?
Chris: Like operation as a kid. This is where all those extra wrenches go.
Ron: That is crazy. Does it hurt when you do that?
Chris: They'll say slight pressure. Yeah, it hurts. I guess you got to stay a little medicated, some ibuprofen, nothing strong, but it definitely makes you think about it.
Ron: How far along in this process are you?
Chris: I'm halfway. I'm eight months away from where they'll actually remove my upper jaw and move it forward and then bolt it back in.
Ron: Did you just say? Remove your jaw and put it back there?
Chris: The nurse said, "Whatever you do, do not look this video up. You will not do this procedure. But we do hundreds of it every year." They'll actually remove the entire upper part, chop it into three parts, moved forward, and bolt it back.
Ron: This is like Iron Man stuff or the six million dollar man stuff like take you apart and put it back together.
Chris: Yeah, just starting with my mouth. The rest of the body costs more.
Ron: Yeah, that's right. I'm sure the mouth costs plenty, I have no doubt. I appreciate you clarifying that. And I suffered as a child for eight years with braces. I guess maybe you can try to expedite that if you have the funds. My parents were not of means to do it quickly, so they did it very slowly. In elementary school, I got braces, and in high school, my senior year, I had them removed. And for all of those years, I wrestled. My mouth during wrestling season was a bloody mess, literally. Yours sounds much, much more. I don't want to say worse because that sounds negative but much more challenging.
Chris: Usually, when I tell people, I see the expression of what, you can't be serious, you can pay money for someone to do it. But, let's do it.
Ron: Let's just let's look at the why. Why are you doing this?
Chris: I think we discussed it. A friendly version of it. But I'm in the couldn't give a shit phase of what people think. That level of confidence in myself is, "OK, well, let's do a little self-improvement. I'm not getting hair plugs but fixing your teeth. Appropriate upgrades."
Ron: Awesome. I don't need hair plugs. Hair plugs are overrated. That's right. I know someone said they just Googled. Liz says she Googled the procedure, Liz. He said, don't do it. That's funny.
Chris: I will not look at that video.
Ron: Liz, now, you're not allowed to tell Chris what's in that video. Chris, for those not familiar with you or your business, you've been around for a while. You're a leader in the Texas market. But can you just tell us maybe a brief snapshot of your role in your business and just a high level of your business?
Chris: Well, it started with my first job, and I don't know if anyone seeks out and says I'm the AV guy. It was something that was teased in college, in high school, AV Club. But you look back and go. You know what, I actually did clips because I did have that Mitsubishi TV. I remember when Braveheart came out on LaserDisc. You look back and go. You know what? I did love it.
Ron: Was Braveheart one of your favorite movies?
Ron: That's one of my favorite movies, too.
Chris: I remember a buddy of mine brought home the laserdisc of that thing as things were switching to DVD. My first job out of college, you know, I was an overachiever. I was President of the fraternity and the student body. I thought, well, hot damn, I'm going to get a good job. I can. I've got a marketing degree. I've got my MS degree. I can do just about anything. The first guy that I interviewed with a small company called In View in Newport News, Virginia, and this guy looked at me. He goes, "No one's going to listen to you. Doesn't care what the resume is until you work your way through every level."
He offered me a coordinator job at the worst pay, but the guy inspired me because everyone else was just fluff and went through your typical career path that's presented back in the 90s. This guy was like, "You just got to work hard, and then you can hunt down and catch and kill whatever you want to do, and you'll go as far as you want to go." That job led me to be a manufacturer rep. I know many people in the industry kind of aspire to be a rep in the end. But I was kind of lucky enough to start that way and started off selling commercial projectors back when they were four of them In Focus and Proxima and Epson. Then from there grew my channel ended up working in Norman, Oklahoma, working on the market. Then ended up in Austin, Texas, working on the commercial market.
They're all going for more of a sales spot to a Manager, Director, Vice President. Titles are irrelevant, but I focused on the commercial world, and about 2006, my wife and her best friend bought a lake property. That was the next move was let's do that. That turned into who's doing the work out here? You've got all these custom builders, and how are they navigating their space, and how are they getting into the residential projects? Because as a commercial person, you look at the two as taboo. I'm either commercial, or I'm residential. I didn't see that. I didn't see the barriers as anything that would prevent me from getting into the residential market.
As I talked to builders potentially to build my house, they were just talking to me about my other brother Darryl, you know, in the AV groups out there. I'm teasing those respectable groups out there. But that's how it's portrayed. That is what got me on the residential side because I did my first residential project in 2006.
Ron: Just so I'm clear when you transitioned from being a rep for the speaker or the projector line to launching a low voltage contracting business or integration business?
Chris: I was rep until '98, and then I was in the commercial world from '98 to 2003 and then end of 2003, that's when the idea of Service Tech was created.
Ron: I see, OK, now continue the story. I just wanted to make sure that the timeline I had that arc was clear.
Chris: Shortly after that, when I saw the commercial boardrooms, trading rooms, new tenants finish out. I didn't chase bars or houses of worship or the public sector. I did that. I didn't want to do it because we typically need a new tenant to finish out. There's more of a design element. Google wants its building to look a certain way. Facebook wants it to look a certain way. There's more sizzle in that. If I'm working with CEOs of houses and then I am doing lake houses, I was a sucker for the parade of homes.
And then if I'm going to do the parade of homes, let's do all the homes. I think I tortured my team for about five years of just wanting to be in every parade of homes. I wouldn't touch it now, but that was sort of a rite of passage to get in there, build your name, build a brand, get people familiar with Service Tech.
Ron: In those early years, Chris, what markets were you operating, and were you just strictly in Austin, or were you in other cities?
Chris: A younger version without a mouthful of metal wanted to be. Let's take Service Tech, and let's bring it into Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. I spent my week, day one in Austin, day two in Houston, drive up to Dallas, finish in Austin. If I have time, go to San Antonio. I worked like that for years. It was exhausting. We got great projects from Dallas to large estate houses, ranches. That part was great.
Ron: What was your quality of life? No quality.
Chris: It was about as great as the gap in this tooth. You look at things and go. If I just spent the same amount of effort working in Austin, maybe I could grow my little two million in Austin to something a little more substantial. I started with let's focus mostly on residential estates. I do condos, as you know. And so I work with developers and do the infrastructure. Then I get exclusive deals with the tenant, finished out on projects. I transferred all those hours in the car, probably 20-30 hours a week going back and forth to just extra effort in the Austin market. I think we were talking earlier. I had 11 sales reps at one point in three other cities, just all fighting for six and a half million in total share. Now I'm more of a single salesperson, and we're doing over ten million.
Ron: You shared with me just before we went live, as I was kind of catching up on my notes, an extraordinary rate of sales conversions. Did you mind sharing that? What is your current rate is or your 2021 rate?
Chris: We've been booking about a million dollars a month for the last six months, and we've got probably I think it's between 25 and 30 million in our forecast. It's good. But we were also talking. A younger version of myself is high-fiving and so excited. But with opportunity comes the danger of, OK, Chris, what if you get that? Twenty-five million. What are you doing in the background that will help deliver it and help check the quality? I don't want to run to the buffet line and fill my plate with everything and just be disgusted when I hit the table. I want to ensure that service quality is 100 percent of the time and not just, well, this guy paid extra, we will pay more attention. I tell my team the client gets the best version of us where they paid for it or not. Suppose there's a discount here if there's a product that wasn't put in right. We always correct it. We always do it on our dime to ensure that the result, when you walk away from that project, you can't get picked apart.
Ron: I've heard you call that in our discussions the danger of opportunity.
Chris: Yeah. Yes. If I was younger and going after the work and I'm very good at what I do, I would get the work. But now I'm after something a little more custom. That's when we transitioned in my effort from I don't want more projects. I want more of a project. If I'm going to take the time and build a relationship with this builder or architect, interior designer, I want a real relationship. I want to know what their kids, their spouses, I want them to know about me. I want to align myself with like-minded people.
That brought us into the lighting design fixture selection. We already did interior space, so we brought on an exterior division to do shades during the pandemic of all things. But those projects that were 150-350k turned into a million. Once we started to do all of those things and again, like the buzzwords, you see recurring revenue and lighting design. There's a hot thing.
Ron: Lighting fixtures.
Chris: Lighting fixtures, that's the new one. Well, you're going to do it, do it. Bring on a lighting designer. Train yourself as a lighting designer. I'm a lighting designer, so I wanted to go through those courses and that curriculum and not just say something nice. But by the way, while we're here installing a TV, we can sell you a four-inch Lucifer cam. There's more to it, more flair. You have to really be prepared to sort of back it up. I've got six people dedicated to our lighting department. I've got Chad, I've got Revit, I do 3D elevations, I've got three designers, including myself. We're a force to be reckoned with versus the AV guys like, "I do lighting." Because I think everyone says that.
Ron: A couple of threads here. One idea of what you just described is that rather than doing more projects, do more on the project. When did you come to that decision? How did you come to that decision?
Chris: We've dabbled in lighting for a decade with Lutron. We were going through the regular paces, but I don't think we took it seriously, and we didn't really dive into what does Lutron offer? How do you integrate it? Are you really doing conditional logic, or are you just doing a high, medium-low? What are you doing with that so you can get good at it? And, you know. The controls led to if we're going to get blamed for everything that goes wrong in a project, which is the easy way, I'm in charge of it. Do you want to blame me for that dim level on that fixture? Let me sell it to you and let me do the controls, and I will own it. And I will warn you about everything that does and everything that doesn't. I will make sure you are very informed that 10 percent is not suitable for your bedroom at that dim level. And I will have demo equipment and take you through a simulation and show you why that's the case. I won't just be able to ask for it. Anyone can offer that. I want to offer guidance. It's like going to a restaurant. Hey, what's good here? Everything. I'm like, next. I want you to tell me that the steak sandwich is better. Give me the sourdough and grill it on both sides. Tell me something that makes it a little more interesting than everything is good here.
It's not. I'll tell you, every aspect of my company is perfect. It's not, there are areas that we do really well, and there are areas that are under construction. And I only want to work with people that can have that transparency.
"Austin has to be one of the fastest-growing cities on the planet. That means that there must be tremendous demands on you and your team, people, small, medium and large, good, bad, and everything in between asking for your attention."
Ron: You have described to me, and our audience now lives that you're growing at an exceptional rate is a couple of points. I just want to talk to you and have our audience hear your perspective. You're in Austin. I mean, Austin has to be, and this is not figurative. This is maybe literal. It's one of the fastest-growing cities on the planet. That means that there must be tremendous demands on you and your team, people, small, medium and large, good, bad, and everything in between asking for your attention. How are you determining what to look at and what to pass on?
Chris: Value. We were promoting one of our guys this morning, and we were talking about how pre-pandemic we had plenty of fun and talented people, but could they handle a million-dollar project? You know. And I said, if you're going to work in the AV business in Austin, Texas, you should work at Service Tech period because no one does more million-dollar projects, which means we're exposed to the danger of the risk of those projects. You don't want to do as a builder. You don't want to do a million-dollar project with an integrator for the first time. There are tons of things that I've learned along the way. If you're not interested in Lutron controls, if you won't even see touch, or most of our lighting projects are Palladium, I would say 90 percent of our lighting controls, Palladium top-notch, glass metal finishes. Don't say the words Caseta or anything like that.
It's that higher end. One, we're interested in that. I danced with whoever brought me originally. We've already done business together. Then we'll do it even if it's small. But mostly, I'm looking for those creative chops. Are you going to let us do lighting, design, and controls and offer fixtures? Because we're just there for you that I have too many resources to have. I have to engage my Revit and CAD people. I have to engage my programmers and my IT. And so I look for a project that has all of those things unless it's one of those quick jobs. But again, it's the quality. There are no shortcuts. It's the high road all the time with the clients. I tell my team, don't ask me to do the right thing. You've already wasted time getting to that conclusion. You work here. You work for me. It's the right thing. Even if it cost me money, just tell me we had a situation, and it costs two thousand dollars to make it go away. It's fixed clients happy. That's what I need, and I don't need it.
Ron: You don't have to run that by me and make me say that. I want you to know that that's the culture of the company.
"When you are a one-million-dollar business, and you have a team, is everyone on your team the right people when you're a 10 million dollar business versus a 20 million dollar business?"
Ron: I know many business owners will maybe empathize with this question. When you are a one-million-dollar business, and you have a team, is everyone on your team the right people when you're a 10 million dollar business versus a 20 million dollar business? And how do you think about that? I know you've because you and I have talked, you've had some opinions and some changes that you've enacted based on the fact that you're a different business today than you were when you began.
Chris: I think I'm loyal to a fault. I want to bring everyone that came with me. And the hard lesson in business is that there were the right people then, but they're not the right people now. And if you know, when I interview people, you have to stay curious. And I'm a commercial sales guy. How am I a top Lutron programmer or an I.T. person? Why am I that? And it's because I needed a resource. They failed me on a timeline, and I had to learn their job because I would not fail. I had to learn Lutron. I had to learn CAD, and I had to learn those things so I could survive. Now I'll only be around people that are improving themselves. If you want to take that class, I'll pay for it. I want to be the most trained company period. After covid, we took our largest room, kicked everyone out of it.
We turned it into a training room, and we train every Friday for an hour, hour, and a half. It kind of sounds silly, but most companies have the lighting person, the IT person. Well, that's the guy that does fiber. No. If we touch that cable, everyone needs to be able to be trained on that and certified. And that's the only way we can scale. If you don't have those people who want to take on new training and new things, get rid of them. But also, this is another covid thing. They realize that not everyone had a laptop. You go back to the basics of it. Does everyone have access to email? They have access to our shared drive, our forms. If they don't, how are they training? They go back to their computer at home and do it. Or do we say we're going to fully outfit everyone with good laptops with the network connectors? You're ready to go because you don't know if you're a shade installer, might be your next CAD engineer? And if you don't have a competitive, curious environment, then people are bottlenecked, and so and you'll never give them that venue to come out. If you don't throw fifteen people in a room and say, we're going to talk about camera standards or installation.
We're going to talk about why it's bad to pull a wire when you haven't checked the soffit or the gutter plan or any of those things, or is it the right lens on the camera? There's an art for all of this. I don't want to be around you if I'm the smartest guy. I want to be surrounded by people who are smarter than me. I'm just a kick-ass survival person. But I want that junior tech or that shade installer or whoever to be like, "Hey, coach, put me in. I want to be the next lighting designer." Cool. Let's jump on in, and let's do this. But I see companies. Oh man, we're busy. We're too busy to train, and I've been that guy, and I'm saying, you know what? After surviving COVID, I want everyone as fighting machines. We've trained everyone on Lutron. We've trained everyone on fiber terminations. I've got fifteen people that can do fiber now versus I had three before. That matters because one, it's your strength. It's your venue. This is my arena. I'm looking for gladiators. Who wants to fight for the top? But if this person is always on these types of jobs and this person is always on those types of jobs, and you're too busy to train, you're in a dead-end job. That's the reality.
You're just not focused enough to realize that whatever you're doing right now is what you should be doing ten years from now. And I don't want that. I want my journey for everyone. They come in. They work commercial AV. Great. Well, now we're the 800-pound gorilla for residential, and now we're twelve towers deep in condo work. You pick that up, whereas many people get scared of that, and it's scary. I freak my team out all the time, saying, "Hey, guess what, guys? We're going to do a 300-foot yacht." Marine work. Sure. And it's in England. We have to be there in six weeks. I was always so surprised that that kind of opportunity scares many people, which that's fine. Nothing wrong with that. They just can't work for me because I'll just scare them. When you get a client that says, "Hey, I need you in Singapore tomorrow." Once you get to that point and comfort, you realize it's just a 24-hour flight. "OK, I'll leave in the morning. I'll see you in a day and a half." But if you're not curious or not intrigued, I go back to being blamed for it anyway. Why doesn't that dim correctly? The electrician says it's programming. Come on. It could be programming.
Ron: It could be the wrong fixture.
Chris: It could be the wrong fixture. The wrong driver could be a loose neutral. It could be any of those things. And if I'm not equipped with that knowledge to be an electrician, then I'll be defeated every time because no one likes to oblige. But lighting designer, come on in.
Ron: Well, we have a couple of people that have commented, and I want to acknowledge them. We have Steve. I want to say, Steve. Remind me, Steve. I want to see Steve's from Nigeria. "Always learning from the best." Steve, thanks for tuning in. Not too long ago, Hershel, who I had on the show, is one of the leading residential integrators in India. He says, A great point, Chris. So much of this is a gold formula for one million dollar plus projects, which are extremely challenging." Let's expand on that just for a minute, Chris. What's the difference between a one hundred thousand dollar job and a million dollars?
Chris: Nine hundred thousand, but you can check my math.
Ron: Thank you for the obvious.
Chris: Yeah, you still have the same project manager. You're dealing with the same people. There was a time where I sold $300 a pair of speakers and not $2800 a pair. You get into more of the design elements, and you recognize the difference between a three-inch trim on light versus a four or square around. You're asking more relevant questions. My team, if we touch a wall, we draw the wall.
Ron: What does that mean? Draw the wall? I'm not familiar with that term.
Chris: We do elevations for everything we touch. Meaning, part of my journey of going into larger projects was finding the right clients and builders, architects that really appreciate what I do, which means I have a Chief TA500 backbox and a 525 mount behind every tv, which means I have to draw. I have to get the elevations. I have to give that to the framer before we pre-wire. You can't create change orders for the builder. You get that to them, which means you're also asking questions with the lighting designer.
What are you putting under it? Let's talk about any preferences of Sony versus LG. The vessel pattern has changed from more of a centered approach to a lower base point. If you're not drawing it, then you'll never get the box right. We draw the box in the arm, and we've got notations for the electrician has to go through the single gang and not the conduit poke through just all those little things that we've, I think, perfected over time. But if we do that, then when it comes time to do these larger installs. Well, if I have to put 15 TVs that go on in the day, I've already done all the design work, and mounting a TS525 to a five hundred backbox is a 15 to 20-minute chore. I take that I take the elevations off of where our speakers are going. If you're not letting me put preconstruction brackets, I'm not doing your job. I'm equipped with everything but a sheetrock knife because I feel that takes it back unless you want me to charge you two hours per speaker. I'm going to have a technician look up and see what looks right, or is it over here? I'm not going to do that. I'm going to draw it. We're going to agree on it. We're going to put a backbox. And then that gives me I still have the finesse of the high end, but I've got the muscle of production.
I can hammer out, so we end up terminations on all of our equipment racks, so I've got a panel called the Pearsonator on the back wall where everything is punched down. It looks beautiful. It's a showpiece. It adds $2000 to the project, but it enables you to have a working patch panel. When those speakers are in, they're also testing. Am I getting sound through it because I've got the banana jacks to speak on, connectors on the other side, that they can work through a lot of troubleshooting? We're still doing the amount of time. But I'm putting the time in during a nonpolitical time. You wait to do all that the builder's breathing down your neck of, "Hey, come on, we've got three weeks to finish this thing out. And, oh, by the way, you can't go to that side of the house because we're standing this or repainting that." You move those efforts to the beginning of the project. You still get that muscle.
Ron: I want to make sure I understand, Chris. Rather than having an anaconda dropped out of the ceiling and the walls are getting trimmed and finished and everything, you're bringing that anaconda into the Pearsonator into your patch panel so that what the builder or developer sees where you're at that, and you have to correct of the terminology. But is that it? It's not the trim phase, but you've actually got the patch panel on the wall after the rough end phase.
Chris: I've got the rough end part of that. But those wires get terminated. The Pearsonator goes in trim at the same time. I'm doing trim. I've already worked the details out with the client. And the builder says, you know what, when I trim this house, that means I'm putting in a separate network rack for camera systems, you know, essentially getting all of my subsystems live during the trim space. And no one is yelling at the trim base. Everyone's at the finishing phase. But if I'm trimming the house and I've got my wifi, my cameras, I've now got wifi for the irrigation controller, the pool controllers, the garage doors, because we end up owning those in the end, even though we didn't provide them. At least I have a mechanism to the builder that says, "Hey, as your guys come in, this is the wifi that they joined onto."
Everything is sort of cover because it just creates more work. Then once the finished phase comes in, we've built the rack at the office. We've got the umbilical cord. It takes a day to trim the tail and connect it to the house. After the first day, I've got 24-32 zones of audio in the house. It changes the impact. I've got 15 TVs that went up by the second day. I've got video distribution on the third day. Then I've got all the personalization. Normally what would take three weeks. I can get down about five days, and that's how we do these larger machines because I'm not going to leave it to the technicians, God bless them, but I'm not going to leave it to them to come up with the height of the TV. That has to be predetermined ahead of time. I can skip all that. That's how I handle these seven-figure jobs. Because I've established, I don't cut in speakers. I draw the walls. I get the elevations. I've got my framing requirements. We discuss thermal impacts at the beginning of the project, so I'll put $5000 lines in every AV closet from here on out because I don't want to have this discussion hoping that someone somewhere realizes that room's got 7500-15,000 BTUs and I need a one and a half-ton system to cool it.
At the end of the project, who's paying for it? I'm not the HVAC person, but I might as well become one if I can avoid that conversation. For a nice little $5000 placeholder, I'll get that in for you.
Ron: Where does your drive to win come from?
Chris: Yeah, I don't know. I was a shy little guy growing up, and I thought funny like I would be really quiet and start laughing, just like I cracked a joke to myself in my head. Then over time, that little guy came out and got more comfortable in their skin. And I've been. I've been through it. I've got the typical broken family. There was not a warm story to be had. I've got a brother in Denmark, a mom in England. I've got a dad in Colorado. I've got a sister in Australia. I'm in Texas.
Ron: I don't think you guys can physically get farther apart.
Chris: You can't. And so I think surviving a lot of those things, and every time you think you're dead, you wake up in that field and go, let's play again and let's get going and things like that. As a side note, this will be for another thing. But what I was, I was a student that was gunned down in college. A gang got me at a bank and put a 22.
Ron: That's the mark right on your neck?
Chris: Shot me straight to the neck and went out the other side. And so you kind of you wake up and things like that and go, "Alright, God, said I could play again, let's do this." He didn't say play forever. Things like COVID come around or other things like that. COVID was it was huge. It was a blessing, and it was the worst thing. At the same time, it literally took an act of God to stop Chris Pearson and Service Tech, just to say. I don't know if you can keep playing, friend, you know, you're going to have to wait and see.
Ron: Did you physically get sick, or was it just that the world had stopped?
Chris: The world has stopped. I didn't get sick, and fortunately, I didn't lose anyone that I was close with or even that I wasn't close with. It was a series of unknowns, and no one knew. Instantly you're in the same boat with everyone, and there are no giants and trolls. We're all there. None of us have the answers to what's going to happen tomorrow. Is this job to be canceled? How long do I pay my employees? I've got a three million dollar payroll. That is an expensive process every two weeks. That's an obligation. If the world has stopped and you continue to pay people, you have nowhere for them to return. That's not a lesson, you know, on day one. It's a lesson to you to look back and go. You know what? I need to be the leader. I need to be responsible here, and I need to do the right thing.
We downsized from 60 people to 12. And we were on basic life support as we were figuring out what jobs were going to continue and what jobs were not. I'm not a Vegas guy, but I gamble in the business, and I was betting that Austin would come back, and if it came back and if the projects didn't go away, do you have the people? Coming from a large footprint, government programs like the PPP were effective for someone like me who had the payroll, and it was a gamble of, OK, well, I'll give you this money, but you're going to bring people back. We brought people back, and we worked on the business, and we trained, and we waited for the market to sort of come back. And it came back hugely. People who had a five million dollar house last year can sell it for eight to ten. You've got California and New York. They're just pouring in. And it's not temporary. They're pouring in. Austin is awesome. I see my competitors pouring in. That's fine. I feel we timed it right. We're bringing in the right people. That reflection of when you're down to 12 people. Who's here, Susan? Johnny? Who do you pick, and why do you pick them? To me, I was putting a formula together of looking back and coming off of the last four or five years of almost being held hostage by employees because it was hard to get people. A couple of things of what I am when we come back are all about culture, all about training. If you're not curious and don't love this business and don't like the people you're working with, you're out, and you cannot work for me. The people that had been there for 10 years love them, but they were the wrong people. They were perfect for that one to three million dollar company with a ten million dollar company. They were running it like a 1-3. That didn't work. And it took a lot for me to get there of this is a business. We've got to make a business decision. You should go work for ABC. They will never grow. They will stay the same size for four years. Maybe that's best for you, right?
Ron: Maybe that's the right fit.
"When you're interested in something, people buy that."
Chris: Yeah. And you will love it there and have fun. But for me, I want to go up a scary big and get good at it. If we're going to do a tower, I want to do towers. We're in three right now, and the lighting design has taken off. I'm one of three designers because it was incredibly interesting to me. When you're interested in something, people buy that. They really want to buy why you're so excited and when you can finally navigate or help a client understand the difference between a $300 fixture and a $1000 fixture. It makes sense to them, and they buy it, you realize you've arrived, and that was what you were supposed to be doing probably from the beginning. Now that idea five years ago, if we should add lighting design, has turned into I'm one of three designers. I do Revit. Can we do 3D Elevation's and it's producing real revenue for the business. I think I shared it with you. We're on track to do half a million in just design services, which is substantial because that's not controls. It's not programming. That's a good chunk to go towards the people that are doing the work.
Ron: Chris, is it fair to say that that design is also the key to selling the fixtures, which is probably I imagine a million-dollar-plus line of ours on the way to becoming a significant component of revenue, the architectural lighting?
Chris: Yeah, we're on a project right now for million dollar project. We have fixtures. It's now a million you, and we have more, and we do the full design. We're into everything outside of decorative, all the linear and understanding it. I love it, and it comes out in our presentation, and I'm surrounded by people who love it. They're excited about how to light their space. You can't just be the guy that says, "Oh yeah, we also do lighting." We'll have Skip over here look up whatever the distributor said to sell. You need to dive into it. You need to be trained. You need to understand your demo equipment. You need to walk them through why a $300 fixture if your builders really quick pedaling that $1000 fixture thing. If a $1000 fixture is required for that space, then I'm going to sell a $1000 downlight. If I can do what you're asking for $200-$300, I'm gonna sell that one too. You have to justify it. You can't just put it in. Understanding that certain fixtures do different things based on lumens, CRI, beam spread, its ability to accept other lenses. Am I softening things up? Am I making things more linear? What am I trying to do? Once you get there, it's good to work, and it doesn't feel like work. Not to me.
Ron: Lutron, I think we can put it in the show description. You're a black diamond dealer with Lutron, which makes you one of the biggest Lutron dealers on the planet.
Chris: Big old monster over here.
Ron: Big old Monster in Austin. They've changed some of their go-to-market strategies. They've announced that. I know I've talked to David Weinstein several times and Melissa over in the marketing department. Can you talk about it from your perspective as a dealer? One of the largest what the pivot. From my understanding, and if I get anything wrong here, please correct me. Is that they are consolidating or concentrating their one percent dim products within the CEDIA channel within they are pulling the one percent dim products from OEM's, they are really doubling down on the integrator because they want to own the total lighting solution, which includes the IP address of the old fixture. It's a generalization I'm making.
I'm not saying Lutron is saying this, but an integrator is better prepared to handle the network and network devices than maybe many electrical contractors. They're betting that you, your business, you're a perfect example. You are the type of business that's going to enable Lutron to grow. And so they've made changes to their strategy. That's what I'm understanding. Is that what you're understanding, and what's maybe your interpretation of that?
"Winter is coming and there is a war out there between the electrician and audio video people."
Chris: My interpretation is winter is coming, and there is a war out there between the electricians and audio video people. Electricians want to be Audio-video people. Audio-video people want to be electricians, distributors. It's a bit of a racket out there, preferred pricing and registering deals and all. It's something that needs to be disrupted, and I plan on being the disruptor. Lutron is just picking a fight they've already been in and says, "Hey, distributors, you're going to give me 100% of my time and not share it with USAI or Lucifer or any of the other players in that market. You're going to be loyal. Those distributors are like, "Well, I'm not going to miss out on these shades and controls inside of it." I guess we're 100% Lutron. Lutron making the plays with Ketra. I'm a big fan of that product, and we were fortunate enough to be in the town. Its developer was a client. I got to see it ten years ago while talking about the concept in his condo, and I'm much like a Philips Hue TV or something? Who knew?
It's a battle that I am not afraid to say that I'm in. Service Tech will be electrical by year's end. It's on my board. And from that, we will be a force to reckon with on the electrical side, just like we're a force to reckon with on the lighting design controls and all those things. I'm not going to do anything half-assed. I want to throw in a lot of money at the resources and get the right people. I'm going to train them, which I think again, I go back to every company is they're saying we're too busy to train, you know, how are you too busy? You factor in all those trips or factor in all those scheduling delays. Well, I have to send Johnny to do the fiber. Get all fifteen field techs certified in fiber now. That hour and a half every Friday, 40, 50 hours a year plus manufacturer training, you can really develop company standards and brands and so forth, and that's how you survive these million-dollar projects. Because if it's if I'm the only one that knows how I want the engineer or how I want the network, I'm going to fail. I will hit a bottleneck, which will be myself. I want smarter people to be training and so forth. By the way, we're hiring.
Ron: This is why you agree to come on the show? We want to get that known to the world. Chris is hiring.
Chris: We are hiring for everything.
Ron: What's the fastest-growing part of your business? I'm going to say product category solution. What is what do you see when you look in your crystal ball? What's happening?
Chris: Well, we definitely make a mark with shades, and we've gone to the point internally where we can cut them down. We can fabricate what really we can make things. That has been a huge portion of our business. Obviously, the lighting design now features are our top audio has always been growing. People love audio, good music. I get brought places based on what I'm hearing, you know, when did I hear that or what concert was I at?
There's no shortcut for good music. There's no shortcut for performance. We've stepped up our game on the audio side, lighting shades, we're killing it, we've added the exterior shades. We've basically everything that we've been blamed for in the last 20 years. I want to bring on and bring an internal, you know, if you're going to blame me for why that Sampi repeater is doing that, I would be the shade guy. And I'm going Lutron. That's a story. Lutron takes care of us. They've treated us well. Back to my loyalty, I'm very loyal.
Ron: For those that haven't been to Austin, what's it like?
Chris: Oh my God, what's it not like? When I thought of Texas, I grew up in Northern Virginia and school and East Coast. You didn't realize how nice people are in the south or the west. You think of Texas like dessert, and it was not dust bunnies but rolling.
Ron: Yeah. Alright, someone help us out. Drop it into the notes here. What are we talking about? The things that when you see the cowboy movies.
Chris: Flat and the Wild West and Cowboy, or you think it as like Dallas, then you get to Austin, and it's a blue section in a red state. I like the balance there.
Ron: Wes just helped us out, Chris. It's tumbleweeds. Thank you. I appreciate that. Yeah.
Chris: You get here, and you're like, wait a minute, I've got hills, I've got lakes, I've got the capital. I've got the University of Texas. Where is it? Right. There you go. Yes, that's right. You have those things, and then you've got the flair. The McConaughey is out there, the Sandra Bullock's Willie Nelson. You have this melting pot.
Ron: My money says those are probably all your clients. You don't have to answer that.
Chris: We've dabbled in a few and careful what you wish for. I guess between the music and the food and the people, I will never leave, and I will be here and Austin people. I've been here long enough. I'm in Austin, far as I'm concerned. I've been here since '98. People from Austin like to do business with people in Austin. They always say, don't go Dallas my Austin. Now they're like, don't go California, my Texas. And seeing that, you know, so, you know, all those things, it makes a great place, and there's nothing better than a billionaire in shorts—the days of IBM and Xerox and suits. I think Lutron is the only company that still wears suits, I feel.
Ron: Does David show up, and David come and visit you? Is David wearing a suit?
Chris: Everyone that I've seen so far, you go to the experience center. I think they're forced to travel in suits. But Austin is a little more laid back. The Ketra Lutron headquarters laid back. Good people, good vibes.
Ron: Awesome. Chris, you've been extremely generous with your time, sir, and you and your team are killing it in Austin. And I'm proud to call you a client. Proud to call you a friend. I wanted to mention something, actually. I'm reading a book right now. If you haven't read this, I'm betting you would love this. And it's called Winning by Tim Grover. And I'll shoot you a link to that. Anyone listening will drop it in the comments as well. It's written by the trainer that was the trainer for Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and a slew of other people. But listening to you, it sounds like you've read this book. It sounds like you could have written the book.
Chris: I haven't read it, but I will. I will listen to it on audio.
Ron: I'm an audio guy, by the way, as well. I'll listen to it on my own. I am listening to it. I'm halfway through it on my morning walks, and it's inspiring listening to you. It is equally inspiring because you're doing it right now on the ground. Thank you for coming to the show. What is this? This is show 178. How can the folks listening want to get in touch with you or learn more about you or your business? How would you recommend they do that?
Chris: They can find me on LinkedIn. That's a good spot. I think you found I'm transparent. I don't want to keep all my ideas like mine. I want to share them because they've replicated what I've done. I've already improved it. Let the think-tank begin and happy to share, what we're doing, what we're thinking about, what products we like, and so forth. Obviously, I'm a big Lutron fan, so I love those guys and gals and their product. But reach out and help to share.
Ron: Awesome. Chris, thank you for joining me on the show.
Chris: Take care.
Ron: Alright, folks, there you have it. The one and only Chris Pearson are in the hottest market in the country. And he has he's been at his business, as he mentioned, and we said in the bios since 2003. And then, before that, he had years of experience out there on the road schlepping projectors. There's no better way to learn grit and fortitude than being a road warrior and being a rep. You guys should all call your local rep and thank them for all the hard work they do to support you because it is hard work to do that out there on the road. And his business today is a powerhouse.
They are big, and I think they're the biggest, if not one of the biggest, Lutron resellers or dealers in the state of Texas. And Texas is one of the largest markets on planet Earth. I think I was listening to an interview with the Texas governor just this week, and he was stating that if Texas were a country, it would be the ninth-largest economy on the planet. Here you have Chris as the largest player in lighting and shading and automation and control. It's a really, really neat business, definitely worth following. It was a pleasure to have him on the show. In case you have not already done so, please check us out on Instagram. Follow us. We're going to be we're always active on that platform and Facebook and Linked In and Twitter.
Now that we've hired our own marketing manager, Jessica Weiss. She joined us on June 1st. Actually, she came from Lutron, and she was with Lutron and then Sonen, and now she's with One Firefly. We will be tuning up our own marketing and strategy for education and supporting material for you guys and gals. Definitely, please follow us if you do not already. Again, this is the video version of the show. But if you exercise or walk or you're in your car or travel and listening to audio is better, make sure to subscribe to the audio-only podcast. That's actually how I do most of my consumption of content, in case you guys haven't heard me say that before. I'm an avid podcast listener across a full diversity of topics, including industry, content, marketing, content, and all sorts of fun things. On that note, I'm going to sign off. I will see you all next week. Thank you for joining me. And until next time, I did. You do. Thank you.
Chris founded Service Tech in 2003 and built his business by creating a company culture that embodies hard work, fun, respect, and inclusivity. He has won many prestigious awards and recognitions over the years, including CEDIA Best Lighting System of the Americas, Lutron Excellence Award, Home of the Year Gold Winner for Best Media Room, and -most recently -recognition Lutron Black Diamond dealer.
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 become the leading marketing firm specializing in integrated technology and security. The One Firefly team works 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:
- Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness book by Tim Grover
- Ketra new headquarters in Austin, Texas
- Texas 9th largest world economy