How did you come to be working in the professional audio business?
I grew up with a passion for electronics - at the age of 7, I was removing resistors from PCBs with my bare hands! - and went on to study the subject in both Italy and the US. Alberto, my elder brother and business partner, had a background in hi-fi manufacturing, and in 1978 he decided to start a new contracting operation. To begin with, we were active mainly in the pro-sumer market, but after a few years we started to switch to pro-audio exclusively; it had always been our aim to work in that area. Over time we began to think more about distribution and focusing our efforts there, so in March 1993 my brother and I established Prase Engineering. Initially, we were working as a reseller and contractor, but by 1997 we had moved over to a distribution-based approach.
What was the starting point for your distribution portfolio?
Community loudspeakers was the first brand we took on, and in fact that came about by [a stroke of good fortune]. There was no distributor in Italy at that particular point, and we needed to get our hands on a large amount of equipment for a specific installation project. We started to buy in equipment from Community directly and built up a relationship quite slowly over an extended period of time. About six months in, we were visited by their new European regional manager, who was looking to appoint a new distributor [for Italy]. He saw a lot of companies, but ultimately he came to the conclusion that whilst we had little experience at that point, we were very, very motivated. So we became Community's distributor in Italy and, all these years later, are still doing great business with the brand.
That was 17 years ago, so how has Prase Engineering changed since then?
Very significantly! We were a small company operating out of tiny premises then, but progressively, step by step, we have added brands and people to the point where we now have a staff of 30 and a large premises with showrooms, acoustically-treated live rooms and a multimedia auditorium. In total, we represent about 25 brands, including Biamp, Axys, MC2 Audio and Tannoy. The most recent additions include Audio-Technica, which was a very big one for us.
What do you make of the wider trends in the pro AV/install business?
There used to be a kind of DIY approach to a lot of projects out there, but over a relatively short period the market changed dramatically to accommodate a much more consolidated approach regarding design and support. Obviously, the move from a complete analogue set-up to a fully digital one has been one of the major changes, as has the incorporation of digital processing and audio networking. It was in 1999/2000 that we first began training in audio networking architecture and the processes around it, and that [development] was very important for us. The extent to which IT and computer science has become integral to the business is quite remarkable.
How has the Italian business fared over the last 12-18 months?
Looking at the market generally, there have been two main problems: firstly, the real construction market almost went belly-up, resulting in a major impact on the integration sector; and secondly, many customers [in the market] are mid- to small-sized companies without a lot of capital and who are therefore dependent on the banks. For us a company, we have thankfully remained very busy due to growth in different channels.
Is the market now on its way back to full health?
There is definitely a positive trend and a lot of projects that had been on hold are being reactivated. It's not crazy numbers of projects we are talking about, but it's getting better every day and there is definitely reason to be optimistic about the future. As for specific growth markets, I would mention video-conferencing and the transport market. Rail transport, in particular, is extremely active at the moment in terms of install projects at railway stations. More generally, we are also going to see growth in demand for VoIP applications.
How do you see the next few years for Prase Engineering?
In terms of business channels, I believe that we will probably remain exactly where we are while looking to open up some new channels regarding networking, VoIP and so on. We will also [continue to distinguish ourselves] by having our own R&D division. Some people might say we should simply 'move boxes', but we like to use our resources to pre-package systems or at least test in advance that speaker A will work with amplifier B, and so on. It's a very important part of our offer.
What is the strategy for Prase's audio communication systems division, INOUT?
The way we perceive INOUT is that it allows us to respond to certain market gaps and produce very clever little devices to solve specific problems. I don't foresee any change to that kind of 'niche' approach for INOUT. However, we do have an idea to possibly create a new division for the residential market. It's an area that is quite active in Italy at the moment, but there is still a lot to do in developing it further. Italians are very much into lifestyle, and I believe that they have very great expectations [for residential AV technology].
And finally, what about the future for Ennio Prase? Are you still enjoying the business?
In all honesty, I am probably enjoying the work more now than when I first stepped into the office all those years ago. It is possible that when Alberto and I first came into the business we fell in love with the profession too much, to the extent that it perhaps affected our private lives a bit. But, ultimately, being happy and satisfied is what counts, and we are both still very content to come into the office every day. We have a great, well-educated and very-motivated team, and we are still having a lot of fun!