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Interview: Gordon and Keith Dutch, Peerless-AV

As Gordon Dutch steps aside, his brother Keith is taking the helm of the recently renamed Peerless-AV Ltd. Paddy Baker discusses succession planning, moving from sport to business, and brotherly relations.

When the news broke that Gordon Dutch was to step down as managing director of Peerless-AV Ltd (as of 1 October) to become a part-time, non-executive director, it was a shock to many in the industry. Less of a surprise was the announcement that Keith Dutch, his younger brother, would be stepping up to the role of MD after 12 years working under Gordon.

Gordon founded what would eventually become Peerless-AV Ltd on 1 April 1993. BBG Distribution, as it was called for the next 16 years, initially specialised in car audio and accessories before moving into home audio and eventually the professional markets when Keith joined the fold in 2004.

“We moved into the professional market around 12 years ago when we started distributing a range of professional brackets,” explains Gordon. “Then, in 2009, I sold/merged the company with Peerless, joining their board as we became Peerless AV Europe and part of the Peerless group.”

BBG continued to be namechecked while the Peerless name became established. Finally, on 1 April this year – six months ahead of Gordon stepping aside – Peerless-AV Europe was renamed Peerless-AV Ltd, and any vestiges of BBG were removed for good.

Joining the team

Keith “officially” joined BBG in 2004 after a successful career as a professional cricketer. He had been assisting Gordon prior to this (from around early 2000), “on and off, around my cricket career”. He ran the company’s key accounts in consumer retail until the 2009 merger.

“Once we’d merged with Peerless I asked Keith to move over into the pro market, as obviously we had realised that this was going to be a bigger market for us long term,” says Gordon. “I wanted someone to specialise and focus on pro. Previously, around 90% of our turnover was in retail, with 10% pro; nowadays this is completely the other way around.”

Keith’s previous career as a pro cricketer has certainly helped him with his rise to MD of a global-facing manufacturer and distributor.

“When you’re working in a sporting environment or the armed forces, you are taught to be disciplined – whether that’s your timekeeping or your work ethic. In any environment like that everyone is very talented, but it’s work ethic that can give you that edge and sift out the ‘succeeders’ from the relative failures.

“I’ve seen very talented cricketers not achieve their full potential as a result of their attitude to their work ethic. So when coming into what I call the real world after playing cricket, I realised that there are key attributes that you can realign into a working environment. One of these is leadership skills: when you’re talking about a team environment, taking care of your own performance commits to the team. Linked to that, it’s important that you recognise other people’s successes within your team.”

There’s a sizeable age difference between Keith and Gordon, who had already left home when Keith was very young, but this has probably helped rather than hindered the brothers’ working relationship, with Gordon adopting the mentoring role of proud big brother.

“It was very enjoyable to be able to watch Keith on TV as a cricketer and to enjoy his success, like when he won the C&G final,” explains Gordon. “In terms of working with him, one of the things that you see in pro sportsmen is that setting and achieving goals is very important – and indeed goal-setting is also a key part of what we do as a business, so that was always a good fit.”

Gordon worked hard to ensure that Keith experienced all the different aspects of the business before he eventually took the reins. Assisting in various parts of the business, his first role started in retail, running all the key retail accounts and then moving into pro after the merger. More recently he has been working in operations and then export – a growing part of the business going forward, according to Gordon.

“I’d like to feel that having given him the opportunity to work in all those different areas he’s extremely well qualified to be taking over,” says Gordon. “I personally feel I’ve achieved the goals that I wanted for the business – a successful merger with Peerless and to ensure that all of our staff – many who have been with me 10, 15 and even 20 years – are working in a company that isn’t just about numbers but is about real people.”

This is key to the timing of Gordon stepping down: he wanted to be 100% happy with the position the company is in – and also to oversee a smooth and secure succession, with happy staff who continue to see a future with the firm.

“I’ve been talking to the US board and with the team over here during the last couple of years about the succession plans, and we all agreed that Keith has the skillsets to step into the MD role. The only other area where we were looking to strengthen was in the sales area outside of the UK, and the opportunity came along to bring in Melinda Von Horvath as sales director, previously VP at Milestone running their EMEA business. This – along with Keith stepping up – was the perfect fit and allowed me to feel 100% comfortable with my decision that the time was right for me to step into a different role.

“We’ve now got the best team that we’ve ever had at the UK head office. I’m very comfortable that Keith can run the day-to-day business, and Melinda will be the missing part of the jigsaw.”

Gordon is keen to reiterate that he is not retiring: he will stay as a non-executive director on the UK and EMEA board for another two to three years, and the same in the US while he helps to “steer the business”.

“Really what’s changed is that I’m not going to be involved in every day-to-day decision – that’s now down to Keith. In fact, if you ask him he’s probably been making a lot of those decisions for the last two or three years anyway!”

Exit timetable

At the time of the merger, Gordon had a five-year timetable for staying in the business. The recession, following the banking crisis, put paid to that, making the “tremendous amount of work” of setting up a new brand in the UK and Europe even more challenging, although also entertaining.

“It has been a hoot, to be honest. Keith and I have always had our differences in opinion of course, but generally we have the same goals; it’s how we get to these goals that leads to the active discussion.”

“It’s certainly been a journey!” exclaims Keith. “Gordon has been very good to me. He has been amazing and he’s taught me a huge amount. I think it has probably been tougher for him than me because I had everything to learn, and he had the key to the information cabinet – I used to ask a lot of questions in the early days! And as I’ve moved into new areas within the business I’ve had to ask further questions of him.”

Keith admits that it can be very difficult working with a family member and that he and Gordon have often spoken “passionately” – clearly a euphemism. But the brothers have never held grudges and have always had the same goals for the business – albeit sometimes with a different route to the net.

“Even though we are brothers we obviously have different personalities,” says Keith. “I’m the quiet one; he’s a little more boisterous! Working with your bro, you have to be patient with one another; I’m sure there have been many a time he’s rolled his eyes at me and decided that the conversation shouldn’t go on any further! But you just park it up and move on. We never carry any grievances onto the next meeting; we say our piece and move on – just like in normal family life.”

Keith’s priorities are to first get Melinda settled in to the business, as her appointment is a “significant step forward for EMEA”. Then he will begin the process of “transitioning” Peerless-AV Ltd from being strong in a few key European markets to developing a complete EMEA network of AV distributors and integrators.

“I see Europe as a huge opportunity for the business, as well as APAC going forward. We want to be able to react to the market quickly with our manufacturing. I want to look at how we service our customers on local manufacturing and bespoke solutions.”

The brothers share the ultimate goal of Peerless-AV Ltd being the number one brand of choice for professional mounting systems – across every type of LFD format including narrow-pitch LED and also kiosks.

“Ultimately we want to be the number one global supplier of pro-AV mounting systems and expand our offering of unique emerging technology solutions. So local manufacturing, plus a stronger base and a bigger business across the whole of EMEA – this is Keith’s main responsibility.”

The inevitable hard work that goes hand in hand with this ambitious plan doesn’t worry Keith; he’s always been highly motivated, both as a sportsman and businessman too.

“It is exciting times. One of the challenges is to maintain motivation. It’s important to keep evolving, developing and motivating – I’ve been lucky that the latter in particular hasn’t been a problem for me. I haven’t had the chance to become stale in one role and am continually excited by new opportunities; there’s always so much to achieve.”