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John Smith, IVC Media

Considering IT or AV in isolation just won’t cut it – the future is all about ‘unified communications’, says the MD of UK-based systems integrator IVC Media.

What was your starting point in the world of pro-AV?
I have now been in the industry for 30 years. More than half of that time has been spent working for Sony: I had three phases with the company, commencing at 17 when I began as an assistant to the studio manager. For a while, at 21, I went to look after the sales for a Colchester-based dealer called DT Wickes, but soon returned to Sony. The company was going through changes in the UK at that time, so after six months I moved on again to a business called VCR, which had been established by former Sony UK management staff. That phase lasted five years, before the company went down with full order books, during the first real recession to affect the AV business [in the early 1990s].

Following the VCR demise I joined TVL Ltd, which had just been purchased by the Ladbroke group, and became general manager. After two very successful years, Ladbrokes decided this was not a core part of their business and effectively closed the company. The Bristol team and myself decided to work with a small company in Yeovil called Telec, which was just moving into professional AV sales. Unfortunately, the organisation was not geared to take on the massive increase in sales we achieved in a very short space of time.

I returned to Sony again and started to move up the ladder quite quickly, taking on management responsibilities in the UK and Europe. It was during this period that I began to formulate an approach that has continued throughout my ensuing career of looking at the market and business from the client’s and customer’s perspective. I realised that we had all these fantastic products, but who were we selling to and what were their needs? The result was more of a consultative approach, and one that entailed creating partnerships with lots of different people, adding value to the process.

Since leaving Sony for the third time in 2000, I have worked in various senior roles including main board director for MarCom, and even had a period away from AV working in the printing industry for OKI Systems. I also launched two VOIP companies and worked with Logica’s mobile telecoms division on a global basis. But AV, IT and broadcast continued to fire my interest, which led me back to the AV/broadcast industry with a spell at Feltech. I then joined IVC Media in January last year – initially as sales director and then, from 1 June 2010, as MD.

In part, you were brought onboard to help re-orient IVC after a series of upheavals, so what were your initial objectives for the company?
A number of acquisitions during previous years and the global economic downturn had left the company in a weaker position following years of growth, [so] my main goal was to get the foundation of the business right. But I also saw that the [systems integration] market was changing and that we had to respond. This required us to sit down and think about our real skill-sets. A lot of people will say they can do certain things; for example, they might say they are ‘in education’ because they once supplied a projector to a college! By contrast, we wanted to be honest, think about our strengths – a good client basis and a strong understanding of a number of key disciplines, including IT – and then set aside time to maybe explore other areas.

Do you see particular opportunities in the sector’s continuing convergence with IT? Yes – specifically, in IT and telecoms, because you have to think about who will own the networks, internally and externally, and clearly it’s going to be telecoms companies that will drive the global networks. If you’re taking information from building to building, or the outside world, then you’re going into the telecoms world, whether it’s wired or wireless.

Part of our approach over the last 12 months has been to really get the message out there that we understand networks and are not afraid of them. This also means that we can talk to IT people at companies in their own language – rather than in that of AV. A lot of these skills have really come into their own during a project for the Tortuga Beach Resort & Spa in the Cape Verde Islands.

More than a year in development, this project entailed the design and construction of a centralised AV, IT, resort security and access control management infrastructure. But didn’t you bring in external support to assist with the enhanced telecom system?

Yes – and it all goes back to what I was saying about recognising your key skill-sets. The final phase was a very large telecoms/hospitality infrastructure [involving the connection of] 700 or so VOIP and analogue phones, video-on-demand, etc. Whilst we understood what was required, it was not really our principal [area of expertise]. Therefore we enlisted the help of a globally recognised hotel and hospitality business consultant to work with the likes of Alcatel-Lucent and the operator of the resort, while maintaining our overall project management role. It’s all worked out really well.

Aside from flagship projects like Tortuga Beach, what is IVC’s ‘bread and butter’ work?
Government facilities and education are important for us. Yes, those sectors are under pressure now, but we continue to do some major projects in those areas. For example, we have an ongoing arrangement with the National Assembly for Wales and recently completed a major integration on behalf of the Exeter University Business School. That was a real textbook project, actually; everything was done correctly from day one, with everyone working together. That’s how it should be!

What would you like the industry perception of IVC Media to be several years from now? I have to ask: which industry? It’s a good question these days as there is so many crossovers between AV, IT , broadcast and telecoms. But in terms of an external perception, I would like clients to known that we understand them and the market in which they operate, their business issues, and that we can serve as a catalyst to bring different disciplines together.

Finally, what about the future for John Smith? Are you back in AV for good after your sojourn in the world of printing?If it was purely AV or broadcast, I wouldn’t see a future for me, but I am very excited about this area of unified communications where disciplines are coming together. Hopefully IVC will be the vehicle to take me forward in this area, and I will always give 110% to whoever I am working with, although I have learned over the years that you always have to keep the door ajar, and whether the opportunity is right for me personally or the company it’s always good to listen!

John Smith was talking to David Davies.