Rob Lane talks to the founder and managing director of renowned integrator Feltech about bridging the gap between AV and broadcast, as well as unified comms, staff loyalty and engineering credibility.
How did you get into the industry?
I started out working in the engineering team at ITN (Independent Television News) in 1980, and worked my way up to the level of supervisory engineer before taking voluntary redundancy and leaving to form Feltech in 1989. I’d initially started working as a sole trader during days off whilst at ITN, providing video for exhibition stands and at motor shows, so was already established as Feltech. When I left I formed the limited company, adding broadcast installations to my offer.
Live news is a dynamic, exciting environment to work in. There’s nowhere to hide, so engineering and installation standards have to be high – something that I have carried forward into Feltech. ITN gave me a strong foundation as an engineer and ignited my passion for innovative technologies and solutions.
I’m proud to say that Feltech’s broadcast credentials are impeccable. Our engineers have been responsible for groundbreaking work throughout our history, from the first live television pictures to come from inside the Channel Tunnel, to transmitting the first images of Barack Obama as he took the stage at the G20 Summit.
How did Feltech's move into broadcast & AV originally come about? Would you say that the two sectors have become closer, in technology terms, in recent years?
I’ve always been passionate about technology, and on an engineering level the boundaries between AV and broadcast are far less distinct than they used to be. In the early days of the company, through client demand, Feltech bridged the gap between broadcast and AV, and this was a natural fit for us.
Over the past decade, advances in technology have blurred the lines between broadcast engineering, AV and IT; our broadcast, UHD and 4K workflow expertise is as relevant now to our corporate clients as to our broadcast installations.
AV technologies and unified communications are constantly evolving, and as a privately owned, proactive company we can work fast and respond to our customers’ needs without anything getting in our way. I’ve always stressed the importance of investing in training, engineering, research, technology, customer support and great design. Whether it’s applied to the AV or broadcast sector, for me success is all about the people behind the technology.
What’s got better and what’s got worse about the AV integration industry since Feltech was founded in 1989?
In the past, clients focused on the design of distinct AV areas, be it videoconferencing, videowalls or meeting rooms – often after all other elements of a building were in place. With today’s projects and truly integrated technologies we can take a more holistic view, enabling us to offer business solutions that make a real difference to the bottom line.
At Feltech we take time to listen to our customers, understand their needs and develop systems that are more than merely out of the box solutions. Great AV/IT is invisible and is embedded deep inside client spaces. Get it right and we can improve client workflows, communication and productivity, offering much more than a traditional AV contractor could deliver.
This means we are often involved much earlier in the process, and we have expanded our team accordingly. Over the past four years we have nearly doubled in size and are still recruiting. I initially operated Feltech on my own for 12 months, before taking on a sales executive in 1990. He’s still with us 25 years later, and is now our business development manager! This is a key point about Feltech – our staff rarely leave, and when they do they often return having realised that the grass isn’t greener. We’re clearly doing something right! We are lucky to have this extremely low turnover rate for staff, but we’re extremely busy so it’s key we maintain the same level of personal service our clients are accustomed to.
If there’s a downside to the current marketplace it’s the lack of emphasis on quality of solution made by procurement-led tenders. We design intelligent systems that offer far more than the sum of their parts; it can be hard to communicate this without an open dialogue between the client who will ultimately benefit from the system and the designer.
Last year, the MD of another integrator told us, "We will see the industry taking further steps away from being the biggest cottage industry in the UK”– in other words, a more professional, corporate-style approach rather than “family-run, lifestyle businesses”. Do you agree with that observation?
I think the scope of AV work in the marketplace means it’s impossible to generalise. There’s always going to be a niche for the small family-run, lifestyle businesses in the same way that SME specialist companies will always exist pushing the boundaries of new tech.
I strongly believe that there is a space between cottage industry and an impersonal, corporate approach. Whether we are designing a small TV studio or working on a £5million project for a City corporate, we still maintain the importance of dedicated account managers, on hand to support our clients every step of the way. We are big enough to compete with any large integrator, but we are still small enough to be passionate about getting it right every time.
I see us as being quite specialist actually, always emphasising the engineering side of things and ensuring that everything is properly engineered. We’re certainly not a ‘volume is king, churn them out’ type of company, preferring more challenging installations – lecture theatres, recording suites – to multiple display installs, for example. That said, we’re more than happy to take that kind of work on, as part of a more challenging build.
Our role as primary partner for the GPA (Global Presence Alliance) in the UK means we are supported by a global network of like-minded AV integrators sharing a common vision and passion for delivering excellence. We are delighted to be able to offer our clients a dynamic multi-national network of similar, forward-thinking partners around the world with a common commitment to integrity, customer service and support.
Are we getting enough new blood into the industry?
During our recent recruitment drive we worked with local universities and colleges to access a new generation of engineers and IT specialists. It’s worked out really well: we’ve found some great new talent and we’re supporting the local community at the same time. We’re lucky; we are often approached by people working for competitors looking to join the Feltech team, so there’s no shortage of candidates to keep HR busy!
What do you look for in new recruits?
It’s not a 9 to 5 job, and technology doesn’t stand still, so we look for innovative people who thrive on change, with a proven track record. It sounds like a cliché but we are like a big family, each bringing something different to the table, so it’s important new recruits are as passionate about the industry as the rest of us. Personality and passion are very personal traits and not something that can be taught, so for me these are far more important in the recruitment process than, for example, a specific piece of industry knowledge.
What new technologies are you most excited by in the AV world?
We are very excited by the team collaboration tools that are coming to the market, and we’re delighted to be part of the Microsoft Surface Hub commercial sales channel. Business customers are increasingly seeking devices that empower teams to be more productive together, can be easily managed and configured, and have the right software to get the job done. I think Surface Hub is much more than just a new product; it will change the way we work together for years to come.
The move towards IP is also very exciting. The broadcast industry has been moving content around via IP for many years and the AV industry is finally waking up to the possibilities that the network can bring to AV systems integration. The AV engineer of the future will need a whole new set of skills in order to succeed in their day-to-day jobs.
What keeps you awake at night?
That’s a tricky one. At the moment it’s the expansion of Feltech and the strain that is putting on car parking capacity at our HQ!
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
My aim is that Feltech will be one of the top three systems integrators in the UK, in turnover terms, and number one for engineering excellence. Arguably we have already achieved the latter; in the next five years it is my ambition to achieve the former as well!
Going forward, I’m keen for us to grow by finding new customers having broken into new areas – something we’ll be able to do once I’ve expanded our sales team again.
However, as mentioned above, I’m convinced we can do this while being true to our core beliefs, and am determined that we will grow whilst maintaining our business culture and engineering standards – I would never want to lose that ethos.
One of our cultural ideals, if you like, is providing five-year warranties – to underscore our quality control. We virtually never get called to deliver on these warranties, so they mainly exist as a quality badge.
Ultimately, I firmly believe that there’s room in the market for a big integrator that does things properly, and as we expand our remit Feltech will prove that this ambition can be fulfilled.