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Press Coverage: Crazy Like a Fox

Some people think Jeff Hoover is a little nuts. Not only does he take extreme personal risks, like flying a Russian MiG 25 at a record 85,301 feet, but during the past year he also has tested the comfort limits of his business partners and financiers while spending millions of dollars on a monumental design center project. It all started a year ago when the president of Audio Advisors and next CEDIA president (pending CEDIA Board approval) set out to create a design center to end all design centers. As the West Palm Beach project progressed and Hoover's expenses started piling up, it didn't take long for the venture to become an industry legend, running six months late and more than 30 percent over budget. Not only would the $2.2 million building contribute to Audio Advisors' largest expansion in 18 years, but the 8,300 square-foot facility (with an additional 10,500 square feet of warehouse and wood shop space) was also going to feature amenities only found in the most palatial estates in the world.

During the past year, respected members of the industry have winked and nudged each other with the mention of "Jeff's Folly", "Hoover's Personal Shrine" or "Jeff's Mausoleum." First of all, what company could afford that kind of overhead? And who does Jeff think he is the Second Coming of Walt Disney? "

The comments were mostly good-natured (though many were obviously "sour grapes"), and has Hoover heard most of them. "I get consistently hammered by everybody who thinks I'm an idiot to spend this much money...until they come here," he said. "The clients who have already walked through it are just blown away."

This month, with the project nearly complete (the grand opening is scheduled for November), and Audio Advisors having managed to avoid bankruptcy and other disasters so far, it looks like Hoover might actually have the last laugh.

The man who, a year and half ago became official industry spokesman for home networking, spent his teenage years in Florida tinkering with car stereos, becoming what he calls the, "ultimate trunk slammer." Eventually, in 1982, he realized this hobby could be turned into a business and started a small car stereo business located in a 400-square-foot building in Lake Worth, Florida.

Over time, Audio Advisors has grown to become one of the largest and most respected custom and car audio installation companies in the country. It boasts the most CEDIA-certified installers (29 at Level I and six at Level II) and a long list of some of the wealthiest clients in the world. Few designer/installers dare compare themselves to Audio Advisors. Few care to push themselves as much as Hoover does in his business and personal pursuits.

Audio Advisors, with sales close to $10 million a year, stopped advertising, completely, about three years ago. Even with over 60 employees, the company often has to turn down new projects. However, Hoover is the first to admit that running a custom installation business is not easy, and that he and his staff are far from perfect. "I frequently tell my staff that if we were as good as people say we are, then we would all be retired by now," he admitted. "We make mistakes and waste tons of time on a daily basis, but we are constantly at work on the development and implementation of systems to run our business. One way to sum it up is that we are trying to transition from a company that succeeds by the heroic efforts of its team members to a company that appears to run effortlessly due to its systematic business process."

Back in 1995, Audio Advisors created a business model focused on being "one company responsible for every electronic subsystem in a home." In 1998, Hoover partnered with Jamie Lozott, adding his company's networked security, access control and surveillance expertise. 

A One-Stop Shop
However, Hoover's boldest business move, to date, is his ambitious design center, located somewhat discretely, in a West Palm Beach strip mall. The ultimate realization of the "one-stop shop" concept, the by-appointment-only center not only demonstrates every electronic discipline practiced by CEDIA dealers today, but also introduces additional concepts of single-source general contracting, electrical contracting, cabinetry and interior design.

"This facility literally opens the door for us to sell complete remodels, all of the custom cabinetry and electronics, to a client; it's truly one-stop shopping," Hoover explained. "Our first project was sold, in July of this year, where we are doing the remodel, cabinetry and electronics in a $10-million-dollar private residence in Palm Beach."

Hoover acknowledge that while the concept of design center is not new to the high-end furniture and appliance industry and A/V retailers have been displaying equipment in life-like vignettes for years, he is taking the concept to a completely new level.

"In my travels I had yet to see anybody ever build a true representation of a luxury home filled with all of the best that the electronic lifestyles industry has to offer," he said. "There was certainly not one good enough to easily convince my clients that they could do this in their homes without having to go to school [to learn all about it]. Arranging a meeting with high-powered clients and high-priced subcontractors can be problematic at best. I wanted to compress the time needed to show them actual operating systems, in a setting that they could relate to."

There was also a part of Hoover that wanted to create a scalable model for use by others in the industry, a place to hold charity benefit events and to host various industry events. 

If You Build It... 

Audio Advisors is financing its project in five ways. First, Hoover borrowed $750,000 from his bank. Next, he and his partners made personal investments. Third, Hoover explained, "I have historically kept my inventory too high. It was almost like a savings account for me. We closed our retail store over a year and a half ago. That and knowing the financial needs necessary to pull off the Design Center made me concentrate on, and prove successful in lowering, my inventory average buy by over $350,000."

Next, Hoover utilized his well-established working relationships with many other trades. "I called up everyone I knew and pulled in every favor that I had coming; my architect, air-conditioning, interior designers, cabinetry, flooring, painting, landscaping and almost every other subcontractor on the project contributed time or product at some level," he said. "I also have a very large, very talented, very diversified staff that has contributed a lot to many aspects of this effort."

Finally, Hoover established arrangements with "vendor partners," as he calls them. "I do not use this term lightly," he added. "At a hard cost of well over $2 million for build out, furnishings and electronics, this facility could not be completed without participation from our suppliers. Choosing these suppliers was one of the hardest parts of the whole experience. There are many great manufacturers that will not be represented who wanted to participate. We were very interested in having them do so, but we finally had to focus on narrowing down our vendor relationships to insure that their participation was a win/win. To do this we had to make some very tough final choices."

Reception Area 
Upon entering the facility, officially dubbed "electronic lifestyles.com," guests will immediately recognize its high-quality finishes and furnishings--more, in fact, than most would expect to find in a multi-million-dollar home. The simple, newly landscaped exterior with high-quality outdoor music system, does little to indicate what awaits you when you arrive for your appointment. The hand-inlaid marble floors and high-end French doors are only the beginning of what lies inside.

You're greeted by a receptionist and two plasma TVs--one constantly showing pictures of some of Audio Advisors' finest work and tasteful advertisements from its vendor partners, the other retrofit with a touch screen overlay displaying a virtual tour of the design center-and audio from two Sound Advance invisible in-wall speakers. When met by one of the company's representatives, you will pass into the foyer and the interior of the "home." During the whole process you're unaware that you have been continuously tracked by a 16-camera multiplexed surveillance system since you first stepped out of your car.

Foyer

Setting the tone of the design center experience, the foyer is a fork in the road surrounding a tile and marble ceiling-to-floor fountain. To the right are two demo rooms, a conference room and the facility's LAN/MIS area with all the systems that run the complex. You will hear tunes piped in by a high-quality background music systems with Triad in-ceiling speakers and will notice a Sony digital picture frame sitting on a beautiful side table. From the foyer you can command any function in the entire facility with a 15-inch Crestron Isys panel. 

This room offers the first reference to the theme's overall theme: what was used to be state of the art and what is state of the art today. Photos on the foyer wall show a range of images from high-end systems of today, to original newspapers from as far back as 1782. 

Media Room
Furnished like a living room, and including a pre-finished solid hardwood Anderson floor, this is a demonstration room that is wired to be the most multipurpose of any of the rooms in the facility. Audio Advisors can set up a two channel high-end audio system or a 7.1 channel system for demonstration. 

Theaters
The Design Center has three complete theaters. The first is an Acoustic Innovations theater that demonstrates one of the designer's more moderately priced build outs, yet contains a very high-end ADA electronics and a CAT in-wall system speaker system. The electronics and speaker package retails for about $150,000 and the build out cost $55,000 with all acoustical and architectural products, seating and installation.

The second theater is Acoustic Innovations' most popular theater, the Elegance. This room build out is priced at approximately $90,000 with a fiber optic Star Field ceiling and top-grade leather seating. It contains a 7-channel Digital Meridian system and has an approximate installed cost of $220,000.

The third theater, which will not be started until January 2002, will be completely over the top, according to Hoover, both in architectural design and electronics. 

"We are working with Jay Miller and Theo Kalomirakis to design and manufacture this room," he said. "This will be the premier high-end home theater showroom in the world, and has an estimated retail cost for design, build out and equipment of over $900,000. The lobby for this theater contains a fully functional concession stand, a DVD driven baby grand player piano and a $30,000 Digital gaming table from the Monte Carlo Game room.

LAN/MIS Room 
This is the company's mission control or "head end." Featuring an anti-static floor and a massive grid of Middle Atlantic racks, this is the central location for all of the systems that control the design center and also the systems that run the business. "When you're using 45 lighting panels, you have to have massive equipment space," Hoover noted.

Home Office 
The office is a classically styled, guy's smoking library with custom black leather chairs, lots of mahogany, lots of gadgets (including a motorized humidor) and three high-end TVs. A large bookshelf houses, behind two motorized mahogany shutters, two 22-inch Panasonic LCD flat screen TVs and has a 42-inch Panasonic plasma in the center. A pair of Meridian 8000s enable a 2-channel demo.

"This room would be about $80,000 to re-create, with all of its furnishings." Hoover pointed out.
He added that his desk will support three "really cool-looking computers," including a 15-inch Crestron that motorizes up out of the desk. In the future, he will use the room to beta test new and existing home networking products. 

Kitchen
Reinforcing the theme of "technology then and technology now," the fully functional $100,000 kitchen, from Christians of Palm Beach, includes a toaster from 1918 and an $18,000 wine collection. In this room, Audio Advisors will be baking bread and cookies on a regular basis. That, along with the smell of the popcorn in the theater lobby, will serve to set the stage for the client's experience. As in many homes, this kitchen the heart of the "home"--a natural sort of gathering place. However, it dwarfs all the other, by comparison. "The kitchen huge," Hoover said. "There's enough counter space that it will be our primary meeting place with our clients. It's a relaxed area where we can discuss our client's needs. It is equipped with an Elan Via! system, including the really cool Via! Music system, a Crestron 15-inch tabletop Isys panel, Sonance Virtuoso in-ceiling speakers and couple of the Sharp 10-inch LCDs that come down from under the counter." 

Great Room
The Great Room is adjacent the kitchen and is covered in the same Mexican tile with marble inserts. In addition to an original Edison phonograph from 1903 (and about 70 playable cylinder records), it includes a full-size fireplace and an entertainment center that covers an entire wall. This room displays ADA electronics, the new $15,000 Mitsubishi 65-inch DLP rear-projection television and an $80,000 Triad Platinum surround speaker system all controlled by a Crestron 15-inch Isys panel.

Above the fireplace is a huge mantle and above that is a large picture frame with a VIMCO double-roller shading system hidden inside. When complete, a copy of a classic painting will roll over a plasma screen and into an ornate picture frame. Another note-worthy feature of this room is a secret entrance to the company's training center and Research & Development Retail Center. "This is a surprisingly common feature in many of the homes that we work in," Hoover noted. "Some clients just love secret passages as a quick way around a large party or for a conversation piece. Others view them an excellent entrance to a safe room. This could be described as 'the Scooby Doo effect.'" 

Kids Playroom 
Hoover's children, ages six, nine and 11 helped design this room, which he added is also an example of a single manufacturer "really showing off" its wares. "Sony really jumped in on this part of the project," Hoover said. "I wanted a place where we could suggest that the little ones shouldn't be forgotten in a new home design, and one that entertained them while their parents went about their business with us."

The end result is a room with two Sony computers (one with a digital editing suite), a Sony ES electronics and surround system, a big screen Sony TV, an Aibo dog living in a dog house, a Sony Playstation 2, MP3 players, digital video cameras and digital still cameras. 

Home Gym 

The gym is equipped with IP-enabled exercise equipment. You can race a friend across the country and have the results provided in real time. Hoover has also installed one of these in his gym at home, so he can easily demonstrate them for his clients. And, Hoover added, "No home gym would be complete without a kick ass sound system, and this one has it. With Sonance Silhouette speakers and a Sonance Cinema subwoofer this in-wall system literally rattles the wall of this home gym." 

Master Bathroom 

"I'll let you know how Internet-equipped toilets emerge as a discipline if we ever get the one we've been promised," Hoover quipped. One "trick" feature that has been included, in this Christians of Palm Beach "powder room," is a two-way vanity mirror covering two Sharp 20-inch LCD video monitors at "his and her" solid marble "get-ready areas." There are also waterproof keypads in the $3,500 (wholesale) shower stall and around the bath. Across from the "throne" is a 6-inch Crestron touch screen that controls all A/V, lighting and HVAC, views the cameras as well as TV and provides screen monitor. 
Master Bedroom 
The master bedroom has three separate video demos: A 36-inch Sony XBR in a high-end armoire, a 42-inch Sony plasma that rises from a cabinet at the foot of the bed and a two-piece Runco projection system with a motorized screen. The goal here, according to Hoover, is to let the customer lie in the $10,000 Versace bed and see what they could actually have in their home. "It will speed up their choice and we believe help us up-sell to the plasma or two piece," he explained. "The surround sound system that accompanies all this video is an all in-wall Sonance Cinema system." 

Parlor
The parlor showcases the integration of state-of-the-art entertainment with custom cabinetry. With motorized a Crestron touch panel, high-end Triad in-wall speaker system, one 50-inch Panasonic plasma, another 42-inch Panasonic plasma and a Sony LCD projector, the client can see that Audio Advisors can satisfy the client's technical as well as decorating requirements. 

Luxurious appointments such as fluted stone columns and "pillowed" Travertine marble floors carry on the theme of classic style with modern-day convenience. 

Conference Room 
This is the most business-oriented part of the Design Center. This is where Hoover and his designers will hold meetings that includes the owner, architect, builder, interior designer, electrical contractor and any number of other people who are impacted by our work. 
There is enough seating for everyone in the company and a lot of room for samples and drawings. A Sony plasma TV, a Runco two-piece DLP projection TV and a Polycom commercial-grade video conferencing system are all on display. This room also displays the many awards Audio Advisors has received both locally and from our industry. 

Training Room 
"This was a source of controversy from the day that I first mentioned it," Hoover noted. The training room has classroom seating for 30 people and is capable of high-quality multi-media presentations. The controversy, Hoover explained, regards the amount of extremely expensive square footage that the space "absorbs." "My banker thought I was nuts," he said. "Our emphasis on training dictates that we should have the best facility that we can afford; I wish it could be more."

The second reason beyond the training of their team is an opportunity to teach continuing education courses for architects, general contractors and designers. 

Final Thoughts 
Hoover still, somewhat jokingly, worries that the design center will bankrupt him, but somehow, it seems, he's going to pull it off. The addition of third business partner (see story on p. 6), and a business plan that positions his company "above all the noise in the industry," will help him manage his new CEDIA leadership responsibilities.

"A year ago I was a targeted dealer in a number of these rollups schemes from all kinds of companies and I got sort of sick of the whole thing," he explained. "We believe this design center will work for us because we positioned it above all the rollups. There isn't really anybody doing the level of work that we do, and as completely diversified as we've done it. That frees me up a lot to honor my responsibilities to CEDIA. It's not that I'll ignore what's happening with my company, but we're just trying to set a different standard at a different level, period." 

--Jeremy Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems. 

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