The heart of AV

Jim Harwood, managing director, Focus 21 Visual Communications, talks to Clive Couldwell about his company ethos, the value of loyal staff, the engineering skills gap and the need for realistic consultants.

“First and foremost, business is simple. You need to do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it, for the money you say you’re going to do it for, without any comeback,” says Jim Harwood, managing director, Focus 21 Visual Communications.

Formerly with integrator Reflex before starting up on his own with business partner Nigel Warrilow, Harwood has run Focus 21 for nearly 20 years. Having left school at 16 he joined the Fleet Air Arm as an aircraft technician in 1981. “I did most of my time on jump jets and Lynx helicopters with (carriers) HMS Hermes and Illustrious. I got as far as I could without taking a commission. Life was good,” he recalls.

When the Thatcher government’s Options for Change ‘restructuring’ came around, cutting Armed Forces numbers post Cold War, Harwood chose redundancy. “I didn’t get it the first time round so opted for the field gun programme, something I’d always wanted to do, competing at Earls Court in 1993 and 1994. It was brilliant. The field gun guys you looked up to. They were standout leaders. It’s probably the best leadership exercise there is out there.”

(The Royal Navy’s highly respected field gun competition held at the Royal Tournament was a contest between teams from various Navy commands which competed to transport a field gun and its equipment over and through a series of obstacles in the shortest time. For the public it was always a thrilling spectacle, but for the generations of servicemen who took part it was the ultimate test of skill, strength and resilience, upholding all the core elements of the Royal Navy’s ethos – courage, commitment, discipline, respect, integrity, loyalty and teamwork.)

Post Navy Harwood started looking around for engineering jobs. Integrator Reflex was advertising for ex-forces personnel – “…qualified, reliable people to form part of a growing engineering team. I worked there from 1994 to 1998 and I really loved it. AV technology was of course very different to now. It was LCD panels, OHPs, CRT monitors and projectors on the ceilings, and fantastic money. There was so much margin in the product,” says Harwood.

“The whole thing has flipped in the last five or six years in the race to get new products to market. Products are released now that don’t fulfil day-one specifications. This gets sorted out eventually, but those who suffer are the early adopters. The consultants want to put in the latest and the greatest for customers and be seen to be doing that. But a lot of times, the products get soak (performance) tested in new projects.”

Company ethos

The core of Harwood’s management team is made up from six people with an average length of service spanning 16 years. They include a former para, RAF and Army personnel. “One of the advantages about being in the forces is you learn how to communicate and work together with people quickly because you depend on each other. This is what’s given Nigel and I the skills to pick the people we want, and I don’t just see that as the team that works with us but more widely – as people we want to work with outside the business, so the supply chain and our clients as well,” says Harwood.

“I’m very honest about whether we can or can’t do things, and we’ve probably lost business from me saying, ‘No I don’t think we can do that.’ You have your standards but understanding how much detail your clients want, what they want, and how to keep delivering is the important thing.

“Generally we’re the guys in the back end of the process, who need the time. The thing that’s changed with engineering is, although the equipment can be installed quicker, the commissioning and the configuration takes a hell of a lot longer than it used to.”

Women in AV

Why aren’t there more women engineers in AV? “They completely get on with it and they’re very reliable and competent. But the problem is there can be a lot of travel involved in this end, a lot of overnighters which can be difficult when you have children and there’s no supportive other half,” says Harwood.

“You can draw parallels with women in the Navy. A Navy friend’s daughter works in the service as a chef. She has two children – one at primary school and the other at nursery school. She’s very good at her job and the Navy has invested in her. A decent employer should.

“I’ve got a young girl that works for us who’s married to one of our guys so they’re a family operation. She works part-time and we make allowances for them because they’re good people but they are good at their job as well and they’re loyal. You can give back what you get out from your staff, can’t you?”

The value of AV personnel

Harwood also feels strongly about the concept of walk-in-and-use. No matter how sophisticated some spaces appear, they still require the skills of an AV professional to be effective, an investment that can be too easily overlooked.

Take audio. “Designers, consultants and manufacturers will say they can put the latest show microphone in your room, accommodating multiple people and it will set itself up automatically. This is absolute hogwash.

“Any space that you walk into has changing requirements and these must be monitored. As soon as you have radio microphones or more than one microphone open, or a quiet versus a really loud speaker, or someone wants to wear his tie clip mic here and another doesn’t want to wear it in the right place, you’ve got to have control. I don’t care what the manufacturers say, you can’t get it right automatically.”

“Nowhere is this more acute than when you start to value the importance of those in the room, and the quality of the event being staged. And you’re not prepared to put a guy in the room at the back that is going to cost you a couple of hundred pounds a day? The technology may have improved but you have to invest in AV technicians as well.”

Current issues

Harwood believes the skills gap is getting wider faster than we’re closing it. “There are certainly people in engineering who will now struggle to close this gap because they’re at a point in their careers where they’re thinking ‘Do I really want to learn that?’”

He also wishes manufacturers would spend more time listening to customers and the channel. “I’d like to see honesty in terms of what’s going to be delivered on day one with spec sheets issued further down the line showing how the product has been improved.”

Harwood wants to see the consultancy channel drive more of the standards. “But it needs to be real. If you were to look at a consultant’s requirements document for any project and do everything in that document to make the project happen, I don’t think you’d ever get the project done within the timescale and budget,” he says. “The whole consultancy process needs to be simpler, more consistently project-led in terms of how projects are run because they’re not, they’re all different.”

He’d also like to see more young people in general entering the AV profession. “Are we perceived to be a dynamic industry that’s attractive to young people?  If we get new starters now, I get them out to customer sites because when people start in the AV industry, I don’t think they get out of the offices. You may have someone in marketing or recruitment working in an organisation like ours who will never actually go and see a finished job.

“And as career tracks have developed we also need qualifications for surface engineering, for example which is a massive part of our business, diagnostics, technical problem solving, project management. We also need university courses for AV like they have in the US where they fund scholarships, and in Germany.”

Wellington

Since 2005, Harwood has been training the Wellington College field gun crew. “This is a team-building activity connected to the college. The captain of the crew last year was a girl, the first ever. She was amazing and it mirrors the Navy. When you came to the field gun you were a number, and you were all treated the same and lived in the same mess. If you were on the field gun crew, you were on the field gun crew. It was all about how good you were on the track at doing your particular job,” says Harwood.

AV can learn a lot from that philosophy. In fact,  we all can.

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