Professional Systems Network International
As a longstanding volunteer with various industry associations, Chris Miller challenges everyone to try to “out-give.” With so many places to serve, “you have to make yourself available and possibly wait for the right timing. There is always time to serve. You just have to allocate your time and priorities to do it.”
[Related Blog: Lessons PSNI's Chris Miller Learned and a Career Milestone]
SCN: When did you know you were destined for a career in technology?
Christopher Miller: I honestly don’t remember. I’m guessing in my mid-twenties. It was an unplanned and circuitous route that landed me in this spot.
SCN: You earned a degree in telecommunications. Where did you envision that leading you?
CM: Plan A—a career working for a broadcast network. Once given the opportunity, I decided that it would not be conducive to family life, so I had to go get a real job! Plan B—selling the stuff that was used by the networks.
SCN: How did your early professional experience lead you to the chief executive role of Fairview-AFX?
CM: I worked during and after college in television production and broadcast where I had the opportunity to produce, direct, and provide camerawork for a variety of programs, commercials, sporting events, and primetime televisions shows. Those opportunities and contacts led me to co-own the largest production and post-production studio business in Oklahoma in 1980. My first mentor and business partner taught me how to manage a business, work with employees, contractors, and talent. I knew that working for myself was my destiny, partly because I didn't like to follow instructions from others. That sure changed.
We eventually sold the production business, and it started the next chapter in my life. I had negotiated and bought a lot of television equipment over the years and got to know people on that side of the business. Thinking it might be less hours and travel, I decided to give it a try. It also allowed me to stay indirectly involved in the production side of the business. A few years later, with my co-worker and eventual business partner, Tom Roberts, we ventured out by starting our own company—AFX Broadcast. We bought Fairview Audio Visual and merged them forming Fairview-AFX.
We developed and refined our own custom furniture, racks, bundled production system solutions, and computerized cable labeling and CAD systems on early Apple Macintosh computers. These were things that were leading edge at the time in system design and installation. It was during that time that we were invited to be part of the early formation of PSNI. Our association with PSNI and the mentorship and friendships we made during that time were instrumental in growing our business and eventually preparing it to sell.
SCN: How did being acquired by a major publicly traded integration firm, MCSi, shape your management style? How was the industry different before and after?
CM: From a management perspective, we went from organized growth and strategy at Fairview-AFX, to unorganized rapid growth, a lack of cohesive vision, multiple corporate acquisitions, and overlapping office mergers within the same cities. We quickly learned that there is a fundamental difference in how you operate, budget, and plan for growth in a private company versus a “what have you done for me this quarter” attitude of our public company.
Our regional business went from having four offices and under 100 employees to a super-region of over 14 mismatched offices and approximately 300 employees within the first six months—all on different accounting systems, unique legacy marketing strategies and compensation plans, selling different products, and office and personality-specific installation processes and procedures. It was a real challenge to lead and manage. The majority of our time was spent in people management.
The industry was also going through a tumultuous change moving away from the traditional transaction business model. Margins were starting to decline and those legacy-acquired companies that had not prepared to move to an integration model were starting to feel the effects of the internet pricing model. It was also hurting the bottom line of the company. However, none of that compared to managing a business after September 11 2001.
SCN: How did you come to transition in 2003 from long-time integrator to your current position as PSNI executive director? What were some of your goals for the organization?
CM: We (Tom and I) completed our contract with MCSi in mid-2003, and after taking a short break, we were both ready to take on a new challenge. Once this business is in your blood, you are stuck with it. We considered buying back our old company.
I was approached at InfoComm about working with PSNI. We attributed a lot of our success in business to the relationships and business principals we learned as part of the PSNI network, so the thought of working on a temporary basis to expand and grow the network seemed appealing. The initial agreement was for one year—just to get the network turned around. The rest is history.
We now have been a part of PSNI in some form or another for 26 of the 30 years of its existence. Our goal in 2004 was to achieve more geographical coverage for service and support to national clients by seeking out the best integrators in the business that had a vision to understand the industry and where it was going. Once those pieces started coming together, the rest took care of itself. Bringing visionary companies and leaders together inspired new ideas and programs that with the help of our vendor partners began to develop for our affiliates. Today, PSNI is a group of thought-leaders and change agents that are a strong force in the industry with combined revenue of nearly $1B with programs, research, and initiatives that are focused solely on our stakeholders. We are only the interim caretakers of this incredible group of visionaries and business leaders.
SCN: Your career is peppered with long-term leadership roles at a select few integration firms. What are some of the lessons gained from leading so few companies for such lengthy durations?
CM: I suspect that the only reason I had leadership roles in the beginning was because I worked for myself!
What I learned was that timing is everything in business. Persistence and patience are important to longevity. It’s easy to get caught up in technology—especially when you are a sales person at heart—and not focus on good business principals. Not all ideas are good, but you must surround yourself with people that when you have the vision of 100 ideas that they can help identify the one idea that is worth pursuing. This business is tough. You can’t recover from making many mistakes in this business. The margins are not there to support it. It’s often a grind, but all-in-all, it’s an industry that is very rewarding and fun. The culmination of start-ups, mergers, and acquisitions—serving in a lot of capacities—from sales to project management and systems design, helped prepare me to serve our PSNI integrators today.
SCN: Over the years, you’ve actively volunteered with various industry associations. What are your top reasons for encouraging others to participate in these roles?
CM: Everyone should be engaged in volunteer activities just to pay it forward. You can’t “out-give” what you will receive as a volunteer—whether it is in this industry, your passion or hobby, or your community. I challenge you to try to “out-give”! There are many places to serve, but you have to make yourself available and possibly wait for the right timing. There is always time to serve. You just have to allocate your time and priorities to do it.
SCN: What do you see the future role of AV systems integrators being?
CM: For those who continue to evolve with technology and not lose sight of the real purpose why people want to use technology, there will be a purpose and place. We are unique in that we bring together the high touch and sterility of technology integration while also understanding the importance of content and media that ultimately influences opinion, changes lives, and produces results and ROI for our clients.
SCN: What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the following terms:
Convergence …organized chaos
Collaboration …the agent of change
Succession Planning …..procrastination
Millennials …our future!