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Electronic Equilibrium

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GERMANTOWN, VA--Visual Aids Electronics has been around since 1968, but its business is quite different since its inception. Since changing hands several times throughout the years, the company is stronger than ever, flexing its expertise in the hotel market as well as the convention industry.

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VAE provided support for the ACPA/ NASPA Joint Meeting last month.
Jack Cassell started with VAE in 1977 as a rental driver before making his way up the corporate ladder. At that time there were only 20 employees with three offices. After awhile, Cassell went into systems sales for the company, and then he moved up to assistant manager for the Mayflower Hotel. In 1979, he helped open VAE's second branch office in Williamsburg, VA. Then in 1981 Cassell became regional director for the company, based on his role in opening new offices for VAE. In 1983, he was asked to become executive VP, and by that time the company had 25 offices. A couple years later, Cassell became president of the company, just before the shareholder battle that would eventually make him 100 percent owner. The company would have to scale back its business though, based on the departure of its former chairman whom took business with him.

Back down to seven offices, VAE had to work its way back up from where it started. The company grew slowly for several years, with the business focusing on in-house AV at hotels. At one point it opened a systems sales business that had lackluster results, so the focus was changed to in-house AV and rentals. In 1990, VAE started its convention department to service clients on the road. This helped the company grow quickly. From 1997 to the present, VAE has opened 43 new offices around the country and in Canada.

As technology has changed, so have all the companies that embrace it. VAE was no stranger to modification, so it has been careful when making investments. Cassell explains, "No longer are people asking for our 16mm projectors. So we've had to invest carefully as technology changes, because I've seen some companies buy big Jumbotrons and a lot of other technologies that didn't last. We have learned to make our purchases carefully and we have a department that evaluates equipment before it's purchased, headed by Mike Barr and Charlie Hood. It helps us keep up on the technology and get the best deals possible on gear."

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Taken from last year's Product Life Management meeting that VAE staged. They are servicing their annual meeting this year as well.

Keeping a balance between VAE's interests has been one of Cassell's main focuses throughout the years. Cassell said, "We've tried to keep it a nice mix of business between the rental and staging and the hotel departments because hotels have a tendency to change their AV provider pretty often. We've made sure not to invest too much on either side. We don't like to leverage our interests on a single hotel chain either. I think we've done a pretty good job making sure the balance of our business is sound. But we'll be doing more and more convention business now, because, percentage-wise, we don't do as much business there as we do in our hotels."

To keep this balance, Cassell has been quite frugal with the company's expenses. From new gear to new offices, nothing is purchased without much thought. Cassell recalled, "Our philosophy for the business is to grow only as much as we can afford to grow. We have no bank loans, we simply do it all with cash alone. We've run a tight ship over the last 15 years, so we don't open anything unless we can afford it. We don't buy big rigs unless we can pay cash. I feel like if we don't do that then we jeopardize the company and our employees."

Recently VAE has made a push toward more in-house business at luxury hotels. Cassell explained, "The last few years we've had a nice growth in the luxury high end hotels because that's been one of our focuses. All the hotels we've grown into in the last five years have been higher end hotels because their clients can afford our services more. Usually the hotels that aren't luxury hotels have clients that can't afford the gear and set designs."

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VAE used three screens for the American Gem Society annual meeting held in Denver, CO.
When purchasing gear, VAE refers to its team that researches new technologies, as well as the previous year's cross rentals. Cassell said, "One of our biggest barometers is the cross rentals we incur in the previous season. If we incur a large amount on a certain technology we invest in that. No one can have all the gear to do every job, but we use that as a indicator. Our guys in the department that reviews the gear keep us on top of the latest changes, especially in video and computer technology. Five percent of our yearly revenue is for cross rentals. Since the technology changes so quickly we expect to have that percentage and adjust to it."

A common challenge that VAE faces is holding onto quality employees. Cassell has been facing this since he took over the company, and it's gotten no easier. "One of the biggest challenges is retaining employees. When the job market is strong from the employees' side it's harder to keep them. But we make sure to provide a friendly environment. We spend a lot of money in HR to make sure we're doing the right things to keep people and to provide opportunities for the employees to grow. One of the ways is for the company to be growing, so there are opportunities around the country for the people to move into higher positions. One of our philosophies in keeping people happy is providing continuous opportunities for them, and I think we're ahead of the game on that. We've set high standards for ourselves and the company, and the employees have responded to that." For more information visit www.vaecorp.com


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