Imagine being the founder of the firm that has been number one on SCN’s Top 50 list for the last 13 years. You’re now looking at life through the eyes of Martin “Marty” Schaffel.
Six months out of college, Schaffel started as a sales rep for 3M Visual Products working for Linear Business Products. After being chastised for a messy desk, Schaffel parted ways with the company and went to work for a competitor. The firm didn’t have anyone selling AV and Schaffel thought “Well, I can do that.”
After a year with the company, Schaffel was introduced to a Kroy lettering machine. Schaffel ended up cutting out the middle man and working directly with Kroy—and Audio Visual Innovations (AVI) was born. With $2,000 in his pocket, he was told he needed $10,000 for a starting order, and asked for cash on delivery (C.O.D.) terms. “All I had to my name was $2,000, a $400-a-month-apartment, a beat-up station wagon that was paid for, and a dog,” recalled Schaffel.
Schaffel wrote a check he couldn’t cash, but sold the first 10 machines he received in 48 hours and made his check good—not a practice he recommends for the current day as “money moves a lot faster.” After a year, AVI became one of Kroy’s biggest resellers and expanded his business into movie projectors, slide projectors, overhead projectors, and video equipment.
“In 1988, I saw the first LCD panel and was so impressed by it that I changed our whole focus and direction to display technology,” Schaffel said. “There’s no looking back after that—we became the biggest in the world after a while.”
“We grew every year. There was never a year we didn’t grow, which I thought was really fantastic,” he continued. “The lesson I learned is that you have to reinvent yourself every few years. The business has to reinvent itself and the leader has to reinvent itself.”
As AVI grew, so did Schaffel’s role and responsibilities. Schaffel—ever a salesman at heart—went from selling products to customers to “selling a vision of opportunity and success to my employees.” He views that transition as the first of many reinventions of leadership and company.
In 2008, Schaffel made the decision to sell 80 percent of the stock in his company and AVI merged with Signal Perfection Ltd. (SPL), taking on its current name of AVI-SPL. “This merger enables AVI and SPL to build on their respective track records by creating a new company with a national and global presence while offering our customers a wide range of services that are consistent and compatible across geographies and throughout an enterprise,” Schaffel said at the time.
Schaffel had three goals for AVI. The first was to be the first integration firm to hit $1 billion. While he didn’t reach that goal while at the firm, he still believes AVI-SPL will achieve that goal. “I want to see the company do it and I want them to be the first one to do it,” he said.
His second goal was to achieve “the first organically grown national and international footprint, and become the biggest in the industry,” a goal he says he accomplished.
Schaffel’s final goal was reaching what he has coined “management nirvana.” “This was the greatest place I got to in my career: nobody was allowed to report to me who needed to be managed. If you needed to be managed, you needed to report to somebody else or you needed to go work somewhere else. It took me about 25 years. I wanted to be able to go into the office, sit around a table, and agree on a vision, strategy, and direction. When we all got up, I knew everybody knew what they were responsible for and that they would do it without fail and I didn’t have to worry about whether people did what they were supposed to.”
In 2017, Schaffel sold his remaining stock in AVI-SPL and retired from the company. He joined the faculty at his alma mater, University of Florida, where he teaches entrepreneurship, leadership, and ethics. In “retirement,” Schaffel misses mentoring his employees and helping them be successful. “In order to fill that voice, I drive to Gainesville—two hours each way, every week—to help young students find their way and be successful.”
READ MORE: SCN Hall of Fame 2019