Name: Shannon Townley
Company: Stewart Filmscreen
Overtime: Being appointed president of a family-owned company, Townley said, means learning to be counselor, travel agent, crazy “Uncle Bill,” the landscaper, and the principal. In other words, every day is different.
SCN: Did you ever feel that you were destined for a career in technology?
Shannon Townley: First we have to acknowledge that “technology” is a broad term. I was the last person to turn in my blackberry and am a card carrying member of the “never owned an Apple” club. Although, after CEDIA this past September, I did learn to tell Alexa to turn my bathroom light on. At this point I feel I’ve reached a pinnacle.
Honestly though, my career revolves around finance and private equity.
I first came to know the technology space in my former role at SurgeX, where I first served as the CFO after a private equity acquisition of the firm. Before I was appointed president at SurgeX, companies were really just a series of debits and credits that ultimately generated an internal rate of return for the shareholders.
As president, I developed deep connections with folks in the AV space and really came to admire the expertise and passion throughout the industry. For the first time, I felt a connection.
So, for me, working in the technology space is really a byproduct of wanting to be connected with a great group of people who really care about making life better for folks who don’t understand technology.
Shannon Townley is pictured here with his family proudly representing their local Pop Warner football team, the Wake Forest Titans.SCN: Early on in your adult life, you spent a few years in the U.S. Air Force. How did that shape your professional goals and trajectory? What kind of lessons from that experience have you carried with you to today?
ST: My initial motivation to join the Air Force was driven more by the need to pay for college than the burning desire to be patriotic. Then, three days into basic training, our drill sergeant told us that Iraq had just invaded Kuwait. At that moment, I would be lying if I said I was thrilled to immediately put the skills I was learning to the test, as they were heavy responsibilities, yet I knew it was a great opportunity. Over the next four years I saw the Middle East, Iceland, South Korea, and many parts of Europe. Had I gone straight to college, I probably wouldn’t be responding to these questions.
In Air Force basic training you are forced to pay incredible attention to detail. In my career, I tend to be a detail-oriented leader. After all, the devil is always in the details. I think I also have a unique understanding that the most stressful business circumstances pale in comparison to the reality of putting one’s own life on the line. I suppose my Air Force experience has helped me to stay level headed when business circumstances are tense.
SCN: Your higher education and early professional experiences were rooted in business and finance. How did that lead you to SurgeX in 2007, and what were your initial impressions of the AV industry?
ST: As I mentioned earlier, the bulk of my career has been focused on small-to-medium family and private equity-backed businesses. And before taking over as president at SurgeX, I was the holding company’s CFO.
Before I got involved in the AV space, I envisioned a group of guys that tripped on acid in the late ’60s, “saw the sound,” and from that moment on, they spent the rest of their lives trying to find that sound again.
But, I met some really great folks when I first entered the AV space, and had some great mentors. Folks like Chris Maione, Mike Solomon, Cory Schaeffer, and others really took time to help me understand the commercial space and how the AV channel operates. As SurgeX branched out into the CEDIA channel, I met more great mentors that went out of their way to help me learn. There were no dumb questions, and I recognized that the industry was tight-knit, yet it was open to people with zeal, people who wanted to first understand before trying to institute change. The people in this space are the real reason I have remained.
SCN: Since you were appointed president of Stewart Filmscreen in June, how are you internalizing the company’s rich history in the audiovisual space with your management strengths, and what kind of a vision for the company has evolved?
ST: It’s always great to walk into a company that has been around for 70 years. I first came to realize how lucky I was when picking the company’s booth space for InfoComm 2017. I’ve always wanted to be part of that secret club whose company names were already posted in the best booth spots when others came to choose.
Seriously though, within the first couple of months, I made it a point to sit with Pat Stewart, Don Stewart, and others who had been working with the company for over 30 years. It is really amazing the mark Stewart Filmscreen has made on the AV space.
What attracted me to Stewart is the rich brand tradition, but also the ability to lead the charge to reinvent and reinvigorate this great industry. Like many long-standing brands in the space, we will have to evolve over the next three to five years. Folks are going to see Stewart Filmscreen embrace rapidly changing technology and deliver new products that complement today’s sophisticated customers. We will also deliver complementary products to the market that others may not seemingly associate with “filmscreens,” but we have to adopt as part of an overall strategy to grow.
SCN: What’s the most surprising/interesting realization you’ve made from serving as chief executive for a family-run company?
ST: What I love about family-run companies is that every day is different. What I sometimes hate about family-run companies is that every day is different! What’s unique versus a large company is the shareholders are visible to the team. When you make business decisions in an effort to maximize shareholder return, you face the music very directly, whether good or bad. And let me just say, I love my boss, but you also have to learn to be counselor, travel agent, crazy “Uncle Bill,” the landscaper, and the principal. In other words, every day is different…
SCN: Stewart’s presence at the CEDIA show in September this year was anchored by a commitment to the next generation, including the inevitable succession of the Stewart family’s young adults, John and Claire. How does this shape your executive strategy?
ST: It’s certainly hard for me to think about a fourth generation of family leadership. Statistically, the first generation starts it, the second generation grows it, the third generation sucks it dry, and the fourth generation doesn’t care. John and Claire Stewart are both very bright young people and may prove to be the exception to the fourth generation of leaders.
Our owner, Mary Stewart, routinely refers to her position as a “placeholder” for Claire and John. Grant Stewart’s impact on the AV world was profound, and Ms. Stewart wants to carry on the legacy of Grant through their wonderful children.
From a strategy perspective, I will devote time to developing Claire and John and helping them learn the business. Both children have spent a couple of summers already making film screens, and they each have unique talents to offer the company. Our strategy moving forward will be flexible… will be nimble. We will prepare as if the fourth generation will arrive someday, but we will be well positioned to adjust if that day never comes.
Lindsey Adler is editor of SCN. Follow her on Twitter @lindseymadler.