THE STORY SO FAR……..
When I was asked to write the AVC story, at first I considered this was something simply required to add to our website and therefore, just another commitment to add to my already cluttered “Things-to-do-Today” list.
As I think back over the past 30 years, I realise how much has been accomplished and acknowledge not only the successes and challenges, but also that this business which has provided a livelihood for so many people and their families over the years. For this, I consider Audio Visual Centre to be more than just a family business, but one which has and still continues to impact people, communities and other businesses all around South Africa. Wow! Who could have foretold this?
The idea of AVC started two years before we started trading in Durban in January 1987 – I was working for my mentor, someone who taught me how to sell photocopiers and subsequently, 3M Audio Visual products. Funny thing, 3M did not have any audio products in their range and therein did I begin to see opportunities which I was unable to convince Peter were worth pursuing. Further, whilst calling on customers and listening to what they were asking for and, being unable to supply, made me more determined to start my own one-stop Audio and Visual facility where customers could not only source everything they needed for their training and meeting requirements, but where they could use bureau like facilities to make their own transparencies for overhead projection.
To help fund the start-up costs, I began a side-line activity, manufacturing computer training desks for a rapidly expanding computer training industry. So, I would sell by day and cut and weld by night. It is noteworthy to mention that in those days, I did not know there were machines that could cut steel square tubing – so I cut every single leg for over two hundred tables – with a hack saw. Also, I had never welded before; the first dozen or so tables I made, had huge deposits of welding around the joints, but collapsed when were leaned against. I learnt very fast about such things as manufacturer’s warranties – an expensive exercise and one which eroded profits sorely needed to fund the costs which were already mounting to start the company – costs such as lawyers, accountants, designers – all quite unanticipated. After all, I was just a sales person with a dream that was not underpinned by the reality of what starting a business was all about.
There was one particular customer who I later learned was a retired CEO of a large national furniture company, who encouraged me and endorsed my belief in myself to pursue this dream. Two months before I was going to start the new company, my employer got wind of my plans and I was fired. With a wife and two children and a business that was already spending money it had not earned, I was propelled into an activity of negotiating with suppliers and pre-selling and somehow we got through to opening day.
Trying to find a bank that would open an account for the new business was also a nightmare. I had no banking track record, no business plan and no operating capital (what was that… I did not even know about that! I did not complete high school and had a very low maths result in Standard 9) One bank manager who we knew personally even told me that to continue on the path I had started, was tantamount to committing financial suicide. But nothing could deter me, it was like falling in love… I was not being rational – just very passionate about realising my dream. Bank of Athens came my rescue – Ευχαριστώ – Thank you.
And we were on our way – first month turnover – R8902.98 + 12% GST = R9761.34
We had a novel way of promoting the company and getting new customers on board. We offered free seminars on How to run effective meetings using the technology of the day… Overhead Projectors. These seminars were conducted at the customer’s premises – no one said no to us and this is how we got access to top companies all around the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal. With CEO’s and other decision makers present, we demonstrated our products and promoted the centre, sold consumables and often, sold equipment to the larger companies who wanted their own in-house transparency making facility. Personally, I had been upskilling myself as a public speaker with Toastmasters International and was able to apply those skills and gain credibility with business leaders, earning their respect and referrals.
The business grew…
After five months, Audio Visual Centre cc. had become quite viable and it was evident I could no longer do this on my own. My brother Michael joined me as an equal shareholder and together we grew in turnover, staff, expertise, client base and premises. Our growth was so rapid that we soon found ourselves in an over-trade situation and in October in our first year we sold 33% of our business to Mirrodex, our biggest supplier (and creditor). Mirrodex was a long established projection screen and whiteboard manufacturer. Having access to large quantities of stock on hand at better pricing than before, increased our profitability and marketing reach; we were now no longer the new kids on the block, up against national companies such as ETA and Selected Audio Visual – big companies of the day but which unfortunately have not stood the test of time. Audio Visual Centre was making waves, challenging the older and more staid competitors with a fresh, vibrant, creative and very enthusiastic way of doing business.
Although the company continued to grow, the relationship between the shareholders was becoming increasingly awkward with differences in vision, methods and alliances between each other. It was therefore resolved in a meeting 30 November 1989, just short of three years since the inception of the company – to part ways.
I acquired control of the company again and in a very unusual settlement agreement we agreed that Mike – together with Mirrodex would take one half of our premises and I would keep the other half. Mirrodex Natal (Pty) Ltd was established and became both supplier and competitor to AVC, right next door. This, admittedly was an awkward time for us all and was quite confusing for some of our clients. Nevertheless, we made it work.
It was always a concern for me that when customers wanted variations in size or colour of trollies and stands made by Mirrodex, they were unwilling to oblige. This motivated me to modify products ourselves and ultimately start manufacturing our own range of AV furniture at home in our single garage after hours – there was always the proviso that the garage was to be cleaned and my wife’s car parked safely before going to bed.
In 1990 we opened our factory in Pinetown and began manufacturing cupboards, furniture, trolleys and anything that would make us distinct and grow the business.
We were running out of space with the increased product range and sixteen staff members and made the move to a large shopfront store in Gardiner Street, Durban. Our son Warren joined the team in 1991 and we added a technical element to our offering. By now, technology had moved along and the very first LCD display tablets which were projected through the overhead projector came onto the market. To demonstrate these products to our customers, we used to pack up an office computer and CRT monitor (there were no laptops in those days) and lug them to the customer’s offices, usually taking up to an hour at a time to set them up and show a single colour, dim image on a screen in a semi-darkened room. We grew long arms but we stayed abreast of the technological developments and stayed relevant to our customers marketing and training needs.
Financial administration was always our Achilles’ heel. We could sell but keeping an eye on the money-ball was always a challenge. We advertised for an accountant to join our team and 1 October 1993 we sold a 24% stake of our business to a suitably qualified individual from a corporate background. Unfortunately, our hand-to-mouth type of existence, shortage of operating capital and stressful style of doing business, did not suit his modis operandi and 30 days later he resigned – must be a record for the shortest shareholding of all time!
By 1994, the political landscape and economy had slowed to such an extent that by April, our expenses exceeded our turnover and we reached rock bottom. We were close to closing down, it was a truly desperate time and we did everything we could to save our name, and telephone number. Staff were moved on to other employment and we were grateful that no one became unemployed because of our situation. So with just Warren, myself, our receptionist at the time, and a handful of staff in the factory, we slowly clawed our way back to financial sustainability. Thankfully, we had understanding and patient creditors at the time and there was no such thing as “Stop Supply” at the time – AVC survived the storm.
Not being one to stay down for long, in 1996 we moved our showroom and factory into the vacated premises of Highway Mail in Pinetown where we remained for the next eight years. This was a very proud moment for us. We had re-branded our company and held a huge cocktail party for our customers and invited the mayor of Pinetown to celebrate our 10th anniversary which was featured in the following week’s Highway Mail newspaper.
Audio Visual Centre grew again and with my wife Francis re-joining the team, we created a solid footing that would see the company launch in a new vision and direction. By 2000, we had opened a branch office in Johannesburg and Warren & his (now) wife Yolanda moved to start up the market penetration of a whole new and daunting part of our country. They did a sterling job and from the first month – the Johannesburg branch out-performed us in Durban – we now referred to ourselves as “Head Office”.
In October 2004, I went up to Johannesburg to assist with a really large contract Warren had secured with University of Johannesburg “UJ” – an institution we still work closely with some 12 years later. After 7 months of travelling by car from Durban to Johannesburg and back again on the weekends, we made the decision to relocate and my wife Francis and I came to live in the city of Gold – Gauteng in July 2005.
AVC continued to grow and as the all the administration of the company was now being processed in Johannesburg, we made Johannesburg the Head Office, keeping our Durban branch to support our loyal customers and our staff. We were by now securing national deals and in the same year, we opened our Cape Town branch, followed recently by Pretoria. Our footprint was now firmly established and as recognition of our size and competency to take on large projects took hold, we began to extend our activities into Africa.
Six years ago, we were joined by Joseph Milan and Kevin Gelman who both became shareholders, taking on the roles of Operational and Sales Directors respectively. Together with Warren as Technical Director – who had also become a shareholder some time back, and myself – Audio Visual Centre became a significant importer and distributor of a wide range of Audio Visual products sourced from Europe, USA and China – necessitating frequent visits by all of us to build up those relationships.
Early 2015, Joseph and I started Alpha Distribution Technologies, a company which would be the distributor of the products previously imported by AVC, leaving Warren and Kevin to concentrate on end-user business. The ideals of this separation were sound, but in practice, I was still too involved with extricating myself from AVC as there was much to do after 30 years. In November 2016, agreement was reached that I would move back to AVC and Joseph will continue on his own with distribution.
All in all, it has been an eventful and exciting journey, one which is well in the hands of a successive generation that is well equipped with more enthusiasm, experience and drive to take Audio Visual Centre (Pty) Ltd together with the over 70 members of dedicated staff around the country – to new heights and new successes. South Africa is an exciting country to live in and we look forward to creating the preferred future for us all.
Ivan is AVC’s Founder and Managing Director and has worked in the Audio Visual Industry for over 30 years.