National Sales Manager, American DJBy Dan Ferrisi
If you are part of the music products industry, you know about the Los Angeles CA-based ADJ Group, whose premier products, across several brands, have drawn avid customer support (as well as their share of acclaim during Music & Sound Awards season). Starting in 1985 as a supplier of lighting products to mobile entertainers, the ADJ Group has grown into a diversified global enterprise, including companies such as American DJ, Elation Professional Lighting, Acclaim Lighting, American Audio and Global Truss. In this month’s Five Minutes With, we turn to Alfred Gonzales, National Sales Manager, whose unique and insightful perspective illuminates the company for which he works, his own career path, the latest evolutions in the lighting sphere and the general lay of the land in the industry of which we’re all part. Let’s get started….
‘In other companies, the Owners and General Managers might be kind of involved in the business, but they aren’t always involved with the employees. Here, the leadership always puts in 110 percent. That’s what I do with my entire sales team.’
The Music & Sound Retailer: You were raised in a music-oriented family, and you and your brothers had involvement with mobile DJing as you grew up. Can you describe how this transitioned into your career and connected you to American DJ?
Alfred Gonzales: We were doing weddings and parties, and also got into doing different club venues. My dad basically said, “Hey, these guys are actually making money doing this.” It was then that he decided to open a nightclub. That’s when we started really needing to know nightclub lighting…big systems compared to what we had been using. And that’s how my career started. The Owner of American DJ, Chuck Davies, at that time had a retail store called Surplus Merchandise Liquidators. For short, it was dubbed SML, Inc. That was one of the places that we used to rent from. We would always end up going there, but, now that my dad had the nightclub, we were using more technologically fancy gear. I had mentioned, “If you ever have an opening, let me know.”
Well, it so happened that our Product Development Manager, Toby Velazquez, worked for the retail store at that time and actually brought me into the store. So, now, not only did I use the equipment, DJ and learn from the nightclub experience, as far as bigger systems, but I also started working for the retail store in the warehouse. At that time, American DJ was really starting. And I, for example, would go to the airport and pick up lights.
Then, they needed a salesman, so they asked, “Hey, can you do sales part-time?” I said sure. That’s when I started selling equipment. So, I learned not only American DJ equipment, but also other equipment that was popular. After that, when sales seemed to be pretty decent, they shifted me to full-time sales. And, during that whole transition, American DJ was really evolving. We were importing all those fixtures, and Chuck Davies started really looking internally at the lines. He decided to make some lights there at SML/American DJ Group.
The retail store was in the front part, and then the distribution part of American DJ was in the back. One of the first lines, if I recall, was Jewel. We started assembling there. Not only were we selling, but we were also making our own speakers and stuff. We really got to know the business. From there, the business evolved. The retail was doing great, as was the distribution. By that point, American DJ was getting so big that they had to move to a different building. I stayed at the retail store, as opposed to going to the distribution part of where American DJ was. It benefitted me, because I really got to learn to interact with the customers. I got to learn the products inside out. Shortly after, I became the manager of the store. So, I went down all avenues: using equipment, then going to work in the warehouse, then part-time sales, full-time sales and, finally, manager of the retail store.
Because American DJ was growing to be so large, Chuck asked if I wanted to move over from the retail store. I said sure, and that’s when I went to American DJ, where we were preparing to start our audio division. Pretty much from that point with American DJ, I became the go-to guy if there was something new. If somebody said, “Hey, we’re going to get into the accessories business,” I helped with that. Or, when we introduced Elation as an alternative.
The story with that is, we were growing so large that we couldn’t have dealerships too close to each other. We had dealers set up all over, but we’d have Store A five miles from Store B. So, we decided, instead of them battling over the same products, we’d develop Elation Lighting. Chuck Davies’ comparison was Toyota versus Lexus. And that’s where Elation was at that time: It was made with a little bit better quality, and it was a little more money as compared to the American DJ lighting. But that’s how the whole American DJ/Elation split transpired.
As the business continued to grow, we had to get more salespeople. At that time, we really didn’t have somebody traveling the U.S. full-time and visiting the dealers. Chuck and Scott Davies would go out to the bigger cities once in a while. Chuck asked me, “Do you want to travel and go visit our dealers throughout the U.S.?” I said sure. That’s when I became the Product Specialist. I was out there educating the dealers about our products, but also learning from them about how they were using our products. And I learned a lot from traveling with our sales reps. I also got to see the competitive product out in the market…touch it and play with it. I served in that role for a couple of years. To this day, I still do that, but, obviously, my title has changed. Back then, I’d go see dealers that nobody had ever even seen. So, it was something different, where we took initiative. Chuck Davies gave me authority to go out and visit these dealers, see what was going on and see how we can better our business.
That was a big thing, and it helped me learn a lot. It was a big part of my background, and helped me gain knowledge of the industry.
The Retailer: What are your biggest day-to-day responsibilities currently with American DJ?
Gonzales: With all that experience, from retail to traveling to the whole works, I am now the National Sales Manager, and I overlook all the sales: not only in the U.S., but also in Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America. I monitor all sales, so we can find ways to keep our presence out in the market and continue growing, as well as reaching areas we haven’t reached yet. There are inside salespeople who concentrate on specific areas: For example, a gentleman takes care of Canada, another person takes care of Mexico, and there’s coverage of South America and Central America. I work with my sales guys to develop product awareness out in the market, but also to increase our overall business. In addition, I interact with our ADJ Europe office, which is another side of the business that’s growing aggressively throughout Europe. We have our office in The Netherlands, and we communicate regularly. That takes us worldwide, and we want a worldwide presence. We want to be able to create a huge demand for the whole group of companies, from American DJ to Elation to Acclaim to Global Truss to American Audio to Arriba Cases.
So, going back to the question, I oversee sales. I work with purchasing to make sure we have adequate stock so that we can create demand and have product for sale. I also work with product development. They’ll present a product and ask, “Do you think we could sell this product? What if we do this?” That’s one thing with our company: We have a lot of input. Everybody inputs their ideas into whatever product we’re making. So, again, working with product development…that’s an important thing.
In my case, I’m out in the market and I’m going here and there, seeing competitors’ products. Then, I bring back the information, and I’ll say, “Hey, this product does this and this product does that.” Or I’ll say, “Somebody offers this product. We ought to think about making something similar, but in a better-quality way.” We always try to put the best quality in a fixture, but still present it as affordable, whether it’s American DJ or Elation or American Audio.
The Retailer: Are there a lot of team members who actually use American DJ, American Audio and other company products in their private lives?
Gonzales: Yes! We have some really quality guys who play out here all over Los Angeles. They’re playing in the clubs, or they really have a busy schedule with weddings and corporate events and things like that. And, yes, a lot of our employees use our products for these events. They purchase them, they use them and it also helps to promote the products when they use them out there. Talking about that, I still do probably two gigs per month just to stay out in the trenches. When we have new products, I try them out. That way, I can relate it to others, whether I’m educating end users or educating our sales team. I’ll talk about how I used it and the best way to use it: this position or that position…this or that quantity…in combination with this or that product. So, to answer the question, yes, a lot of our employees do use our products. That’s actually where we get a lot of ideas. When they’re using it, they’ll say, “What if we made this product do that?”
That’s one thing about American DJ and Elation. We really are a team, and we really do communicate about products. We share the ideas that are out there in the industry. We really listen to the consumers using our products. We do these ADJ on Tour events—this year, we’re probably up to 25 events—and we’re touching anywhere from 40 to 100 people at a time. We’re educating them on the products, how to use them, etc. And we’re getting feedback from them. They own the product, and they tell us how they use it and they share their ideas and experiences. It’s just great, because we go out there and give them something, and then they’re giving something back to us. And, again, with our team, we really listen. I’ll sit with the R&D guys and share the ideas. They’re the creative ones. We’ll give them ideas and they’ll take them, bring them a step further and come up with award-winning products.
The Retailer: Looking at the American DJ Group as a whole, is there something you would say you’re the proudest of? Does something stand out about American DJ, in terms of making it a strong, viable company that earns a lot of loyalty?
Gonzales: What stands out most is leadership. That starts with the Owner, Chuck Davies, who is still involved in everyday operations. Going back to when I first started working for him, we were out there unloading trucks, and I remember that he would actually be unloading containers with us. He didn’t have to; he had a whole bunch of us who worked there. To me, that becomes a role model, because I see the Owner out there and he’s doing this. It teaches me, sure, I have an important position in the company, but, at the same time, I’m going to set an example, whether it’s setting up for a trade show or anything else.
It all goes back to leadership from Chuck and Scott Davies. Scott is a marketing genius who’s been around the company from the beginning. In my case, I work with Scott regularly, and I’ve learned a lot on the marketing side: everything from the different magazines we advertise in to which products target what customers. And then there’s Toby Velazquez, who is involved in everyday operations here, as well. He’s in charge of the Research & Development team. Again, he’s the one who brought me to this company. These three gentlemen who make up the leadership have always been here, and that’s a key difference.
In other companies, the Owners and General Managers might be kind of involved in the business, but they aren’t always involved with the employees. Here, the leadership always puts in 110 percent. That’s what I do with my entire sales team. At American DJ, we have 11 in-house guys, as well as about 40 outside sales representatives. And I do my best, based on what I’ve learned from management’s leadership, to be a good example.
The Retailer: What philosophy does American DJ, as a family of companies, have when it comes to working with dealers and the dealer channel? Is the dealer channel an essential part of the American DJ business structure?
Gonzales: The dealer channel is most important. We’ve talked about marketing and where it comes from. Well, Scott Davies says, “We’re not successful unless you are.” I believe that 100 percent. If our dealerships are not successful, then neither are we. I’ve traveled to plenty of our dealers throughout the U.S., and the bond that we create with the dealers is different, perhaps, from what might exist with other representatives. The dealers share that with me and with the sales staff. We know it’s important that they be successful. We try to work with them and give them every tool possible. It could be providing product training or marketing materials, or visiting them and conducting in-store seminars, or spending time with them at trade shows or, perhaps, taking them out for a night on the town. It’s about really getting to know them on a personal level. A lot of members of our dealer network become friends. Business is business, but developing that close bond between a dealer and a salesperson is what I really believe takes us to the next level. I travel with all our sales reps and all our in-house sales guys. We go to these stores, and the relationships we have with these dealers is just great. It’s hard to describe. It’s a family.
The Retailer: Is there anything that you, as a manufacturer, could suggest to the dealer channel that would help them to sell American DJ products even better?
Gonzales: Nowadays, I know people are talking about the economy and everything that goes on. And, sometimes, people are hesitant to bring in a large amount of products. And I don’t blame them. You never know what will be going on in the world at any given time. But the biggest thing I would say to our dealers is that it’s very important to stock the product, because it’s an impulse buy. They walk into the dealer if they see the product in there. Additionally, it’s about dealer education regarding our products. That’s why we visit our dealers on a constant basis and train their staff members. But, if they know the product and they stock the product—again, because it’s oftentimes an impulse buy—they’re going to sell it.
The Retailer: What steps has American DJ taken proactively to keep the company as strong as possible during economically tumultuous times?
Gonzales: Going back to the previous question, regarding stocking products, that’s one thing that we’ve always done. We can’t expect dealers to take a chance and stock all our products if we aren’t going to. So, inventory levels are very important, especially nowadays.
Going back to 2008, the products aren’t necessarily the same. The LED transition came in around that time. And, now, with the LED fixtures, it’s really changed the lighting business. It actually, in a sense, helped the economy, because—and, you know, we preached it a long time—with LEDs, you’re getting longer life with LED as the light source. And there’s less heat, so you don’t have to worry about the fans going out as much and products overheating. Not only that, but the amperage draw for power is a lot less. So, you can see that you’re not having to buy as many replacement light bulbs. You’re not having to use as much power.
If you’re a nightclub or you’re a roller rink or a skating rink or a bowling center, your power consumption has probably been cut in half. So, therefore, with this LED transition, it’s actually helped the economic times. But, even more important is what I said about proper inventory levels. We can’t expect our customers to fill their stores with our products if we’re going to hesitate to do so. We always try to have adequate inventory. That way, when a dealer orders, whether on an as-needed basis or just to stock up, we have all the top sellers.
The Retailer: And has the company weathered the economic turmoil fairly well in the last few years?
Gonzales: The way we’ve handled that is, number one, everyone in the company just becomes a little more diversified in their jobs. They multitask. And that’s something that our employees have really accepted…taking additional responsibility. It can be a hard time for some people to find a job, and I think our people recognize that. The Owner is very grateful to them, too. He treats his employees the best that he can, because he wants the best out of his employees. So, I think that’s number one: All of us who work here go the extra mile. We work harder, and we show the dealers that we work harder.
There are a lot of other companies that have reduced their sales staff. There are a lot of other companies that have cut traveling, due to fuel cost. Our guys do get out there on the road and educate our dealers. We work with, and educate, our reps. We educate our sales team. And the rewards are there. You get some satisfaction by, again, going out there and giving 110 percent.
I think, in 2008, people took a lot of things for granted and just did their day-to-day jobs. Nowadays, you have to work a little harder for better results. And that’s what all of us, as a team, do.
The Retailer: What will the future hold for American DJ? What might we expect to see from the company in the next three years…five years?
Gonzales: That’s tough. If you had asked me that question four or five years ago, before this LED transition, no one could’ve ever predicted what was going to happen. That’s the biggest change right there. At this time, LEDs are becoming more affordable. They’re becoming brighter. They’re getting in the range where they can really compete.
I can also say that the transition of where we’re at is, with the Elation line, the video panel business is huge now. And then, in American DJ, it’s effect lighting, wall-wash fixtures, LED moving heads and scanners. It’s kind of difficult to answer your question, but, in a sense, the lighting industry is in a good place. We’re moving forward, and technology is advancing. We’ll have to see what comes our way in the next three to five years.
The Retailer: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Gonzales: One thing about the LED transition is that, for the industry, it has definitely brought life back to lighting. Not that the lighting industry was dying, but it needed a change. And that LED transition did make a change. So, that being said, there are a lot of lighting companies out there, and there’s nothing better than competition. Competition only makes you work harder, and you want to be the best. In the audio world, there’s definitely been a shift. American Audio has taken on the software and media players, which makes a huge difference right there. And that’s another case where you see all these other companies—Pioneer, Numark, Hercules, etc.—all switching from traditional CD players to these media players. So, as regards technology, this is where we have evolved. It’s this next level of products, whether lighting or audio, and it’s just great for the industry. It’s great that there’s something fresh, something new and, I believe, as with LED, that’ll have a long life ahead. That’s the greatest thing I see. Everything has evolved to a new level of technology.