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Mike Schoen: How Harman came out of the pandemic stronger than ever

Mike Schoen, Senior Director, Audio Sales, Harman Professional, North America explains how Harman embraces change, and how the manufacturer came out of the pandemic stronger than ever before.

You have an interesting work history because you’ve worked your way into the audio business from a non-pro audio background. Can you share a little bit about your professional background and how you ended up at Harman Pro?

I have had a different path, and my career has spanned over three decades. It's been in the last 14 years since I've been at Harman that I've been in the pro audio space. The way I got here was by developing and collecting a set of key transferable skills along the way. I did get my career started at Walmart. I spent two years there as an internal auditor.

Then for the remaining eight years of my 10-year career at Walmart, I was a buyer in the consumer electronics space. That was such an exciting, unique opportunity and Walmart's growth during that period was so significant, it was like being strapped to the side of a rocket. I got to be involved in things that I would have never been involved in had I been with another company. In that role, I got an education on how to be comfortable being uncomfortable, or how to be fearless in new situations.

Then from there, I went to a company called Home Base where I was the director of inventory management and learned how to forecast and increase inventory for a chain of home improvement stores. From there, I went to a company called AKAI USA as the Vice President of Sales for North America.

AKAI USA manufactured and marketed flat screen TVs under the AKAI USA brand. In that role, I was able to add to my skill set to create strategy and lead a large national sales team. The combination of all those skills –– were attributes that Harman was looking for in a sales leader. That's how I got my role. I think that those types of skills, regardless of what industry you’re in, would probably make someone very qualified to be in a sales leadership role.

You’ve seen the audio industry from several different perspectives and have experienced numerous different business objectives through your career. What’s the one thing you would say has been consistent among all the changes you’ve seen over the years in the industry?

Two things I've noticed in my career have been constant and have not changed: One is the need to embrace change, and the other is the need to know how to solve problems. Harman is not afraid of change – we actually embrace it and use it to grow our business. People change roles at Harman in organizational structure changes, and on the product side, we're always changing and innovating with new products. 

Change is usually in response to market trends, or competitive landscape, or how to better serve the customer with regard to solving problems, which is another constant that I've noticed which is a necessity in my career, regardless of the technology shifts that have occurred and regardless of what the competitive landscape looks like.

Despite catastrophic external events such as the covid pandemic, what I've noticed is if you're good at solving problems, you'll probably survive, and if you're great at solving problems, you're going to win. It also relates to how you work with customers. The need to build a sales approach is built around solving problems, which we also call ‘solution selling’. It's been my experience that people that sell solutions – versus products – and focus on solving the customer’s pain points, tend to be the most successful.

Harman is not afraid of change – we actually embrace it and use it to grow our business.

The pro audio industry has become very competitive, and many brands are having to make some significant cultural and product design shifts to meet the demands of the market. How has Harman responded and what would you say differentiates the company’s approach?

Over the past five years, we've made two significant cultural and strategic shifts which I believe differentiates our approach. One is that we've accelerated the number of product demos that we do for our customers. We have this beautiful 15,000 square foot experience center on the Harman Northridge campus that I work at, and it has a nice cross section of all our technologies inside and the ability to demo them. We use that to achieve more customer focus, do better quality audio demos, and get much more productive things done with customers there versus what we can do at a traditional tradeshow.

How is Harman’s strategy to increase demos in the field driven by the Performance Audio Roadshow featuring the A-series and the SRX900, and the Install Roadshow featuring Control Contractor products in the Sprinter van?

We've taken out a large truck over the last two years and hit 15 or so cities every year with a demo event of our high-performance line array loudspeakers such as the VTX A-Series and the SRX900 series. We've done this at iconic spaces such as the Beacon Theatre in New York, the Kennedy Center at Washington DC, and even the Grand Ole Opry.

Most recently we've developed this rigging structure which allows us to hang, display and demo a nice selection of our most bread-and-butter commercial loudspeakers – the ones that are commonly applicable over a wide range of different install applications. 

This whole thing breaks down and fits into the back of a Sprinter van. So, we now have the ability to set this up, quickly execute it, break it down, put it in the Sprinter van and move down the road to the next event. It has given us the ability to scale this demo experience for our market.

The SRX900 is the only product that has had such massive success across retail, install and tour.

What are Harman’s future plans for the roadshows?

We've actually set a goal next year to do about 100 of these, so that that would be the first big cultural and strategic shift we made. The second would be the way we've developed and leveraged a distribution strategy. We did that in order to improve the value proposition to our customers. 

Over the past few years, we've narrowed down the partnerships that we have with distributors to just four strategic distribution partners. We developed programs with these four distributors which are highly competitive and highly similar to any of the programs we offer for customers who buy from home and direct. 

By doing this, we level-set the ways that you can purchase products, and this allows our customers to choose the way to transact with us that works best for them. Also, having these distribution partners allows us to keep more inventory in the market. With so many distribution points that these partners have, it allows our customers to shorten their lead time.

Speaking of the pandemic, Harman Pro was very busy during this period from an engineering perspective. During a time when most companies were pulling back, Harman was investing in the future by developing a lot of new products, but there were a few that were really game changers. Which do you feel have had the biggest impact across the brands and other developments in areas of Harman's business?

Most people were pulling back during the pandemic and most manufacturers were in survival mode. In some ways, particularly from a cost management standpoint, Harman was too, but we have a significant competitive advantage in that we're part of Samsung. Through Samsung's investment and support, we were very busy during the pandemic.

In that category of products, we refreshed our entire EON series. We now have the new EON700 Series with a 10-inch, a 12-inch and a 15-inch box. We also have a new EON ONE MK2, which is a battery powered column speaker. Additionally, during the three years of covid, we launched the PRX ONE, which is another portable column speaker, but it has a seven channel mixer and a much richer suite of DSP, so it's built for much bigger jobs than the EON ONE MK2.

We also launched a new series called the IRX Series, which has an eight inch and 12 inch point-and-shoot speaker. These products are packed with features and performance that we've never been able to offer before at these price points. We also replaced our PRX 800 series with the PRX 900 series, and those products provide a more powerful type of audio performance that are suitable for larger rooms or corporate applications, and even some install applications.

What makes the SRX900 series unique and how it has managed a first for Harman in terms of it being extremely successful across all three market segments: retail, install and tour?

Probably the most unique and successful product launch that we had during the period of covid was the SRX900 series. This product launch has been so successful and so unique. In my 14 years at Harman this is the only product I've ever seen that has had such mass appeal and massive success across all three segments that we serve, which are retail, install and tour.

It's a dual six-and-a-half-inch line array product and a dual 10-inch product as well as two 18-inch subwoofers. The product is self-powered, which means that the amplifier is built inside. It's affordable and scalable, which means our customers can start small and then build the system to whatever level that their needs require. It's made for small and medium size, sound reinforcement applications. 

It's perfect for musicians who want a higher level of performance and portability. It's great for fixed installations at smaller venues and houses of worship. It's even applicable for rental companies who rent gear to customers for corporate events or music festivals. There was a lot of product development involved and we were very busy; it's certainly paying dividends for us now.

Woodstock would not have happened without JBL.

Harman Pro has a very diversified portfolio, with legendary brands like JBL, AKG and Crown that represent significant innovation in the pro audio industry. What would you say are a few personal highlights across the brands?

I love this question, because I'm so proud to work at Harman and there's so many things that I ought to pick. I'll start with this: when you walk into the experience center, the first thing you see are three Grammys. 

We are the only manufacturer (to my knowledge) that has won three Grammys. Back in 2005, JBL won a Grammy for what was called ‘lasting contribution to culture around the world’ and that's because Woodstock would not have happened without JBL. It's always been present at the Olympics, many of the presidential inaugurations, the Academy Awards, the Grammy Awards, and we've even been the sound reinforcement house that's been used in 19 of the last 20 Super Bowl halftime shows.

Then in 2010, we got a Grammy for AKG, which is our brand of headphones and microphones. That Grammy was for the contributions that AKG has made to the recording industry. AKG was present at that famous Beatles show at Shea Stadium, as well as in many of the Abbey Road studio recordings that The Beatles did. 

If you look at the Quincy Jones We Are The World video with all of those artists, almost everyone in the room, including Quincy, is wearing the iconic AKG K240 headphones. Our AKG mics have been used by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Garth Brooks.

Then we got our third Grammy in 2014 with the Lexicon brand, for what the Recording Academy called the ‘magical sounds of Lexicon equipment’. Lexicon is a brand that we use on a variety of effects processors, and these processors create modulation or delay. 

Most famously Lexicon creates an effect called reverb and it's actually a widespread belief that almost 80% of all music that you hear was recorded using one of those Lexicon effects. So those are three incredible things that I'm proud of as far as our brands and our culture and heritage.

We are the only manufacturer (to my knowledge) that has won three Grammys.

Harman is involved in a diverse range of install scenarios. Tell us about Harman's market share and dominance in professional sports and how you’re forging strategic partnerships with arena operators to showcase your installations for consultants and integrators.

We have a massive market share dominance in professional sports, namely NFL football, NBA, basketball, and NHL hockey, and what we've done to protect and sustain this market share dominance is we've forged strategic partnerships with some of the key stadium and arena operators. What this has done is given us unprecedented access to these venues so that we can showcase and demo the Harman gear that's installed there. 

That allows us to take consultants and integrators into these venues when there's not a game going on and do a private tech tour and demo the parks for them. Many times we'll bring these customers back and put them in some premium or VIP seating and let them watch a basketball, hockey or football game while they're listening to the loudspeakers perform in a live environment with thousands of screaming fans, so that's something that I'm really proud of as well.

What advice do you have for the industry and for up-and-coming professionals looking to break into the industry?

My only advice for the industry is: look out, here we come! We love our competitors and our competitors make us better. As tough as the pandemic has been, our company is in such a great place. I believe Harman is the best version of itself that I've seen in the last 14 years. I've never been more excited about Harman and the direction we're headed, as well as my own personal career.

My advice to individuals looking to break into this industry is: audio expertise is absolutely critical. At the end of the day, we're a technical company selling technical products to technical people. You can't minimize the importance of having subject matter expertise when it comes to audio.

Also, don't forget about the people side of it. I got into this space with no pro audio experience, but I was fortunate enough to pick up some experiences throughout my career where I learned how to lead and develop people; I learned how to create strategy, communicate it, get the best out of people and be able to get people to execute on a plan.