By Convergent AV
This is an interview with commercial AV industry professional James Maltese. James grew up in the AV industry in the age of slide projectors and custom relay-based control systems with his father Mario Maltese, who owned a company TSI out of New York. At a young age, James teamed up with Mario, along with Lorrie Morrow, who had worked with Mario at TSI, to become a partner at Audio Visual Resources (AVR). (Fun Fact: The Director of Operations at AVR, Scott Sasso, worked at TSI as well).
James tell us about your beginnings in the AV industry.
AV integration as you could figure is in my blood. I would see these huge racks with miles of cables being built in the TSI shop and be awed. I had no idea what they were or what they did, but I knew that my father and his crew had a great time doing this AV thing, whatever it was.
Fast forward a few years to high school, and my father, Lorrie, and Scott all worked at KBI in New Jersey. We lived in Long Island, and it was a brutal commute for them, so they would bring work home as much as they possibly could. Racks would be built in KBI’s Long Island office – my dad’s basement – and they needed an extra pair of hands. So, I would pitch in to cut and label some cables, maybe crimp a video connector or two hundred. I was hanging out with Scott, Lorrie, and my father, and, as usual, we were having a great time with this AV stuff. The racks did get a bit more complicated, however I became more comfortable with signal flow and rack dressing. It was a high school summer gig for some weekend party money.
My dream job though was building the prosthetic arm that Luke Skywalker received in Empire Strikes Back. I was lucky enough to get into MIT and earn a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. I was also lucky enough to get into Stanford to earn a Masters of Science in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on Biomechanics – so Luke Skywalker hand, here I come! I took a year off in between though to earn some college money, and while I could have worked at the local swimming pool, KBI was short an engineer and I did have this fancy new engineering degree. They knew me from building racks in the summers, so for a year, I was engineering AV systems.
After a year, I thought I had had enough of AV. I was off to get my master’s degree and build some robotic prosthetics, however after I graduated, there were no jobs at the robotic prosthetics companies. The only jobs available at the time didn’t appeal to me, and it was at that time my father and Lorrie were also looking for a change. They asked if I would consider starting a company with them. I did some soul-searching, also considering how we always had fun together, as well as the fact that the timing was right. I wasn’t sure I was in love with robotics as much as I was in love with leading a team and solving technical problems, and so on April 25, 2001, Audio Visual Resources, Inc. was established with three partners and three employees.
What were the beginnings like for Audio Visual Resources?
In the beginning, we offered all kinds of services to other AV companies. We would install systems if an integrator was shorthanded. We would help checkout systems for other designers. We would provide service and integration to some smaller clients. We offered it all, and never really focused on one aspect of the industry. We did, however, focus on Quality and bringing quality-mindedness to the AV industry. We always had quality management ideals in place, in terms of applying testing checklists at key milestones in the project to assure that our clients were receiving what they expected. It’s also the only way to turn a profit. So, we were a tiny AV integrator who happened to do things very well because of our quality management system.
The AV industry is a tightly knit group, especially regionally. The people we would subcontract for would move from one company to another, but stay in the industry and stay in touch with their colleagues. One such colleague found himself in charge of a large conference room rollout for a large financial institution, he saw what our quality management system could do for small projects, and wanted to apply those principles to his massive project. AVR was much too small to actually provide the integration work, however, we were asked to propose quality assurance services for that large project. We jumped at the chance, not only to work with this colleague again, but also to test our procuedures on a larger scale.
And 3rd Party AV Commissioning was born.
Up until that point, AVR marketed itself as a general AV service provider. After that successful project, we found our mission. Installation times dropped for this client, service and warranty calls dropped for the vendors we commissioned. Before the 3rd party commissioning, projects would miss the completion date and be turned over to the service department to actually finish the installation. Once in place, systems started to be completed on time and within budget. It went incredibly well.
People who worked on that project with us started to move around to different organizations, and they wanted to use the same processes on their projects in those new companies – 3rd Party AV Commissioning started to become “a thing.” The timing was fortuitous because 3rd Party Construction Commissioning – HVAC, electrical, life safety systems, etc. – also started to pick up steam as well. In 2004, AVR became ISO 9001 certified. ISO 9001 has played a huge role in the success of our company, as well as maintaining our integrity in the industry as commissioning agents.
James, Mario and Lorrie
You have been involved with InfoComm and education in the industry for quite some time, can you tell us about that James?
AVR has always been a big believer in education, and when you want education in the AV industry there is no better place to look than InfoComm. Mario had in fact been a presenter and contributor for some time when AVR started. When InfoComm rolled out its CTS suite of credentials, we jumped in with both feet and I earned my CTS, CTS-D, and CTS-I as quickly as possible. I really enjoyed how InfoComm put classes together, and more importantly, brought the industry together to learn from each other. I believed in their mission wholeheartedly. I was also blown away at how wonderfully everyone at InfoComm treated you, both the staff and volunteers. There was a beautiful atmosphere of sharing information among members to improve the industry, it actually reminded me of MIT in many ways. Here was a group of extraordinarily intelligent people that was trying to improve the way we deliver AV systems to users and I wanted to be a part of that in any way I could.
I submitted a proposal to present a seminar at InfoComm 2003 on improving AV project flow. It was a blast presenting, and I got to know some of the staff a little better. I also started assisting in evaluating the CTS-I and CTS-D exams when there was an interview component to the certification and I enjoyed that. I got to know the InfoComm staff a little better, and I met some incredible CTS-D evaluators. It was a great opportunity to learn how other people spoke about AV, and what verbiage and solutions were used across the world.
A few years later, they asked me to assist Scott Wills (an incredible instructor, and the first staff instructor) with his CTS-D class at InfoComm. It was a tremendous honor. I just took some of the pressure off Scott during the class. At this time, InfoComm Education was growing leaps and bounds, and InfoComm staff instructors were few and far between. As such, the next year they asked me to teach a CTS-D class at InfoComm on my own. It was nerve-wracking. Who was I to teach designers who have had careers longer than I had been alive? I certainly didn’t have their experience, but that’s another great thing about the AV industry. People are hungry to learn. I might not have introduced the material to a lot of these designers, but I was introducing them to an industry-wide, common-language way of describing what we do for a living. It was exciting. I know its cliché at this point, but I certainly took more away from teaching the classes than I gave. I also had a blast doing it.
I continued to teach various CTS-D classes at InfoComm, sometimes on my own, or sometimes with a co-instructor. I certainly prefer to have a co-instructor in the class. It takes some of the pressure off, and I think it is beneficial to the participants. We all have different ways and preferences to learning. My style might fit the bill for some of the class, but not all. Having someone else with a different manner or different way of explaining concepts might better reach everyone in the class.
You’ve received the InfoComm 2017 Educator of the Year Award, can you tell us about what that means to you?
In 2009, I received the Young Educator of the Year Award from InfoComm and I was honored, not only for the recognition, but also to still be considered part of the “young AV crowd.” This year, as you stated, I received the 2017 Educator of the Year from InfoComm and I was completely blown away. It’s been a few weeks since I found out, and I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet.
I am very honored and humbled to be in the same company as the other Educators of the Year, it’s an extraordinary group. InfoComm is an extraordinary organization. We are an extraordinary industry. I look forward to many more years “playing AV” with InfoComm.
Editors note: James will receive the InfoComm 2017 Educator of the Year Award at a ceremony at InfoComm’s Center Stage on June 14th.
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