Dealerscope 2018 Hall of Fame Inductee: Frank Sterns
Despite a storied career of positions held, legends met, and products launched, the tale of how industry veteran Frank Sterns became interested in the home theater business is one that he simply calls, “kind of interesting.”
Huffing and puffing, a 13-year-old Sterns rides his bicycle from orchestra class to his favorite place in the world - the Infinity speaker store. Even at a young age, something was enchanting about seeing the delicately curated world of audio that Arnie Nudell and Cary Christie had created.
“I became something of an Infinity groupie,” Sterns said.
At this point in time, Sterns and a few of his friends from orchestra were listening to high-end hi-fi regularly. He was a self-proclaimed audiophile, maybe one of the first to hold the title. Naturally, he applied to the Infinity factory to work on the production line over the summer.
He didn’t get the job.
Fast forward a few more years, and Sterns finds himself punching through college majors such as Journalism and Engineering, hoping something would stick. Eventually, he landed on Marketing, gravitating back to audio products.
His first job out of college came as a result of going to CES and handing out his résumé to everyone on the high-end audio floor. David Hafler would be the one to call Sterns back, eventually placing him in the position of General Manager at his other business in Florida, Acoustat.
“And then I got homesick,” Sterns said. With a re-worked résumé, he finally got his dream job through a mutual friend.
“They connected me with Arnie (Nudell), and I got hired to be the high-end sales manager for Infinity, which is a job I’d wanted since I was 13 or 14,” Sterns said. “I moved back to California, took the job at Infinity, became the national sales manager, and grew the business, and we became founding members of CEDIA in the late ’80s.”
“And,” Sterns added, “I could see where this trend was going.”
Greater Than the Sum of its Parts
At the time Sterns had his dream job, there were too many cogs in motion for him to stay put. Denon had just invented a five-channel receiver, the custom install era was on the eve of its invention, and Ivan Zuckerman was looking for a vice president of sales at Niles. Sterns took the job, eventually becoming the president of the once-mom-and-pop shop that helped shape the custom installation business into the booming enterprise it is today.
It’s evident that Sterns has not only seen an industry come to life before his eyes but for the most part, he was helping to set the pieces in motion. Sterns has seen the development of CDs and MP3s, the advent of in-wall speakers, the launch of the first two-piece projection TV set - and he was even involved with the early blueprints for a home theater automation system at Niles.
However, none of that is significant compared to the friendships he has made along the way. The list of legends that Sterns was able to work with has made him not only grateful for the wisdom they passed along to him but also humbled to have known the trailblazers in a business he holds so dearly.
“I got to work for someone like Dave Hafler who is a legend,” Sterns said. “He’s one of the early pioneers; one of the original guys along with Marantz, Fisher, and Harman. He hired me right out of high school, and that’s definitely a milestone.”
But for Sterns, it isn’t just any one person who has left a lasting impression.
“I didn’t know Sidney Harman well because I didn’t work directly for him, but he was a brilliant man and created much of the way that the modern consumer electronics industry does business,” Sterns said. “Ivan (Zuckerman) is another that I admire, maybe more now that I don’t work for him. He did an amazing job visualizing an industry that was going to change and picking really good people. I’m not even talking about me, but the team that he put together was first-class. He let us run with this thing and recreate things, and he created an amazing, achievement-oriented family culture.”
The list continues as Sterns mentions personal friends and mentors that have shaped who he is. He reflects on the moments that taught him to stay humble and moments that showed him “it was a marathon, not a sprint.
“It’s pretty simple,” Sterns explained. “Number One is expect excellence. Number Two is surround myself with people that are high achievers, value excellence, high integrity. Number Three is make sure to recognize and reward achievement. That’s that’s my basic style and it’s worked well for me. It hasn’t always put me ahead of the pack all the time and maybe it’s not necessarily flashy or in style but it’s consistently, over 35 years, paid off.”
Today, for now anyway, Sterns is enjoying life in California. His position at Sony was attained through a mutual friend in the industry who was working for the company. He brought Sterns in, laid out a future of 4K and hi-fi audio excellence, and made an offer that he knew was the right move.
“It’s been such a learning experience, but man, if I had the horsepower and incredible engineering resources back in the day, this would be an entirely different story. Part of the reason that we’ve turned things around so fast is because of relationships and processes that I’ve had for the past 30 years. I didn’t have to start from scratch with Sony; they made it all possible to succeed.”
Music is, and will always be, an important part of his life, but so is playing the guitar, biking, scuba diving, and savoring wine. His venture in making wine fell to the unfortunate turn of the stock market but he hopes to chase that passion again. Of all the history Sterns has experienced, his final profession was that his most celebrated achievement will always be the friends he has made along the way.
“One achievement is all the people that I’ve met and worked with, worked for, sold to, in this industry over the past 35 years,” Sterns said. “Those relationships are really important to me, and they keep me going. I mean, I can go pretty much anywhere in North America or even in Asia and hook up with people that I know, that I’ve worked with, that I consider friends. And I want to keep that up. Obviously, those relationships are invaluable.”