Dealerscope 2019 Hall of Fame: Dave Rogers, Harman International
Dave Rogers, who, at the helm of Harman Consumer Audio, has shepherded the division he leads to reside among the top five brands in market share in total audio, got what was perhaps the best jumpstart that a top audio hardware company executive could have in a storied career history: Working retail.
To put himself through university in the early ’80s, he took a job in the stockroom at Highland Superstores, a dominant A/V retailer in the Michigan and Northern Ohio markets that expanded from 17 stores to 100, at one point. “They were as big as Circuit City at that time, with about $1 billion in revenue,” Rogers recalls. “I worked my way up with them from 1980 through 1991, running retail stores,” selling multiple categories but spending time in the audio department, where he got his first exposure to high-end audio’s delights. The next part of his career journey took him to Florida and retailer Sound Advice, where he steeped himself further in premium audio retailing, while forging lasting relationships with colleagues and suppliers.
From there, Rogers made the leap to the manufacturing side in 1995, to Klipsch, where he worked for 14 years, and where he also discovered one of his earliest professional mentors. “When I started, the guy who held the training class I joined to get acclimated and taught some of the basics was [Klipsch founder and industry legend] Paul Klipsch.
“Certainly the thing I remember most about him,” he says, “was his focus on technology and data and how the data doesn’t lie. He used to talk about the famous Bull**** button he wore on the back of his lapel that he would flash – and his point of view, and I believe in it, is that the facts don’t lie – and if it’s truly provable, all the other stuff is marketing, he’d say.
“So that has a profound impact on me now. As we’re stacking up our products at Harman versus some very high-quality competition – and we’ve been successful at growing our market share and our business – those words ring true.” Rogers also credits David Kelley, then a Klipsch executive, as having “really impressed upon me the importance of taking care of your customers.” He also acknowledges Harman International’s current President and CEO, Dinesh Paliwal, as “a big influence” on him stemming from the time he came on board there as vice president and general manager, Americas, in 2010.
These are people he notes as influences on his management style, but Rogers has also taken to heart and adopted some sage advice offered far earlier by his grandfather. “He ran a welding crew at Willys Jeep Factory in downtown Toledo, Ohio, and he used to say to me, ‘When you get into management, you’re only as good as your people. So, spend all of your time on your people.’ That always stuck with me, and has throughout. So I’d say my management style would be to put great people in place, set a couple of broad objectives, and let them go. You have to provide some amount of guardrails, but I’ve found over time that good things will happen. Beyond that, let them invest in the business, because they’re the experts closer to the markets, or, if it’s our product development team – the people who run our roadmaps – let them have a lot of autonomy.” Once that environment of autonomy is established, Rogers says, he spends “most of his time making sure there’s trust between the players on the team. And the more complex your organization is, the more important that is, because you have a lot of different people pulling in different directions – sometimes they’re competing for resources or marketing dollars, or any functional attention, so just making sure there’s trust between them is important. Different companies do different things. In my case, I try to get really strong people.”
Trust is a quality Rogers cultivates not only within Harman but also among the CE retail community, where he has earned an enormous amount of respect. One admirer from the retail sphere, World Wide Stereo Founder and CEO Bob Cole, says of him: “Dave Rogers is that rare executive who wears his soul on his sleeve. When he tells you he’s going to do something, it’s a matter of personal honor to him that he does exactly as he promised. Being bright, talented and with a nose for the industry’s potential is his daily fare, but, that you can trust him without question is what makes his contribution to the industry so important. We need more [like] Dave Rogers.”
In reflecting on industry milestones that have helped to shape his understanding of industry dynamics, Rogers cites his time running his first retail store in Milwaukee for Highland’s Mondry family – and going up against a Best Buy, at that time, just on the cusp of its rise as a mega-retailer. “That was my first exposure to Best Buy – a regional company in Minnesota at the time. They had just moved into Wisconsin and we were going head to head.” Competing with their growth and the expansion of their power and reach was an experience he found invaluable.
A career highlight, too, for Rogers was the role he played in building the Klipsch loudspeaker brand to Number One in his tenure there. And with Harman in the first years, he made a significant contribution in parlaying categories like portable audio into success stories in short order in the U.S. “I was running the U.S. market then, and when Dinesh asked me to run the entire audio business – when we took the business global – that was significant. And now, we’ve marched up in market share.”
Addressing Challenges & Disruption
As sweeping technological changes occur, bringing new categories in their wake, Rogers says staying alert and aware is paramount. “Our challenges are around people and technology,” he says. “There are the opportunities, but also you have to be diligent and look out for your business with respect to those two main topics.” Having the right people in place to meet disruptive technologies head on – and keeping those people happy - is crucial, he says. “You talk about disruption. It’s an overused word. But if you look back to the fall of 2016, there was no voice speaker business to speak of – and now it’s a category. We do business in it and have an agnostic strategy… We’ve built expertise in that space, which has been highly disruptive to the overall channel, and new businesses have emerged… If you go into a retail store these days, instead of seeing what we did in Fall 2016, you see areas of display dedicated to voice-activated speakers but also the things that those VPAs (virtual personal assistants) control. And now the consumer is adopting these things in a massive way; these products are solving problems for them. So you always have to be on guard for that kind of disruption, and our team is always looking for signs of opportunity to invest in new areas. If the team says hey, we want to go in a certain direction, that’s something I’m excited about.” He does feel that the voice category will eventually evolve to being subsumed as a feature into the audio category as a whole. “It will be about how we can make our products better using it as an ingredient as opposed to a category.”
Rogers is an optimist about our industry. “Notwithstanding any global recession or currency swings that might occur, there will be cycles. But I think overall, retail and etail are the model of bricks and clicks, and over the next several years will continue to thrive. If you look at our business, 80 percent-plus is done in retail stores. We believe in audio – people want to hear the differences in products. Online reviews are a big part of getting exposure, but long term, the consumer in audio wants both the flexibility to buy online and also to be able to see, touch, feel and hear the product. That will continue.”
Vigilant as he is about strategizing for to the ups and downs of business conditions, Rogers also carves out time to enjoy life with his wife and three daughters - and still loves listening to music and home theater. He’s also a tennis player. “I’m very competitive; any kind of competitive engagement is very interesting to me.”
Liking competition. What could serve a CE executive better than that?