Dealerscope 2019 Hall of Fame: Ted Cardenas, Pioneer Electronics
They say that timing is everything. Though I’m not really sure who “they” are, I can with almost absolute certainty say that they must have been studying the life and career arch of Ted Cardenas, the current executive vice president of marketing and corporate communications for Pioneer Electronics and a 2019 Dealerscope Hall of Fame inductee.
Cardenas’ has spent the past 23 years of his career working his way through the ranks at Pioneer, starting out as a product specialist in 1996 before moving up to a district sales manager after just a year. And since then he’s seen his role move from marketing, to product planning, back to marketing, and now as the VP of marketing for the company’s car electronics division. Over that time, he’s been involved with—and a key piece behind—some of the major initiatives that Pioneer has launched, including bringing satellite radio into the car, the launch of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and more.
But, as he tells it, Cardenas’ career has been a major benefactor of good timing.
“I attribute so much of this to the good fortune and timing,” he said. “I mean I just have had the really great experience to be in the right place at the right time with so many emerging technologies or partner companies and to be able to be one of the representatives of that is is a true honor in this industry.”
Cardenas got his start in audio well before what might be considered a traditional working age. Growing up in a Midwestern U.S. household where he sys his father was something of an audiophile, Cardenas had access to some of the leading publications and actual technology from a young age. And, with the help of his dad, he turned what was a little burning passion into a full blown hobby.
“You used to be able to buy through the mail these kits, and you could build your own amplifiers and pre-amplifiers and AM/FM tuners, and things like that,” Cardenas described. “So when I was five years, old my father and I built an amplifier and a preamplifier for his home stereo system. So that was kind of the first immersion into wires and soddering and parts. And to do all this work first and then you flip a switch and it lights up—that was rather exciting. And then you connect it to your speakers and it makes sound? So that kind of began a little bit of a journey.”
That journey ultimately led to Cardenas’ first job while in high school where he worked at Sound and Service in Carroll, Iowa—a retail sales associate position that would end up having more of an impact on his career than he might’ve ever anticipated at the time as a 16 year old. There, Cardenas worked for Patricia Eike, the store’s owner, who ended up becoming something of a first mentor for him.
“I had done a few jobs for some of my friends putting radios in cars, and I had bought a car stereo from her. So, I called her up one summer because I was in high school at the time, and so they had a job, and she hired me,” he said. “She was my mentor in this industry from the time I was 16 years old until I graduated college. Every summer I would go back and work at Sound and Service with her and her daughter Jackie who is now the owner of the store.”
Cardenas admits that he never anticipated car audio or this industry really being a career option at the time. After high school he went off to the University of Iowa where he dabbled in engineering before switching to the business school, ultimately ending up with a Sociology degree.
“After university I went from there to the financial industry thinking, oh, well you know I can't play in car stereos forever so I can go get a real job,” Cardenas said. “I moved to Minneapolis, worked for IBS/American Express doing financial planning. Absolutely hated it, and lasted less than nine months.”
That’s when Cardenas decided to attend CES 1996 with a contingent from Sound and Service that included Pat. There, Cardenas went on the hunt, leveraging connections he’d made through his time at Sound and Service to get job interviews with a number of different manufacturers. He ultimately left the show with a few different offers in hand, but one stood out.
“Pioneer was the only one that was going to get me out of the Midwest,” he said. “Everybody else wanted to keep me in the Midwest, you're great for the Midwest; stay there where there's winter. At 24 years old having grown up in the Midwest, I was West Coast bound. So, certainly Pioneer was a well known company, I liked the company and I respected the people that I worked with there. But the deciding factor between the four offers that I had was I could go live in California.”
And it stuck.
Over the course of 23 years and a number of different title changes, Cardenas has excelled with Pioneer, helping to bring the brand fully into the states in the car audio category, developing deep relationships with some of the top brands in the consumer tech space along the way. And it’s those relationships and partnerships that really stand out to Cardenas—while again showing how big a role perfect timing has played in his career.
“Who would've ever thought in 1996 when I joined Pioneer that there would be such a thing as MP3? We couldn't have predicted that at the time,” he said. “The iPod? We couldn't have predicted that. Satellite radio? We couldn't have predicted that. Internet connectivity—and I was a guy with dial up until I think the year 2000 or 2001 when I was living out here in Southern California—to think that we now have 5G coming into our phones, and we can talk to Siri, and the signal goes up to the cloud and she answers almost instantaneously? Never in my wildest dreams 30 years ago would I have thought that that would have been a true possibility. And we're not done.”
And the timing of being around for all of those major launches in in-car audio have resulted in Cardenas’ being able to collaborate with and work together with brands like Apple, Google, Microsoft, IBM, SiriusXM, and many others.
But the thing that ties all of this together for him, and what really drives him to want to continue to develop those relationships and help push newer, more-innovative technologies is the entertainment factor.
“The common thread with all of these is entertainment in the vehicle,” he said. “And what I think I'm most excited about is, regardless of what that technology that delivers that consumer experience is—8 track, to cassette, to compact disc, to MP3 and iPods, and satellite radio, and streaming content from the phones and whatever is next—we're still just delivering the best and most advanced consumer experience that can put a smile on people's faces.”