Company profile: The brand plays on
Company profile: The brand plays on
Richard Lawn explores the roots of British manufacturer, HH Electronics, and its development into a global brand together with Headstock stablemate, Laney Amplification
The rollcall of pro audio brands originating in the UK is unrivalled. Following the birth of the Beatles and the British invasion of pop culture, the electrification of pop and rock music led to a rapidly emerging cottage industry of backline, synthesiser, mixing console and loudspeaker producers. As record sales soared and concert audiences grew, the erstwhile musicians and experienced stagehands who founded these enterprises went on to become pioneers and experts within the fields of broadcast, studio recording and live sound. Mike Harrison was one such entrepreneur.
Global events in 1968 included the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Vietnamese Tet offensive and the release of the Beatles’ White Album. In the village of Harston near Cambridge that same year, Harrison founded HH Electronics. Together with Malcolm Green and Graham Lowes, he designed and manufactured the TPA and MA ranges of solid state, studio-quality amplifiers for an increasing number of recording and broadcast studio requiring higher SPL outputs.
The hits kept on coming for HH in the 1970s, most notably with the advent of the iconic IC-100 amplifier and its unique, highly distinctive green electro-luminescent lit front panel. Musicians of the day including Marc Bolan of T Rex powered their electric guitars with the 100W RMS. Spurred on by this success, Harrison and the team developed the 412BL quadruple 12-inch speaker cabinet. Sales growth led to growing pains and a relocation to Bar Hill in 1975, where HH extended its range of sound reinforcement EQ. The MA100 five-channel mixer amplifier with a switchable spring reverb took a world tour together with the IC100L and Valve-Sound Bass.
Innovatively designed to emulate valve amplifier distortion, the V-S Musician 100W guitar amplifier incorporated a V-S circuit encased in a block of resin to prevent copying by competitors. In addition to demonstrating commitment to musicians by adding electric pianos and tape echo machines to its MI portfolio, HH widened its offerings beyond the stage to develop larger PA systems during the following decade. Studio and live mixing consoles ranging from an 8:2 configuration to a 24:8:2 footprint rolled out. With the development of dual concentric loudspeakers, concert sound systems including the Piezo series wrote themselves onto the international touring circuit riders.
Led by acoustician Ed Forme, HH Acoustics loudspeakers were produced inhouse at the new Huntingdon headquarters with cast magnesium alloy frames to match the quality of the amplifiers and speaker cabinets. With an ever-increasing demand for high-power events and applications, HH duly delivered with the S500D and the V-series including the V800 MOSFET amplifiers. By 1989, the economic and manufacturing landscape had changed, leading to HH Electronics’ acquisition by another British wholly owned company. Operating within the Headstock Group today, Laney Amplification had been founded a year prior to HH Electronics by Lyndon Laney in the industrial and musical heavy metal heartland of Birmingham.
As bass guitarist for Band Of Joy featuring a pre-Led Zeppelin Robert Plant on vocals, Lyndon’s intense interest in electronics coupled with his lack of funds saw him building what would become the first Laney amp in his father’s garage. As word spread of the tone supplied by Lyndon’s amplifiers, he was quickly supplementing his income with amp sales to many local musicians including Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. Lyndon’s son James was a young schoolboy in 1989, but his memory of this acquisition remains sharp. “When my father acquired HH, manufacturing in the UK was still the norm,” explains James Laney, now CEO of the company.
“The company was operating out of Cradley Heath, which was an industrial area characterised by woodworking, metalwork, transformer and speaker suppliers.” With industrial inertia setting into the area and traditional suppliers developing more inconsistencies, Laney’s vision was to incorporate HH’s technologies and resources for added self-sufficiency. “It was becoming increasingly hard to maintain a competitive edge as a UK manufacturer. By manufacturing and designing loudspeaker parts inhouse for ourselves, we were allowed to keep on the right side of that curve for many years. In addition to developing HH loudspeakers for Laney products, we continued to successfully develop the PA products within the HH catalogue as there was a lot of expertise in terms of metalwork and transformer designs.”
A threshold was breached when it no longer became viable to manufacture anything other than high-end products in the UK. “Many of our managers came from engineering backgrounds and so they transitioned their skills to manufacturing operations overseas. By retaining the design and engineering inhouse, we had effectively established the current operations and principles of HH Electronics.
When a manufacturer goes to the trouble of designing in the UK, the resultant product has to be unique and stand out, while for our main catalogue we deliver an optimum priceperformance balance.” Having stepped into Lyndon Laney’s shoes, James projects an aura of confidence and stability that owes much to his father’s legacy. “I am immensely indebted to my father for setting up a very good business model,” he says. “Those early years were never easy for him, but we are now benefitting from having a very solid base that allows us to continue investing back in ourselves. There’s no direct pressure on me to take unnecessary risks and my father remains in the background, but I do have a responsibility towards the brands and the people within the company.”
In 2004, the Headstock Group consolidated its businesses into the current building and design centre in Halesowen with its extensive R&D, servicing and warehousing facilities. A solid financial basis serves as the bedrock below the West Midlands establishment. “As a family-owned business that does not entertain debt, we are liberated from having to report to venture capitalists or external investors who may be looking to make a turn on the business within 2–5 years.”
A number of respected British brands including Amek and C-Audio were acquired and cannibalised. “The intention was for HH to exist alongside Laney, without it being sacrificed for its parts,” explains Laney. “For example, HH retains pedigree in touring products, but we need to consider what the current route to market might be and what our partners want. As much as I love the old IC-100s with the big glowing green panel, I am not sure that there is still a market for those heritage and legacy products, because portable backline has moved on over the past four decades. As we develop more products that are heading for the network, it remains difficult for us to offer the whole end-to-end solution to customers, so for the time being we will focus on amplifier and loudspeaker development. HH will also assert itself more in other sectors such as hospitality and houses of worship.”
The current HH Electronics catalogue is divided between two distinct product categories. Systems integrators direct their attention towards the grouping of TNA array enclosures and ceiling speakers together with the M series of high power amplifiers. Active and passive ranges of portable VRE, VRC and TRE loudspeakers appeal to MI retailers and musicians. “R&D is currently focusing more on the installation catalogue, which will lead to quite a large number of product releases this year and into 2022. The Tensor and Vector active speakers were launched in 2019 to critical acclaim, before the world of live sound had to shut down.” HH Electronics appointed Adelaide-based industry veteran Ian Wright as its international sales manager in January 2011.
Initially charged with managing sales channels in the Latin American and APAC markets, Wright’s enthusiasm and passion has taken the HH Electronics and Laney brands to a higher level. Having taken three years out of the industry to run a packaging company in Tasmania, Wright flew into Hong Kong during a family holiday to meet with Laney in a hotel room, making a sufficiently convincing argument that he was the right fit for the company. “It may appear strange for a British company to have their international director of sales based in Australia, but it works incredibly well for HH as he serves territories that represent huge growth potential for us,” explains Laney.
“Ian’s always on the ball, works incredibly hard and, importantly, he isn’t a ‘yes man’.” Having worked closely together for over a decade, Laney and Wright make a formidable duo. “I had several opportunities to work with some big brands, but the fact that Headstock is a successful, family-owned business held great appeal to me,” explains Wright. “When I first met the team at the NAMM Show, it felt like I’d been there for 20 years. There is an undefinable comradery, because it really is like being part of a family that gives you energy. Although I had long been familiar with both HH and Laney, I decided to take up the challenge to take the brand back to a time when it was truly considered to be a market leader.”
Challenge accepted, Wright quickly immersed himself into the role of international sales manager. With a very basic command of the Spanish language, he pushed boundaries for HH and Laney in the APAC and Latin American sectors over seven years. Promoted to the position of global sales director in 2017, a wider geographical remit led him to expanding the sales force. “We have a distribution company with sales managers in the UK and we will soon have European and North American sales managers,” says Wright. “Latin America is a completely different market culturally, but we are blessed with a Paraguayan manager, Joey Gross Brown, who previously worked for Harman Pro and speaks fluent Portuguese and Spanish.”
APAC and MEA is now managed by Singapore-based Generation AV. Founded by David McKinney who has been based in the region for two decades, Generation AV offers sales, marketing, demonstrations, technical support and system design for a select number of brands. “Reconnecting with my good friend and ex-Harman Pro sales manager David McKinney has been one of the highlights for me,” continues Wright. “Appointing Generation AV was a similar move to [the situation in] Latin America as I needed a professional company to focus on and develop the marketplace. David’s team bring a wealth of experience, connections and knowledge to the HH brand and are so far making excellent progress.”
The extensive sales network that Wright oversees constantly provides feedback, which is duly channelled back to the sales and marketing and R&D teams in the UK. “With experience you gain an understanding of what the market needs and how as a manufacturer we can perform better,” assesses Wright.
“I’m not professing to be an expert, but feedback from key relationships within a company need to be fed to R&D. Our sales teams provide reports that let management know where we are underperforming and what holes we need to fill within a product range. For a concept to turn into good business, you need to justify the R&D investment and be sure that you can sell enough products. Our engineers have great skill sets, but they are not out visiting customers and seeing what’s working and what isn’t.”
Although Wright’s recent appointments led to accelerated sales growth, HH Electronics continues to operate a typical global distribution model, with Laney valuing an experienced partner with local connections and services. “We work with experts in territories ensuring that we can focus on product development here in the UK,” he says. “Many companies are tempted to increase product margins by going direct to market but, by cutting out customer support, education, servicing and 24/7 support, you’re on a downward spiral as you are removing fundamental services that are part of the sale. “It’s not just a case of importing the boxes, as a distributor is funding that inventory 90+ days into the future, having it shipped at expense, taking a hit on the exchange rate, negotiating complex duties, stocking it and then putting a credit line into the market whereby you might be repaid 60 days later. That’s a long cash cycle! The distributor is in the middle, investing all of this expertise, servicing the products, offering advice and marketing it, so it is very easy to undervalue what that service is.” The negative effects of the pandemic on HH Electronics were mitigated somewhat by a healthy demand for Laney guitar amplifiers from bornagain musicians taking to their instruments again during lockdowns.
“I think the most annoying aspect of the pandemic was the inability to be able to see far enough ahead,” Laney recalls. “Generally, we look 90–120 days in advance in terms of supply and between six and 12 months in front in terms of product development. Instead, we were contemplating what to tell our staff on a Monday morning on Sunday night. I had to provide a motivational memo for the week not knowing what to say but, ultimately, you just get on with it. Fortunately, we had geared up to working remotely, having had new software installed in late 2019 to provide task management, traceability and communication in addition to videoconferencing.” Assuming leadership qualities required for such a crisis, Laney soon realised that he had been relieved of those pre-Covid short-term distractions where he would have to make important decisions in an often-hasty manner.
“My first duty was to reassure all the team individually that their job remained safe and that they use this downtime constructively to focus on how we could better develop the business. Keeping the whole R&D team focused and working throughout the pandemic was vital. Our goal was to come out of this situation with more things to say.” One of the key team members motivated to spearhead HH’s fortunes was sales and marketing manager, Adam Groves. “The challenge brought by the pandemic has given us more drive to succeed than ever,” explains Groves.
“Global audio markets may have been devastated for the last 18 months, but we decided as a group to be proactive from the very beginning. Therefore, from a sales perspective, we remained in constant communication with our global partners, while also establishing new relationships around the globe. In terms of marketing HH increased the generation of official brand content and further developed partnerships with both new and existing external influencers. Additionally, for product development, the team conducted an in-depth market research campaign by gathering input from our global customers to create lucrative product development strategies. There has been no downtime.”
The borders closed in Australia on 15 March 2020 and do not appear to be reopening anytime soon. Frequent flyer Wright’s wings have been temporarily clipped but, like Laney, he has grasped the many positives accrued from the pandemic. “Ten years ago it would have been impossible to work like we have in the last 18 months, but I have been able to keep in touch with everyone from my home in Adelaide. The world’s a lot smaller with videoconferencing technology, although it will never substitute the one-on-one, in-person meeting because you cannot develop relationships online. Those real-world meetings are a little bit more candid than on a computer screen. “We used to spend a fortune on travel as our engineers flew to China every month and the sales teams constantly travelled around the world.
In addition to all the planning that was involved, the hours I previously spent on planes, in taxis and hotels travelling really added up. We will have to critically assess the viability of any travelling in future, because a video call may suffice. As much as I’d rather be out and about visiting customers in the market, I have relished my family time. Although it was hard to transition during those first few surreal months, I do not miss certain aspects of that pre-Covid lifestyle.”
Like most manufacturers, HH Electronics has balanced buoyant sales in China with fluctuations in other APAC countries resulting from opening up and locking down the economy. “The project installation side of the business continued during the first 6–8 months with works that had already been committed to,” continues Wright. “Therefore, roughly 90% of our focus is now on developing installation products including systems, for which we have an exciting road map ahead of us. We have started by filling some holes in our current product lines.”
As the situation develops, new problems have required Laney to make bold decisions. “Our stocks of portable PA initially gathered dust in the warehouse, but we have been selling large quantities recently, because others have cleaned out all their inventory,” he says. “The market has been faced with no shipping, no production and no components. Demand may be amazing and the order book astonishing, but the reality of what you can put through the business with ships stuck up the Suez Canal is somewhat different. Infrastructures have been hugely disrupted while freight and shipping has risen exponentially in cost. The supply chain remains in upheaval and so the cost of components has gone through the roof and are really difficult to source. Microprocessors and DSP chips, for example, that previously cost $2 are now $12.”
Emerging from the pandemic fog with a fully galvanised and re-energised team together with a soon-to-be-revealed new product focus, HH Electronics is about to write the next chapter of its legacy. “As the world starts to reopen, I am optimistic that there will be a lot of opportunities for growth where HH can capitalise,” concludes Laney.
“The overriding thing our industry needs right now is for people to live freely within their own countries and demand to be entertained once again.” Laney realises he is very much an anomaly who doesn’t fit the typecast second-generation owner. “One of my good friends identified second-generation owners as a problem in our industry,” he reflects. “Luckily, he followed up by explaining that I was an exception to this. I don’t subscribe to the idea of what this business can give me in three years so that I can buy myself a Lamborghini or a big house. If that was the case, I know that I’m in the wrong business. We are a company that is very much in this for the long term and we enjoy what we do.”