It has often been said that fortune favors the bold. That may be particularly true in the commercial AV industry, where the pace of technological change means there’s no room for complacency. But when a company’s newly minted leader charts a course that involves shedding substantial amounts of existing business in order to focus on core specialties, it’d be hard to blame someone for being a little skittish.
That’s exactly what Bobby Swartz, CTS, the CEO of Chesterton, Ind.-based Starin, did when he took the reins of the value-added distributor about two years ago. Happily, however, the entire Starin team bought into Swartz’s vision — namely, for the distributor to focus on unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) — because they recognized that area encapsulated what Starin is best at. As we now approach the midpoint of 2022, the strategy has succeeded even beyond Swartz’s own hopes.
Swartz explains that, when he ascended to leadership, it was time for “a gut check.” He says, “We looked at what we’re really best at [and] what we’ve always been good at — our key fundamentals.”
That soul searching produced a revelation: Starin’s fundamentals have always been inside the conference room. That includes longstanding relationships with communications companies like ClearOne and Revolabs.
However, over the past decade, the conference room has changed dramatically, shifting from larger, hardware-centric rooms to smaller spaces with Zoom and Teams lying at their heart.
Recognizing the limitless growth potential of UC&C, Starin, under Swartz’ leadership, decided to make what he calls “some radical changes” to its line card to enable it to focus all its resources on UC&C. Swartz quotes back his own contemporaneous thinking, saying, “We have to create time. We need to create space to give that focus.”
What’s more, Swartz says, they understood that sharper focus offers Starin greater organizational coherence.
As he puts it, “The message was a simple one: We’re actually making a simpler business…a cleaner business. That’s really easy for people to get behind.” And, indeed, it was key to earning Starin associates’ buy in.
Swartz was not proposing something different or harder; rather, he was allowing the team to lean into their strength. Finally, the team understood that streamlining the line card redounds to vendors’ benefit; the distributor can up its level of service to help vendor partners reach into the channel and seize the UC&C opportunity.
Executing the Plan
However good a concept might look on paper, it’s all in the execution. Unsurprisingly, Swartz and the Starin leadership team executed their plan with precision, starting with creating a target list. “What things in that corporate UC space are popular or could we utilize and don’t have?” the CEO says he asked himself.
The existing portfolio was quite strong, but Starin, as a somewhat smaller distributor, had not always been on every brand’s radar. So, with intentionality and discipline — and avoiding the temptation to brand collect — Starin began striking key relationships across the collaboration category.
The leading vendors in the space quickly took notice. “It’s a small industry,” Swartz says with a chuckle. “People start to chit-chat pretty quickly, and, suddenly, opportunities start to arise.” Meantime, Starin leaned hard into its existing brands, asking key questions: How do we take these to the next level? How can we provide better service to our customers?
And now, mere months after this effort’s initiation, Starin is the world’s only distributor whose portfolio includes Logitech, DTEN, Neat, Poly, Shure and SMART Technologies. As Swartz puts it, many distributors have some, but only Starin has them all — and makes them work together. And that last part is no mere aside; as noted, Swartz has no intention of collecting brands as a hobby.
“All these brands have a specific niche or solution,” he explains. Starin can marshal its incredibly robust in-house technical expertise to help channel partners with everything from system design and troubleshooting to finding the right solution among the products that are currently available.
“Being part of the Midwich Group,” Swartz begins, “it allows us to coordinate similar types of gear, at a high service level, all the way across multiple countries.” One organization…all the brands…serving all the channel partner’s projects around the world.
‘Care More, Be Better’
It’s worth lingering on the constellation of benefits Starin provides its channel partners because they reflect the distributor’s motto: “Care More, Be Better.” One of the ways the Indiana-based company shows its care is through its commitment. “I don’t make any money until they close their deal,” Swartz declares of channel partners. Thus, Starin will do everything in its power — from supply-chain management and allocation services to guidance and consultation directly with the customer — to make its partners’ businesses a little more efficient and make them more money.
To that end, Starin ensures its technical personnel, salespeople, vendor specialists and product managers are always available. Swartz states it simply, saying, “I don’t just have boxes they can buy when they need them. I’m here for everything that goes into getting those boxes into a solution for the customer. And that means I’ll get involved whenever it’s needed.”
This approach, obviously, breeds channel-partner loyalty, but it also makes Starin ever more attractive to vendors looking to capitalize on UC&C’s unfettered ascendance. That is reflected in this month’s announcement, at InfoComm, that Starin has brought on Crestron’s Flex products and Lenovo’s unified communications offerings.
These additions, Swartz explains, are a direct response to channel partner and customer demand for these products. The best part, he continues, is that the offerings perfectly complement Starin’s existing lines. Indeed, he says, they align with Starin’s goal of having its vendor partners work together and “make a really strong ecosystem.”
This, of course, lends itself to the bundling at which Starin has become such an expert. “Bundling product is simple,” Swartz notes. “We can take it one step beyond that, [but] we just need these extra solutions.”
Measures of Success
For as partner-focused an organization as Starin is, there’s only one real measurement for success — namely, how channel partners feel about its pivot to being a focused UC&C specialist. And there’s no ambiguity on that one.
“They’re placing more orders,” Swartz says. “They’re logging more calls [with] our teams. We’re seeing more activity. And our business, as a whole, is growing at nearly double the rate it was quarter over previous year.”
Starin’s laser focus on UC&C has also been a recipe for greater engagement with partners and their clients, yielding more frequent and more productive touchpoints. That includes everything from walking clients through how Zoom works, to helping set up Zoom Rooms, to elucidating the value of certified hardware. “The channel knows that we have all the experience here, and they can rely on us,” Swartz says with evident pride.
So, it turns out fortune does favor the bold. It also favors those, like Starin, who are committed to constant improvement and allergic to stagnancy.
“I’ve always believed in business that you have to earn it every day,” Swartz concludes, saying the distributor will take nothing for granted. Every morning, his team and he try to be a little bit better…a little bit beyond partner expectations. “That’s what sticks with people,” he advises. “Just constant improvement.”