Pro Audio Asia

One of Hong Kong’s pioneering audio companies, Tom Lee has successfully married different aspects of pro audio and MI businesses to build a powerful and pioneering brand that has extended its reach overseas

‘I really enjoy challenging myself,’ confesses Tom Lee Music chief executive John Lee, when talking about his love for riding motorbikes. His travels have taken him through the Australian Outback, the Himalayan foothills, the remote plains of Mongolia and a trek to Shanghai from Hong Kong fifteen years ago on tracks and roads that demanded his full 100 per cent concentration. His pastimes, which include underwater photography and windsurfing, have placed him in good stead as a businessman and he readily admits that such high octane pastimes have helped him relax more, meaning that upon his return to the Tom Lee business, he is totally focused on his work.

For a man who recently became a father to twins Justin and Jodie, yet celebrated his 60th bir thday, he shows no signs of slowing down. In his presence, it is difficult not to be affected by his energy, enthusiasm and thirst for further technological knowledge as the 1,500 personnel around him are all too well aware.

His father, Mr Thomas Lee, opened a small shop in Tsim sha tsui selling musical instruments in 1953, and although Hong Kong was relatively poor and a sparsely populated place at that time, the fledgling business survived the hardships of its early years through sheer determination and belief. Today, Tom Lee Music is holding its own and as the eldest of three sons, John has taken the company to new heights as a result of his hard work and visionary skills. Music oozes through his veins and like all the roads he has ever ridden, his journeys that veer away from the Tom Lee Music portfolio seem to always come full circle.

‘I enjoy working in pro audio, because it’s a solutions based industry, whereas musical instruments is much more cultural and lifestyle orientated,’ he continues. This isn’t to say he dislikes working in MI, however, as the MI industry has made Tom Lee Music the deserved brand they have become today with retail outlets covering Hong Kong, Macau and China. In fact, it was he, when he was in his early 20s, who took the brave step in establishing the brand in Vancouver, Canada. He relocated to Nor th America for twelve years, during the instability in the region caused at the time. ‘The business in Canada was intended as a safety net in case the business in Hong Kong suffered,’ he explains. Luckily, it didn’t and as a fur ther testimony to his business credentials, the Canadian business remains today.

Upon his return to Hong Kong in 1980, it wasn’t long before John was making his presence felt. ‘I met some very interesting people, such as Dave Martin and Tony Andrews, who both had very interesting products that you couldn’t get in Hong Kong at the time,’ he recalls. ‘JBL and Altec Lansing were the main brands of loudspeakers then, but I was looking for products that were new and would fill a niche rather than be seen as mainstream.

Back then, all the venues held less than 1,000 people and the concert set ups were simple with a few par cans and a couple of column speakers. In fact, the musical instruments were more impor tant than the PA systems in the mid 80s. It was only when the Japanese operators such as Soundcraft star ted to bring productions here, with their own Hibino speaker cabinets, that the level of expectation star ted to rise. These sound systems were amazing at the time – it was like listening to a big hi-fi system.’

It certainly inspired him into taking a leap of faith into pro audio in which he agreed distribution terms with Turbosound, before AKG approached him and Alesis followed soon after. ‘Alesis were one of the first manufacturers to come out with a digital product with their ADAT and with it we could penetrate the broadcasting market.’ Despite the fact that the new distribution division was being stigmatised as a piano company selling audio toys, they made good inroads with Hong Kong’s consultants for projects as well as supplying many broadcast and televisions stations in China. Brand awareness he continues was and always will be paramount. ‘Our Tom Lee retail brand is most impor tant and cannot be damaged. As such we promote our brand through the products and service we offer. This doesn’t necessarily mean selling to make money all the time. Sometimes, we have supplied equipment to high profile events without making any profit, but when you succeed at these with your reputation at stake, you win in the end. This is why we were handed the job to supply the Vietnam National Stadium in Hanoi to be ready for the Southeast Asian Games. We didn’t buy that project – rather we earned it.’ The largest events Tom Lee Engineering has catered for to date were the official ceremonies for the Hong Kong and Macau handovers.

Some may feel that Tom Lee Engineering is a typical pro audio equipment seller, but John Lee rightly points to every single brand in their product por tfolio explaining why each of them was brought in to fill a long term specific niche in the market rather than to fulfill quarterly projections and thirsty shareholders, which the company doesn’t have. ‘The philosophy here is different. We’re not a company selling hardware backed up with service as may be perceived – we really are selling solutions. We try and offer the best and most current solutions that are available for our clients, who may not even be aware of their own problems.

My perspective is different from others – I’m looking at this from the end users point of view rather than sale or a technical one. The best business is repeat business and referrals – customers come to you.’

Tom Lee’s after sales service division with technical teams capable of completely rebuilding traditional musical instruments, repairing advanced consumer electronics products to the most sophisticated digital equipment is also ISO 9001 cer tified. In 1977 his father set up the non-profit Tom Lee Music Foundation to organise music courses and sponsor music activities, which today numbers some 8,000 students, teaching music through courses developed in conjunction with musical instrument makers. There is also a rental division offering sound and lighting equipment for events and concer ts. On one hand, the company has large marketing, distribution and after sales service overheads for all the products they represent but they also have to bear the overhead of a retail organisation to promote their products at the front line, ‘It’s a very specialised business to the point where it’s not just having a product and selling it – it’s a combination of everything and you need par tners and suppliers to think the same way.’

Having established Tom Lee Engineering as a systems integrator within the group some eight years ago, a fur ther ambition was fulfilled. Mr Lee feels that the inception of this division was more appropriate than just having a pro audio depar tment within Tom Lee Music, as it clearly caters for different customers and in doing so being more focused in its ways of doing business. ‘Our relationships with our customers are very strong as they all generally love music – it’s a common denominator. If you were drama, dance or music educated, you appreciate the ar ts, but otherwise you didn’t. Therefore, we decided to start from the classroom in order to stimulate musical appreciation, enjoyment and creativity. Music has to come from the hear t and it cannot be forced, but it can be assisted with help from teachers and parents. If you give young people the opportunity to enjoy and appreciated music, it will snowball through the generations. Children today seem to prefer computers and video games, but they still enjoy music.’ Traditionally a Canto-pop culture, Hong Kong’s musical tastes have broadened in the last few decades due to the combined effor ts of the government and the private sector. ‘Music plays an impor tant role in enhancing personal development of both children and adults.’

Mr Lee is quite a per fectionist and feels that if a job is worth doing, it’s wor th doing well. ‘We never sub-contract – it’s important not to take on too many jobs. If we can deliver – OK. If we cannot, we won’t take it on. We need to correctly market our products, our company credibility and in-house expertise as we use the products every day and know their benefits in addition to their weaknesses better than anyone else.’ If nothing else, his willingness to shop around for innovative new products has placed the company in a very good light. Aviom, Duran Audio and Technomad being good examples – brands that are highly valued in niche markets, but are hardly in the same ubiquitous league as Yamaha in terms of sales potential. ‘It’s vital to appreciate what products are complimentary, which have some direction for the future in order to sustain long term business. Sometimes, you can be too ahead of the game and sometimes you can be perceived to be following others.’ With Mr Lee, it’s safe to assume, that the latter has never been the case. Hindsight has taught Mr Lee that the best way to set up a new division is to offer it a new identity. ‘Having been perceived as an MI company selling audio products by many overseas companies, it was vital that we gave the new division a completely separate identity,’ he reveals about Tom Lee Engineering.

Mr Lee and his wife of six years, Eve Lam, have been closely looking at new IT products that will take A/V conferencing and communications to a new level. His youthful enthusiasm blended with his experience of 40+ years will see the business undoubtedly reach new levels. This totally new company has taken on Wow-Vision’s Veos line, V2 Video Conferencing and Real Sound Lab’s Coneq, all of which are unique up and coming brands.

‘The technologies we’re now promoting for the A/V market are disruptive and these may affect many switcher and control manufacturers. Unfor tunately, it’s evolution. When I saw the Coneq graph demonstrated to me, it was like a doctors’ chart analysing poor health, only this was of an audio system to someone who didn’t realise he was sick. The international marketing manager, Alex Schloesser, travelled from Germany and demonstrated it to me here in Hong Kong and I was completely won over. Any end user can use this software and benefit from it – its appeal is totally universal. The great thing about it is that it’s so easy to use. It’s software based and all you basically need is a reference microphone as you set it up and put the data on and AB the original sound against the new sound. Once you’ve per formed this test, you don’t need to re-calibrate it unless you change the speaker set-up. It will make good sound engineers even better.’

It would appear that Mr Lee’s formative years in Canada served him well. ‘I learnt what a dealer does and when I became a distributor, I knew I was representing my supplier in my market. As a distributor, I recognised the impor tance in building a brand.’

Timing is of course vital. ‘CY Communications will make a huge impact as it offers the right products at the right time and has the right approach in offering end users and partners the oppor tunities to make the difference. Other products may come along and fit within this new company, but we are not actively looking for more lines. I am a believer in fate and things happen for a reason and with the brands we have acquired, this equates to fate.’ This would be true with his wife Eve who is Hong Kong born but Canadian raised and whom he met because of an interview she did with him.

CY Communications, with Eve at the helm as managing director, is looking to expansion and is seeking new par tners for Coneq and Wow-Vision in mainland China and further afield. ‘The video conferencing market is huge and it’s growing. Not only is it becoming more affordable, but it offers great cost savings such as venue hire, flights and hotel costs and it’s green. With V2, it’s easy to install and easy to use without any costly hardware. This isn’t skype – this is the real deal. Hardware is expensive and limited in its application. Software solutions are the future.’

The husband and wife team is also the real deal and with these brands they will undoubtedly unlock more doors to business opportunities. ‘I used to play golf, but if I was stressed out with work would play a bad round and this would add to my stress.’ Perhaps, with the emergence of CY Communications, it would be a good time after all to dust down the golf bag and improve the handicap. Should that not stir his passion, the road to Shanghai has improved and Justin for one would enjoy the experience forging the road ahead.