Made in our Hometown: Whirlwind's Worldwide Success
Updated: Friday, November 8 2013, 11:59 AM EST
Rochester, NY -- When the biggest rock'n'roll stars in the world perform on the world's biggest venues, the sound is almost certainly coming through equipment made at Whirlwind in Rochester.
This is one of the best-kept secrets in town. Ask anyone who sees Springsteen at Blue Cross Arena, or Pearl Jam in Boston, or the Rolling Stones in New Jersey -- ask them if they know where all those cables and sound boards and so-called mult-boxes are made. They won't have a clue. Ask a Jazz Fest attendee if they know the Rochester connection. They won't.
"Most of our business is not in Rochester," says president Michael Laiacona. "We love Rochester, but we spend time around the world. We have new projects all over the place."
When Derek Jeter comes to bat at Yankee Stadium, the public address sound is pumping through Whirlwind products. "Now batting, number 2, Derek. Jeee-terr."
"Yep, that's us," Laiacona says.
How did this happen? Go back to the early 1970s. Laiacona was a young musician, playing in a band, and he was also a tech whiz. That's putting it mildly; whether Laiacona knew it or not, he was a genius in creating equipment.
"I started making it myself," Laiacona explains. "And it was crazy. I can remember building microphone cables and guitar cables on my kitchen stove with a hot knife. I didn't know what a soldering iron was."
Then, Laiacona realized he couldn't afford to have his music recorded in a studio. "So I built my own recording studio from scratch. I got lumber out, hammers and nails, and once I built the studio, I realized there were other things that I needed but didn't have. So what did I do? I built them."
A small company was born. Early on, Laiacona focused on guitar pedals. By the mid-1980s, he had earned the respect of some of the biggest stars in the business, including Eddie Van Halen. But Laiacona was already moving far beyond guitar pedals. Whirlwind became a company that produced the most modern, most durable, highest quality sound equipment anywhere.
"Word travels in the industry," Laiacona says with a smile. In other words: Once Eddie Van Halen is a loyal customer, other stars fellow. Business begets business. Whirlwind became one of the top brands in the country.
Will Young, who has worked for Whirlwind for much of the past thirty years, handles artist relations. "When I go up on stage before the show to introduce myself to the artists, I'll look around and say, 'Yep. Yep. Yep. That's all our stuff,'" Young says. "And this stuff has just been pounded on, no paint left on it, but they're still using it. It works great."
If there is a lesson for other companies, it's that making products to be cheap is not nearly as important as making products to last. Whirlwind, which doesn't disclose profits but does tens of millions of dollars annually, was never designed to be a producer of cheap equipment.
"We want to be the best value," Young says. "That means a fair price, but it really means making something that will never fail. We hear from customers who say they haven't bought anything from us in ten years. You know why? Because what they bought ten years ago is still cranking. Imagine that."
Today, Whirlwind audio powers the Pentagon's press center. It's found at Disney World. It's installed in most new stadium projects. But Laiacona didn't want his company (which employees dozens of local workers) to stand still. In 2008, during the economic downturn, Laiacona took the opportunity to branch out in a new direction. Whirlwind became a player in the fiber optics field.
"My biggest fear is getting stale," Laiacona says. "If you're stale, you're dead."
Walk the halls at Whirlwind, and you'll find perhaps a second business lesson. There are signed guitars on the walls, personal notes from music superstars. There are letters of gratitude.
And there are familiar faces. This is a company that attracts talented people and keeps them. Ask around, and most workers say roughly the same thing: Whirlwind provides good benefits, good pay, fair treatment. Sure, it's a simple idea, but it's also miles away from the approach taken by many modern companies: cut costs, slash benefits, stretch everyone in the building.
"I don't understand why companies fail to understand their biggest asset," Laiacona says. "It's the people. If you kick your employees, why will they want to stand up and work hard? But if you reward them and appreciate them, they'll pay you back more than you could ever understand."
The next time you see huge speakers -- and you hear the soring sound of an orchestra, or an electric guitar -- it's a safe bet that Whirlwind is involved. Michael Laiacona had no idea what he was getting in to when he decided he was too poor to pay for his own gear back in the 1970s. How fortunate for so many musicians who had more talent, but not nearly as much ingenuity.