The Show Man

Ralph Miner turned musical experience and media savvy into

by Amy Souza

A little over 12 years ago, partly to provide conference support to the rebuilt Sheraton Burlington hotel, Ralph Miner founded his Burlington business, Sound Vision. Today, the company does much more than simply support events.

When Ralph Miner says he's played Broadway, he's not too far off. His company, Sound Vision Audio Visual, once created a stage and screen presentation for Rockport Shoes to dazzle international distributors who were gathered in a Manhattan theater. Sound Vision provides technology for a wide range of events, including small business meetings, political conventions, even presidential visits. Set-ups run the gamut, from projecting Power Point slides in a conference room to creating the large stage productions that bring together set design, lighting and video production.

Miner started Sound Vision 12 years ago, in part to provide conference support for the then-new Sheraton Conference Center in South Burlington.

"We started out just renting equipment," he says, though he notes that phase of the business didn't last long. He soon found himself called upon to do much more than provide projectors and screens. For the first four or five years, Miner remembers hanging up the phone with clients and thinking to himself, "What did I just agree to?"

Miner likes to tell people that, although he was a lifelong resident of Vermont, he never lived here growing up. "My dad worked for the Army" he explains, "so anywhere we went we were always residents of Vermont. My Vermont family tree goes back to the 1800s."

Sound Vision was one of the first companies to run event videos from a computer rather than a VCR. Christian Jenkins is production manager.

For 18 years, Miner worked as a professional musician, playing guitar, bass guitar and saxophone. He lived in Germany and toured all over Europe. It was in Germany that he met his future wife, Jutta Hinzmann. He also met quite a few heavyweights of the music business, such as Joe Cocker and Eric Burdon, former lead singer with The Animals.

Miner still loves music, but admits that touring was a hard life. "It's like the NBA. You're either at the top of the heap or it's not worth it." These days, he satisfies his music muse by playing for his own enjoyment and occasionally writing and playing scores for some of his company's videos.

Miner and Jutta returned to Vermont in the 1980s, He knew he wanted to work in computers or television. IBM had a hiring freeze at the time, so he went to work at WCAX-TV. He spent four years there, learning about television production from the ground up. It was there that he became interested in broadening his horizons to provide audio/visual support for big events.

Clearly his company has filled a need. "Any large event in the past 12 years in Vermont, we've probably done it," Miner says. Along the way he has taken on a number of demanding projects.

For the 1994 National Governor's meeting, Miner was responsible for the lighting and sound systems. He had to set up 60 microphones and control them through a sound mixer. "I had never put anything together to that extent," he says. "To walk out of there with governors saying, 'Good job,' was great."

Today, Sound Vision does much more than just support events. The company installs and maintains audio systems at large chain stores such as Borders and Foot Locker, creates national and regional television advertisements and produces product-training videos. Staffers often travel around the country to manage a client's traveling product show, and Miner says his was one of the first companies to run event videos from a computer rather than a VCR. Even so, the company sometimes just rents slide or overhead projectors.

Staffers often travel around the country to manage clients' traveling product shows. Tim Clark (left) is national operations manager; Patrick Reeves is sales manager.

Miner says if it has to do with audio, video, lighting, computers or computer networking, "You name it, we'll do it, even if we've never done it before." A lot of the fun for Miner comes from figuring out creative solutions to whatever is put in front of him. His smile is widest, he says, when he's in the thick of things. For larger projects, Miner's team comes up with concepts, builds sets and designs light shows like the rock concert style of annual meeting the company put on for Concord Communications, a Boston-area software company.

In 1990, when Sound Vision opened its doors, the Internet was in its infancy and digital video editing was practically nonexistent. As technology has changed and become more prevalent, Miner and his employees have educated themselves about the latest innovations and become experts along the way.

"I've learned more about computers over the years than I ever wanted to know," Miner quips, adding that he and production manager, Christian Jenkins, could probably have careers as IT managers.

"Not only do we have to know our equipment, but we have to know our clients' equipment, too. That makes us excellent troubleshooters," Miner says.

Often, Miner adds, Sound Vision staff will set up a temporary computer network for a conference, with wiring that stays in place for just four or five days. Employees are well-versed in the most popular computer programs, but must also be prepared to work with whatever offbeat software a client uses.

Then there's hardware. Recently, Jenkins spent three days at the Woodstock Inn providing audiovisual support for a medical conference. One speaker walked up to the stage and handed Jenkins her PDA, a palm-sized computer on which she had stored her presentation. Jenkins had never used a PDA before, and now he had to figure out, quickly, how to make it work with the projector. He did, and the client took the stage.

The recent unstable economy has altered the nature of the event business, reducing lead time from six months to two weeks. The day after a stock market increase, the phones ring. Hally Yandow is Sound Vision's comptroller.

Miner says his proudest moments come when clients tell him that his staff is easy to work with. "I can't imagine making a client jump through hoops, but apparently some companies do that." Miner says that after a job is completed, he almost always receives glowing comments, both about his "fun" people and their professional work quality. He chalks it up to the New England work ethic.

"The clients who work nationally, who've worked with companies around the country they give us the biggest compliments," Miner says.

In the past few years, the national trend has been for traditional production companies to branch out and do a little bit of everything. "We've always done everything, because in Vermont you have to do it all," Miner says. Those years of experience in doing it all have given the company an edge when competing for jobs.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Miner saw a slight decrease in business, but not right away. "We were lucky because meetings were already booked. It was the next year that hurt us more," he says.

Now, though, the unstable economy has altered the nature of the event business. "We used to get six months' lead time; now sometimes we get two weeks," Jenkins says. And if the stock market goes up one day, the phones are sure to be ringing the next.

Sound Vision's offices are on Pine Street in Burlington, in a brick row building next to Gregory Supply. From Miner's second-story office, visitors can look out over the rooftops of neighboring businesses, and on a clear day, see the lake beyond. "I like this industrial view," Miner says.

Downstairs is a fully equipped video conference center, set up like a corporate meeting room, where customers can give lectures or attend meetings with faraway clients. Video conferencing technology is still not perfect; the images are sent over phone wire and can be jumpy. "It's not great for dance troupes," Miner jokes. Recently, a client gave a lecture from this room to the Harvard Medical School, and for that, the technology works just fine. Miner says the room is especially attractive to business clients because of its corporate atmosphere, in contrast to other video conference centers that look and feel like classrooms.

Next door to the conference room is the warehouse, where just about any type of equipment having to do with lighting, audio, video and computer technology can be found. In another downstairs room, Miner is planning to build a studio a space where staff can set up and demonstration installations.

In the upstairs editing suite, current and prospective clients can view the company's production work. Miner prides himself on being able to create a polished piece from whatever a client brings him whether that be existing footage or a concept that exists only in the client's mind. Miner's staff can shoot and edit, create graphics and add music and other finishing touches.

Miner learned digital editing by the seat of his pants, but four of his staff members are specifically trained in audio or video editing. "They came out of school for this and they want to live in Vermont," Miner says. "This is the only place to do it."

Though Miner has suffered some turnover problems in the past, most of his employees have been with him for at least four years. "We've learned to ask the right questions in advance," Miner says. "We used to get a lot of musicians interested in the industry, and now we're seeing more computer-minded people. You really have to find enjoyment in it," he adds.

Working all weekend is not uncommon. Nor are 16-hour days. Miner says the person who's wedded to the idea of an 8-to-5 day behind a desk won't make a good Sound Vision employee.

The business also attracts independent spirits, and Miner sees himself less as a manager than a part of the team. "They don't work for me; they work for themselves," he says. "People either get the job done or they don't."

In 12 years, Miner has never turned down a job, even if everyone on staff is busy on other projects. "We have all the equipment anyway, so we can give a call to freelancers if we need to," Jenkins explains. "We take care of the client no matter what."

Last year, Sound Vision opened an office in Wakefield, Mass. Though the company has always worked in Massachusetts, the new office's three employees are better able to seek out and meet with additional clients. "The smallest job in Boston is bigger than most jobs here," Miner says.

Most of Sound Vision's equipment remains stored at the Pine Street site, since warehouse space is so much cheaper in Vermont. If a piece is needed for a Boston job, someone from Burlington puts it in the van and drives down to the city. "It's only three hours," Miner says. "People always say to me, 'All the way to Boston?' But it's really not that far."

For Vermont companies needing conference support, Sound Vision is one of the only places to turn, but Miner finds that big-city clients offer something Vermont clients can't. "A lot of what we do innovatively, Vermont is not the right market for it. It's a great place to develop the innovations, but when we try to make money off it, the money's just not here."

Each year, Miner says, the company gets closer to what he wants it to be, though he can't quite say what that is. "I don't know the model yet, but we're getting there."

For Miner himself, the business is fulfilling. "I love the equipment and the technology. It's like a rock concert, without my having to get on stage," Miner says. "I don't see it as work. It's my life."

Originally published in March 2003 Business People-Vermont