Finding Their Groove

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

These partners make perfect music for their business and clients

Roger Phelps (left) and Cris Folley paired up 12 years ago to buy Creative Sound from Folley's boss, Stan Gumienny. During a period of rapid changes in the industry, they have managed to find and serve a solid niche for their Williston shop, fueled more and more by custom installation of whole-house audio systems.

"I'm the accelerator, he's the brake." That's how Roger Phelps describes how he and his business partner, Cris Folley, divide up their work."

Folley and Phelps own Creative Sound, a Williston shop that specializes in audio systems for homes and automobiles.

"It's not the glass half full or half empty," Phelps explains, "it's just the way we work. He is reluctant to do things; he's very financially conscientious about what needs to be done. I'm hell to the wind, we're going for it. I have to sell him on an idea or proposal, and that reinforces my thinking, because if I can sell him, then it's the right thing to do. That lends credence to it."

Folley and Phelps do seem to have that fortunate combination of personalities that makes for a good partnership; best of all, they seem to have found the key to using that combination to its fullest. They talk fast, they think fast, and they cut up a lot. They're affable guys who exhibit good humor and market savvy.

"Are you kidding me?" quips longtime customer and friend Tom O'Connell, vice president-operations for the Windjammer Hospitality Group in South Burlington, when asked about their relationship. "To see how they've adapted to the pressures of all these box stores and continue to be competitive and grow is a true testament to the vision of being flexible in such a competitive market."

Competitive market is right. Their business has changed a lot since they bought Creative Sound from Stan Gumienny, who founded it in 1967 as a franchisee of the Lafayette Radio chain.

"It used to be that stores like Stan's were the only place in a town you could go to get this stuff," says Folley. The advent of big-box stores changed everything, he says.

Phelps gives an example. "When Circuit City first moved into the market — and we sell a lot of the same products they carry — a guy came in and said, 'How are you guys going to compete with them?' Cris said, 'What makes you think they're going to give the product away to you?'"

Perception is everything, though. Once Circuit City, then Best Buy arrived in the market, says Phelps, they took out the lower-end customer that Phelps and Folley used to be able to convert. While that has presented a challenge, it has also encouraged an evolution, whereby retail sales have been eclipsed by custom installations.

A native of Liverpool, N.Y., Folley says he has always had music as a part of his life. He played guitar and piano in high school and, at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., studied math with a minor in music.

Love brought him to Vermont, following Kathy Sutherland, the "girl next door," who attended the University of Vermont. "She graduated and got a job teaching in Charlotte, where she still is teaching," he says of the woman who is now his wife.

When Ed McNeil (pictured), who does custom home installation and design, joined the company and asked what his role would be, Roger Phelps told him, "Whatever hat is sitting on the table there is the one you put on." That is true of everyone who works at Creative Sound.

It was 1975. Folley found work with Gumienny, doing sales. "He had just opened his third store down on Shelburne Road by Kmart, and I started working there."

At one time, Gumienny operated several stores, in Burlington, Montpelier, South Burlington and in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Not long after Folley was hired, Gumienny closed the South Burlington store and opened a larger one in Essex Junction.

Folley took on more duties and eventually became manager of all the stores.

"Back then, we were mostly selling audio components: hi-fi gear, CB radios and car audio," says Folley. "Stan also had a distribution business and manufactured parts that IBM used in some of their equipment."

As the economy began to slow in the mid-1980s, the electronics business experienced what Folley calls "a bit of a dip." Gumienny sold off the stores, eventually bringing everything to the Essex location.

Gumienny's interests expanded toward serving food at fairs, which his brother was doing in southern New York. When a building came up for sale at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds, he bought it and opened Mr. Sausage. A second purchase of a booth across the way allowed his wife to become Mrs. Steak. They branched out, doing other festivals and events, which they continue to this day.

By 1993, when Gumienny decided to leave the audio business, says Folley, "I decided I was not ready to retire, so I started thinking about continuing with the name of the company, because it was a local institution."

Phelps was working for Boston Acoustics, a manufacturer that supplied Creative Sound's main line of speakers. "He was the guy I would deal with to buy my speakers," Folley says.

When Gumienny was ready to close the store, Folley remembered discussions with Phelps, who had told him he would someday like to have his own store and put what he'd learned in the business to work. Folley's wife suggested he give Phelps a call.

Phelps was ready. "I've moved, like, 33 times in my life!" the Baltimore native exclaims. Many of those moves were instigated by his father's service in the military and later, with Alcoa Aluminum.

When it came time for college, Phelps attended Bucknell University. "My parents had moved to Pittsburgh at that time," he says. A math enthusiast, he chose to study economics, "because it kind of combined applied math and history, the social aspects. It made a good foundation for what we're doing here," he says.

After graduation, Phelps managed a ski store in Pittsburgh by day; managed a bar at night. Eventually, he obtained a sales job traveling the country for Buckeye Molding, a Xenia, Ohio, company that made plastic food containers.

"It was pretty nice, because at 22, I didn't want to be stuck in Xenia, Ohio," he says.

A couple of years later, his parents announced they were moving to Vermont. Alcoa had changed, and Phelps' father found himself without a position. "Because Alcoa found him valuable, they moved him here, where the company could set up its captive insurance operation," he says. Phelps decided to move north with them and help build their house.

Folley and Phelps nurture a strong philosophy of making their business a nice place to shop. That includes helping people who might have bought their equipment elsewhere. Derek Pierson, who handles sales and installation, has been with the company about a year.

He liked New England and wanted to stay. For about six months, he worked for Overlake Distributors, a locally owned stereo distributorship, but realized there was little chance of advancement with a sole proprietorship.

He was hired by Sony as a key accounts sales manager working from Boston. Panasonic lured him away, again as a key accounts manager. When Panasonic encountered financial problems and downsizing was threatened, Phelps landed the job with Boston Acoustics.

By the time Folley approached him, he was married to Martha Rice, whom he had met in Providence, R.I., when he worked for Sony. He was eager to leave the road and work for himself.

Folley and Phelps put together a business plan, obtained financing and opened in May, four months after Gumienny had closed. Deciding that Gumienny's location was too large, they entered an agreement to rent space from Contois Music on Pearl Street in Essex Junction. "Part of the idea was that they were a very large Yamaha music dealer," says Folley, "and we were a big Yamaha electronics dealer. We thought it would be a good match to promote the same brand."

Both express appreciation for the suppliers who stuck with them at that time. "Guys like our reps for Yamaha stuck it out and believed in us," says Folley. "We had a lot of support from the manufacturers' reps, and a lot of non-help, too," he adds with a laugh.

They quickly outgrew the Contois space. In 1994, within 11 months of opening, they moved to Blair Park, renting space in a building owned by Ray Lawrence.

Lawrence has turned out to be a mentor for the partners. A few years after the Blair Park move, he encouraged them to expand into a contiguous space, and in 2000, asked them if they'd like to buy the building across the parking lot.

"We were nervous," says Folley, but he had figured it all out." Lawrence helped obtain financing, and they moved in February 2001. "We've been going gangbusters ever since," Folley says.

Folley handles the administrative end of things — "paying the bills, managing the books, ordering product, tracking inventory, making sure the product is here for certain jobs. I'll also be helping people in the store, doing maintenance. I clean the bathroom. We both do everything," he says, then deadpans after a pause, "Well, Roger doesn't clean the bathroom."

The role of any employee, says Folley, is to do whatever needs to be done. "If we need to sweep, to check the home theater room or put in a car stereo, that's what needs to be done." There are three employees: Jason Dattilio, the store manager; Derek Pierson; and part-timer Jayson Ouellette, who works weekends.

Phelps spends a lot of his time in the field. "When we first got started, the meat and potatoes of our business was the retail, and the gravy was outside work with contractors, wiring houses, stuff like that," he says. Now, the meat and potatoes is forming relationships with contractors, people building homes who want the wow and ease of lifestyle of music and video and computer access and security throughout the house."

"I'll grab Cris when we need bodies out in the field, but that is my primary focus. Probably eight out of every 10 customers who come in the store have house plans these days."

"Whether people buy from them or elsewhere, says Phelps, "We try to always teach. I say, 'We don't sell black boxes, we sell what the black box does.' I have a job to point out the differences among the products we have here. The customer has a job, too: to determine if he can see or hear a difference, because if you can't hear the difference between a $300 and a $600 speaker, it doesn't matter. It's not going to change my bottom line; it's not a big deal."

The bottom line, say both partners, is that they go out and buy the best there is, using their expertise to do the research for the customer, and then sell it at a competitive price. If they do their teaching job well, if not this time, then the next time, the customer will buy from them."

Originally published in January 2006 Business People-Vermont