Automation Arts looks to diversify staff

Feature Automation Arts Panel

Not many companies with less than 50 employees have their own university, but then Dane County Small Business Award winner Automation Arts LLC, a commercial and residential audio and video firm, was in a unique and somewhat vulnerable position just a couple of years ago.

Automation Arts, founded in 1993, designs, installs, and services audio-video systems for residential and commercial clients. It has established Automation Arts University to promote diversity and inclusion, a recognition that the AV industry is male dominated. The company is actively working with the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County to help develop an internship program for young adults with the hope of building a more diverse workforce.

Dry talent pool

Most interns and other new talent were coming from the Madison Media Institute, and when the institute went out of business, the firm’s talent pool dried up. Company President Shaun Trudell says the collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club and the launch of Automation Arts University did not happen because of the George Floyd tragedy, but it was already in place because the firm realized it had to reach beyond white males to grow. And when a feeder source for future employees went out of business, alternatives were needed.

“So, at that point, we had to figure out how we’re going to continue to feed our need for quality talent and people coming into the industry,” Trudell says, “and there is no real vocational school that you can go to for audio-video installation or any of that. So, we realized that there was a hole that we had to fill.”

The George Floyd tragedy probably gave the effort new urgency, but Trudell and his management staff knew right out of the gates that the audio-video industry lacks diversity. The internship program gives Automation Arts the best opportunity to find diverse, young talent and “truly get them in, give them a feel for what the AV industry is about, introduce them Automation Arts, give them the best tools to succeed, and be what we call an entry-level installer, and then be able to join our team and grow their skill sets from there.”

As that comment suggests, new employees don’t necessarily have to arrive as finished products. The company needs certified technicians, and so there is a specific skill set that Automation Arts looks for, but if employees have a desire to learn and grow, a fuller complement of AV skills can be gained through training. Professional development costs are 100% covered by the company, and the new programs are already showing promise.

“It’s definitely sparked a lot of interest within our company,” Trudell says. “I think our team is very excited about what they are seeing, but we’re just to the point where we can start marketing our internship program. We’ve had to kind of build the backbone and the infrastructure of what that’s going to look like.”

Toward that end, Automation Arts has deployed a learning management system to have interns go through what Trudell called “a very repeatable process,” get the same experience, and then provide the company with feedback. “We put a high emphasis on training, which is important. A lot of candidates and people who come here look at that because they want to learn, they want to grow, and they want to have a lot of different experiences and, really, the only way to do that is through training,” Trudell states. “A lot of companies talk about training their people and getting those opportunities, but when it comes to putting rubber to the road, it doesn’t happen.”

Given its focus on staff development, the Dane County Small Business Award means a great deal to Automation Arts. “It really reinforces what we’ve been striving for — to create a business that can rapidly grow but stay very focused on customer service, and then building a culture within our business that can embrace that, and then one that attracts the very best talent in the industry,” Trudell says.

Decade of growth

Automation Arts changed ownership in 2012, ushering in a period of strong growth. Since new ownership took over, Automation Arts has grown from $775,000 to $15 million in annual revenue, and it has seen 8–9% profit growth per year. The workforce has tracked right along with revenue and net income, starting at four and growing to 46, and the firm now has three locations: in Madison on Voges Road, on Canal Street in Milwaukee (opened in 2015), and a new Fox Valley location in Appleton.

“Honestly, the one factor that we can focus on that really helped our growth is truly just our team,” Trudell states. “We strive to hire the very best talent that we possibly can, and I think because of that we have employees who talk about what it’s like to work here and they are excited to work here, and other people hear that and they want to join our team as well.”

Now that the pandemic is gradually fading and public orders are being relaxed, Automation Arts is in a good position to rebound. Like other companies, Automation Arts has taken its fair share of hits from projects being delayed or called off and other companies feeling the effects of the economy, but Trudell believes the company has positioned itself to come out of the pandemic in the best possible position.

“The one thing our leadership team was in line with was making sure we have the very best company we could coming out of the pandemic,” he says. “If anything, that forced us to have hard conversations about our team, where we were struggling, and then it forced us to put new processes in place and figure out how we could continue to grow as the economy was down. We decided to grow our sales staff, and we added a new Fox Valley location.

“We continued to challenge the status quo and grow our company where I think a lot of people would not have invested money. They would have just kind of waited, and we didn’t want to do that.”

The Dane County Small Business Awards are presented by Bank of Sun Prairie, M3 Elevate, and Madison Gas and Electric.

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