The president and owner of the Hamburg, New York, integration company takes us down her road to success
Southtown Audio Video in Hamburg, New York, was borne out of necessity. Founded in 1984 by Thomas Laski, the small retail hi-fi shop opened its doors after he was fired when his boss overheard him musing about starting his own business. Uncertain of its potential success, Laski evolved Southtown AV’s business year on year to stay relevant — moving from the sale of satellite dishes to electronic repairs to a successful home theater company.
“This is a Vietnam Vet with no college degree, no business school, who kept his business alive for 30 years before I purchased it,” says Heather Sidorowicz, Southtown AV’s president and Laski’s daughter.
Now a thriving AV company with solid footing in both residential and commercial integration, Southtown AV was acquired by Sidorowicz during the economic aftermath of 9/11. Laid off from the American Heart Association, Sidorowicz had a lightbulb moment while attending a home trade event.
“I was walking through a home show where another AV company was demonstrating surround sound from the movie The Matrix. As I realized they were more interested in the awesome surround system than the fact this was a family show and that children were watching this crazy violent scene, it hit me: I could do this, but better and different,” Sidorowicz recalls. “My husband and I met my parents over dinner and chatted about it; I even had written up contract. I started with a desk in the speaker room reading AV magazines and talking to customers as they came in. This was the beginning of my next chapter.”
Sidorowicz, who by 2012 was managing Southtown AV, continued to hone her management skills by attending a local business program and by 2014, she was able to purchase Southtown AV outright, eventually growing the business from a $600,000 into a $1.2M company in 2016 — a milestone that saw the business step fully into commercial AV integration.
“Buffalo, a rust belt city, was beginning its resurgence,” Sidorowicz says. “When we went to commercial clients, we sold them solutions not products, and did this with the same customer support we were giving on the residential side. We were unprepared for the growth as companies craved this type of treatment. As we grew and established cashflow we were able to take on larger jobs. I love it.”
The transition was not easy. Sidorowicz’s relationship with her father was sometimes fraught as she took over running Southtown AV, something she admits freely. “Family business does not always function with logic first,” she says. Sidorowicz reached out to her AV colleagues and friends for help and support and slowly amassed a team that she acknowledges has made the business stronger today. The results are evident in the accolades heaped on the company in the past few years, including being named as one of Commercial Integrator‘s Top Higher Ed Integration Firms. The magazine, in 2015, also selected Sidorowicz as one of their 40 Influencers Under 40.
That Sidorowicz is a woman actively running an AV integration business cannot be overlooked. Locally, she has mentored for the University at Buffalo’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership program and Allstate’s Minority and Women’s Emerging Entrepreneurs Program. She has also encountered her fair share of misogynistic clients and competitors, but her stance on dealing with these incidents is decidedly positive and inclusive.
“I always made sure I used my uniqueness to my advantage and never went out with a chip on my shoulder,” Sidorowicz says. “ It still makes me giggle when I’m at a pre-bid walk through and competitors won’t say hi. Sure, we’ve had a few clients over time that couldn’t get over the fact that I’m a female, but they wouldn’t make good clients then anyway. I did once return a $10,000 check to a client who said, ‘If you weren’t female, I probably would have signed with you already.’ I’ve never regretted that decision.
“At the end of the day, we’re in this together,” Sidorowicz continues. “As a society we need to stop looking at men versus women and start realizing that a staff with both is a better staff. We bring different magic powers into the mix.”
To introduce more women to integrated technology, Sidorowicz’s advice is simple and straightforward: hire them. Sidorowicz is leading by example — her sister also worked by her side for almost six years at Southtown AV before moving on to a national rental AV house. And, she is also emphatic about simply being a great colleague in the industry.
“Years ago, I needed a job description and an AV friend from another state gave me access to all his job descriptions,” Sidorowicz says. “I’ll never forget that. He helped me raise my game and I want to help others raise theirs. I mentor for that same business program I went through in 2012. I sit on local committees and I’m happy to share any industry golden nuggets I can with others.”
As we all endure this challenging time both locally and globally, Sidorowicz, like so many integration AV business owners, is actively seeking ways to safeguard Southtown AV’s emergence on the other side of the pandemic after the initial shock she sustained in the early weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown.
“Every decision I’ve made since 2014 was so I could be in charge of my own destiny and last month that was all taken away,” Sidorowicz says. “It was a shock, and I suffered a bit of whiplash. The first two weeks I triaged but I did not lead. When things started to unravel, I got back up and reached back out to my team. Today we meet virtually three times a week. No one has been furloughed. We are utilizing trainings to keep staff working from home and providing remote support when we can. There is no script for this, and the situation changes daily.”
The Southtown AV team, which has been deemed essential by New York State, continues to work on lining up projects for when restrictions are lifted as well as continue older projects permitted under state law. The company has also applied for government assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program while attempting to secure product bids to generate more revenue.
“We are trying to remain relevant during these uncertain times,” Sidorowicz says. “We are #strongertogether.”