George Poutakidis, director of Addicted To Audio, sweeps his hand over a room styled with Danish opulence. The room speaks for itself – he has invested in the future of audio as an ‘aspirational luxury’ product. He points to the sleek award-winning Naim Audio Mu-so 2 and to the gorgeous Focal speakers, hand-built in France: “it’s been tried before… but not like this,” he asserts.
George has invested in a multi-million dollar, three-storey hi-fi emporium in the throbbing heart of trendy Richmond, near the corner of Swan and Church Streets, Melbourne. It is a huge marketing step for the company, and also for the audio industry more broadly, in combining aesthetics and social aspirations.
“We bring them in with the eye and get them with the ear,” he states. “They walk past and see a luxury boutique, a window to another world.” A whole three floors of high-end bliss. From headphones upstairs, to home audio set-ups inside real rooms, built within the walls of the premises – not just sound rooms with a couch.
His formidable investment is not just for self-aggrandisement he says, but, altruistically, for the industry itself. George wants “the whole industry to lift.”
“It’s time to change the public’s perception of audio,” he says, and he’s putting it all on the line “money, reputation and marriage,” he says jokingly. “I believe in audio and have done since I was a kid – I can still recall my first trip to purchase my Nakamichi LX-3 II, which I still have to this day.”
"Somewhere between white goods and groceries"
According to George, the public’s perception of audio sits somewhere between white goods and groceries – necessary but functional. His right-hand-man, CTO Jesse William Ross, a young veteran of the industry, agrees. They are confident the new multi-million dollar investment in the prestigious Focal and Naim brands will change that perception. Not just in Richmond or Melbourne either, but across their other stores in Australia in Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and their store in Auckland, New Zealand.
“There will be more than ‘100 Focal Powered by Naim,’ stores worldwide by the end of 2022,” he says. “It is from this epicentre that the industry will begin to expand its horizons, making ‘hi-res audio’ a prestige product. People understand high resolution: high-res printers, high-res TVs, high-res cameras, high-res scanners, and we’re largely missing out on that market. It’s our job to educate the public and our dealers into nurturing a demand for quality audio in their stores.
“We intend to make audio as prestigious as Lamborghinis and Rolex watches. Just a few doors down from here, you get people buying Gaggenau ovens for $20,000 and spending a pittance on hi-fi. Changing this is contingent on education.”
Suiting up for NYC
But first, you have to have the right product. In addition to Focal and Naim, George acquired the Australian distribution of Bryston, Simaudio, and Dynaudio among others. But initially for George, he had to secure Grado, the legendary cartridge and headphone brand world-renowned for the quality of its moving-coil cartridges, moving-iron designs, plus its ground-breaking headphones.
An opportunity arose in early 2012, when the Australian distribution of Grado was a possibility. George saw a photo of John Grado online, a smooth looking man dressed in a fine silk suit and tie. So, George bought himself a new suit in Melbourne before boarding a plane to New York the next day.
On landing, he discovered that his checked luggage had been lost, but not to worry – he had his suit, so the other stuff didn’t matter. All he needed was a matching pair of shoes. He found a pair at a late-night menswear store, and changed in his hotel room, before emerging to catch a cab downtown. Forty minutes later, the driver pulled up in a seedy-looking area in Brooklyn.
“Surely this isn’t it?” he asked the driver. The street was empty, but sure enough the hand-written sign under the porch light read ‘Grado’. He brushed his hair and straightened his tie and rang the grubby doorbell several times until he heard the sound of shuffling feet on the creaky floorboards. The door opened revealing a stubbled man in jeans and loafers. George looked up and sunk into his suit.
“I’m John Grado,” said the man.
'The John Grado? – surely not... not the guy I worshipped, whose headphones I loved,' thought George.
John Grado smiled knowingly, and invited him in for coffee. An hour later, George had made a new friend and walked off with the exclusive Grado distributorship for Australia. And that’s the whole story, George says.
But of course, the story does not end there. Now that you’ve won the product rights, you need to market and ensure the product is available throughout Australia, he says, reclining near a $520,000 set of Focal speakers (two pairs of which he’s sold in the last nine months).
“A handful of dealers think only of moving the boxes and closing the door on the sale after they’ve left the shop,” he says. “We want them to extend their involvement into their customers’ homes, with after-sales service, room modifications, something practical to engage or offer them beyond the sale.”
To do that, his company, Addicted To Audio, has partnered with Control 4 so they can deliver the full home automation experience, including sound, lighting, blinds and security aspects of the home.
“We’re not selling boxes, we’re offering solutions,” says George, quoting an industry trope. “We have acoustic treatments that look like wall hangings of photos or images that absorb sound. The Danish cabinetry is modular and fits in various sized home environments. It’s an entire in-home package with after-sales service in set-up and home theatre.”
George takes his dealers to international and local events to educate them, ensuring they are well-versed in the specialised products they offer. It could be a factory tour of Focal or Naim, or even Athens, Greece, discussing the marketing of products and ways to grow market share and work together in a cohesive manner.
“Because these dealers are in different time zones when they’re in France, or England, or Greece, they are focused on our event and our products, not on something back home,” he notes. “We energise them about our product and customer behaviours; there’s a lot of psychology and trend-spotting.
“We discourage our dealers from telling their customers what they should be hearing: ‘the bass is deeper, or the vocal is crisper etc.’ We don’t tell them what they’re hearing or listening for – if they can’t hear it, the differences between components, it’s not our purpose to push them into a sale. Dealers must respect customers and believe in the product. It’s why we don’t offer consignment stock to dealers. It’s the wrong psychology and can make them take the easy option. Instead, Events spark commitment. We can then measure the success of the Event exercise through commitment, focus and sales.
“I don’t over-promise and under-deliver,” he continues. “I would rather under-promise and over-deliver; I don’t want us to set ourselves up for failure. We should never be complacent; we need to evolve as an industry.”
The company has fixed service agents as repairers, and guarantees their work will be timely and complete. He sees after-sales service, reliability, and ease of operation of audio items as critical to the industry.
So, what products will appeal to these dealers?
“We’re all particularly fond of the Naim Uniti Core as a single device for music listening. It replaces your entire CD collection, can store up to 100,000+ tracks, serving files across the Naim streaming platform, cataloguing and playing your entire music collection in a compact design,” says George. “The app’s UI works like a mobile phone, so it’s easy to use. Streaming is the number one preference universally among all age groups, not just the younger generation. There will always be a niche market for vinyl; it sounds warmer, is tangible, along with cover artwork and the ritual of cleaning and placing the record on the turntable – it’s all part of the joy, akin to opening a nice bottle of wine and hearing that popping sound of the cork.”
The IT factor
But let’s rewind. George soared into the audio limelight, seemingly from nowhere. How did it all begin?
George is a well-credentialled ex-IT man who started small – just him – then grew exponentially after he secured the lucrative VicTrack High Density Data Storage tender against the likes of Dell, EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, HP and Sun Microsystems.
It was when he was still running his IT company that he saw the opportunity to market headphones.
“Around this time, I saw kids one day on the street walking about with Beats headphones. I thought, here’s an opportunity! Apple and Beats had raised the bar, no longer did people think spending more than AU$100 on headphones was expensive when Beats were AU$500. I contacted headphone suppliers including Sennheiser and Shure and made them an offer to sell their product. I initially specialised in headphones only, until 2015, when I moved into home audio products.
“We are ahead of the pack here, always evolving and never worrying about what others are doing. But most importantly, this is not just for money, we love our products; what we do with our team is exceptional.”
George’s business successes, including the creation of his ‘Focal Powered by Naim’ store are evidence that confirms George is ahead of the pack… and that he plans to stay there.
Story: Peter Xeni
Interview: Peter Xeni and Paul Boon
George Poutakidis operates Addicted to Audio and the Focal/Naim distributorships under the BusiSoft AV banner. The Melbourne 'Focal powered by Naim' store is open Tuesday to Saturday at 453 Church Street, Richmond, VIC 3121.