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Waite Park

Entertainment dreams become reality with help of Waite Park business

WAITE PARK – Oh, to be Rich Erkens. He has what many people might consider a dream job — or at least they dream about the audio and video toys he can supply.

Erkens, 39, is owner of Audio Video Extremes.

He's been in business almost a decade and opened a retail store in February after years of making it mostly on word of mouth and customer appointments to sell his wares.

Now, you can walk into his store and gaze at the latest in high-definition televisions, speakers for home and car, and just about any other electronic gadget you'd care to see or hear.

Part of his showroom is a home theater. Complete with lounge chairs, a 138-inch curved-screen television and a starlit ceiling, you can buy it as a package for about $28,000. He says he sells one or two a month.

Erkens is an electronics provider to the rich and famous, though he won't drop names. Being discreet is part of the job.

But you can tell a little about his clientele from the $200,000 custom 1933 Ford truck in the garage. The owner wants a better stereo system installed, so Audio Video Extremes is obliging with an $8,000 setup.

He took a few moments recently to talk about his work and success.

What is your background?

"I'm originally from the Cold Spring area, and I've always been in this business in one way, shape or form. I graduated from Rocori in 1993 and then I didn't go to college. I went to a different school — the one of hard knocks. I bumped my head against a wall for a while. When I left high school, I started in the sales industry, and I really enjoyed it. I started working at RadioShack because the Tandy Corp. needed a manager to take over the Crossroads store. I did that at 18. I enjoyed being around my family — that's first and foremost to me — so I didn't want to do a ton of traveling. RadioShack wanted me to start traveling all over the country, helping other locations. ... Circuit City came to town and I applied and immediately acquired a (sales) position. I was in their President's Club, which meant I was one of the top 50 salespeople out of about 4,300 in their entire organization. So, out of the St. Cloud location, we did very well."

What other work experience did you have?

"I was (at Circuit City) about three years. Then I went to Audio King, which became Ultimate Electronics, and after a month, I'd outsold their top salesperson and made the Crown Club, which was a minimum of $1 million in personal sales every year. Your customer service scores also had to be in the top percentage as well. I earned that designation in all but two of the 10 years I was with the company. I got into management, and that became more than the selling. ... I met my wife at Audio King. ... A mutual friend brought her in to the store once, and I sold her a 25-inch television. Conversation led from one thing to another, and now we've been married 14 years and have three little boys and one more on the way."

What led you to start your own business?

"When they closed the St. Cloud Ultimate Electronics, my wife gave me six months to make a go of it on my own. She's like, 'You know all the contacts.' I'd negotiated with all the manufacturers we carry, and they were some of the best in the industry. I knew what Audio King and Ultimate was paying for product, and I said I'd buy it, make it exclusive, but I had to pay what they were paying. And that's the model we've followed today."

How did it begin?

"It was April 2005, and my business partner was Jay Schulzetenberg. He ran the install side, and I handled sales, marketing, negotiating — basically everything else. Jodi helped us with the paperwork, and we just flourished. Last year, we bought Jay out of the company, but he's still one of our installers. Without him, we couldn't have started because I was able to focus on finding clients, and he was able to do the installations. But when we wanted to open the retail store, Jay didn't feel that was a logical direction. But business is up 35 percent since we opened. And, to give you an idea, we have these Stealth Acoustics speakers that are invisible — they're in the wall — and in nine years we sold two pair. They're about $1,200. Since we've been open and people can come in this room and hear them and see how they're invisible, we've sold 28 pair in nine months."

What is your business philosophy, and how is it different having a store?

"I've pretty much learned everything hands-on, even sales — although I did sell Kirby vacuums for about six months, until I got shot at. Most of my sales experience since has been better. I've learned as much as I can from the people around me, and I look to people who have succeeded, not only in the industry. ... Your first impression with a client is always the best. Many of our clients have become really good friends, and we try to develop a relationship. They bring other people to us. ... In business, sooner or later something's going to go awry. It's how you take care of your customers in those situations that makes the difference."

What is your client base?

"Our customer is the person who doesn't want to be worried about how something is going to work, they just want it to work. ... We have people in all walks of life, but a lot of our clients are in the medical profession, but we have people in other professions, too. Our systems start at a reasonable price, but yet we can design whatever they would like to invest in. Their imagination is the only limitation.

"We've had clients that have put us on their planes to take us to their homes to take care of their system. We've done systems all over the country. But the majority of our work is in a 50-mile radius of St. Cloud."

What is the most outrageous system you've installed?

"We have a client of ours in Glenwood that, when we first met, his house was at 4,200 square feet. His house right now is at 15,800 square feet. He's a big-game hunter, and his passion is Africa. We lit his entire area with fiber optics, on the top level and lower level, so that his animals would go from sunrise to sunset like in the Serengeti. We have music that automatically turns on for different animals, whether it be an elephant or a warthog or a giraffe. He's got two different theater rooms, one for himself and one for his grandkids. The one for his grandkids has a full 3-D, 103-inch system that's hooked up to PlayStations. The kids also have driving seats with full simulators. The seats move to the games. He lives for his grandkids, but his own theater has a 110-inch screen where he can log into his server, pull up his computer screen in the corner while he's still watching the news programs or whatever. While we were doing the house, he also added a miniature golf course in the front yard. The course is the big five trophies — elephant, lion, black rhino and so on. Each of the greens is one of the big five, and we have waterfalls that look like they're from Tanzania, and we helped with the audio and lighting for that particular project. That's probably one of the more tasteful, over-the-top things we've done. It's probably close to about a half-million dollars in work we've done there. We hand-installed all the constellations in his ceiling. It wasn't the easy panels. We did overnights for four weeks. A couple of the guys working up in the ceiling during the daytime had heat stroke, so we had to work from 9 at night until 9 in the morning. You had to drill a hole for each fiber. And when there are 4,300 fibers, that takes a while."

Where do you want to go from here?

"I don't want to sacrifice quality to get quantity. I'm very selective of who I bring onto our staff, and we have about 16 people right now. I would like to see further growth. We have a strong passion for all the toys we offer. A lot of times our employees are our best customer. We've been approached to expand in other areas of the state, and I could see that. Probably not this year or next year, but who knows? We'd never be here if it wasn't for strong backbone and the help of a lot of good people. We went through one of the hardest recessions, and the stuff we do is the first thing to go. But we stayed busy. We never laid anybody off. We stayed trim and, at that point, we would've rather done that than had it affect our people. For that, our people really fight to make us better, and they all have a strong passion for what they do."

Know a bright, young professional?

Perhaps you're aware of a burgeoning business talent in Central Minnesota, someone who might not be CEO yet, but has the innovative, creative and unique ideas that make them special. We want to interview those people for Bright Ideas. If you have a suggestion, call Times Business Reporter Kevin Allenspach at 320-255-8745 or email kallenspach@stcloudtimes.com and help us make an introduction with our readers.

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