CEO | Sound United
An Unmatched Level of Commitment
Kevin Duffy has been with Sound United since 2003 and has served that company in a number of roles prior to his ascent to CEO in 2016, including as Chief Financial Officer, President of Directed Electronics, and Senior Vice President of Corporate Development, Marketing, and Investor Relations. As he has for his entire career, Duffy has made significant contributions to Sound United and has consistently showcased a steadfast commitment for improving the organization’s performance and delivering high-quality products to their customers. At the time of his appointment to CEO, Duffy said, “I have had the privilege to work on some of the most compelling products in consumer electronics with incredibly passionate and competent employees, customers, and partners. I’m looking forward to continuing to propel each of Sound United’s brands forward in the audio category, while also providing support to the Directed leadership team.” Some four years later, he has done exactly that.
When Duffy was a young boy growing up in Southern California, that aforementioned propensity for commitment surfaced early, as he began playing football as an eight-year-old. So committed to the sport was Duffy, that he was eventually recruited to play at Princeton University. “I was absolutely blown away when I visited the campus, and looking back, it’s clear that attending Princeton changed my life, because the experience opened my eyes and my mind, exposing me to so much academically, culturally, and socially that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise,” he recalls. “In fact, I often encourage my own kids (he has three) to go away for college; it’s a special time for them to experience the world.” Duffy got his start in the CE business as a consultant for Clarion and later joined Directed Electronics, the predecessor company of Sound United. “At the time, we didn’t own any audio brands like we do now, but we started building what would become Sound United through acquisitions, developing a platform of the most premium and luxury audio brands in the world. So, I’ve been with the company now for nearly 20 years,” he says. What he’s learned during the last two decades is pretty clear – a rolling stone truly doesn’t gather any moss; as he explains: “What I find so incredible about Sound United is that we don’t sit still — we’re constantly evolving — and we’re a completely different company than we were at the start. And that willingness to grow and adapt speaks to why we’re well positioned to succeed in the future.” When it comes to thinking about what has stood out in his career, Duffy is quick to credit the people he works with, saying, “Looking back, I’m most proud of the team we’ve assembled at Sound United. The people I get to work with every day are passionate about music and audio, and they care deeply about our company, the industry, and most importantly, the quality of the products and services that we deliver to our customers.” He adds that Sound United’s brand acquisitions have also been a career highlight for him. “Together, we made something out of nothing; it’s been a wild and satisfying ride and I can’t wait for what is next,” Duffy says. “We’ve identified powerhouse brands like Denon, Marantz, Polk Audio, Definitive Technology, Classé, and now Bowers & Wilkins — brands that have prospered for decades, developed by great people and amazing products — and we’ve created a portfolio that allows these brands to flourish.”
Regarding his management style, Duffy explains that Sound United’s company values drive his own style, saying his personal style centers on four major points. These, he states, are as follows: “One – True North, which means we are intellectually honest. In other words, we aren’t political, we are direct, and we strive to eliminate bureaucracy wherever possible. Two – The Band Comes First, in that we are very collegial. I love working with my team; teamwork is something I have always enjoyed, whether it’s at work or playing sports. It’s critical that each person knows their role and how to work well with others. We are a global enterprise, so we need to be able to extend that collaboration cross-country and cross-continent. Three – Own the Stage, which refers to personal accountability. I don’t ask people to do things I wouldn’t do myself. I wake up each morning feeling energized, hoping to do even better than the day before. And lastly, four – Bias for Action, which speaks to a relentless pursuit of perfection. Someone, somewhere, is always inventing something new, so we need to stay ahead of the curve. Lastly, I think our culture is humble. We know the people who matter most are our customers and our employees.”
There are always influencers that impact a career, and Duffy points to a few, both inside and outside the CE industry. “In the CE industry, I admire Dave Limp, senior vice president of Devices and Services at Amazon.com. He’s willing to take risks. I also admire Mike Mohan, president and COO of Best Buy. He’s a straight shooter,” he says. “And in terms of who has influenced me most, I’d have to say my Dad. My Dad grew up on a farm in Iowa. When I was a kid, he drove me and my brothers to Southern California, where he took a job teaching Latin. He’s a very hard worker who is incredibly persistent, honest and an eternal optimist.”
When it comes to the keys to achieving success in this industry, Duffy again talks about team and the importance surrounding himself with top-notch talent. “The sum equation of your performance is everyone you work with. It’s the weighted average of everyone you work with. This philosophy means it’s important to hire the absolute best people you can and then let them lead. Putting all of those talents together in a way that leads to better outcomes for your customers is probably the best advice I’ve received. Without it, the company can’t grow,” he says.
As for the future, Duffy sees technology leading the way, opening up new opportunities, saying, “Looking ahead, I believe music and entertainment will continue to become increasingly important to everyone, and it’s all being enabled by technology. The pandemic has certainly sped up music and movie distribution in the home, and for better or for worse, our new reality brings new opportunities. The customer journey to upgrade their audio experience — what we like to call the ‘flight to quality’ — has also sped up.” Interestingly, he looks at the evolution of the cheeseburger as a perfect analogy to the evolution of the audio industry, explaining, “Back in the 1940s, you’d buy a cheeseburger at a diner, and it was very specialized. Then, McDonald’s changed the game by shifting customers’ focus to convenience, speed, and price. And yet, since then, it has become fragmented again, and now the gourmet, bespoke burger has swung back to being specialized.”
Duffy sees audio going through something very similar, as there was a time when audio was commoditized, and audio products became diminished in value. “The good news is that the baseline of what listeners are looking for has shifted, and we’re back to quality again. For example, audio customers simply expect compatibility with wireless streaming services now. As a result of this baseline shift, listeners today are starting to demand great acoustic quality again to re-elevate their entertainment experience,” he points out. He sees that challenge at Sound United being one of exactly how to demonstrate that quality in a compelling way for consumers. “What is the true nature of what we sell? If our customers aren’t aware of what’s possible when it comes to audio and home theater, it’s a disservice to them because they’ll end up spending money on something that doesn’t necessarily provide an excellent return on their investment. We want customers to love what they buy,” he concludes.
Once the pandemic is behind us all, Duffy adds that he is looking forward to once again being able to attend music festivals with his wife, as their rather eclectic “likes” list includes everything from Dermot Kennedy and Mumford & Sons, to Guns N’ Roses.