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Talking to Richard Glikes, President and CEO of bespoke buying group, Azione Unlimited, is a bit like talking to a calm elder statesman; he’s been around long enough to have lived through recessions, disruptions and now pandemics but youthful and energetic enough to know that regardless of the economic environment that’s thrown your way, there are always opportunities to grow a business and more importantly, to still have fun, a word Glikes uses often to describe both the industry and his business.
Richard Glikes has been in the buying group business for over 25 years, the last ten as the founder and owner of Azione Unlimited, a specialty buying group housed in an historic century house in the outskirts of Philadelphia, that focuses exclusively on the Custom Install channel. “We are in the relationship business” says Glikes. “Many dealers don’t realize that they are experiencing the same challenges and anxieties as everyone else, so in a way, we break down those islands by building a collaborative environment focusing on education and resources, that are designed not only to alleviate some anxiety, but to also provide the tools to allow our member businesses to grow. We often hear members saying, ‘Wow I thought I was the only guy that had that problem’. You soon recognize that the challenges that one dealer holds are often shared by many dealers. We put those challenges in the cement mixer and it comes out quite nicely! That in a sense is what a buying group is about; we build community, trust and we share resources among our members to make them profitable.”
Over a decade ago, Glikes saw a wave of retailers moving to industrial parks and clients no longer wanting to go to retail stores, but instead wanting something unique just for them. Glikes saw that trend as an opportunity to establish a group catering exclusively to such dealers that would in turn, become known as the CI channel. He started Azione in 2011 and today the group has grown to 234 dealers throughout the United States and Canada and partners with over 70 CI vendors including Savant, Audioquest, Lyngdorf Audio and Sonos, who picked Azione as their first ever buying group partner in 2018. “Back when we started, CI the way we know it today, didn’t really exist, we were simply talking about being in people’s homes and solving their problems, almost all one-offs. Nothing was cookie cutter” reminisces Glikes, “Our job back then was to create something that brought people joy and happiness, and all these years later, that remains our goal.”
In addition to partner programs and dealer buying power that surpasses $950 million, the group presently has 234 dealers throughout the United States and Canada
Lately, Azione Unlimited has seen a growth opportunity by expanding to Canada. “We have always known there are some fantastic dealers in Canada” stated Glikes, “and our vendor partners really encouraged us to look north of the border to encourage those dealers to be part of the Azione family. We are looking for CI dealers doing at least a million dollars who envision themselves being a two or three-million-dollar business,” adds Glikes.
Azione sees strength in remaining an intimate buying group and acknowledges they say no to more dealers than they bring onboard. Azione says their sweet spot is to have around 250 U.S dealers and between 34 to 40 Canadian dealers. Being selective on who can join the group, allows Glikes to boast that his members took seven of the 12 best-in-class CEDIA Awards in 2020.
“I think one of the misconceptions of joining our group is that it will be expensive” says Glikes who is forthcoming that it costs a Canadian dealer about $400 CDN a quarter to be part of Azione. In addition to partner programs and dealer buying power that surpasses $950 million, Glikes emphasizes the sense of community that comes from being part of the group. “From March to October we have held over 55 webinars, meetings and presentations, in addition to a virtual three-day conference attended by close to 400 dealers and vendor partners” says Glikes who says “one of the most popular offerings in a time of Covid, is what he calls “fireside chats” with vendors speaking in a very casual atmosphere talking more about life than products. We try to ensure that our meetings are valuable for the environment we find ourselves in, so we have held discussions on how to apply for loans, managing cash flow and we even brought in an Interior Designer to talk about working with custom installers from their perspective.”
“It’s always been about education and relationship building” adds Glikes who takes great pride in how Azione has pivoted to keep the dialogue going even when in-person meetings are not possible at this time.
Asked what worries him about the business, Glikes reflects that “as an industry, we are doing a poor job in attracting young people to a career in CI. They are going into IT or mechanics or other fields but not consumer electronics. “I worry for the work force development and I also think existing CI businesses need to spend more time developing strong operational infrastructure and especially the development of confident middle management. Every business needs a great #2 and a great #3 person. That creates stability, succession and a trajectory for growth.”
“This is a lovely industry” concludes Glikes. “We have everything – design, sound, building, detail, there’s a lot of dimensions to what we do. Everyday can be different. It’s a nice livelihood.”