In this episode…
Join David Hernandez, host of There’s Always a Lyric, as he speaks with Bob Marcantonio, who has an incredible career spanning over thirty years as President of Levin Consulting, The pair discuss the future of consumer electronics, challenges for the industry, and more!
David Hernandez (00:45)
Welcome to another episode of There’s Always a Lyric. Today my guest is Bob Marcantonio, a friend, colleague, and someone I’ve known in the agency life since literally the first year we were in business, thirteen years ago. Bob has an incredible career spanning over thirty years as President of Levin Consulting, an incredible CE and tech-focused consulting firm, that focuses on retail strategies and distributions for brands. Now Bob is President Emeritus, which he’ll explain, at Levin Consulting. So, without further ado, welcome Bob. My dear friend, how are you?
Bob Marcantonio (01:30)
Thank you, David. I’m doing very well, very well. Sitting in my basement in Cleveland, Ohio.
David Hernandez (01:37)
I see that, like I am in my basement in New Jersey. I wanted to start with just where we are right now, being President Emeritus, and how did it evolve into that role, and what does that mean.
Bob Marcantonio (01:49)
President Emeritus, it means that you’re old. It means that you’ve turned the reigns over, which is what I’ve done. I’m 66 years old, I’ve been in this business for a long, long time and you get to a certain point in your career, in your life, and say that “enough is enough”. I think the analogy, the thought that I keep putting into your head is that you got to stop and get off the hamster wheel so that you can go and enjoy your life. As they say, “enjoy the fruits of your labors”. But for me it’s great because it gives me opportunity to enjoy the things I haven’t been able to do over my career, take longer vacations, spend time with my family and grandchildren, but still keeping my foot in the door about sixteen hours a week and it fords me the opportunity to work with clients, keep engaged with what is happening in the industry, and keep learning. The most important thing is that I keep challenging myself. I’m not looking to join another company or start a new career, it’s to keep my mind fresh.
David Hernandez (03:18)
Right, and you have a very long and connected career to the consumer electronics, consumer technology space. You’ve watched all the changes, all of the evolutions, from the days of dedicated HI-FI audio stores to the rise of big box, and online, and of course Amazon. You have kind have seen all of that and I think it would be hard to completely let go of it and not continue to watch changes and evolutions in the industry.
Bob Marcantonio (03:54)
Yeah, I love gadgets, I love innovation. I also love working with entrepreneurs because they have such great passion even though they may not make the best businesspeople. I don’t know what it is, but there’s that excitement that they generate that is fun to be around and it’s contagious.
David Hernandez (04:21)
How did this all get started for you? How did you end up with a 30-year career at Levin Consulting?
Bob Marcantonio (04:30)
Well, it goes even back before that because I grew up in Chicago even though I live in Cleveland now. I started selling office equipment. You know if you want to talk about learning how to cut your teeth, that’s the foundation that doesn’t give you any better opportunity because it tests your mettle. Back in the days, in the early 80s, when we were selling word processors and fax machines and this was even before computers and stuff, we would be doing 100 cold calls a day in the city of Chicago, so you’ll learn very quickly that you got to thicken up your skin a little bit and not take things personally. And you have to learn to be a little bit creative, in order to be able to get around certain obstacles, whether it was the receptionist, the office, whoever it was, I had a job to do, and I had to make money, and back then we weren’t making a lot of money. Remember, those days, when you made money is when you sold something. So that’s how I got into it. And then we expanded the business when consumer electronics started morphing into the computer space, we got into that, we opened some retail stores in the city of Chicago. And then, like all good husbands, my wife wanted to move back to Cleveland. And at that point, it was probably a good time for us. We were living in the city of Chicago, and it was a good time for us to be able to try something new. And that’s when I went to a company called LDI. And we opened computer superstores. That was back when CompUSA was just in its infancy. Remember, we had computers city, which was back then, but we’re dealing bit mostly with computer virus, value added resellers, and they had medallions for like IBM and Compaq brands like that. And we wanted to create the environment of an office superstore that made it more of a consumer business. And we did that. And Adam Levin, who I’d been working with for the past 30 years, approached me because we actually did a project with him – we were a retailer when he was doing consulting, we did a project with IBM options. And at that point it was probably right for a change because I don’t think I was ever really made and built for retail, working weekends, hours, and everything else. And so, I made the change over into consulting and back then it was just me, Adam, a gentleman by the name of Jeff Morgan, and another woman named Casey. And this is just the beginning of it.
David Hernandez (07:41)
Right, it was just this core team that started it.
Bob Marcantonio (07:43)
Right. But you know, even then, it was really in its infancy. That was still really computers, it really wasn’t consumer electronics. We worked with people like Adobe and Apple, it was really hardware and software oriented, right? Because that’s what you sold, that was what was available. And then the consumer electronics space morphed and it became one. We used to have Comdex in November, and then we would have CES in January. We’d go to shows to Las Vegas in a very short period of time. And then it eventually became one where it became the Consumer Electronics Show. And that’s where we’re sort of at today, where we have the integration of both computer technology and consumer electronics into one, and it’s continuing to grow. So that was sort of the path that led me to being in this business.
David Hernandez (08:41)
And really launching your career at Levin Consulting. How do you see CES now, after looking at it for 30 years, and riding all those different waves?
Bob Marcantonio (08:52)
I think the challenge that CES has going forward is to be relevant. You know, its purpose, if you think about it, when it was developed was an opportunity for brands to be able to showcase their new technologies. And that’s where every Samsung, every major IBM, they all had their big announcements about what was happening, right? That doesn’t exist anymore, because with everything happening in real time with the internet, it just doesn’t have it. I think the opportunity is probably for some of the smaller vendors like Eureka Park where they have a lot of the crowdfunded people and a lot of the new technologies. And that seems to be where in talking with a lot of retailers out there, that’s where they spend their time because they’re looking for the next big thing, or the next thing that they need to make sure that they have on their shelves. So, I think that becomes even more important, but you also mentioned automotive. Automotive is big because the integration with autonomous driving and then the integration of all the consumer electronics, technology, artificial intelligence, all that stuff is being built into automobiles and it almost sir plants the auto shows. You go to the auto shows today because I’m an avid car guy, and you don’t really see a lot of new stuff. I think that the auto shows, they’re following in the same suit as CES, where they become less relevant in today’s world.
David Hernandez (10:39)
An interesting point that you brought up about Eureka Park because, Eureka Park is international. I mean, there’s literally a section for almost every country. And it seems like that’s where a lot of the new innovation is coming from. The startups from the US, but also from all over the world.
Bob Marcantonio (11:02)
I mean, t’s a global economy today. We didn’t have that 20 years ago. The internet has really changed that and afforded us that opportunity. So that’s where I think is, as you said, Eureka Park and stuff is really where it’s happening. And you know, even things like, it’s a good opportunity with like Showstoppers and all those types of things where they have the opportunity to have all the press from around the world, be able to showcase some new and innovative technologies, I think that’s equally as important.
David Hernandez (11:35)
And in terms of the retailer landscape, and I think you and I have talked about this in the past, that has changed drastically in terms of CES and their attendance and what they’re actually doing there versus in the past, where they literally were placing orders on the floor.
Bob Marcantonio (11:56)
Yeah, they placed orders, they had large contingencies. Today they send people sort of anonymous, and the bulk of their time is spent in Eureka Park. And for Samsung and people like that to be able to have their booths, they see, and they meet with retailers on a regular basis. I guarantee you that Best Buy has several very important meetings throughout the year with Samsung regarding phones and TVs and stuff because they have to have inventory. So they know exactly what’s coming down the pipe, right? So why do they need to go there and do that? And it just really, it doesn’t exist anymore. So, retailers are really using it to really look for new innovation.
David Hernandez (12:50)
What do you see in terms of – if you had a crystal ball of the future of CES?
Bob Marcantonio (12:57)
I think there’s a couple things that have to happen. These technologies are all great, but the problem is there’s still some differing standards. If you have that, it causes still confusion with consumers. You got Google, you got Apple, so you got a HomeKit, and then you got Amazon with Alexa. There has to be an easier integration so that all these things have the ability to be able to work together. When you have each of these camps playing it makes it difficult. So, when ends up happening is people pick their loyalties, right? I’m an Apple guy, I’m an Amazon guy, but there isn’t that overlap. It keeps it sort of in siloed, so with that being the case, I think that there has to be better integration. But yeah, all this stuff is really coming to the forefront in terms of making our life easier. You know, I look at my own house, I have so much automation, there isn’t anything in my house that I don’t try to automate. I have a pond in the backyard with a fountain that I tell Alexa to turn it on. I drive into my garage, like my cue connects, it opens the garage door because it’s got geofencing from my phone. My heat, everything is controlled. It’s so bad that I had to put a generator in my house because I’m afraid that if the Wi-Fi goes down, I’m in trouble because literally everything is controlled.
David Hernandez (14:53)
That’s wild, so you are the customer.
Bob Marcantonio (14:57)
I am not an early adopter, I’m an early majority. I have an electric car, but I didn’t buy the first ones. I’m on the forefront of it before a lot of other people. But really, that’s what’s happening with all this is that it will become common place for your lights, your heating, and all those types of things to be easily integrated into your life so that it makes it easier for us. And then you talk about VR and stuff. We’ve had this discussion many times. To me, VR is difficult because you’re asking people that’s changed behavior. Whenever we ask people to change behavior, which is put these goggles on and live in a universe like that. It takes a long time to embrace. Now gamers and stuff are used to doing that, which is why where you see AI really having his benefit is from either counsel gaming or computer gaming. And the other interesting one, to me is AI, because AI is embedded in everything that we do, we don’t even realize it. And I think the challenge is that there’s a lot of people that don’t understand it so they’re afraid of it. And my concern is that we’re going to throttle it through government regulations and stuff, because of the fact that they’re scared of it. Instead of embracing it and trying to figure out how we utilize it to really be more advantageous in our daily lives because it’s here, it’s it isn’t going away.
David Hernandez (16:39)
You know, the news flash is it’s been here for a while.
Bob Marcantonio (16:42)
Oh, yeah. People don’t realize that. When you’re searching on Amazon, and they pop up another ad, where do you think that came from? They didn’t magically pick your brain and say, “oh, yeah, I think he’s going to buy some diapers.” And I didn’t mean diapers for people my age, I meant for my grandkids.
David Hernandez (17:09)
That was good. Slightly off the CES-thing, but related. There are many agencies that do consulting, and do retail consulting, and do retail strategies. You guys have been around for 30 years. What makes it different? What do you think made Levin Consulting this 30-year relevant company in consulting, specifically in tech? What was the why that made it different from other ones that kind of came and went?
Bob Marcantonio (17:48)
I guess I could answer this – I’ve been watching the TV program Suits, where everybody has this overabundance of confidence, and I could say it was me. But no, it’s not really. It’s the people, the people are really the difference and the experiences that those people bring, that help us round out a strategy executional phase for our clients. And then the other thing that I think that really sets us apart is their passion. You gotta have a passion for this business. And we do that. So that’s why I said, I love working with entrepreneurs, because I love their passion. And when you marriage great people with good experiences and successful experience, and then you layer on passion with it, our clients see that, and they know that we’re going to bat for them. You know, we’re not like Suits where we’re billing them on an hourly basis. We don’t work like that and that was never our philosophy. It was we wanted them to feel that we’re working on their behalf. The other thing is that we’re very candid. We don’t pull any punches. I think that there’s a lot of agencies out there that tell people what they want to hear, because they want to keep their business. I’m interested in success. I’m interested in success for my clients. And with that being the case, we have to tell them many times that what they’re doing is wrong, or you need to look at it with a different set of eyes. I think the other thing that we do is we don’t believe that we have all the answers. You can’t go into anything believing that it’s your way or the highway kind of thing because the reality is, I learned so much from different people on a daily basis that those things, those little nuggets that I just happened to glimpse from someone I integrate into a strategy or a conversation with somebody else. And that’s critical because I’m not the only person in the world who has a brain. There’s a lot of people out there, we have to tap into that, because one of the first questions that I ever ask a client or even a potential prospect is, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve? If it isn’t real, I don’t care how much money you’re going to throw at it, or how much time you’re going to invest in it. The fact of the matter is, it’s not going to win, okay? It’s tough enough to bring a product to market, let alone when you’re trying to create a demand for it, because people don’t get what the problem is. And the other thing I tell people is, you can’t be a commodity. I mean, if you’re a commodity, you’re playing price, and you gotta make sure you get the lowest price possible, because somebody’s always going to try to knock you off that throne. So be unique and if there’s no uniqueness, and you’re not solving a real problem, I’ll tell them don’t waste their money. It just does not make sense. When you start with that premise, it’s easy to build on always being honest with them because they understand that you’re looking at their best interest at heart.
David Hernandez (21:27)
Have there been any learning moments in your life, in terms of failures, or something that you walked away from and said, I’m never going to forget that or I’m never going to do that again – something that really stuck with you?
Bob Marcantonio (21:42)
I’m constantly learning and to me, that’s the most important thing. If you’re not failing on a daily basis, you’re not trying. To me, it’s all about what can I learn from that instance, and it could be something insignificant, it could be the way that I negotiated with my AT&T bill or something. What I’m saying is, I try to learn from them so that it helped build and rounds me out as a person. There isn’t like this aha moment where I said, “Oh my God, I wish I would have done that”. There’s probably 1000 times I would have said that. But you know what, you can’t second guess yourself, you have to stick with your convictions and go with it. As long as you’re not doing it with any maliciousness or things like that, it’s really more of the fact that, I’m trying my best and I’m going to learn from it. And I’m going to take that going forward so that it will be hopefully something that helps build on the next success.
David Hernandez (23:01)
When you look back at your career, are there certain people that you think about that were really instrumental in helping you just either as mentors or as coaches that helped guide you in some way? Helped open your eyes about certain things that really impacted the way you went about your career and went about your work?
Bob Marcantonio (23:22)
I think, as I said in the previous thing, there isn’t one person that stands out. I could say I’ve worked with Adam for 30 years, and I’ve learned an incredible amount from Adam, he’s challenged me. Previous jobs or teachers – it’s everybody. Whether it’s part time people that worked with us that had a really cool idea that I never thought of before; it’s all those types of things. Honestly, I don’t ever close myself off to believing that I have all the answers, as I said before, so I try to learn from everybody. I don’t believe I’m better than anybody. I don’t believe I’m smarter than anybody. But I think what I do is I assemble, or I collect the way that people think about things, and I try to frame it into solutions that will be beneficial to my life to my clients, to whatever the case may be. But that’s everybody. I guess my neighbor next door. He’s a great guy. He’s an entrepreneur. He’s got his own lawn landscaping. I learned a lot from him. He’s got a great philosophy on life, about his business. I try to integrate that into the things that I do.
David Hernandez (24:53)
While speaking about learning from life, how do you find balance?
Bob Marcantonio (24:58)
Good question. I don’t think I was balanced. I think that we talked about this, the generation today is completely different. They are more about a good balance, which is the right thing to do, that you gotta have a personal life that you have to have a business life. When we were growing up, I didn’t take a vacation for like the first four years. I was climbing up the ladder kind of thing, working as hard as I did. And then when I joined Levin Consulting, I traveled a ton, because we had offices in Europe and in Asia, and I had to do those. Plus, back then clients wanted you to be at their facilities, so we spent a lot of time. I credit my wife with raising my kids, so I don’t think I had balance. And it wasn’t until that I was able to remove myself from that situation, that I realized that things that I actually missed, and was yearning for. And that was family and that was leisure. Just enjoying life on a more regular basis. And I can honestly say, now that I look at it, my stress is reduced by about 80 to 90%. And I enjoy the relationships that I have with my family with my grandchildren. And I still have the opportunity to work on an occasional basis. So that keeps me in tune. I wish somebody would have told me this. Back when I was 30 years old, but again, it was a different time, and they would have looked at you and said you’re lazy or you’re a slacker, you have no motivation.
David Hernandez (26:57)
Do you have any advice for younger people who want a career in consulting or in retail, or specifically, in doing the kind of work you do with consumer tech?
Bob Marcantonio (27:09)
Balance is it. I wrote down, be passionate, because if you’re not passionate, then you’re in a rut, because you’re gonna go to work and you’re going to hate it, and you’re not going to be the best you can be. The other thing is, don’t chase money or titles. Because if you’re good, they’ll come. If you get hung up on that, then the reality is that you’re not going to give it your best because you may compromise based on you getting to a certain level or a certain pay grade, and who says that you’re even going to be happy when you get there. The other thing I did is, be fearless because business is not for the weak of heart. You need to stand up for yourself, stand up for your ideas. But you also have to invest, you better make sure that you’re working hard and you’re working smart because you put that together with being fearless, that’s a great combination. You got to push yourself outside your comfort zone because it’s easy to get in a rut, or it’s easy to stay complacent. You have to push and to me it’s not even in your business life, it’s in everything,
David Hernandez (28:27)
My favorite question, which is the last question and the title of this podcast. if there is one song title or song lyric that captures you or your journey, what would it be?
Bob Marcantonio (28:43)
As I told you, I’m glad that you said song title versus lyric, because there’s a lot of lyrics. The title that I give you does not have a happy ending in the song, so it’s the premise of what it is. And it’s Lucky Man by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
David Hernandez (29:00)
Oh wow, that’s very lucky.
Bob Marcantonio (29:04)
To have spent a lot of years in a career that is something that I enjoy doing, that I have passion for, and I’m lucky to have shared it with many, many people and learn from many people. And I’m lucky because I have a great family, and I’m lucky for the fact that I’m 66 years old and I’m still here. Still kicking.
David Hernandez (29:34)
That’s a great response. It sounds like gratitude. That really is the measure of success in the end. It’s not about what you accumulated. It’s really about what’s your life been like, and when you look at it, and you can look at it the way you’re looking at it objectively and say, this has been a really great life for me. I’ve been so lucky to be able to do something that I have passion about.
Bob Marcantonio (29:59)
The industry has been good to me, the companies have been good to me, my friends have been good to me. Yes, are there tough times with anything? Sure. But the good outweighs the bad and for me to be able to be in a position today where I’m at and enjoying my life, it’s afforded me to get to his point.
David Hernandez (30:50)
What more could you ask for, right? Well Bob, thank you so much for taking the time for this podcast. I find it so fascinating to talk to you, especially with your takes on the industry and I know I can always count on you to be honest, which is something because that’s rare with people that tell you how they really feel when you ask them, “tell me what you think of this.” If you don’t want to know, don’t ask Bob because he’s gonna tell you. To me, that’s a great asset to be able to be that person. And certainly, over the years, you have given me great advice.
Bob Marcantonio (31:40)
I only do that with my friends David, so I consider you a long-time friend.
David Hernandez (31:46)
When we both wore a younger man’s clothes. Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure. Keep enjoying that life you have now because it is precious.
Bob Marcantonio (32:00)
Keep in touch with Bob: