Jands' grand tour: Australia's Jands Electronics finds a wider market by narrowing its focus


"You know how government policy shapes the development of big corporations--Ford and GM, IBM and AT&T," reminds Jands director Paul Mulholland. "You don't often think it could happen in the little bitty rock-and-roll industry, but it does! It forces you to do things differently, and probably the company and the country benefit from it." The story of how Jands Electronics grew from a production company making much of its own equipment to one of Australia's largest importers and exporters of lighting desks and dimmers is a story of a maturing entertainment industry and a nation that has decided the big, global market is better than the small, local market.

Jands started in the 60s as a partnership between Bruce Jackson and Philip Story, hence the name "Jands," from "J and S." Paul Mulholland and his partner Eric Robinson bought the company in 1970. At that time Jands was primarily an audio rental company that also handled lighting equipment--"predominantly psychedelic lighting," says Mulholland.

Although it was mostly a rental company, manufacturing was an important part of the operation because much of Jands' equipment was built by Jands. "We used to build for our own use, because the [import] duties were so high," says Mulholland. "We were paying up to a 50% import duty, so it made sense to build our own, and--because I think we built reasonably good stuff--other people would buy it."

The manufacturing and sales part of the operation formally split from the rental, now called Jands Production Services, in 1973, but the co-owned companies have maintained a close relationship. "My partner runs the hire and I run the importing. We argue and carry on, but at the end of the day I'll always give in to him on the hire, and he always gives in to me on the sales. That way, the partnership never self-destructs," says Mulholland.

The two companies had a synergistic effect on each other: The rentals helped market the Jands Electronics products, and the manufacturing supplied Jands Production Services with top-quality equipment. "People would see our rental system in their theatre and say, 'Can I buy one of those?' " Mulholland recalls. "We were, without any doubt, Australia's largest audio contracting company. For 15 years we were building equipment that we used ourselves, that we sold to other people, and we did a little bit of sales."

In 1984 Jands took over the local JBL agency, "and that was the very first time that Jands started importing equipment," says Mulholland. "In the same year we took on CCT for luminaires. The next 10 years was really a progression of unwinding certain elements of the manufacturing and the contracting, and building up the importing and the distribution."

This coincided with, and was in large part caused by, a change in the import duties. "We had a highly protected manufacturing industry, so you could run a manufacturing operation building small-run, niche products for the Australian market," explains Mulholland. "I think the government realized that the long-term success of manufacturing was to have a broader customer base, so what it did was very gradually reduce the tariffs.

"Companies like Jands had to look very critically at our manufacturing strengths and weaknesses, and we realized that there were companies overseas doing things much bigger and better, which the economies of scale allowed them to do, and that they were going to crush us eventually," explains Mulholland. "So we decided we'd progressively stop building various things, and replace them with imported products--this was mainly in audio. Then we looked at where we thought we could be competitive internationally, which was in lighting."

Mulholland points out that the live entertainment lighting market is served by many small companies, while the audio market is dominated by a few very large ones. "We thought if we concentrated everything on building world-class products in that market [lighting], we could compete successfully with similar-size companies, whereas we wouldn't be able to compete in mixing consoles against people like Midas, Soundcraft, and Yamaha, because they were 10- to 20-fold bigger than us. Now we represent that sort of product and sell it successfully, but we still have a thriving manufacturing business."

Jands Electronics Pty. Ltd. now imports a broad range of audio products, from companies such as Clear-Com, dbx, JBL, Rane, Shure, Soundcraft, Spirit, and Crest Audio. "The last [Jands-built audio product] to go was power amps, about three years ago," says Mulholland. "We saw smarts [computer intelligence] starting to come into power amps, and they wanted to be computer-controlled and software-driven, and we realized that was going to be a huge R&D process. We wound down our amp manufacturing and concentrated on dimmers, and we've more than replaced our amp business with our increased dimmer business--and I think we're still just scratching the surface in dimmers."

Jands' newest dimmer is the HP12, a 12x10A dimmer pack that mounts in a standard 19" (48cm) equipment rack and takes up only 7" (18cm) of height. The dimmer has a membrane keyboard that allows many parameters such as output voltage, preheat, dimming curve, and DMX address to be set quickly and easily. "We have been very, very successful, both locally and in Southeast Asia, with this new HP dimmer," says Mulholland. "It's getting some excellent comments from a lot of touring people, because the rental company [Jands Production Services] owns a lot of them."

Touring is a part of life in Australia. The population centers are on the circumference of the continent, with major ones in the southwest and the southeast, and well over 2,000 miles (3,200km) between Sydney and Perth. Successful music acts also leave the continent to play in New Zealand and all over Southeast Asia.

The lighting products Jands builds come out of that tradition of live concert touring. The desks in the Jands line--the Event, the ESP II, and the Jands Hog 250 and 600--have as common features rugged construction and lots of sliders and buttons that allow a lighting designer to quickly create new looks onstage. The Jands Hogs are particularly interesting because they are a collaboration between Flying Pig Systems and Jands. They offer the features of Flying Pig Systems' Wholehog II, but with fewer channels, on a reliable, tourable hardware platform built by Jands.

Jands Electronics has its roots in live music, but today it serves a broad range of live entertainment productions and venues. ETC luminaires and control consoles fill out the lighting line, and Jands can also supply drapery and full theatre rigging systems, with domestically built components and parts and products from Hoffend in the US.

"We see Hoffend as a source of innovative standalone products, like the Magic-Lok ropelock for retrofitting into existing counterweight lines," says Mulholland. He is also looking forward to working with Hoffend on some of the large projects that are certain to be proposed as Sydney gears up for the Olympics in 2000. "If you've got a problem to solve, you're better off looking around at how other people do it. And if we can tap into Hoffend's expertise, it usually ends up producing a cost-effective solution, because we don't have to reinvent the wheel. We find the relevant expertise wherever it lies."

While Jands is importing more equipment now than before, its decision to concentrate on manufacturing lighting controls has paid off because it is also building more. "Our manufacturing business has doubled in the last couple of years," says Mulholland.

To facilitate the increased manufacturing, last year Jands Electronics moved from a 30,000-sq.-ft. (2,700-sq.-m) plant in St. Peters, near the Sydney airport, to a new building in the nearby town of Mascot. "It's probably 25% larger," says Mulholland, "but it's certainly 50% more efficient." Jands Electronics shares the site with Jands Production Services, which has been on that lot for some years. "The rental moved to the front half of the building while we demolished the back half, and we built a parking lot and the rental company factory. Then they moved out of the front into their facility, we knocked the front down, and then rebuilt that for us. It's really two separate factories on one site."

The new facility has a large, open office space, and the manufacturing area is modern and airy. "We've also upgraded our manufacturing equipment considerably," Mulholland says. "We've got a surface-mount robot to make the circuit boards, and we've got a half-million-dollar sheet metal punch to modernize the metalwork.

"So now we're a fairly big importer and distributor, and a fairly large (by Australian terms) exporter," continues Mulholland. "I think it's been achieved by concentrating and specializing. Rather than trying to build 25 products for one country--Australia--we now build one product for 25 countries around the world. And that allows us to get better at what we do, and grow."