Not many businesses can boast of being honored by NATO at the Geneva Convention.
Iola’s Sonic Equipment Company can.
Some clarification may be in order.
NATO, in this case, is the North American Theater Owners, the largest such trade organization in the world, representing roughly 32,000 movie screens in all 50 states and 81 countries worldwide.
And the Geneva Convention — well, it’s a regional trade show for the motion picture industry held each September in Lake Geneva, Wis.
Sonic Equipment earned the Vendor of the Year Award and was featured in BoxOffice Pro Magazine.
It’s the first type of national award for the Iola-based Sonic, which builds, supplies and services cinemas and theaters across 36 states.
“When I came here in 1995, there were four of us,” noted Eric Olson, Sonic’s director of operations. “To go from this tiny little company to be recognized by a national publication like BoxOffice Magazine and by a representative of our national industry for the work we’ve done, is a real testament to Sonic and the people we’ve got here.”
Of particular note during the awards ceremony was Sonic’s involvement as an industry leader in the recent explosion of digital movie technology.
Getting theater owners to buy into digital technology, and replacing film systems that had been around for decades required a substantial amount of trust, Olson noted.
“Digital conversion is an expensive deal,” he said. “You go from a technology they had been using for 57 years, and you go to this new one, with a tenth of the lifespan. And it costs four times as much. There was a real reluctance to having done this.
“We as a company had to be the ones that knew everything, and were knowledgeable with these customers to say, ‘It’s gonna be OK. Here’s how it’s gonna be OK. Here’s why you need to it.’
“We had to be the voice of understanding and reason to all the exhibitors we met.”
While Sonic already had long-standing relationships with companies in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, they weren’t as well known in places like Wisconsin, Iowa and Texas.
“That’s been the amazing part about Wisconsin,” Olson said. “They gave us that same trust the people who have known us for 20-plus years did. It really made special, bonding relationships.”
BUILDING and maintaining relationships is Sonic’s strength, Olson offered.
“This is what these people who work here do better than they do anything else,” he said, “from the techs to the accounting office and customer service, to the installation crews. They all have learned to build relationships, and it’s been so good for our business because we get these tremendous responses.”
The digital explosion began in about 2007, and is “as close as it can be,” complete, Olson said.
That has allowed Sonic to shift gears and increase focus to its next phase — servicing those systems.
Being able to address concerns or fix issues at a moment’s notice is critical.
“We’ve built a network operating center that runs 24/7, and we monitor all of our systems across all of our footprint,” Olson said. “We connect remotely to all of our systems and do a lot of our repairs from here. It’s kinda cool.
“We knew this was the way we had to go once we tied them into this. We can provide so much more, including software updates and adding pieces remotely where they can install it on site and we can reconfigure it from here. We don’t have to send a tech out, so it costs the exhibitor less, and it costs us less.”
EXPANDING TO serve 36 states wasn’t necessarily a stated goal, Olson admitted, but it’s a nice accomplishment for the still-growing company.
“We don’t necessarily try to get another state,” he said. “It just sort of happens.”
A recent order from Delaware allowed Olson to visit the state for the first timey.
There, he visited Middletown, and its historic theater, which was used as a setting for the Robin Williams classic film “Dead Poets Society.”
“I’m a movie nut, so it was really fun to see,” he said.
Sonic had 26 employees when it moved to its new plant along Miller Road in 2007. Now, it has more than 50.