Embracing ‘The Road Not Taken’

It would be accurate to say that Frank McCann, founder of Edison, N.J.-based McCann Systems, is a bit of a contrarian when it comes to groupthink. The design-build integration company, which boasts more than a half-dozen offices around the country and a team of 150-plus, isn’t content to follow the crowd.

For one, McCann and other members of executive management describe themselves as occupying the lowest tier of the organizational pyramid: In short, customers sit at the top, with the operations group existing to serve them, and with management serving the operations group.

What’s more, McCann Systems has unreservedly embraced managed services as a fundamental part of its business model. In fact, 99% of customers have an ongoing relationship with McCann after completion of a capital project. Finally, the integrator’s approach to the pandemic — in short, no layoffs, no furloughs, no pay cuts, no benefit cuts — flew in the face of conventional wisdom but proved that McCann Systems backs up its words. 

Here, we’ll explore all of the above, illuminating how McCann and his executive team, including Josh Bittner, senior vice president of sales and marketing, have created the kind of firm that attracts not only top industry talent but also world-class clients looking for everything from experiential AV to bread-and-butter UC&C deployments. Along the way, McCann Systems will illustrate how a small business, started in 1996, can become a global integration leader with clients spread across the globe. 

Company Culture 

McCann Systems’ company culture is perhaps its greatest distinguisher. The integrator recognizes that its operations team in the trenches — salespeople, project managers, installers, programmers and managed-service providers — are customers’ day-to-day points of contact. Thus, the organization acknowledges and treats them as its public face. “The people who see the customer every day,” McCann begins, “they’re the people who run McCann Systems.” On this view, operations decisions don’t originate in the C-suite; rather, the operations group tells executive management what they need to do their job, and executive management’s function is to fulfill that through dedicated accounting, HR and logistics teams.  

“We have embraced our staff’s ability to lead,” Tom Treichel, president and COO, says. “We developed a self-managed workgroup that allows autonomy.” Seeded by that approach, a natural mentorship has blossomed within the company’s ranks. “Mentoring each other through the struggles that we face during the life of a project brings us closer as a team and as a family,” he adds. The inversion of authority at McCann Systems not only breeds intraorganizational closeness but also empowers associates to serve clients well. It does, however, invest team members with real responsibility to identify and meet customers’ needs — and there’s no room for ifs, ands or buts. 

Bittner describes the thread that runs through McCann Systems in four words: take the pain away. He means that, these days, customers must contend with many stressors. At its best, McCann Systems can act as an extension of the customer, mitigating those stressors and yielding excellent outcomes. Doing that requires employees to wear many different hats; accordingly, associates don’t have role-centered job titles. “The words ‘not my job’ don’t come out of anybody’s mouth at McCann Systems,” Bittner adds, emphasizing that the team exists to meet customer needs. 

“We are so proud to have surrounded ourselves with individuals who care about one another, [and that] is reflected in how they care for our customers,” Treichel observes, noting that lending a helping hand runs deep in McCann Systems’ culture. “We have a true partnership with our clients, and [we] encourage the natural friendships and camaraderie that develops….” 

With a laugh, McCann adds that, if the customer asks you to fix a leak under the sink because the CEO is coming in tomorrow, you should get a pair of pliers and fix the leak! Turning more serious, he boils down the company’s foundational ethos: If the client has a problem, and if you can make their life easier, that is your job. “Don’t worry about if it’s on the list of rooms covered in the contract,” McCann exclaims. 

A glimpse of Proscenium, McCann Systems

A glimpse of Proscenium, McCann Systems’ connected studio environment, which offers a live, in-the-round experience. This allows meaningful connections with team members, regardless of the vertical market or setting.

Impressive List of Clients 

McCann Systems’ customer-centricity and its industry-leading technology designs have helped it attract an impressive list of clients. For example, the integrator has worked on legendary sports facilities like Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium; on engaging children’s museums and historic state theaters; in storied Ivy League universities and business-focused Executive Education centers; and for broadcast giants and financial powerhouses.

Sportsbooks represent another vertical in which McCann Systems had made a name for itself; in fact, in recent years, its work in the category has grown fourfold. With pride, McCann says, “We’re probably the biggest player in the sportsbook implementation business.” And bettors can see the firm’s work for themselves if they visit one of the more than 40 dazzling brick-and-mortar implementations for an array of clients, stretching from South Dakota, to the Bahamas, to China.

What’s interesting is that, although McCann Systems is known for totally customized, experiential solutions for high-end customers, the lion’s share of its revenue comes from bread-and-butter AV and UC&C business — namely, design, integration and maintenance of environments in the corporate, education, command and control, and healthcare verticals.

“We really have a good breadth and dynamic of what we can achieve,” McCann states. “We have a great track record, and we have a great portfolio.” And Bittner hastens to add that no brick wall exists between the experiential team and the bread-and-butter AV team. “We bring that creative mindset into the standard huddle room,” he declares. That carries us right back to company culture: At McCann Systems, it’s equal parts customer commitment and visionary creativity. 

Part of maintaining that culture is finding clients who buy into it and believe in it. McCann Systems is 100% focused on organic growth, but, even as its footprint expands, project choices are inevitable. Leads come in every single day, Bittner reveals, adding, “[That’s when] we look at a customer or project and ask, ‘OK, is this a good fit for both sides? Are they going to see our added value? Can we make an impact with them? Is this a long-term relationship?’” Simply put, McCann wants to be able to focus their team on what challenges and excites them the most. “The team we’ve assembled is the best and brightest,” Bittner emphasizes. “We want to use them to their fullest potential.” 

Services Side Growing Rapidly 

McCann Systems executive leadership team 2022

At McCann Systems, operating decisions don’t originate in the C-Suite. Instead, the operation group tells executive management what they need to do their job, and executive management’s function is to fulfill it.

At the outset, we noted that McCann Systems has ongoing interaction with virtually all its clients. These services-based relationships have various permutations — break-fix, box sale, maintenance, remote helpdesk and full-time staffing — to meet clients’ budgets and needs. “We take the approach of asking, ‘What managed service is right for the customer?’” Bittner observes. “We don’t go to the customer with a pitch piece.”

That, of course, reflects McCann Systems’ aversion to doing anything in a cookie-cutter way. And the formula is clearly working, with the integrator earning 15% to 20% of its revenue from services — a number that grows every year. Speaking of growth, given McCann Systems’ view that the customer is the project, the firm positions itself to grow its partnership and its services offering along with the customer. “We’ll grow with them from 30 people all the way up, and so does their service need,” Bittner says. 

For companies whose needs grow to the higher end of the spectrum, McCann Systems offers what might be called Cadillac tier offerings. Full-time staffing, an option that ensures large campuses get the most from their integrated technology, is a perfect example. Bittner phrases the value proposition in the form of a question, asking, “What can we do to augment your likely understaffed department, and how can we help you keep your systems running better?”

Mike Mariano, director of managed services, oversees a growing team of 40 to 50 people who, if the customer buys a staffing contract, will staff the campus full time. And unlike with general staffing companies, where someone might drive a truck one day and be your “AV expert” the next, McCann Systems staffing is composed solely of trained AV support experts. That’s part of protecting the integrator’s brand reputation. As Bittner puts it, people who work for McCann wear many different hats, but they all wear the same color hat. 

One option that McCann Systems is eyeing is AV-as-a-subscription (AVaaS), calling to mind the Netflix, Apple Music and Microsoft Office model. This centers on the idea of moving integrated systems from the capital expenditure (CapEx) category to the operational expenditure (OpEx) column.

According to McCann, given that his firm works with many cash-flush Fortune 500 companies, “It’s a very small percentage of our customers that require that.” At this point, it’s about 5%. But, for smaller customers, it can be very attractive to get a fully integrated system, with ongoing service and support, for a fixed monthly payment.

To that end, Bittner says that every bill of materials or quote has attached options, like leases, buyouts and rolled-in managed services. Bittner notes that the speed of technology evolution these days makes AVaaS more appealing than ever; it gives clients confidence that their systems will always be at the forefront. 

Living Up to Its Values 

From attention-getting resort brands like Foxwoods to prestigious growth equity firms, clients of McCann Systems are assured of attention to the finest details.

McCann Systems implements inventive technology, to be sure, but it’s also forward-thinking in terms of caring for its employees. McCann put it simply, saying, “McCann Systems management team’s job is to provide a quality work life balance, including a robust benefit program, taking additional worry off the staff’s mind.” Although many companies might echo similar words, the COVID-19 pandemic gave the management team an opportunity to live up to those values. 

Bittner recollects McCann calling a meeting of the executive team in mid-March 2020, right at the pandemic’s outset, and almost 12 months prior to any PPP announcements. He recalls, “He basically said, ‘This is going to be a really short meeting. We’re not laying anybody off. Nobody’s taking any pay or benefits cuts. We’ll go to the mattresses. Go do your jobs.’ And that was our COVID-19 meeting.” And the company stuck to that; indeed, only executive management sacrificed, voluntarily choosing to freeze their own compensation until things stabilized. In fact, McCann Systems added 12 people in 2020, and the firm provided bonuses, too. 

Some business owners reading this might be thinking, “Boy, I wish I could have done that, but it just wasn’t possible.” When I pose this to McCann, he says they tapped some cash reserves. “We still had revenue coming in,” he says, “because the revenue always lags.” Thus, McCann’s questions are simple: Are you willing to take the risk for your staff? Are you willing to spend the money? “If you’re able to bet on your people the company and customer is paid back in spades,” he states.

McCann also points to groupthink at the time, indicating that some industry groups seemed to coalesce around laying off a certain percentage of staff or cutting pay by a particular percentage. McCann Systems — not a member of any such consortiums — went the opposite way. “It was time for the company to step up to the plate and support the staff,” McCann declares matter-of-factly. 

Although it’s hard to say anything good emerged from COVID-19, McCann Systems capitalized on some other integrators’ approach, attracting and acquiring personnel as quickly as they became available. “We found some great talent out there who were very disillusioned by the approach some firms took — that they either got furloughed or had a 20% cut in pay,” McCann says. Amplifying the point, Bittner notes that executive management knew the pandemic wasn’t going to last forever.

“We took it as an opportunity to go out and hire people,” he adds. And, during the lockdown period when site work was largely suspended, executive management urged team members to pursue education, training and self-betterment. “[I wanted them to] get every certification they could get while they were sitting at home,” McCann explained, citing CTS and Crestron credentials. It all goes back to wearing that “McCann Systems” logo; it means you have to be your best. 

McCann Systems’ executive management team, including president and COO Tom Treichel, committed themselves to living up to McCann’s core values during the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting everything from jobs and pay rates to benefits and bonuses.

Reaping the Benefits 

With society emerging from the pandemic years, McCann Systems is seeing the benefits of its investments, including its commitment to customers and staff alike. Through Q1/22, the integrator is topping its 2019 numbers, and it’s on track for 2022 to be its best year yet.

“We’re back into our 2019 growth cycle again,” McCann enthuses. That includes new customers being up about 15%; indeed, more than a dozen new Fortune 500 customers have contributed massively to revenue. McCann says auspicious signs began materializing at the end of 2021 despite ongoing supply-chain snarls.

Pointing to the China-centered manufacturing problem, he explains, “We’re starting to get different channels of access to equipment, and we’re starting to get different avenues where equipment is starting to flow a little bit better.” That puts McCann Systems in an enviable position. As Bittner puts it, “In terms of workload, backlog and projects that are in-house, we are operating at pre-pandemic levels or better.” 

Distilling things to the essence, McCann Systems tries to do things right — that is, integrate systems right, service them right, treat the customer right and do right by the staff. That’s part of the reason why virtually every customer has an ongoing relationship with the integrator. It’s also why, once people join the company, they rarely seek greener pastures.

“We have almost zero attrition,” Bittner says with pride. “People don’t want to leave us.” In the event someone does accept another offer, however, the former McCann Systems employee doesn’t have to worry about a non-compete clause. These people work in our industry, McCann says, and their opportunities shouldn’t be constrained. 

It’s a vision that’s refreshing…that’s bold…that’s contrarian. And it is core to Frank McCann — a leader who, Bittner says, calls to mind “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost. But, even more importantly, that vision is woven into the DNA of the company that Frank McCann founded — a company whose aura shines far beyond one man.

“McCann Systems is not the corporate office,” he concludes. “McCann Systems is every last employee of the company. That’s who McCann is. Everybody carries the brand.” With that mindset, the venerable integrator will continue to pioneer sophisticated, innovative approaches for years to come.