A chat with Creative Sound owners Cris Folley and Roger Phelps
Feb. 16, 2012
By Luke Baynes
When Cris Folley began his career in the electronics industry, long-playing records were still in mass production and 8-track tapes were reaching their heyday.
Although the years have passed and musical listening trends have shifted toward digitally compressed file formats, Folley has remained true to his roots — still selling the tube-based McIntosh gear beloved for its high fidelity by The Beach Boys and the Grateful Dead.
Folley and business partner Roger Phelps’ company, Creative Sound, has been a mainstay of Williston’s Blair Park for nearly 20 years, pre-dating — and outlasting — Circuit City.
Folley (joined briefly by Phelps, in between business calls) recently sat down with the Observer in Creative Sound’s home audio section to discuss all things audio.
Williston Observer: How long have you been in the electronics business?
Cris Folley: Well, the business originally started back in 1967, believe it or not. The original owner (Stan Gumienny) used to have a chain of stores called Lafayette Radio Stores — sort of like Radio Shack. He started that in Burlington in ’67. I started working for him in 1975. For a while there it got to be the largest electronics group (in the area). We had four stores back in the 70s and 80s.
WO: How did you come to own the business?
Folley: Stan got involved in the food business. I was kind of running things for him once he caught that bug … if you go to the (Champlain Valley) fair now … “Mr. Sausage” — that’s him. He started closing down some of the stores, because things were getting a little iffy, and he closed the last store in the beginning of ’93. I wasn’t quite ready to retire (laughs), so I looked into continuing with it, and my partner Roger … he was my eastern regional sales manager (for Boston Acoustics). … So I called him up and we got together and put together a business plan and started the biz up in May of ’93.
WO: Why did you choose Williston as the location for your store?
Folley: Williston was growing, and it looked like there was a lot of retail focus going on around here.
WO: How has the industry changed since 1993?
Folley: Back then, the only place to buy consumer electronics was from little, local specialty stores. Of course with all the chain stores, we had Circuit City come in, we had Best Buy come in, and now with all the Internet stuff, things have changed a lot. It’s not just the local stores anymore, so most of the stores like us branched into a subcategory called “custom installations,” where we go and design whole house systems for people when they’re building (their homes).
WO: Did the emergence of big box stores hurt your business?
Roger Phelps: People, I think, are intimidated by their own ignorance. So they’re more comfortable going to Wal-Mart or Sears and making their own choice, because then they don’t have to ask the wrong stupid question; they don’t have to embarrass themselves. … A lot of people say, “I want to get something that’s going to really last a long time.” And I say, “Just because you spend $46,000 on a Porsche and $12,000 on a Ford Escort, it doesn’t mean the (Porsche) is going to last longer.” What it means is that for the life that you have that, it’s going to be a more enjoyable vehicle to drive. It’s the same type of thing here: these speakers might not last longer, but for every minute you listen to them, it’s going to sound better.
Folley: People assume that a big chain is going to be a better place for their wallet to buy things, and it isn’t always the case. It’s always worthwhile to spend a little time shopping. We still do a fairly decent retail business. We actually do quite a bit of car audio, which is really unusual for guys like us nationally.
WO: How big a part of your overall revenue is the custom home installations?
Folley: I would say the custom stuff is easily 80 percent. … But that was something right from the start with our business plan we wanted to focus on, because it was the way things were going (in the industry).
WO: Have you noticed any change in your business with the advent of the digital music/MP3 revolution?
Folley: Sure, we don’t sell CD players like we used to, and so many of the products just keep coming out more and more with iPod capable things. I mean, iPods are great little storage devices, but in most cases, the sound is not very good. It’s been a little bit of a dumbing down of the music appreciation end of the biz because of that.
WO: How did your business fare during the recent economic recession?
Folley: You know, you work through that stuff. So yeah, things are doing OK. I kind of get the feeling they’re going to be better as we start ramping back up.
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