Somewhere to run to…
With a background at the BBC and Cisco, networking and audio are second nature to Chris Fuller, managing director of Hidden Systems in Hartley Wintney.
Chris Frankland finds out why he turned his back on the high street and how the mix of CI and high-end hi-fi is working out for him
The lyrics from the 1965 hit by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas may tell us that there’s nowhere to run to, and nowhere to hide, but Hidden Systems in the charming village of Hartley Wintney in affluent Hampshire proves there is a safe haven for those seeking top-end hi-fi, multi-room AV and whole-house systems integration – and it is well hidden.
And where he should run to next was very much on MD Chris Fuller’s mind when he left behind a career in IT and networking to start Hidden Systems – a business that would combine his love – quality hi-fi – with his professional skill set as a networking and IP technician.
And that solid technical grounding started with a stint at the BBC.
“I worked at the BBC in Chiswick for a number of years, looking after the equipment they used in studios.”
Mr Fuller then moved into IT in the early days of computer networking. “This was the early 1980s,” he recalls. “The internet was just being born. I worked for an IT company in Reading and they made some of the early Ethernet bridges. I was a tech support engineer setting up local and wide area networks.”
Before long, he was looking for a change. “I liked explaining to people the benefits of the technology,” he says, “and that turned it into a sales opportunity, working for a Cisco reseller selling wide area networking, routers and phone systems. I did that for many years, working for many different systems integration companies. I was always thinking about what the client needed in terms of getting an improvement in performance versus cost.”
But Mr Fuller had always been passionate about having a good sound system at home and by that time was already the owner of a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable. He had even met Linn founder Ivor Tiefenbrun during his travels to Scotland for Cisco.
In 2005, Mr Fuller went to work for a new retailer in Eton. It was a Linn dealer doing two-channel and multichannel and it was the start of doing custom install. “We were exploring the business opportunities to sell such systems to net-high-worth individuals.”
And so in 2009, he decided it was time to go it alone and he started Hidden Systems as at that time there was no Linn dealer in Hampshire.
Although it sits on the main A30 trunk road, casual passers-by would probably not even notice it is there. Yes, there is a name above the shop, but from the outside you only really notice the estate agent – Hidden Systems is an entrance off to the right of that and up some stairs.
And that is no accident. You visit Hidden Systems by appointment and Mr Fuller deliberately shunned the high-profile and footfall, and rents, of the high-street. He knew he needed the right people through his doors, the right kind of buyers, and not just casual footfall off a busy shopping street.
“The idea behind it was it would try to unlock the hidden sound behind what all hi-fi enthusiasts were trying to achieve,” he explains. “How to get more sound out of a hidden system. That was from the hi-fi angle. But equally lessons I had learnt in the past about wiring containment were quite relevant. The other concept behind Hidden Systems was to hide the wires, not necessarily to be wire-less. Latterly, Linn have followed that through with its Exakt system where it all connects through a Cat 5 or Cat 6 cable. We are looking to get the best sound without necessarily getting the spaghetti of wires.”
Mr Fuller started out with a handful of key brands – Linn, Rega, Totem Acoustics and in the CI world Kaleidescape and Control 4. Since then he has added Meridian and Graham Audio. For TV screens, it is usually LG, but not exclusively. He also sells Sonos and regards it as a “good enabler and door-opener”.
He started out as a one-man-band, but now he also has two part-time staff, James and Michael, who work for him on a commission-only basis.
And he says that not being a high-street store has its advantages: “When I am not dealing with a customer, I will go out and seek business on the custom-install side. I then split my time between giving demonstrations and doing installs. My location here is kind of a halfway house between retailers on the high street and those who are off the beaten track down a dirt track in a barn.”
He adds: “I couldn’t really predict at the time I started out which way the market was going to go. The model where you are on the high street and you sit and wait for someone to walk through the door is very much old-school. If you are selling to people who want focused time on buying a turntable or streamer or a design for a home, they want your undivided attention.”
ERT asks Mr Fuller how his customers normally find him. “Customers come to us mainly through referrals from people we have sold to. In the early days, I did a lot of Linn Lounge events [music-themed events that showcase a particular artist and play back high-res masters on a Linn system]. But because I have a technical background, I have the ability to set up an LP12, but I also know about computer networking. So that makes me quite unique. I know the digital domain of computers and networking and getting wi-fi to work reliably.”
But you need people skills as well as technical skills. As he explains:
“A lot of people are good salesmen, but not very good technically and technical people can’t always explain things to people. I can sell to people at the entry level without coming across as arrogant. I am quite happy selling a £500 Rega turntable that can get people on the first rung of that ladder and then they can progress on to Linn”
And it can pay off, he recalls: “I sold an entry-level turntable to a local tree surgeon and unbeknown to me he had regular beer and music nights at his house for his friends and they wanted to know where he bought the Rega from. So then I get a knock on the door from someone saying they are interested in vinyl.”
But what of his CI customers?
He tells ERT: “In the early days, I advertised in the estate agent’s circular, which went to all local homes. That was for retrofit CI systems rather than new installs. In this area, there are not so many new builds, it’s more retro work.
“Most custom installation projects aren’t like building up a relationship. With a record deck, you buy it, own and love it. A property developer is looking at the minimum he can get away with spending in order to sell it. There’s no love. And some private CI projects are the same.”
He adds: “Typical customers for those sorts of projects are in their fifties, in their dream house, doing their last makeover and they’ll be coming out of it horizontal!”
So he says he hasn’t really targeted developers as they are “not passionate about the product”.
Mr Fuller recalls that his biggest project to date was £50,000 – a Control 4 multi-room video and audio installation in a country manor house. He tells ERT about one project where he did a refit of the studio at the famous Ammonite house of Vince Clarke of Erasure.
Hampshire is an affluent county and his local Hart District Council’s area has again been voted one of best places to live in the latest Halifax Quality of Life Survey. But he warns: “The biggest, most expensive hi-fi isn’t bought by the guy with a big house and an Aston Martin, it goes to some of the smallest houses.”
But what is the way forward for Hidden Systems?
Well, in CI, he fears that “as the likes of Google get involved and you can buy a widget from B&Q that lets you do it yourself”, the market may soon become commoditised and so become less attractive to retailers like him.
On the hi-fi side, he has recently become a distributor by taking on Lejonklou amplifiers from Sweden. He was attracted by the designer’s uncompromising focus on music and sound quality that he feels there is a market for.
He first showed the Lejonklou brand at this year’s Styl:us show at Heathrow and has so far taken on one retailer.
Mr Fuller feels that, going forward, retailers are going to have to be either really, really, really niche or huge.
“The way I see the business unfolding is to massively simplify the experience and what people get out of the experience. And maybe set up three rooms, a Rega room, a Lejonklou room and a Linn room, and ask people which way they want to go.”
As ERT takes its leave, Mr Fuller is thinking about his next Linn Lounge, which will feature Queen. He is no doubt hoping that it will help those attending to decide that Hidden Systems will be their ‘best friend’ in the future.