The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here.
Front and Center: Full Compass Systems Vice President of Sales, Michelle Grabel-Komar
By Pauline France
Michelle Grabel-Komar has enjoyed an illustrious career where she successfully combined her business skills with her passion for music.
She currently serves as the Vice President of Sales for Full Compass, a retailer of professional audio, professional video, lighting equipment and musical instruments based in Wisconsin.
Additionally, Grabel-Komar holds a degree in classical flute, and previously had a long-standing career as a vocalist in several R & B bands.
In our interview, the formidable business woman discusses trends towards women in the music industry workforce throughout the year; what traits she believes women should possess to enjoy a career in sales; challenges facing the music products industry; and a lot more.
Learn more about Full Compass Systems at http://www.fullcompass.com/.
WiMN: Tell us about Full Compass Systems. How does it set itself apart from its competitors?
MGK: Full Compass has always been about the customer relationship. Full Compass has built its business on customers who return year after year, and deal with the same sales person, some for more than 25 years.
Our sales associates are able to help our customers build out their A/V systems – whether it’s a small portable system for a school, a live sound rig for a band, an installation at houses of worship, or a broadcast application, to name a few.
It wouldn’t be possible to build a company on repeat business without offering stellar customer service, support, and follow through.
WiMN: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing the music products industry today?
MGK: The internet and changes in how people are buying products are both challenges and opportunities for our industry.
The internet has allowed for nearly anyone to sell practically anything to everyone. You have people operating out of their bedrooms as “store fronts,” but they do not have any of the overhead of a large business. These sellers are not bound by manufacturer resale policies, or stocking requirements. Their presence in the market increases competition and drives down prices. This might sound good for consumers, but it means that customer service is suffering because these sellers don’t offer the advice and the services that a buyer often needs to make the right choices and to know that there is support after the purchase.
Additionally, manufacturers are broadening their distribution by offering products to consumer outlets that were at one time only available to professional AV resellers. All of these changes mean that a reseller needs to understand how people are shopping for product online, and where are they getting their information. It’s challenging, but to address it we are now offering a variety of approaches to assure that we give the customer a good overall buying experience.
Another major challenge facing our industry is that products are coming out at lower prices with more features. We used to be able to sell a couple of speakers, a power amp, mixer, and some outboard processing as a sound system solution that provided us with good revenue and margins. The amp is now built in to the speakers, the mixer contains all of the processing on board, and those speakers are half the previous price.
So while unit sales increase, top line revenue shrinks for the same type of sale and sellers like us need to know more about the “add-ons” that surround these products so that we can help the customer make the most of their purchase and keep the company growing.
WiMN: You have a fascinating background which includes a music degree in classical flute and a long-standing career as a vocalist in several R & B bands. What was appealing about the flute, and how did you make a name for yourself in the performing scene?
MGK: I always knew that I wanted to have a career in music. I was very good at playing flute in high school, but singing was my passion. However, I wanted to sing pop and R & B music, not classical or jazz, so I figured my best chance to get accepted into the UW Madison School of Music was in flute versus voice or piano.
When I initially auditioned I did not make the cut. I called the school and asked if I could audit the professor’s master class and re-audition for second semester. She told me the professor wanted to see me and have me audition again. I auditioned and I was told that they had an opening, as someone had opted to go elsewhere, and while I wasn’t next on the list, the professor was impressed by my tenacity, so the spot was mine if I wanted it.
Studying the flute in music school was great, but I still wanted to sing. I found something called the Sunday Night Jams in Madison, hosted by Madison mainstay Robert J. He had a house band, and then for the second set, different people would get up and jam.
You never knew who you would be playing with so you had to trust and you had to know your chord changes in case someone got lost. It was an amazing experience and set me up to front my own bands later on.
I had the chance to front a band for a summer led by the legendary funky drummer, Clyde Stubblefield. After that I went on to form a R & B cover band called Code Blue; an original rock trio called Road to Nowhere; and a piano/voice duo with Michael Massey, a very talented singer/songwriter/composer with his own claim to fame, right here in Madison.
WiMN: How did you transition from your career as a performer to sales?
MGK: I think it was called a mortgage! Seriously though, I had worked in a music store in high school and beyond, so while I did not search out sales as a career it kind of happened organically. It was something that kept me close to what I loved and allowed me the flexibility to gig 4-5 days a week at times.
WiMN: Why do you think there aren’t enough women in sales in the music industry?
MGK: I do not think women were at any time excluded from this industry, I just think the industry is similar to many in that the workforces were traditionally male.
Over the past 40 years, women have grown to represent almost half of the U.S. workforce and over 50% of the professional and technical occupations. That being said, the pro audio industry is somewhat unique in that bands were historically male dominated.
There weren’t a lot of girl bands back in the ’60s and ’70s. As such, women didn’t use the gear, so I am not sure they would have considered this industry. And let’s be honest, this career is not one of the options when looking at college degrees – doctor? Lawyer? Pro audio sales person? It’s not there.
From the manufacturing side, engineers generally used to be male as well. I am guessing that women started getting in to the industry by doing jobs “women did,” such as office admin and/or customer service roles. And then comes the 1980’s with girl bands galore, and you have female musicians looking for other ways into music besides being in a famous band.
I think some of these factors and more women getting in to engineering has caused a shift, and we now see more women in this industry than ever before.
WiMN: What are some key traits women should possess to pursue such field?
MGK: It really depends on what you want to do in this industry. If you like the gear, if you like demoing product, if you like trouble-shooting in an exciting environment like the Super Bowl, then you need to know gear, some physics, application scenarios, how the audio chain works, etc.
You need to be confident in what you are doing especially when it comes to the gear side, because there haven’t been a lot of women on the technical side of things historically and you’d have to prove yourself.
As for sales, I think that avenue has included more women over the past few decades at a faster pace. Full Compass’ top sales person is a woman and there have been several others over the years in that category. Part of their success is not because they know the gear better than the men do, but because they are OK with saying “I don’t know, let me check on that and get back with you.” And they do.
As a stereotype, women have traditionally had a better follow-through rate. Certainly there are men that have great follow-up, but this is a skill set that I think we women often use to our advantage. It builds confidence with customers and ultimately increases your sales.
WiMN: What can music industry companies do to make their workforce culture more women-friendly?
This question is a little difficult for me to answer, as my experience is with “women-friendly” companies. Full Compass is owned by a woman, as was Shure. Shure’s President is a woman and in both companies there are many women not only in leadership roles, but also in highly competitive sales positions, engineering roles, product development, and market development.
I believe that any company that creates a culture where every role is considered valuable automatically creates a positive environment, where all people – men and women – are not only encouraged to take that chance or next step but everyone around them wants to help them succeed. It’s a hard culture to create, but when it’s done right the results can be amazing.
WiMN: Is there a particular instance you can recall throughout your career, whether it be in the sales arena or as a performer, where you experienced adversity for being a woman? If so, describe what it was and how you got through it.
MGK: To be honest, the only real area I have felt that disparity has been in equal pay early on. I have been told that an equal counter-part should make more than me because “he had a family to support.” Keep I mind, so did I.
That being said, I never let myself be pulled in to the “woe is me” attitude on that. I just tried harder, pushed harder, demanded more and made sure I could deliver ten-fold when called upon.
I knew I was on the right track when a fellow musician called me to see if my band could fill in for his at a venue, as he had double-booked himself. I agreed and he called the bar to let them know. The bar manager said that she “couldn’t afford” me anymore this season. He asked why and she said, “Because I pay her quite a bit more”. He called me back and asked me why I made more than his band, and I said “because I asked for more.”
Women have been trained to accommodate, accept things as is, and comply all the way from childhood. While there are times when that is OK, we shouldn’t make that our norm.
WiMN: Tell us about important people who have mentored you throughout your career.
MGK: Hands down, first and foremost my dad. He said to me clearly as a child: You will grow up to earn your own money, you will be dependent on no one (not even your husband), you will go to college, and you will graduate. None of this is optional. And I did just that.
In the work arena, I would say that Al Hershner, who was the VP of Sales when I was at Shure, and Dick Bazirgan, who owned the East Coast Rep Firm Shure employed, really helped me cut my teeth in this industry. Al was specifically a big believer in letting his leaders make their own decisions, make mistakes, learn from them and self-correct accordingly. I have tried to follow that example.
Dick Bazirgan was an industry veteran who took me under his wing and helped guide me in leading independent rep firms who had years more experience than me. Beyond them, there have been many others along the way, including fellow musicians and peers.
A mentor does not always have to be someone older than you or above you in tenure. Many times your peers, especially those who are the ying to your yang, will offer you an insight that you never would have considered. I look every day to my peers for different perspectives and experience.
WiMN: Anything else you’d like to add?
MGK: I am a firm believer in putting in a good, honest hard day’s work. If you do that, if you are willing to get outside your comfort zone, if you are willing to take ownership and accountability for your output — you can accomplish what you set out to do.
Be a sponge. Learn from all you can and be willing to accept constructive criticism and use it to get to your next place, whether it’s on stage with a band or on stage for a corporate presentation. We each need to take ownership of our dreams, our own destiny… because no one else will.