In the field with Gary Lewis, director at Cornflake

Gary Lewis discusses the growing importance of IT knowledge, the challenges of serving the UHNW market and how his London-based integration company, Cornflake, try to stay ahead of the game.

You boast many years’ experience working in the residential AV industry. What first sparked your interest in working in the sector?

I’ve always had an interest in gadgets and using them to make life easier.  It seemed a natural step from playing with tech in my own home to helping others to install similar kit in theirs.  Future Systems was formed in 2002 and took off with a flying start. Happily, we were in the right place at the right time - I knew a few property developers who were creating nice homes and looking for unique touches to ‘add value’ in a crowded marketplace.

Integrated AV and hidden controls were in their infancy then but it quickly became apparent that discerning buyers loved the idea of being able to control their new home this way.  Smart ‘early adopter’ developers began to jump on the bandwagon and we just got busier and busier.

Cornflake and Future Systems merged five years ago with the goal of better serving the local and international markets. Are your services particularly in demand in countries outside of the UK? Do you see any new markets emerging for Cornflake in the near future?

We tend to work predominantly in London and the home counties and often for international clients who have another home(s) abroad and want to be able to sync their music or film collection, for instance, across properties.  Then naturally as home owners realise how much time they can save by deploying one efficient system, and what a difference smart technology can make to their busy lifestyles, they choose to upgrade other elements too, such as security, remote HVAC and lighting systems across continents.  When Cornflake and Future Systems merged we predicted this type of request would become more common and that, together, we’d have more resource and manpower to focus on cosmopolitan clients who prefer to rely on a single provider. It was a good call.

Creating streamlined systems that work robustly anywhere in the world and give clients’ peace of mind really cannot be underestimated.  In terms of new markets and opportunities, remote monitoring is making the globe a much smaller place and allow us to control large valuable property portfolios for clients. Our 24/7 around the clock ‘Concierge’ service is particularly popular and a strong profit line which looks set for future growth as international clients create exciting new demands on us. These factors continue to raise the bar for us, and the industry, and keep us all on our toes, thankfully.

What changes have you seen and had to adapt to in the residential industry in the past five years working at Cornflake? 

The unprecedented speed of demand for digital telecoms took many industries by storm, including ours.  Data networking & superfast IT connections are now commonplace requirements for all commissions. The whole CI industry had to up-skill very quickly to stay ahead of demand and ensure we could service millennials’ complex specification briefs. 

I’m proud to work for a company that invests in staff training but also employs a proactive team who make it their own personal goal to stay on top of IT developments. We send a large contingent of engineers and sales managers to trade shows each year to seek out new products and aim to share knowledge across the company at our regular team briefings. Keeping up to date with changes is a never-ending challenge but should also be viewed as fun and, sometimes with a healthy pinch of salt. Some of the most avant garde new products are simply too complex for the market – remember at the end of the day clients simply want tried-and-trusted tech that does what it says on the tin.

“Busy clients want proactive monitoring rather than reactive support, if they have to call you to fix an issue you’re immediately on the back foot.”

The basic service model – & client’ expectations – are vastly different now to five years ago.   Busy clients want proactive monitoring rather than reactive support, if they have to call you to fix an issue you’re immediately on the back foot. Build in remote monitoring at the outset and you’ll witness client retention rates improve in tandem.

At Cornflake, we’re particularly mindful that many of our clients are now on their second or third generation property with us.  Having lived in a smart home for several years clients are far more sophisticated in their demands, and have a much better general knowledge and expectation of contractors and the whole build/refurb process. They want to actively engage in the specification of their preferred kit; they know what they don’t want, and what their new systems should be able to control and do.

What challenges do you currently face as an integrator (i.e. educating clients? recruiting staff? other factors?)

Clients often start by asking for wireless solutions.  They might have seen a great install at a friend’s house and assume as they didn’t see any wires it must all be controlled wirelessly and they want the same seamless effect in their own pad.  This mindset can be a challenge; and we constantly strive to educate clients about the difference between wireless and hidden wires.  We far prefer to ‘over cable’ than set anything up wirelessly if we can avoid it.  The secret to smart living is future proofing a home at the cabling stage and even installing extra lines for growth. Clients will soon complain if a system falls over and we’re not interested in delivering this type of service or returning time after time to fix it.  We want happy clients all the time with robust simple systems that are easy to use and require minimal maintenance.  When a client calls you five years on for an upgrade and you tell them they don’t need to re-cable they really, really love you.

Recruiting good staff remains a challenge for the whole industry.  There are simply not enough senior well trained engineers available.  Cornflake’s staff retention level is exceptionally high but we’re constantly on the lookout for more expert integrators.  CEDIA’s training courses are starting to have an impact with more trained CIs coming through.  I would advise anyone considering a career in this industry to get a hands-on practical qualification and make sure they’re passionate about digital technology because millennial home owners know their onions, the onus is on you/us to continually professionally develop our specialist knowledge.

Tell us about one of Cornflake’s most interesting recent projects. What were some of the challenges you had to overcome and how did you do so? 

We recently worked on a project in Wimbledon which had multiple architects and interiors designers as each wing of the listed property, an old chapel, was from a different time period with very specialist and specific requirements so experts were used according to their specialisms.  Cornflake had to work with each party to ensure our tech fitted and worked across the whole home. It was a highly complex but rewarding project.

Smart lighting circuits were carefully hidden within the joinery allowing the dome of the chapel to be shadowed with a warm atmospheric glow.  Paying particular attention to the period detailing, Cornflake designed an antique light switch - in keeping with the decor - but with the capacity to trigger the powerful Lutron circuits hidden behind its unobtrusive plate.

A sophisticated audio system, concealed in a thin cupboard behind a sofa, comprises an Artisan Nano subwoofer, the world's smallest subwoofer, specified to meet the very confined space limitations of the shelves and sealed casement without any need for their adaption; whilst delivering a powerful high-end audio sound.  The subwoofer was teamed with Anthony Gallo Speakers (from the A'DIVA range) for top quality music streaming and amplification.  The client was very insistent that these speakers should not be hidden but must be attractive, and in keeping with the design scheme. Cornflake's HiFi specialist Peter Miller recommended Gallo's machined out of a single steel die cast and placed on a rubber foot for stability. An Audio 600 amp control acts as a digital connector with Sonos as the music source. 

lighting in seating room in Cornflake chapel project in Wimbledon, London

The grand entrance to the property is listed and cannot be altered in any way.  To deliver the hospitable client's sophisticated brief, Cornflake discretely placed dark-coloured Focal Dome miniature speakers on the dark wood ceiling beams, these are teamed with another cleverly hidden Lutron lighting circuit, ensuring the Tudor entrance is now a warm, bright space with streamed wireless music from a Sonos Home teamed with a Rotel Power amp well suited to this size space, all of which is simply controlled from the occupants' iPhone and iPad and can be switched on as they walk in through the front door, or sooner, creating a warm and welcoming multi-functional reception room.

Hallway and stairs in Cornflake wimbledon chapel project

What is the most popular request you currently receive from clients? Why do you believe this service is so in-demand?

Fast broadband is as important as water and electricity!  As a society we have become so reliant on digital living that providing access to the online world is now a given for property developers, and just as important as the other utilities that are fed into a building.

What do you think is most important for attracting and securing the business from high net worth individuals? (i.e. What differences are there from the more mainstream market?)

Being able to offer 24/7 round the clock service is critical at the top end of the market.  High net worth clients often work on international time zones and expect to be able to talk to a project manager at any time wherever they are in the world.  For this reason our concierge service never closes as we know discerning clients particularly value this sense of security and support. 

HNW property owners in London come from all nationalities, a large proportion of which are Arabs, Russians, Chinese and Europeans.  Being able to communicate is important. We often prepare contracts, briefing instructions and O&M manuals in multiple languages.

We also invested heavily in developing our SmartAPPartment showroom/experience centre particularly aimed at HNWIs.  Hidden below ground in the West End of London, it’s a highly discreet 4000sqft facility where clients can bring their whole family to road-test the latest equipment in a realistic home setting.  Serving the mainstream market, high street retailers tend to provide a more orthodox retail experience with TVs, HiFis and CCTV systems etc displayed on traditional shelves in boxes.  Nothing is in a box here, the whole place is wired up and everything works from an iPad, just as it would at home, enabling clients to play with the settings and ensure it fits their needs and lifestyle prior to specifying tech for their own places.

living room at integrator's Cornflake's SmartAppartment in Fitzrovia London

Looking to the industry on the whole, do you believe the design and building communities has enough interaction with the CI industry? If not, what needs to be done to bridge this gap?  

Most new homes now have an element of smart technology planned in to their infrastructure, so retrospective installs are getting less cumbersome and this will continue to improve.  The growth in demand for digital living has been rapid, especially at the top end of the residential sector, with CI companies being consulted much earlier in the build/design process, which is great. 

Careful tech planning at the outset of a project delivers huge cost savings later on; this has been a huge step change for the building industry over the past five years.  We’ve certainly adapted in the way we coordinate with enlightened builders but they’ve probably had to adapt even more, communication is always the key.  Cornflake opened experience centre over four years ago now with the specific aim of interacting with architects, designers and contractors to help the whole team work more efficiently. In that time, we’ve hosted 100s of visits and run CPD sessions so hopefully, in some small part, we’re helping to bridge the gap.

“Smart features are now trickling their way down the housing ladder with savvy developers realising that integrated features help them to shift properties faster.”

Smart features are now trickling their way down the housing ladder with savvy developers realising that integrated features help them to shift properties faster.  There is still a long way to go with, for instance, wiring rules and regs, to ensure digital technology is fully inclusive across society.  Tenants in social housing should have the same access to cost efficient systems as private home owners. Thankfully, we spend less time arguing with developers about this now than in the past with many keen to future proof buildings and designing well ahead of current legislation.

What do you anticipate will be the next big integration trend in your market in the next 5 years? What is driving it and how can installers benefit?

All of our clients are very security conscious and we understand this need; some recent technologies to market include thermal imaging CCTV with real-time analytics to detect and track intruders, from as far away as a couple of miles.  We can use these systems to action other events, such as audible warnings, floodlighting or releasing guard dogs.  It’s highly sophisticated kit and, sadly, looks set to become a fact of life for UHNW individuals and their families. I fear that fear itself will remain a business driver for our industry.

On a more positive note, staying-in is the new going-out.  For clients who love big concerts and exciting productions, being able to recreate similar amazing experiences at home is the holy grail.  From an audio perspective, the Meyer Sound Constellation system has really impressed us, and we’ve seen a lot of HiFi’s in our 30 years trading.  Using a combination of high quality loudspeakers, microphones, digital signal processing, and patented algorithms, the Constellation allows users to transform the sonic clarity, warmth and resonance of a space.  So, clients can theoretically re-create the sonic characteristics of a specific theatre or environment to relive a musical experience just as if they were there. Combine this with the latest OLED video-wall technology and 360⁰ camera footage and you can create a truly immersive, adaptable environment.

We're living in exciting times for home automation but the sky really is the limit.  If you can imagine it it's coming - literally. Mind-controlled homes and appliances are still a long way off but are under investigation.  As an interim, we will move away from this current era of graphically controlled user interfaces GUIs (i.e. touchscreens, tablets and iPads etc) equipment and begin to enjoy NUIs (natural user interfaces).  Simple hand gestures or voice-controlled appliances are already coming through and will be mainstream in many homes within a few years.  We're also looking at smart kit which will ‘learn’ your daily routine and automatically remember your daily patterns to sync your home with your lifestyle, without the user needing to take any action. Bring it on!

Gary Lewis is director and owner at Cornflake