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View from the Top: Jack Kelly, Group One Ltd.

By Clive Young. One could argue that Kelly’s exposure to pro audio distribution early in his career inspired his eventual path, but there’s more to it than that.

Jack Kelly, president, Group One Ltd.

They say a craftsman is only as good as his tools. In the realm of pro audio, Group One Ltd. is where some of the best get their tools. Founded in 1991, the Farmingdale, NY-based company is the U.S. importer and distributor for a slew of top professional audio manufacturers covering every corner of the industry, from studios and broadcasters to live sound installations and productions.

With decades of experience under its belt, Group One currently distributes Blue Sky powered nearfield monitors, Calrec broadcast solutions, DiGiCo digital mixing consoles, KLANG:technologies 3D in-ear monitor mixing systems, MC2 amplifiers and XTA digital signal processing equipment. Since sound and lighting go hand-in-hand, Group One has a lighting division as well, which distributes Avolites lighting control consoles, elektraLite controllers and intelligent lighting, and Pulsar LED lighting.

Its broad product menu has given Group One a considerable presence in the pro audio world, and that’s due to the vision and guidance of president and founder Jack Kelly. His own history in pro audio began in 1975, when he became a repair technician, making the most of the basic electronics training he received in the Air Force. As it happened, that first pro audio job was for Revox Corp., the distributor for Revox, beyerdynamic and Klark-Teknik. More pro audio experience followed. “After a brief time as an independent rep in Chicago, I set up the Klark-Teknik Electronics subsidiary in 1980, which I ran until the sale of the company to Mark IV in 1990,” he recalls. “In 1991, I established Group One Ltd. and remain president of Group One today.”

One could argue that Kelly’s exposure to pro audio distribution early in his career inspired his eventual path, but there’s more to it than that. “The first company I worked for and the company I founded and run now have essentially the same business model,” he concedes. “We are an importer of professional audio and lighting products from around the world. My first experiences in the industry resonate in decisions I have made throughout my career.”

Related: 60 Seconds: Matt Larson, Group One Ltd., Pro Sound News, Apr. 5, 2017

Nonetheless, Group One’s offerings and approach reflect a remarkably changed marketplace from that of the 1970s. Providing solutions for challenges facing the audio industry has been Job One since Day One of Group One. Kelly has consistently drawn from different experiences across his career to inform how he has positioned his company.

“As in most long careers, I think there are many experiences that have influenced how I have operated and run Group One,” says Kelly. “My electronics background definitely enabled me to understand product at a deeper level early in my career, which was extremely valuable in the earlier days of the professional audio industry. Working as an independent rep gave me great appreciation for how a dozen different sales managers approached selling their product lines. Running my own company gave me a great understanding of how important it is to empower and reward people at every level of the organization. The formal education I pursued through obtaining an MBA gave me a framework with which to analyze business opportunities, set brand strategy, develop action plans—all the usual ‘formal’ aspects of company management.”

With the landscape of the pro audio business perpetually changing, spotting the right brands for Group One is a skill Kelly has honed over time. “I still look at opportunities to distribute exciting brands from around the world that have great management and great R&D; that will never change,” he says. “With respect to the economy, while we are certainly not immune to downturns, I have found over my career that our business is not as ‘tied-in’ to general economic conditions as, say, the musical instrument or consumer industries.”

That doesn’t mean working at Group One is a foolproof gig. “I think our company culture is founded on two very simple principles: Work hard and solve problems,” he says. “I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that. My role, like that of all CEOs, is to spend enough time looking into the future for new opportunities, without losing sight of where we are today. I try my best to take on the role of problem-solver for my sales team so they can focus on customer opportunities.”

That sales team—and the rest of the company—is spread out across the country. Group One employs roughly 30 people, split into three near-equal areas of responsibility: sales, support and administration. The company’s original and primary location is in Farmingdale, NY; there’s also a support and warehouse function in Las Vegas, NV, and an office in Santa Clarita, CA, dedicated to the sales and support of the Calrec product line. Additionally, Kelly notes, “One of the great benefits of technology is that I am able to allow our sales team to be located where they call home: Minneapolis, Nashville, Los Angeles, Knoxville, Alexandria and San Francisco.”

Related: Console Choices Multiply for Festivals, by Strother Bullins, Pro Sound News, Aug. 16, 2017

Group One’s product lines span virtually all of the professional segments, but its core markets tend to be worship facilities, live sound, theater and broadcast. With so many manufacturers under its umbrella, there’s always something new around the corner, and that helps keep things hopping at Group One. “There are always new initiatives, and if I’ve learned anything in this business, it’s that we all get excited about what’s next, even if our jobs all revolve around what’s now,” says Kelly.

OK, so what’s next? “Product development includes extension of current product capabilities and range, as well as entering new markets,” he explains. “This varies by brand, so, as an example, by the time this is published, Calrec will have introduced a new initiative in the radio segment, and DiGiCo will have shown a complete new line of products for the installation segment.”

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Even with Group One nearing the 30-year mark, Kelly still has plenty in mind for his company and doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon. “I have grown to really love this industry,” he muses. “The work ethic and dedication of the people I’ve met on this journey are nothing short of amazing. I think I’ll stay.”

Group One Ltd. •