It’s easy to be virtual

38 easy to be virtual

John Storyk and Beth Walters.

“Basically we have become a global company headquartered at the end of a farm road in Highland,” explains John Storyk. “I don’t think anybody cares where we are. Very few clients of our clients actually come to visit us.” Those that do make the pilgrimage to the Highland design studio find what looks like a small cluster of unpretentious residences that have been added to over the years.

Storyk and his business and life partner, Beth Walters, have well-developed architectural proclivities. “Extensions for us are like lunch for most people,” says the ever-quotable Storyk.

There are no signs, just a mailbox number. Though there is a street sign where the road intersects with the rest of the world a mile or so south, locals know Martin Avenue as Sorbello’s Road, in honor of the farmer whose plant nursery and fields are its most prominent feature. “As far as I’m concerned,” Storyk says, “we are still guests on Frank Sorbello’s road, even after having been here for 25 years.”

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The road’s mix of residences, woodlots and farm fields are adorned with occasional grazing animals and rusting construction equipment. This is obviously a neighborhood whose inhabitants feel empowered to march to different drummers.

This is how the firm’s website describes what Walters-Storyk Design Group does: “WSDG is a worldwide, full-service acoustics and audio/video design firm, specializing in critical listening and viewing environments of various types. The company is celebrating its 40th year of practice and employs over 50 professionals in six offices across four continents. WSDG provides design, construction and consulting services for professional audio/video facilities, multi-media presentation rooms, residential home theaters, performance and entertainment spaces, houses of worship, industrial acoustical applications, product development, transportation facilities, sports venues, and numerous other types of projects.”

In 1969 Storyk, a 22-year-old architect just out of Princeton, got involved with musician Jimi Hendrix in designing what became Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. He also met and started doing acoustic design and providing other architectural services for the remarkable Albert Grossman, “the Baron of Bearsville.”

Grossman, who saw his power, wealth and taste as central to his own life and assumed that other people did the same with their lives, had a profound influence on Storyk’s life. When the young Storyk was looking for an apartment in Woodstock, Grossman offered him a modest space at Turtle Creek, part of the Bearsville studio complex Storyk had designed for Grossman. Storyk was to remain there for 14 years.

Storyk offered his abbreviated epitaph of Grossman: “Nobody ever got ripped off by Albert,” he said. “He never lied. He was fair and honest. But he drove many of us crazy, pushing us to our limits. In business he was innovative but very, very demanding.”

Beth Walters met Albert Grossman only once. She became Storyk’s partner soon before Grossman died in January 1986.

 

When Storyk and Walters fell in love, Storyk had his apartment in New York City. Walters had hers. Storyk was also living at Turtle Creek in Bearsville, and Walters owned an 800-square-foot cabin on 18 acres in Highland. They had one kid each, and both wanted to have more children. The couple decided to move to her cabin and to rent an office in New Paltz “because it was easier to be virtual there.” Though communications technology was evolving, it was still the era of FedEx and the telephone.

By this time Storyk was becoming widely recognized in his field of expertise. His firm was getting job offers, referrals and proposals.

Decades later, WSDG has now been involved in about 3000 projects. It is an understatement to say that the firm is well known in the world in which it offers its specialized services. Story concedes, not unwillingly, that it is one of the top firms in the world in its niche.

Six years or so into the Walters-Storyk partnership, the firm hired a series of three very capable international interns. When these acoustical design students took their skills back to their foreign shores, they found a marketplace thirsting for their services. Alert to the opportunity, Storyk and Walters partnered with them. The arrangement proved an ingenious one. Each of the international entities formed became separate businesses, in which WSDG is a partner, and the firm has over the years evolved into a single global entity. “I could never have predicted this story,” said Storyk. “It was truly a natural evolution of the circumstances.”

About 15 years ago, it became clear that the era of the big, expensive studios was coming to an end. Studios with storied pasts like Allaire and Turtle Creek near Woodstock and Electric Lady in New York were no longer the dominant recording venues. “Recording became democratic,” explains Storyk. “Virtually anyone can enter the music business and have a recording studio.”

Struggling to adapt, WSDG decided to become more home-centric and offer new services and in some cases lower prices. As Storyk puts it, he had to scale his product, invest in new technology, and explore standardization of details and faster delivery. He asked himself: “How do I create scalability?”

The adaptation proved stunningly successful. The marketplace responded positively. WSDG continues to maintain its studio design business while entering related arenas of design.

If the technical part of the change was less difficult than anticipated for WSDG, the social part proved harder. Advances in connectivity came to the rescue. Weekly virtual meetings of the partners in all the offices became a regular pattern, as they remain today. E-mails, phone calls and teleconferences are ubiquitous. Since it was unimportant for the principals always to be in one place, Friday was banished as an office workday.

The company, now resolutely international but held together by tight and reliable communications tools, is applying Storyk’s maxim: Nobody cares where you are when you do what you do.

WSDG now has offices in Argentina, Brazil, Switzerland and Spain as well as in Highland and Miami. In addition it has representation in Beijing, Mumbai and Mexico City as well as in San Francisco.

 

Inside, WSDG in Highland seems like what it almost is: a residence that has been converted into an efficient home office. There’s sound from an invisible source. A computer printer is spitting out jpgs on sheets of legal paper. Three young people are sitting in front of computer screens. The phones don’t ring frequently.

Nowadays Storyk and Walters spend about six months of the year in Highland, three winter months in the Yucatan in Mexico, and the remainder of the year traveling to other places. Like most world citizens who live in the Hudson Valley, they tend to tell their international acquaintances that they’re from Woodstock (“It’s easier to say I’m from Woodstock”), domestic customers that they’re from Poughkeepsie or New Paltz, and people from the immediate region that they’re from Highland.

In recent years WSDG’s structure has evolved from a pyramidical to a star shape. Recently, at what he terms “a pivotal moment,” Storyk persuaded his top managers to take an ownership position in the central company as well. With ownership comes responsibility. “If you can’t make full payroll,” he teased his colleagues, “guess who doesn’t get paid?”

“They all agreed: this is not a dress rehearsal,” Storyk reports. He was pleased.

The main assets of specialty technology businesses like WSDG are lodged within the brains of their professional participants. “This was the right time for the business to do that,” says Storyk. “It’s a perfect time for us.”

Storyk and Walters are closer to passing the baton to the younger generation of leaders they’ve trained and mentored, but not just yet. “We’re an interesting organization,” Storyk sums up. “I’m 67. I like my work. I love my work.”

The next jump for WSDG will come with the next generation, he says. Besides, he says, it’s not about the end, but about the journey.

He and Beth expect to continue their Highland life, including his participation in a local softball team, indefinitely. Why not? Much as he has always enjoyed life in the fast lane, Storyk says he appreciates small-town charm even more. “My left fielder is the chief of police,” he says proudly.

 

 

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