Mike Viglas's got the groove
Dorval-based Classé Audio quietly produces some of the world's top audio equipment

Most people wouldn't go over to a friend's house just to watch a movie unless they had nothing else to do. But if Mike Viglas invites you, should probably accept.

Viglas is the president and co-founder of Classé Audio, a premium audio and home theater equipment manufacturer. The basement of his Dorval house is a showcase of his best products, including $250,000 worth of home theater equipment, such as amplifiers, surround-sound processors and other space age devices with funny sounding names that make the typical audiophile giddy.

"People are going out less, and spending more time at home," Viglas said. "Many of them realize that if they spend $15,000 on a vacation, after one week it's gone. But if they spend that money on audio equipment, they can enjoy it all the time."

This trend, toward what futurist Faith Popcorn calls "cocooning," has been one of the key ingredients in Viglas's success. In just two decades this Greek immigrant turned Classé Audio from a one-man operation in to a company with $8 million of projected 2002 sales, an increase of 10 per cent from last year.

Viglas, an engineer by training, was always a stereo enthusiast. He built his first devices from home kits as a teenager back in Greece. When he came to Canada in 1953, he worked his way through a string of jobs, eventually winding up as part owner of a truck dealership.

He got involved in the audio business in 1980 though a chance encounter with another hobbyist Frank Reich, who one industry professional called a "mechanical genius," who was manufacturing 20 or 30 pieces of equipment a year in a small shop.

Viglas took an initial 20 per cent stake in Reich's company, buying out his four partners one at a time during the ensuing years, including Rich himself who wanted to move to California when his wife got fed up with the Montreal climate.

If you have never heard of Classé Audio, don't be surprised. Just Viglas's idea of how much a vacation should cost, gives you clue as to who his target market is.

"We are selling to serious audio enthusiasts and people who have family incomes of at least $120,000 a year," Viglas said. "They are not necessarily rich. Many of our customers value good sound so much, that they are prepared to drive an older car, in order to have the best audio equipment."

However while Classé Audio may not be well known to the average Quebecer, according to one industry professional, the company's equipment has a worldwide reputation among audio enthusiasts who are willing to pay top dollar for a premium product.

"It is the flower of Quebec's electronics," said Marie-Christine Prin, organizer of the Festival Son & Images, a consumer audio and home theater equipment show that takes place in Montreal every March.

Franco Moggia, publisher of Québec Audio Vidéo, who has known Viglas for many years agrees. "Quebec's high-end market is very small," Moggia said. "But Classé is one of the top manufacturers in the world, in the same category as other premium names such as Krell and Mark Levinson"

But according to one dealer, Classé has an advantage that its U.S. competitors lack. "Their equipment costs a lot less on a direct comparison basis with others in its class," said Pierre Sweeny, owner of Studio 1006, who has been selling stereo equipment for two decades. "But they are not cheap. You can't really compare them with what you'll find at s typical consumer electronics stores."

According to Sweeny, the Classé Audio systems he has sold this year have been in the $10,000 range, and the three or four home theater systems he sold were retailed for approximately $50,000.

In the last ten years, demand for Classé products has taken a significant turn. Audio equipment sales, which used to comprise 70 per cent of the company's revenues continues to grow, but home theater demand has exploded, and now comprise the bulk of its production. "A good estimate of much people should spend on their home theater is about 10 per cent of a house's price," Viglas said.

While that amount might seem high, it does make some sense. For example kitchen vendors use the same tally, emphasizing the fact that people spend a lot of time in their kitchens.

But television watching is the Western world's international pass-time. The average Canadian spends between 20 and 30 hours a week in front of the box. And for today's couch-potato it pays to make the experience as pleasurable as possible.

In fact, Viglas expects home theater equipment demand to continue to grow. Last year he negotiated a strategic alliance with speaker manufacturer Bowers and Wilkins Loudspeakers Ltd., makers of B&W premium speakers, that will see the company distribute Classé Audio products outside of North America.

"It's a very good fit," said Viglas, who expects a significant production increase once Classé products find their way into B&W distribution channels. "For every pair of speakers they sell, someone is buying audio equipment, and for every piece of audio equipment we sell, someone is buying speakers."

Photo caption: Experts say that Mike Viglas, president of Dorval based Classé Audio, shown here in his personal $250,000 home theater room, manufactures some of the best audio equipment in the world.


Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Mike Viglas got into the audio business in 1980 as a sideline, because he loved premium quality sound.
o Although the business made little or no money for many years, demand picked up considerably, as baby-boomers started spending more of their free time "cocooning," at home.
o Viglas targets premium buyers with family incomes of $120,000 or more, who are willing to spend up to 10 per cent of their house's value on their home theater.
o Viglas exports most of his production to the U.S., but recently signed a distribution deal with speaker manufacturer B&W, to increase exports outside of North America.






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