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The Little Guys: The Little Dealer That Could

MOKENA, ILL. – David Wexler, VP and co-founder of The Little Guys Home Technology, recalled how his company’s name and raison d’être was cemented the first weekend it opened.

“An older couple came in and said, ‘We’re tired of doing business with the big guys; we want to do business with the little guys.’”

For the next two decades he and his wife, president and co-owner Evie Wexler, have filled that role by offering the kind of friendly, knowledgeable and personalized service that greater Chicagoland customers can’t find at larger competitors.

“It’s always about service, comfort level and making customers happy,” explained Wexler, who provides everything from home theater to whole-home control for businesses and residences from a 10,000-square-foot showroom, here.

Key brands include Sony, Integra, Sonance, Golden Ear, Klipsch, Lenbrook/NAD and Bluesound, with whom The Little Guys has forged close ties. Indeed, Wexler attributes his longevity to the loyal support of his vendors, along with a crackerjack team of salesmen- designers, programmers, installers and a visionary operations chief – Tom Gunnison – to whom manufacturers bring products for alpha testing.

The company further staked its claim by hosting a weekly radio show on Sunday mornings, on which Wexler would interview industry guests, take audience questions, and tackle home technology topics.

The Little Guys is also active in the Home Technology Specialists of America buying group (HTSA), where it is a longtime member.

The result is a $4 million operation whose reputation and industry-standing far exceeds its size.

Wexler learned the business at Musicraft, a local stereo chain where he started as a part-time stock boy and left 24 years later as its operations head.

Seeing an opportunity in higher-end products and custom installation, he started The Little Guys in 1994 in a 6,000-square-foot showroom in Glenwood, Ill., with Musicraft co-worker Evie, her brother Paul, and Jon Zabel, now sales director at CI distributor AVAD.

The model worked. The fledgling business expanded its footprint to 13,000 square feet, then to 19,000 square feet, and the couple would eventually by out their partners.

“Times were great back then,” Wexler reflected. “Everyone was up 50, 60 percent, and it was all about growth and expansion. Looking back, you realize that we couldn’t all have been that good, and that the boom times were built on lies and deception.”

Indeed, the recession would hit The Little Guys hard as new construction slowed and even the company’s higher-income clientele pulled back. “It scared everybody, and no one was infallible,” he said. “Even some unbelievably amazing businesses like Flanner’s, HiFi House and United Audio went away. These were good, smart business people who did everything right.”

The Wexlers themselves survived the downturn by becoming “way leaner and cleaner,” although it took some drastic actions to do so. Staff was cut by more than half to 20 employees; the business moved to a smaller, albeit better-situated showroom near Interstate 80; the radio show was put on hiatus; and lowend products were jettisoned.

“My wife says I’m still a peddler at heart, and it took some time to get comfortable letting business walk out the door,” Wexler noted. “But we’re not the place for a $49 bracket or a 32-inch TV.”

Instead, all but one of the showroom’s TV displays are 4K models, and demand is returning for the company’s “bread-and-butter” $10,000 to $100,000 jobs.

Wexler said Ultra HD has been a godsend to the recovery – “We’re actually selling some TVs and not losing money on them” – while innovations like Dolby Atmos and hi-res music are helping to revive high-performance audio.

That said, “You can’t make a living selling products anymore, that’s over,” he noted. “There’s an infinite amount of product and a finite amount of labor, and your living comes from service and support.”

To that end, The Little Guys’ installs upwards of 85 percent of what it sells, and drives those sales through state-of-the-art vignettes and demo rooms – including the first Lenbrook Digital Music Experience Center, a $28,000 pre-packaged shop crammed into 475 square feet.

“It still comes down to the art of the demo,” Wexler said, “and making people happy.”