Saturday, April 12, 2014

Has Beltronics gone Sine Die?

Updated: 1134Z-5, 17 Apr 14, By Veil Guy

Beltronics going dark: A case to be made for the reversals of fortune

A brief history of the pinnacle years of Beltronics and Escort (ie; the Belscort years) from the perspective of an outsider.

While I have been driving with radar detectors since my youth (owning the very first superhet RD, the Escort) it was nearly 27 years later--when I introduced Laser Veil to be used as an adjunct to a radar detector--that I became part of this very special niche industry.  

During that time there existed three radar detectors, referred to as the ultra-premium detectors.  This powerhouse trinity was comprised of the Beltronics Pro RX65, Escort Passport 8500 X50, and the Valentine One.  The Escort and the V1 shared some DNA (no, I am not using Max marketing-speak) because Mike Valentine was once an integral-part of the original Cincinnati Microwave, the team the gave us the first Escort model.  But what had been less known at the time was that both the Passport 8500 X50 and the Beltronics RX65 also shared DNA--as the underlying design platform--that was of Beltronics.

When Escort "acquired" Beltronics just fours year earlier (a transaction that could have conceivably gone the other direction) and ostensibly became one company (consisting of two divisions), I observed that they had been operating effectively as two separate companies sharing one roof with each group retaining its identity (and allegiance).  

In my view, Beltronics (formerly BEL) had been, at its core, a technically brilliant powerhouse, but had been somewhat lacking in the sales and marketing capacity.  Contrasted to Beltronics was Escort (the original Cincinnati Microwave's petitioned reorganization), a company that was the mirror image of Beltronics at the time.  I know that opinion will probably irritate some within the organization today.  So be it. The fact that Escort's Passport 8500 X50 consisted of the Beltronics S7 platform, should settle any genuine argument to the contrary.

During that period, I had made several visits to their corporate headquarters located in West Chester Ohio just twenty minutes north of Valentine Research.  The evidence of the "divisions" between Beltronics and Escort was very clear to me.  Even some staff's cubicles even had been draped with Beltronics banners while others had Escort.  The pride of each division (now brand) was readily apparent. Yes there was some parts and resource sharing, there was at the time two separate engineering and sales "operations."

And while the online community commonly referred to the combined-organization as BELSCORT, I knew that this had been an inaccurate account of the actual composition of organization.  My perception was confirmed when it was officially communicated to me that each of the two companies preferred to be identified as Beltronics (not BEL) and Escort and both considered the term Belscort, to be a pejorative term.   Having observed, first hand, the internal structure of the organization, I respected their wishes and subsequently referred to each company (ie; brand) in a manner that was consistent with their expressly desired respective brand identities.

What the average consumer or enthusiast community member didn't realize was that although the products may have appeared to be the "same" (just with different packaging), those that had their hand in the creation of each model, certainly did not, nor did I.

During my years of driving with both of them, it became to readily apparent, to me, the subtle differences in performance and behavior that existed between the RX-65 and the 8500 X50.  Yes, they had both come from "one" company, Escort, but they were most certainly two different detectors.

The lasting impression of my visits of the time with Beltronics and Escort was that there existed internal tensions between the two camps (consider that they had once been direct competitors). But while there was certainly a feeling of some uneasiness within the marriage, these competitive tensions had actually been quite productive since they were now on the same team.

It struck me not unlike of what competitive tensions must exist between the starting quarterback and the secondary or the starting pitcher and the relief pitcher.  Tensions such as these are a healthy thing, in fact, are an essential dynamic.  They fuel the competitive "spirit" which often propels both to become individuals, each, at the top of their game.  These positive forces equally apply to organizations (ie; internal corporate divisions).

The unfortunate irony of this history is that under the tenor of John Larson (an odd appointment of one who came from GM, itself a multi-divisional company, albeit one that was and appears to remain ineptly managed), it was under his direction that Beltronics and Escort, became, for a time, BELSCORT in reality on a path to becoming essentially only ESCORT, today.

One of the problematic side-effects of his managing philosophy was that it replaced two divisional and distinct competitive spirits with one top-down-management-malaise which ultimately has had its impact felt throughout the whole of the organization and manifesting itself with the loss of individual divisional (ie: brand) identity.  And with that loss went the essential internal-competitive drive to propel each to remain at the top of their game.  We may just see how true this is in a short time.

Unfortunately the (Escort-centric) executive management has consistently been undermining the viability of Beltronics for years and they have been doing it through abject neglect and calculating brand de-emphasis.  I've seen this is as a great "crime" committed against an organization (and its constituents), simply for the aggrandizement of the Escort brand (not the company).

However, the casualties of those efforts weren't simply imparted to Beltronics they included Escort as well (both the brand and the company).  Its effects are evident in the time-line of product releases of each respective brand name.  (Note: Notice that I refrained from using the word division as my sense is that the physical two divisions that once existed have been amalgamated).

As mentioned in my previous article, instead of seeing an upwardly pointing straight-line succession of products by each brand, building up the past successes of each, we have instead experienced misfires and erratic product offerings of Escort, the company (adversely affecting both brands).

Let's take a brief look (as I seem them):

Beltronics RX65 (S7) & Escort Passport 8500 X50 (S7), along with the V1, these were the indisputable the class leading detectors of the time and for many years that followed.  Both the Beltronics and Escort models still as relevant as they were when they were initially introduced my than a decade ago.

Escort Passport 9500i series: Escort's first GPS-enabled detector. While novel, it was handicapped by Escort-centric management lacking in technical clarity and more interested in image making than letting the performance of the unit speak for itself.  The series has been plagued with behavioral idiosyncrasies that undermine the experience of ownership for the sake of enhancing perceived consumer value.

Beltronics GX-65: Essentially a mirror image of the 9500ix, but on the surface retained some Beltronicsness.  Perhaps the quintessential BELSCORT model, and one that I nearly ever used personally and the first tangible evidence of brand confusion in that this was a Passport 9500ix masquerading as a Beltronics model.

Beltronics STi Driver:  First M3 platform class defining detector, intentionally handicapped to make way for a future Escort model to be superior in performance, by design.

Beltronics STi-R: A class shattering detector, one of the very best ever produced in nearly the 40 year history of the entire industry.  Special configurations propel this detector to the stratosphere (that had not been recognized by the executive management of Escort) but was first discovered and reported upon by yours truly.

Passport 9500ci: Meant to be perceived as superior with much marketing emphasis but was, in reality, unintentionally handicapped by technically inept (Escort-centric) management, something along the lines of the 9500 series. I refrained from publishing a formal review of it.

Escort C65: Second real tangible evidence of brand confusion going down-market and collateral damage from Escort directly engaging the retail market, thwarting its long-established and developed channel sales. The first real Beltronics models masquerading as an Escort in name only.

Escort Redline: Again meant to be technically superior by design to the original STi Driver, and was in a number of ways, but like the Passport 9500ci, was handicapped by technically inept (Escort-centric) management and was one that I ultimately didn't recommend or use personally, nor did I publish a formal review of it, although provided critique privately, but obviously that feedback had little effect initially.

Beltronics STi Magnum: Supposed replacement and upgrade to original STi Driver, but again was knee-capped by Escort-centric management desiring to promote Escort as the premium brand and subordinate Beltronics to Escort.

Passport iQ: Interesting concept, on paper--but with the advent of smartphone nav. apps--serving no real market need, particularly in an RDD detectable M4-platforum.  Refrained from formally reviewing. Notice in preview article, raised the notion of crowd-sourcing application (a harbinger of what was to be Escort Live--as troubled as that application remains--and at the expense of startup Signal Active).

Escort Passport 8500 X50 Black: Surprisingly a nice update to an old-workhorse now in an M4-platform and one that I thoroughly enjoy driving with.  Nice job, Escort!

Escort Smart Radar: Another winner and is my favorite M4-design radar detector to ever come from the halls of Beltronics or Escort.  I suppose even a broken clock is right twice a day. Again, nice job Escort!

Escort Redline Expert Edition: What the original Escort Redline should have been at the start had it not been for an overly heavy-hand of marketing centric-management adversely impacting true-technical leadership. Addressed a good number of critiqued elements that I had presented privately with the initial product release.  In a few short words: The very best performing dash-mount radar detector to this point in history.  And the third real tangible evidence of brand-confusion and once again it was a Beltronics (STi-R) masquerading as an Escort product.

Escort Passport MaxOh come on! This one I couldn't let stand!  Publicly critiqued. Escort's best selling dash-mount radar detector (at time of launch) and the first real tangible evidence that Escort, the company, had not only lost it's way, but it's soul, as well.

Notice that I have refrained from mentioning the complete misfires and irrelevant products that Escort attempted to introduce into the marketplace (and failed).

I focus on the detectors, because of MCP (Escort's new benefactors) and their stated mission for returning Escort (and hence Beltronics) to their core competencies.  So I think it is crucially important to lay out (again as I see it), the product release cycle of the primary products labeled under each brand-name.

I refrained from mentioning the down-market also-rans as I believe Escort has too many irons in the fire and while I certainly can understand the value of offering down-scale lower-performing products that don't quite test-out on the bench, I believe it is important for Escort to reduce the overall count of radar detectors and instead focus on improving quality control during the manufacturing process, which has clearly taken a beating as evidenced by the Passport Max.

When I read the official position of Escort with respect to its recent acquisition by MCP:

Monomoy's direction is focused two-fold: 1) maximize profits for their investors and 2) return ESCORT to its core competency of designing, manufacturing & marketing the world's best radar detectors.

My take away from this is not only will Escort be refocusing on the radar detector market, but will be focusing on producing the "best" radar detectors. 

As I see it, "best" means best performing, not best selling.

Excellence through leadership

This should have several implications.

First and most importantly: Escort must improve the design, production, testing, and QA/QC process. Performance means nothing, if the quality isn't there and the products aren't built to last. The most successful (in terms of "accomplishment," not revenue) are those that produce products that the consumer replaces when something better comes along, not when it breaks. Extended warranties shouldn't be a viable source of revenue, if the design and manufacturing is sound, period.

Second: Along the lines of the first, simplifying the product pipeline including the reduction of b-grade products that have been used as a source for the downscale models currently being offered.  Again, best means that best.  That means upscale, premium, ultra-premium, not merely average, below average, or (even worse) substandard.  The result of which means brand re-enforcement and validation of high-quality, because the products actually are, not because of a marketing tag that says so.

Third:  It is critically important that the competitive spirit be allowed and encouraged to thrive. This is the only way to truly excel year after year, model after successful model.

Along that third point, my perception is that once Beltronics delivered us the STi-R and gave Escort's executive management a clear winning hand, they lost the initiative to continue challenging themselves to do better and instead chose to ride the "momentum" and use that momemtum to propel them into uncharted and un-charted un-tested waters.  Distractions flourished.  Technology extant was re-invented on more than one occasion.  (ie; GPS nav devices and crowd-sourcing software software apps).  

The problem with momentum, is that it never lasts, by definition.  One needs an active propulsion system and that propulsion system remains the competitive drive.

Once a company becomes the dominant one in the industry, it is at that time when it is at its most vulnerable: the time when the existential force of healthy competitive spirits that got them there often evaporates and the company instead chooses to ride the wave of past successes, gets bored, overly ambitious, too self-confident & self-absorbed, and ultimately careless. It's these dynamics which ultimately infect the corporate culture from the top-down. creating an increasing drag on what momentum there was initially.

Eventually you get passed by and the very talent that got you there in the first place often ends up leaving (because they have become bored themselves) or worse have been de-valued and RIF'd away (to another competitor)..


Now as Escort, the company, remains headless and is engaged in some serious inwardly facing soul-searching, it's critically important to remember that from chaos, comes order. Order, in the form of clarity and a unifying vision outwardly looking towards a brighter future;  an environment in which a new leader will be born (to spawn other leaders) to make that vision of a better tomorrow, a reality for all.

Blueprint for action!
  • Revitalize the BELTRONICS brand.
  • Embrace the notion of a competitive spirit between both brands (ie; divisions) of BELTRONICS and ESCORT.
  • Become your OWN competitor and let the healthy dynamics of brand-identity and competitive-drive propel both brands forward.
  • Pronounce with signage on your buildings that you are BOTH Beltronics and Escort, with pride!
  • Clarify the meaning of the primary brands of Escort (the company), including: Beltronics, Escort, Passport, Cincinnati Microwave
  • Create and maintain a subtle but consumer-recognizable differentiation between the brands and allow the customer-base, loyal to each, to flourish.
  • Direct sales and marketing efforts to re-enforce each one's brand identity with the consumer.
  • Get out of and stay out of retail, and utilize the costs savings from those operations to improve the design, manufacturing, assembly, and testing pipeline.  In other words, stick to manufacturing (your core competency)
  • Revitalize your value added sales channel and distribution systems.
  • Enable your authorized retailers to succeed by giving them the support they require.
  • Cease the unethical practice of breaking your own MAP policies and harvesting customer data for the expressed purposes of direct sales (at the expense of your wholesale and retail) partners.
  • Leverage any direct customer communication to drive sales activities to your VARs.
  • Clearly communicate your company's value proposition (mission statement) to all players including, leaders, staff, channel, and consumer and continuously re-enforce it, not just through words, but through action.
  • Increase revenues through increased market penetration, not through cannabilization of your existing sales (channel), nor  increase margin through reckless product cost cutting.
  • Empower those tasked (VAR channel) to sell and create product pull-through, do their job and don't undermine them. Remember, the most successful manufacturers have the healthiest (sales and distribution) channels.
  • Allow the technical leadership to lead their respective teams (without undue meddling from up top).
  • Share components whenever possible to streamline and simplify production and packaging all the while maintaining brand individuality. 
  • Give group leaders of each brand (ie; division) an equal voice in the management hierarchy.
  • Establish clearly defined goals throughout all aspects of the operation and hold people accountable to them.
  • Listen!  Listen to your customer-base!  Listen to your distribution and retail channels!  Listen to your staff! Encourage knew ideas no matter the source.  Forgo the "not invented here, syndrome."
  • Lose the arrogance.  It might feel good, to some, but it is self-defeating, in reality.  Lose the staff/management who personify hubris.  Replace them with those who have humility and a healthy-dose of pragmatism.
  • Have fun working together!  Fostering an environment which sparks creativity and encourages enjoyment is essential for building cohesiveness.  
  • Reward success!
  • It's Spring, open the windows and air out the place.
  • Encourage corporate sponsored employee "fun" events, away from the office, on a yearly basis to foster relationship building.
  • Change the corporate culture for the better!  A company is always greater than the some of its individual constituents.
  • Always move, never stagnate.
  • Create a culture of success, correcting errors quickly before they become mistakes.
  • Always fail forward!
I've used this analogy before and I believe it is still apt.  While Bentley was once a Rolls Royce division, it came with its own unique identity and customer experience.  Rolls Royce's products were marketed to those that preferred to be driven.  Bentley was marketed to those that preferred to drive themselves.  

Let Escort continue to cater to the drivers who place more emphasis on driving with a quiet radar detector (ie; an automatic-transmissioned Rolls) and allow Beltronics to continue to appeal to those that demand the highest performance as sine qua non (ie; a manual-transmissioned Bentley).

Now that both brands of these automotive brands are independently owned and operated--quite successfully to this day--teaches us an important lesson in corporate governance and effective brand management.

That lesson is (that) different brands owned by one company, should be able to stand on their own without the other.  They should be viable and capable of being sold off to operate as a separate entity, to be competitive and to retain their respective customer base.

If the new regime wishes to continue the trajectory of the Larson era--something that can not be true by definition--and further diminish the Beltronics brand as it relates to Escort, may I suggest that instead you strengthen it to sell it off, as opposed to letting wither on the vine?

However, I believe for Escort (the company), the smarter play yielding the biggest winning outcome for all, is to follow the above plan, so as to empower them...to empower you...


And always, in all ways, FAIL FORWARD...towards everlasting SUCCESS!

Veil Guy

PS:  The next class shattering detector: M3, with perfected digital back-end, in a magnesium case, fully QA'd, in an exceptional package is to be branded Beltronics!


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