Sixteen:Nine Sits Down With Dennis Hickey

Dave Haynes, of the well-known and incomparable digital signage blog Sixteen:Nine, hosted Dennis Hickey, president of SNA Displays and its sister company Infuse Digital, on a recent podcast. They discussed why SNA Displays not only makes and markets LED displays, but also sometimes bankrolls them.

Visit the original post at Sixteen:Nine for more information and to learn more about the digital signage industry from one of its leading experts.

Transcript:

Dennis. Thank you for joining me. Where are you today?

Dennis Hickey: I’m actually working from home in New Jersey, right outside of New York in Short Hills.

Okay. Want to talk about a couple things today. First of all, could you tell me about Infuse Digital, which is the newer of the two companies that you run. I know they are related.

Dennis Hickey: Yes. Thank you. Infuse Digital came from the SNA Displays side as a company that wanted to hold hands for clients that were interested in LED products or digital products LCDs, kiosks, et cetera, and clients just didn’t understand the process, and so where it came was from the fact that SNA displays was bidding multiple projects through multiple clients. It always seemed to be a price war, and if we didn’t have intelligent digital consultants involved in the project, it usually just came down to price, and unfortunately, based on the fact that we have 2,500 employees and 2.5 million square feet of manufacturing, our prices are usually tied, maybe some of the smaller folks.

So we decided that we wanted to hold hands with these clients, help these clients. We wanted to make sure the clients were getting the best product, the best solution that will have the maximum return on investment, and so we told the clients that essentially, we would be the investor, and we would put up the funds and the financing, and then we would hold their hands and do the at-home advertising and the sponsorship revenue that could be generated from these, not selling the advertising or the sponsorship ourselves, but utilizing some of our partnerships to bring them to the project.

So that was the spearhead to everything here.

So that’s pretty widely different from what most LED manufacturers do.

Dennis Hickey: Yes, obviously that’s always been our case. We are probably number one in boutique products. Making the human head once and obviously our custom fabrication for the major spectaculars on the SNA side. So we needed to think out of the box more, and thinking outside the box, we know there’s clients and we know clients will Google this, or maybe see a post, maybe read an article and then want that product. But they have no idea what the cost is associated with that. They really need their hands held more.

And so that’s where the concept of Infuse [Digital] came from.

So is the core part of it, the financing end or is it the whole turn key ‘We’ll take this from start to finish’?

Dennis Hickey: It is always going to involve some form of financial abilities. If you can provide your own finance, if you can build it yourself, you’ll probably want to maximize the return on that particular investment.

But there are a lot of clients out there, take Triple Five in American Dream, that are more inclined to know how to build this great mall and entertainment venue. We [Triple Five] have a ski slope. We have a theme park. We don’t really understand the digital environment . . . and they [Triple Five] came and they brought us [SNA Displays] on to handle that for the next 20 years.

We [SNA Displays] also gave them 40,000 square feet of digital product as a result, and then maximized the return on investment according to that. They can make money through name sponsorships, or they can make money through at-home advertising with one of our partners. So they got everything at once. However, on the flip side, you could have a building in Times Square, that is one of the developers in Times Square has a property and they have plenty of money and they know what the at-home revenue is going to be generated.

And they’re going to buy the product themselves. Those folks will come directly to SNA versus the other folks that want some assistance will come to our sister company Infuse [Digital].

Okay. So are you effectively providing a lease on the equipment?

Dennis Hickey: Actually, what we’re trying to do is we’re actually providing the ownership of the equipment and actually a tenant of that asset.

So we own the assets. We advertise them and organize sponsorship for those assets. We maintain those assets for the life of the assets. If it’s an LCD kiosk, for instance, we will replace those through the course of the 10, 15, 20-year contract we have. If it’s an LED, it’s obviously replaced probably in around 10 years to reinstall the latest and greatest. The other cool part is we know the industry; we know the industry in and out. So we’re giving our clients the tightest resolution pitch and the highest resolution displays because we want to keep them relevant because we’re making money off of the advertising and sponsorship as a result.

So, if they’re looking at a project and you’re recommending piece X, because it’s Times Square and they’re going we only have a budget for P 10 or whatever. They don’t have to compromise on that. They can use what’s best if they’re working with you?

Dennis Hickey: Yeah, perfectly said, and yes you will see, for instance, we’re finishing a project in Times Square.

This is 6.67 millimeter pitch, and that’s probably going to be the latest and greatest. A lot of clients will have already put up their 10 millimeter and then look at their neighbor and say I wanted that. We’re thinking ahead of that. Because again, we could do everything at cost.

So it does give us a slight advantage. Because we are the manufacturer of the product. So yes, that is essentially what it is.

Are you in certain respects, disintermediating the integrators who would be doing installation, maybe doing some of the managed services or is there still a running partnership?

Dennis Hickey: Absolutely running partnership. We do have a preferred dealer program. We highly respect preferred dealers. We do not ever want to step on their toes and we never will step on their toes. This is more of a developer standpoint where at high end development maybe not necessarily sports but venues right outside of sports.

Case and point, as I mentioned before, American Dream is right outside the MetLife stadium, and we’re there and they were looking for a partner to take everything on. However, Diversified is part of American Dream, and we built some of the products for Diversified there. We did not step on their toes by any means.

Ours is purely advertising and sponsorship revenue elements that do not fall in their role.

So, when it comes to some of the turnkey things like managed services and so on, is that something you’re doing internally through infused or subbed out to Diversified or companies like that?

Dennis Hickey: Actually we have our own in-house folks that do our own service on our own product. But so we do maintain our product on this particular project itself. But then we’ve always blended in those regards. When we do a Diversified project, they still may need our systems division to assist with some of the stuff, because remember the products are proprietary. We know the ins and outs and upside downs for them. So we work together in unison.

How long has Infuse been around?

Dennis Hickey: Infuse [Digital] established in 2017. We actually started the company as Sansi Development Group.

We changed the name to Infuse [Digital] to be a little bit more distinctive. It pushed the envelope with everybody about what it is. It’s time to infuse some more digital platforms into your landscape making it more relevant. It’s great to do statics and where statics are permittable but sometimes digital will take it further.

And so that’s where we infuse some digital in your platform.

What’s been the take up on it, or do you have a lot of your clients going down that path?

Dennis Hickey: I’m sorry, can you repeat that?

What’s been the adoption rate for Infuse with the clients who you work with and who you target? Are most saying this is great, I want to do this? Or do a lot, particularly the property developer, say, “No, we’ve got the money. Thanks, but we’re good.”?

Dennis Hickey: Actually, it works in twofold. Obviously we’re getting direct leads for folks that have found us and are interested in doing business, but it actually comes from the fact that SNA may have a project that has been sitting in our possibility category for a while.

And the client goes, I’m going to put it off next year’s budget and put it off the next quarter’s budget, and they just can’t make it financially meet, obviously with the pandemic that actually grew even bigger where clients were like I’m a little nervous now because tourism was down for a while.

We have the confidence that everything’s coming back. So we asked the client, would you be interested if we took the role?, and it’s taken some clients over the edge. Some clients are still excited about building it themselves and want to maximize the dollars for it. We made an offer in Times Square to somebody to do an Infuse deal.

And they said, no, we are comfortable doing it ourselves and we will do it when the time is right. And we accepted, but there are folks that are just like, I really want to build it. I really want to get started. And with the pandemic, you may be our only paying tenant.

And so we then took that role and took it over the ledge.

So I guess this enforces even more of a business discipline on you guys as well. If somebody in Time Square says we want to put up a big spectacular, it’s not that tough of a decision to make, but if somebody in, let’s say downtown Omaha, Nebraska, wants to put up a big spectacular, you’ve got to make some decisions around, okay, if we finance this, is the money there to make this feasible?

Dennis Hickey: Perfectly said, and I’ll give you an example of Margaritaville in Orlando, which is right outside of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. And Margaritaville came to us. They were on the fence about what direction they wanted to go.

And we talked about maybe we should invest in it. But we did a shared partnership investment where we both had skin in the game essentially to make the deal happen, and the person that puts the most skin in the game will get the most return on investment initially. But again it’s the client’s property, so in the end they will reap the firm benefit. But yeah, it works and it varies per location. It may be a situation where we can do an evaluation. We can say, Unfortunately, we love your concept. We love everything you do. It’s not necessarily going to work for us here. But we’ll make a form of investment in 10, 15, 20%, maybe 50%, or maybe we know when we can really make a stronghold against some other things and we’ll take the hundred percent investment path.

It will vary per project location.

You’re not in a position like some tech giants, like the Ciscos of the past who would pretty much buy a stadium deal just because they’re going to get other things out of it?

Dennis Hickey: Perfectly said too. Yeah, Cisco can be more business to business, but you could have other manufacturers that have consumer products and, by marketing their name by putting their name under they might get the attention of somebody that attended that sporting venue or that entertainment venue that says ooh I see that name and wants to buy a product at Best Buy that has the same name. That doesn’t really work for us. For what our standpoint is, we know what should generate revenue-wise on those screens. Our partners in the at-home world will tell us, and we live by that. So because of that, we can say to the client what he could make. He could make X dollars per this. If he doesn’t believe me, we’ll put up the money and show him.

So we’re not going to see naming rights on a NFL stadium anytime soon with SNA Display Stadium on it?

Dennis Hickey: No, but we just landed a major NFL stadium recently. I’ll tell you about it at another time. But no, you won’t, it really doesn’t do us any benefit. If you see SNA Displays on a display, you’ll wonder, what do they make? And you look us up and we have a fantastic website and you think what does that have to do with me? I’m not putting a $5 million LED in my kitchen. So it’s not really going to work.

SNA [Displays] is an interesting company in that it’s a Chinese manufacturer, but this is the North American entity of it. So Sansi North America. Is that correct?

Dennis Hickey: That is correct. We have Shanghai Sansi Technologies and then Sansi North America. There has been a partnership for many years where we took control of Sansi North America, with all dynamic, digital displays, direct view. It dates back, I came from and lived in the sign world prior to joining a company based out of Plano, Texas, where Jason Helton, who works with us, worked out of, and he was buying from a company, Shanghai Sansi.

We struck a deal with Shanghai Sansi to represent their product here in the United States to cover North America. However, we landed some big name brands, which are international and we cover those as well, too. It’s been a great, long relationship with Shanghai Sansi.

We do a range of things prior to the pandemic, where we do factory acceptance tests, we take people to tour the factory. As I mentioned, the 2.5 million square feet of manufacturing that occurs there. We show everybody in the ins and outs and show them around the Shanghai area and maybe other areas too to make a fun trip out of it.

So we’ve been doing it for a while. It’s a great relationship and our exclusivity with Shanghai’s Sansi is very strong. 

The larger Chinese LED manufacturers, the Leyards, the Unilumins, and Absens and so on. They don’t really have a distinct North American entity like a “US office of,” but you guys have made a very concerted effort to, I wouldn’t say distance yourself from the parent company, but you are your own thing with your own marketing, website, everything else. You’re not just piggybacking on what’s coming from Shenzhen or Beijing or Shanghai. Why is that?

Dennis Hickey: Great point, and thank you. The reason is there’s a very distinctive marketing value between China and the United States, and in meeting Shanghai Sansi said that they know their expertise lives in the product manufacturing. They want to stay ahead of the curve and the product side.

And our team wants help to manage the process. So we have SNA pros that are certified licensed engineers and architects. So we want to manage the construction side of it. So we’re giving everybody a turnkey. And we also want to have a US marketing presence. US marketing is very different.

So you mentioned folks like the Leyards out there. They do a lot of interior. You name some others. They do a lot of exterior, and we do all, and we do all in the house. So we want to leave Shanghai Sansi focused on the latest and greatest product. Remember we were the first to the United States with a 1.25 millimeter.

We did it first, at a stadium in Washington, DC. So we want them to maintain that. We have a good lane of workmanship together. They stay in their lane and focus on the product. We stay in our lane and focus on the marketing as well as the construction part to make sure that our clients have somewhere to call. We call it 24 hour service, right?

When we go to sleep, they’re still working. So you get a 24-hour response continuously, and we created our own app to follow your projects from start to finish. Oh, so you can use the SNA app to know what’s being manufactured and not just when it arrives in the United States, it’s being manufactured day one.

See what’s going on overseas while you started to work with us. So it’s been a good process – responsiveness and delivery and service. We know all the functionalities of the displays and we have a good team to stand behind it. To be an SNA pro you have to be certified in a category. So these are licensed engineers, licensed architects, or they have had an extensive amount of time working in the field, whether through service, et cetera, on a particular product, and they become certified as SNA pros. This is the quarter of our business. The SNA response time is what we call a “no excuse response.” So that’s why we have the app. We want you to follow your project on the SNA app from start to finish from day one and then throughout.

We want you to know how much inventory you have. We want you to know everything through that process when you do business with us, and it starts with our SNA pros. They know everything. So it’s no excuse because they might be a licensed electrician or they might be an electrical engineer.

So they’re going to get you the immediate answer, and we’re going to tell you rapidly, you don’t have to wait a few days to hear something from overseas. You can hear right away; make the phone call.

And I assume that makes a big difference with the integrators and the specialty consultants and those kinds of folks out there, because you know what, one of the issues with some of the tier two manufacturers coming into China is they may have what’s a pretty great product, but if there’s a problem, the support is 12 hours away and it may or may not be in a language that both ends speak?

Dennis Hickey: Exactly! Perfectly said, and it all comes down to costs. Any downtime is down on return on investment.

Especially on a media display.

Dennis Hickey: Exactly. But even if it’s a lobby, and it’s a back screen, you’re giving information to potential folks coming to work every day. And if that screens down, it takes away from the look and the aesthetics of that big, expensive building that you just built. We can’t have that excuse, and the good news is our diagnostic software is actually included. It’s free and it exists. Our app is free. You can follow your project, start to finish free.

So we want you to always know, through transparency, the health of your display, and we always want you to have an immediate and absolute response.

The profile of the buyer for indoor and outdoor LED seems to have evolved over the years. What really struck me was sometime last year you guys put out a case study and it was a sports bar with a fine-pitch, direct-view LED over a portion of the bar across from Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

And I thought, this is one of these cases where there’s clear evidence that LED is now a mainstream product. It’s no longer this high-end thing that only goes in very deep-pocketed kinds of venues.

Dennis Hickey: Perfectly said, obviously the market has evolved. In 1997, the blue diode was invented and made LEDs obviously way more expensive, but over time and over manufacturing, the costs have come down to some degree. It’s still more expensive. But the cost of the LED coming down and then the fight over longevity, brightness, uniformity and seamlessness has really taken the LED to another level, which is why you have interests from major corporations that used to focus on purely LCDs.

They’re in because they know this is the future and has really taken off. It’s still more expensive. We like to say that, if you’re going to put up three LCDs high, by three LCDs wide, you’re probably better off doing LED. But until you get there, it’s slightly more expensive. So you have to think long-term, forget the capital expenditure and that tends to work.

But we also know that Lambeau Field is going to be sold out. Where else can you go to have fun and watch the game? It’s great sitting on your couch and watching the game. But, it’s actually more fun with a group of people in a bar right outside the Lambeau stadium as I couldn’t get tickets, but I kinda got tickets outside of the stadium.

So that was definitely a fun project.

And are you generally seeing the profile change, where it’s not just these big, spectacular installations inside and out, but that you’re getting things like this sports bar or was that more of an anomaly?

Dennis Hickey: Absolutely. It’s all coming to fruition.

You gotta thank God to Google and other search engines where you can see what our neighbors are doing. But it’s definitely moving. You get a significant price brightness difference. You get a longevity difference. You get an operating difference as well as a bezel difference.

More purity of screens. It is definitely gravitating towards that and will gravitate towards that. Like I said, those big companies see that on the line. That’s why they joined the competition. We’ve been doing it, Shanghai Sansi, since 1993.

And they just started joining. So you can see the evolution of that.

If you’re looking at stuff coming out of CES this week, and just generally in display technology, there’s all kinds of ongoing discussion and product launches around mini LED and micro LED. And whether it’s actually micro or not is another debate. But is that stuff more marketing noise or is it really where this stuff is going? Because I don’t think you guys do that. You’re still SMD based, right?

Dennis Hickey: Yes. We’re more SMD based, but we’re always researching the latest and greatest. It’s a rush for the latest and greatest. So in the exterior market, folks like to talk about how my brightness level is always a very extreme high number.

And we always joke about that and say, we can give it 10 times of that, but we killed the life expectancy of your display. – And your power bills go through the roof. – So it is more of a marketing ploy of being different. First and foremost, you take something simple as Nichia diode. Shanghai Sansi was getting six months advanced release on the diode to test it, to qualify it, to make a better product.

And Nichia might set the spec on what that product is and so on and so forth, and it’s not just Nichia, I just use that loosely here. It could be anything, and so what we do is you follow the specs, but everybody wants to be more distinctive and Sansi North American, Shanghai Sansi, we don’t necessarily need that market distinction. We want something a little bit better delivering the product. Making sure the product is reliable. Being with the no excuse policy, turnkey, who do I call, when I have an issue or question? How and when do I get a response? Will I get a response and how quick will I get a response? That I think it is a more distinguished group.

We’ll get the new company to pop up and say, Mine’s flexible, or something like that. That works on 2% of the industry. We are going to focus on what the far majority need. And it needs a qualified, reliable product with a reliable company, standing behind it, and that’s really what it is.

With that technology though, the SMD stuff that you’re primarily using, is it now matured or are there still advances that can be made, that if we could just get this or that, then we’d be at a Nirvana state?

Dennis Hickey: I think it’s just perfecting it and further perfecting it right.

To get it better, obviously it always lowers the cost. But I don’t think there is anything more in line with that, and it’s just my opinion. Jason Helton on our team probably has an even better answer to that question. But from my standpoint it is getting the most reliable, the best view, the best color uniformity, the best view angles, and starting to maximize those directions. That is really what it is. We’ve been Guinea pigs before a new car came to the market. You might want to be a Guinea pig, however there are pros and cons to that. I like to take the road of what’s established and what’s developed.

And just to make sure it’s perfect, and then, let the human eye do the rest.

Is SNA [Displays] doing anything with the transparent mesh LEDs that are starting to clad entire buildings in China and things like window film LED?

Dennis Hickey: Yes. We have several. We have one in Shanghai, Sansi, they just shared it recently as well. We’ve had it, we’ve called that product since 2009 ThruMedia. So what’s actually existed here in the United States for over 13 years, and it’s evolved.

It didn’t look very good for a long time.

Dennis Hickey: It definitely didn’t. Everything becomes a little bit thinner and a little bit more transparent. But we do have a product on it. Like I said, we can make anything. Keep in mind that Shanghai Sansi makes LED lighting products. The bridge between Macau and Hong Kong, all that lighting is Shanghai Sansi product. So we have the team to pretty much do anything that is designed and developed or in concept. It’s just, there’s not a lot of them. There’s permit restrictions in some cases in some areas, but it exists and it’s pretty easy to make. And like I said, we’ve had a version in 2009 and here we are, now 2022, it’s definitely much different, but we’ve been doing it for many years.

What’s going to be the big news for you guys this year?

Dennis Hickey: I actually think we’re getting into sports. Watch out! I think our entrance into sports changed the whole platform. We haven’t really been in, we always joked we’ve been outside the bowl, but never in the bowl, and we’re about to take a presence in a bowl.

Very distinctive team. Hopefully at some point we can announce it. But I think our competition knows what it is. So maybe they will announce it for us, but there’s several more. So sports is big. I think Infuse really helps our clients get over the hump like they want it but can’t afford it or they want it but are unsure.

And I think that gets us over the hump as well, and I think SNA does what they do best, continue to help the client from start to finish, being transparent and open from start to finish. That’s really our game. We stay within their budget. There are no change orders.

We finished the project on time which they wanted, there are no excuses. And I think with all of that, you’re going to see some big dynamic things in Las Vegas of course in Times Square where we have a bulk of the market share there as well. You’re going to see some big distinct things in some of the major cities.

Like we just recently did with AT&T in Dallas. You’re going to see the same.

Yeah, and that’s a beautiful project there. One day I’ll be able to travel again and see those things.

Dennis Hickey: I think we can hopefully. I’m praying the latest and greatest with this pandemic is now an End-demic.

Like we all get by and if you’re vaccinated, boostered and you probably have it. At some point, hopefully we can all move on and I think we are.

All right, Dennis. It’s been a pleasure to spend some time with you. Thank you.

Dennis Hickey: I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.