Blueprint for success

Retailers need to change and evolve to stay relevant. Lasyl in London has gone from video rentals to doing £150,000 whole-house CI projects. Chris Frankland gets the story

Dominic and Chris Hellel have successfully changed the business model for Lasyl beyond all recognition.

It originally started exporting films and video recorders and then opened retail premises in the well-heeled London suburb of East Sheen to sell and rent films, video recorders and TVs. Lasyl still trades from that shop today.

But when Dominic took over from father Larry in 1997, followed by brother Chris in 1999, they knew the market had changed and it was time to re-evaluate what the business was doing.

On the day of ERT’s visit, Chris has just returned from his holidays and is fighting his way through a mountain of emails, so it is Dominic who tells the story.

A home installation carried out by Lasyl

Just as their father had to move out of film rentals when Blockbuster moved in, and equipment rentals when Granada and Radio Rentals muscled in, Dominic explains that a similar crisis was looming with TVs when they took over.

“With the internet coming in around that sort of time, it was getting more aggressive on sales of TVs and I thought, hold on, you’re making 10 per cent here, you can’t afford to have staff, pay rates, run vehicles – you have to look at something else. East Sheen is an expensive place to be.”

Although the brothers knew things couldn’t continue the way they had been, they also wanted to stay true to their father’s ethos of looking after customers. So how did they make the bold move into custom installation?

“We had always done home installations of some sort – TVs and DVD players,” explains Dominic. “It was all part of our service. We like to look after our local customers, install their TV, set it up for them and show them how to use it, so that they don’t have to come back to us and ask ‘how do I do this?’

“Then, as technology advanced, with things relying on the internet, wi-fi and networking, we diversified again to put Cat 6 and data cabling throughout a house to give people a reliable network. We started doing that about five or six years ago. We did a lot more whole-house renovations with music throughout the house and speakers in the ceilings.”

Another of Lasyl’s installations

Refurbishing the shop was also a key part of this move and they had a complete refit five years ago.
As Dominic points out: “If we are designing a project for, say, £100,000, the customer wants to come and look at things. It doesn’t look good if you have a tatty shop. If you are looking to do high-end properties, you don’t want a shop full of radios and remote controls. Your shop has to reflect on the work you can do.”

Now around 80 per cent of Lasyl’s business comes from custom install, with 20 per cent from retail sales through the shop.

The biggest obstacle the brothers have had to overcome was finding skilled staff to carry out their installations.

“It is difficult to find multi-skilled installers,” he tells ERT. “No matter how much you offer to pay them. They can either do top-end, including all of the programming, but can’t do aerials and satellite, or they can do the data network but can’t set up a television. So you have to train them along the way. There aren’t any courses out there in common sense. No course trains them how to hang a TV. We have to do that ourselves.

Sonos display in Lasyl’s East Sheen showroom

“We also send staff to Panasonic and Samsung for training. But on the install side, where some products require programming, you have to go on their courses. Some of the remote controls are £2,000 to £3,000, and when you take them out the box they are completely blank, and unless you have been trained to program them, you won’t be able to do it. We do Control 4, WyreStorm and RTI, with Luxul for data networks. Control 4 you can’t sell unless you have done the training. We also do QMotion blinds so that at the touch of a button the blinds will go up or down as the TV turns on. We also deal with Lutron for lighting. We design the lighting system, but if the client has an electrician on-site, we would work with them.”

Lasyl now has a full-time team of six main installers who are kept busy “all day, every day”, while Dominic and Chris work as overall project managers.

Dominic tells ERT that around 40 per cent of business comes from architects and builders. “But it works both ways,” he adds. “We have a long-standing client up the road and they are renovating their house. They put it out to tender to various builders and we recommended someone they hadn’t thought of. On the back of that, we’ll be doing the AV side as well. But if you are going to recommend a builder, you need to have someone reliable, otherwise it reflects on us.

“On the flip side, some customers start a project with their architect or builder, and because we work with a lot of them and have relationships with them, they will recommend us. It’s about doing a good job and not letting them down. You need to keep everyone happy. It is not a case of greasing palms – that doesn’t work. You have to do a good job.”

Although Lasyl does commercial installations, such as aerial and satellite distribution for blocks of flats and conferencing facilities for businesses, most work is residential.
And Lasyl will take on any scale of project it feels it can handle. At the time of our visit, Dominic tells me about an ongoing whole-house project in Wimbledon where work so far has totalled £110,000, with a quarter of the house still to do. He estimates it will end up at £150,000 – their biggest to date. It includes multi-room audio, seven or eight screens and a door entry system. “We put in the wi-fi, data cabling, Control 4 – everything except the CCTV.”

Dominic says Lasyl also does a lot of  basement rooms, man caves and summer houses. Summer houses are apparently popular in their area with many big properties and large gardens. Some of the summer houses, says Dominic, “are almost the size of my house”.

TV display in the showroom

But then, he makes one bombshell revelation: “There is more and more business on the projects side, but it seems that there are fewer and fewer installers, or reputable installers. If more of the independents would only get involved in it, there would be fewer problems.

“What we’re finding is that builders and electricians are getting on board and trying to muscle in on the business. Unfortunately, or fortunately for us, they are not trained and they cannot get access to the training. Or the products. So they buy them from Richer Sounds and try to install it themselves. The number of customers we get who have had things installed that way and need to ask us to go and solve their problems is amazing.”

So independents be warned – don’t miss out.  He says that local estate agents and builders are a good starting point. But he has some important advice: “You have to be able to supply the demand when it comes. You have to invest heavily in your staff, to get them trained, and then work on having people aware that you can offer those services. It is not an overnight thing. It will take a lot of time to get it right. You can’t dabble on a top-end project, you could lose everything.”

Dominic acknowledges that awareness of the smart home and its benefits are driving more business through the door. But he is less convinced about the latest trend for voice-activated tech such as Amazon’s Alexa.

“Amazon and Alexa are changing things too and it is a market where, unless the independents get involved, everyone else is going to clean up in. But it’s early days, so we do systems that work with hard cabling rather than wireless. We’ve had voice activation for a number of years on phones. How does Siri work for you? Not very well! Apple TV has voice control, but most of the customers we have installed it for have asked us to deactivate the voice control. What does that tell you?”

So where does Lasyl go from here?

Dominic is pragmatic about this. He smiles and finally says: “More of the same. The amount of property you see going up around London is frightening. They all need tech of some sort. Just trying to get into more and more of those, and without the staff you can’t grow, and trying to find the staff is a mission in itself. Slowly, slowly, I think.”