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Looking Back on 40 years with Chairman Joe Stoebner

by | Kelly Perkins

As we celebrate AVI’s 40th anniversary, it’s the perfect time to take a look back at our formative years and honor the significant influence our founder and Chairman Joe Stoebner played in creating the company we’ve become today.

As we look back, it’s clear that Joe’s upbringing instilled in him values that laid the foundation for the kind of company AVI would become. It’s also clear that these values will continue to guide the company as we grow over the next 40 years.

Joe Stoebner was one of nine siblings raised on a farm in South Dakota. By age 10 he was on a tractor helping his father and learning the value of hard work. His father served as a role model for both a strong work ethic and the importance of honesty.

At the time, farmers bought gasoline in bulk. If you used it for your tractor, the gasoline was tax-free, but if you used it for your car, you had to pay taxes. Joe’s dad was forthright and meticulously recorded every mile he drove in his car using bulk gasoline so he could pay the required taxes at the end of the year.

His mother’s generosity and responsibility also helped shape the person Joe became. You can see his parent’s influence in his decision to move AVI to an ESOP corporation.

Giving employees ownership in the company, just felt like the right thing to do. It spread the wealth and the responsibility. And as a result, AVI employees are more driven, hard-working, and personally invested in building a great company.

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Joe had to overcome obstacles from the start. After teaching history for five years, he made the tough decision to take a different career path.

During Joe’s first job interview for a sales position--at Office Machines & Furniture (OMF)--the owner told him, he wouldn’t hire a teacher with no sales experience. Joe didn’t take no for an answer.

He put together a sales proposal and convinced the owner to meet with him again. This time the owner hired Joe.

On Joe’s first day at OMF, his supervisor resigned. With no one to train him, Joe realized he’d have to teach himself to be a great salesman.

He asked a lot of questions of his co-workers, learning as much as he could, and after a year and a half, Joe was exceeding his teacher’s salary by three-fold. His perseverance and tireless work had paid off.

Joe rose to general manager at OMF and eventually bought the company from the owners' group in 1979 changing the name to Audiovisual, Inc.

The purchase was on a risky owner-financed contract that put Joe immediately in debt of $110,000, but it was a valuable lesson. Joe paid off the debt a year and a half early. Being financially frugal and paying off debt early is one of the reasons AVI is such a stable company with no current debts and is poised for future growth.

Being an ESOP corporation was just one of four significant decisions that allowed AVI to become the company it is today.

One of the most critical decisions came when Joe realized he couldn’t manage the company alone and offered Terry Daffinrud, then AVI’s CPA, the opportunity to be his business partner. This move allowed Joe to focus on sales and leave financial management to an expert.

Terry was the right person at the right time.  Terry came up with the ESOP idea and established it at AVI in 1989.  Many people have asked Joe why he literally “gave the company to the employees” through the ESOP transaction and he replied with these key reasons:

Succession Planning: It would provide a stable transition from Stoebner ownership to others without the disruptions of selling the business to other investors.

Shared ownership:  It would be a common goal for uniting a diverse group of employees from acquired businesses.

Tax Deferment: The tax law change in 1996 allowed S-Corps to sponsor an ESOP.  Tax liability flowed through to the shareholders, and ESOP’s do not pay income tax. As ESOP ownership increased gradually, more tax money was diverted to the AVI employee-owners.

Another crucial event in the growth of AVI was Joe’s decision to move his family from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Omaha, Nebraska in 1989. It wasn’t a decision he or his family took lightly, but Joe knew he had to do it. He had expanded the company and felt strongly that he needed to be present in the new market to properly oversee its growth.

The huge transition from being an AV dealer was taking on the challenge of helping ConAgra integrate its audio/visual communications system starting in 1988.

After parting ways with its audio and visual consultant, ConAgra asked AVI to design and build the project. AVI had done a great job as an equipment and service dealer but this was the first time the company had ever done any form of integration.

The job was a tremendous success and began the transformation of AVI from a dealer to an integrator of audio/visual technologies.

Decisions and events like these all test a company and its employees. Joe is proud of the company we’ve built together over the last 40 years.

But we can’t rest on our laurels. With new technologies and platforms being launched every day, it’s imperative to stay proactive and keep learning.

Joe is confident and optimistic about the future. He knows that we have the talent and the drive to take AVI to new heights in the next 40 years.

Learn more about AVI Systems history here. 

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