design build – personal profile
An interview with John Palser, owner of this recently re-branded systems integration leader.
By Douglas Weinstein
ECHO SYSTEMS, THE MIDWEST’S TECHNOLOGY AND LIGHTING DESIGN POWERHOUSE with headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, recently initiated a large-scale brand refresh including a name change. Echo Systems’ acquisition of Kansas City based Integrated Electronics in 2019 and Dallas Sight and Sound in 2021 led to a major expansion of territory, talent and offerings, and owner John Palser felt it was time to reimagine the company as one unified team under the new name of Denizen. I recently sat down with John to talk about his history as one of the country’s premier systems integration and design firms and his thoughts on working with design-build professionals and delivering the perfect technology experience for his customers.
“Our job is to understand what the client wants and needs, and then make that happen without impacting the design. Technology really isn’t the focus. ”JOHN PALSER
FOUNDER | DENIZEN
DOUG: Tell us about your journey.
JOHN: When I was in high school, I worked for Echo Electrical Supply, an independent wholesale electrical distributor that supplies electrical parts, equipment and services to the construction market. Echo Electric had been in business since 1950, based in Council Bluffs, Iowa, with locations scattered throughout the Midwest. I had worked in the warehouse and did various jobs like running deliveries to customers. We had a lighting showroom that was part of our electrical distribution and I had built strong relationships with my managers and co-workers.
In 2000, I moved back to Omaha to be closer to my family. I had gone to TCU in Fort Worth where I studied Biology. Not exactly the background you would imagine when you think of technology [laughs]. I think the majority of people I know through our industry in the technology and lighting design world started out with a passion for audio and video and graduated to networking, control, lighting and the other disciplines in today’s modern smart homes. But I probably got the bug because of my exposure to lighting while I was at Echo during high school.
So when I moved back to Omaha, they reached out and wanted me to help build a lighting design program to complement their distribution efforts. So I did that and instantly fell in love with Lutron’s GRAPHIK Eye and then Homeworks systems. The flexibility and ability to create amazing scenes and vacation modes and all of the interesting things you could do was really exciting. Also, we ended up doing things the systems might not have been envisioned to do, but a client would make a request and we would do our best to accommodate them. Along the way, I started to experience how builders and traditional system integrators worked together – I had already developed our program for selling Homeworks to contractors, who would then have me do everything since we were electrical distributors as well as lighting distributors. I then decided that what we really needed to do was to take on everything from a control standpoint. Design, contracting and programming and implementing control of the entire lighting and entertainment systems.
And that’s how Echo Systems was born. We grew out of the electrical supply industry, and still to this day we’re proud that Echo Electrical Supply (now Echo Group) has been a part owner and an incredible partner. They understood that I had to go out on my own in 2003 and offered me financial stability in order to grow the business beyond lighting and into the other technologies we now offer.
DOUG: Do you feel you have a unique perspective coming from a lighting background, as it pertains to where technology meets design aesthetics?
JOHN: Sure. Coming in from lighting design and control, our perspective has always been that our technologies were meant to disappear. We naturally have been cleaning up wall clutter and minimizing our impact on any given space. We’ve always had strong relationships with architects and designers and have been tied into those communities from the very beginning.
And over the years we’ve established great relationships with lighting rep companies and other manufacturers who talk to the various trades – so a lot of us have been of the same mindset that technology needs to blend in and enhance design. Our job is to understand what the client wants and needs, and then make that happen without impacting the design. Technology really isn’t the focus.
Now, that being said, sometimes a client wants to show off a Meridian speaker system, which really are sculptured works of art that produce sound, so we also can design those into the space in collaboration with the other design stakeholders. And digital canvasses with digital art are becoming more common. But overall, I’d say our roots are about stealth, whether it’s invisible speakers or discreet landscape speakers – almost all technology can easily sit behind the walls and not draw attention away from the main design goals.
DOUG: Talk about the acquisitions and the new branding.
JOHN: So initially there were two acquisitions. Let’s start with Integrated Electronics of Kansas City in 2019. While we were servicing our Omaha market, and it’s small, we had to be willing to travel geographically. We were accustomed to servicing vacation homes outside of our market up to three-and-a-half hours away from Omaha on a regular basis. So we became adept at planning and executing large projects where we didn’t have local support. Kansas City was the largest and closest big city to us and some of our customers from there might have a vacation home where we serviced them, and they would ask us to come to Kansas City and do their home. The owner of Integrated was ready to retire from day-to-day operations and had a great history in the area and a great crew. This acquisition came together rather quickly, and we have been very successful in the Kansas City market as Echo Systems since that time.
Then in 2021, David Rogers of Dallas Sight and Sound, who I knew from The Guild and HTSA Buying Group, had gotten to the point where he wanted to explore options that would allow what he had built to continue servicing the loyal clientele with the same passion for excellence that built their reputation in the first place. He reached out knowing about our Kansas City acquisition and history, so we started that conversation, and it was a great opportunity to expand into such a great market.
What we’ve learned over the course of these two acquisitions is it’s all about the culture and fit of the various teams. You have to have that cohesive culture since we’re working across a large geographical area. In reality, it is difficult to create, and if you take on an established team, it’s even tougher. But, fortunately, we have carefully chosen to acquire teams that share the same vision.
Who we’ve been is incredibly important. The history and legacy of each of these companies will never be lost – they’ve all contributed so much to who we are as a team. But I decided it was the ideal time to imagine all that we can be together and bring a new spirit and vision to the collective group.
That vision is also largely influenced by a new approach to customer service and satisfaction. Our leadership team felt that the client experience must take center stage, even in the naming and branding. For most Americans, “home” has taken on a more important role than ever before, whether it’s a place of quiet refuge, a home office, a busy, bustling hub of family life, or for many – all of the above. Our team came up with the idea that one shouldn’t just feel like a “resident,” but instead a true citizen of their own home. Hence the name Denizen, which we define as one who truly rules their space, moving through each day with intention, focus and, hopefully, sheer delight – especially with integrated and smart technology.
With offices in Omaha, Kansas City and Dallas, we are now actively working on projects across 14 states, from South Dakota to Texas and routinely take on projects in areas where our clients need us. And since we now have years under our belts traveling to work and service homes in so many different areas, we decided to extend the language around our services to include “wherever you call home.”
DOUG: Will you be creating an Experience Center in the other markets, similar to your space in Omaha?
JOHN: Correctly done – which includes timing – an Experience Center makes a huge difference. So the short answer is yes. But you can’t just build it and expect it to do the job for you. A beautiful showroom alone will not attract enough clients to make it worthwhile. You have to have the reputation and experience in the market before the center makes sense. And then it’s really powerful.
We built a home in our commercial space here in Omaha. We start the experience in a room with a conversation about what the client knows or expects, we then prepare them for what we want them to experience, and then give them a tour. We start in a landscape room that feels like you’re outdoors, then we walk into the front door of the house. We have several rooms built around the stories we want to tell. It flows around a range of everyday routines and preferences, and we show all kinds of aesthetic integration of technology: mood to task lighting, shading control, invisible speakers, etc.
DOUG: And this is all part of your discovery process?
JOHN: Yes. Since we were born out of being in Omaha, our market dictated that if we wanted to grow we had to have a broader range of clientele, not just the one percent. So we offer three different experiences that we’ve named Carbon, Onyx and Diamond, to play off of our new black and white branding.
Carbon is our entry level, which is still high-end – we don’t compromise, ever, on any project – but at this level we do have pre-engineered solutions. In our experience, the level of engagement the customer wants dictates which level they want to be in. So a Carbon level client might want some technology but doesn’t want to be overly burdened with options and meetings, etc. So we have pre-engineered packages that make the details simple and straightforward as we collaborate with the other trades. Budget is often a main driving force with this offering.
Our core tier, Onyx – which is our bread and butter – is where we walk through various technologies and make the client aware of what’s possible. There is more engagement overall, and again budget is a driving force. We work back and forth to develop the full scope and vision.
Diamond level is where a client really wants to be deeply engaged. We act more like an architect and consultant in this role, where budget isn’t the main factor, the best solution, total project vision and client experience is the focus. We then engage our engineering team where we can deep dive into truly unique options.
Regardless of what any of our clients opt for, a lot of our success is in how we approach the other trades – architects, builders, designers – and how we support their vision. We constantly reach out – we do Final Fridays CEU presentations every month – and like many in our industry, we stress that the sooner we are involved in any project, the better the final solution.
That’s why in our process – our discovery process – we pull out everything a client might want to do (even if they might not have the budget today) – and explain that it really comes down to planning the proper infrastructure, including wiring and cable. Build to what you want to do, then come up with the game plan on when to phase in various components. Let’s say you only want to automate the great room’s window treatments and you’re unsure if you’ll want to do the master suite down the road. I’m sure many designers have been through this [laughs] – the client ends up loving the automation and four months down the road says, “Let’s do the master!” So that kind of forward thinking is what we educate our clients on.
And it’s not only about wiring and cable. Power conditioning, networking, Wi-Fi – all of these fundamentals should be in the scope of work.
DOUG: Besides basic infrastructure, what technologies are you excited about showing your customers?
JOHN: Well, lighting of course! And especially the brand Ketra. We started with Ketra long before Lutron acquired them and what really makes them special is the individual addressability at the fixture level. They are tunable and customizable,
built from scratch and boasting dozens of patented innovations and supports how humans experience indoor environments in the modern age.
Shading is huge – we even brought in a fabric and shading specialist. Besides Lutron, one brand I’m really big on is Hartman and Forbes, which utilize Lutron motors. The use of natural materials within interior spaces helps create balance, harmony and clarity.
Wellness, while sometimes a difficult topic to convey, incorporates things like proper lighting, clean air and water, and acoustics. So I’m excited to continue to explore the concept and how our various technologies can lead to healthier environments for our clients.
And I have to say that great sound is at the heart of our company. I can’t really think of any other technology that can convey emotion better than a proper audio system, and when you can combine whole-house audio and landscape audio – along with human-centric lighting – the result can be magic! I think that’s a great foundation for any home to build from. That’s where we like to start anyway. And what we mean when we say “we want to see people feel more connected to their homes … and beyond.” Our new mission, with the rebrand, is to use technology to provide an elevated experience that helps our clients feel calm, in control, and a new level of connection to this world, starting in the place that matters most.
4315 S 120th St
Omaha, NE 68137
660 N Lindenwood Dr
Olathe, KS 66062
14570 Midway Road
Dallas, TX 75244