Greg Beebe of Sennheiser: ‘The Engineer In Me Loves Fixing Things’
The American executive and Director Professional Audio opens up about his early years with the German audio company, their artist relations program, Sennheiser’s new product range and more
Growing up as the middle child of five in Hartford, Connecticut, which is one of the three poorest cities in the state, Greg Beebe tells us that he didn’t come from wealth and that most of his time was spent playing outdoors with his friends. “I went to public elementary school and public high school and no one in my family had gone to university,” says Beebe.
After building a home Hi-Fi system his girlfriend at the time saw his potential with electronics and encouraged him to apply to university. It was at Hartford University where Beebe earned a Bachelor’s degree in Science in Electrical Engineering Technology (BSEET). “It [university] gave me the opportunity to be the first in my family to graduate university and essentially escape poverty,” he says.
Beebe went on to join German audio giants Sennheiser in 1992 at their Hartford headquarters and has been with the company ever since. From his days as an application engineer to being promoted as the Director Professional Audio at Sennheiser in 2018 and heading the professional audio segment for Sennheiser globally, Beebe’s career trajectory is arguably self-made. We caught up with Beebe during his stop in Mumbai and in this interview with Rolling Stone India, he talks about why gaining his university degree was bittersweet, juxtaposing his engineering background with his business interests, Sennheiser’s latest products and more. Excerpts:
Tell me about what it was like for you going to Hartford University?
I went for an orientation to the University of Hartford and during this orientation I realized this was a new world to be able to learn at such a high level. To be able to be surrounded by intellectual people, I recognized pretty easily that this is something that would be quite good for me but I didn’t know if I was good enough. So I did something that I’m still astonished I was clever enough to do – I asked the dean of the university as a high school student if I could sit in on a class and the class was BC fundamentals – quite a heavy class in terms of theory. And I remember having such a headache because it was information at a pace and content that I had never experienced. I always say this was an act of genius by my heart by accident, because little did I know that my initiative to show interest would have afforded me a full scholarship to that university. This really began to be the beginning of the absolute nucleus of the trajectory of my life. It gave me the opportunity to be the first in my family to graduate university and essentially escape poverty.
I’ve read that you said you weren’t a good student, but here you’re telling me you gained a scholarship to go to university. So why did you feel that way about yourself?
Growing up in Hartford I didn’t try very hard because I didn’t need to try very hard because it was just the way to get through. It was more like you went through the motions. You woke up, you went to school and you came home and you played. I didn’t study very well and I was even into special programs because I wasn’t academically at a level everyone else was.
I was part of the wrestling team but this was more for the friendship and in my junior year there was a program which I enrolled in which would allow me to leave school early – so I would have to go to school in the morning and then I could leave to go work and I viewed that as a way to escape school.
What I didn’t know actually was it really gave me an opportunity to see what an education can do. At the time I worked at one of the largest insurance companies [Travelers] in the U.S. and Connecticut is the insurance capital of the world. I was working in the audio-video department and I got to set up all these audio and video systems. I was fortunate enough there to meet very clever business people who opened my mind that this could be a beginning.
I had to really try in university but because I received a full scholarship for tuition I still needed money for books and for living so even when I was at university I worked three jobs. I was a computer lab monitor, I was a security guard and I also worked installing automobile electronics so I didn’t really get to enjoy university life because my free time was mostly working and frankly this position of a security guard I found that I would fight boredom by studying.
How did it feel being the first person from your family to graduate?
It was bittersweet because I was ostracized. I was shunned a bit from my family because they took this as I was better than them so relationships suffered. In fact they still do till this day. I told you I’m the middle child and I now have two daughters and my daughters have never seen my older sister and they’ve met my older brother once in 19 years so it divided us. It is hard but I will say my wife — who is from Laos and the Asian family — is so strong so we have an abundance of family love. So within a 30 minute driving radius of our home there are about 70 family members from my wife’s side, so my daughters know family they just don’t know so much of my side of the family.
Did you know of Sennheiser before joining the company in 1992?
I was sitting in the office of the dean at my university and I was going to graduate in some weeks and I realized now the rubber hits the road and I need to put this degree to work. I saw in the newspaper for an opening at a company called Seinn-houser – I couldn’t even say Sennheiser – I didn’t know what it was.
It was near the beach and I said okay I’m a young man; the beach is filled with women so maybe I have a chance to find love. So I took the chance to apply for this position and I started the interview process in May and in August I was offered the position. As the story goes there were two candidates for this position — another young man and myself. What gave the hiring manager the confidence in selecting me is that I’m an eagle scout and this was something that my parents pushed me for.
Tell me about your early years with the company.
I started as an application engineer and my first task was to build a rechargeable battery pack system for our noise-cancelling headphones and three years later, I was approached by our new vice president [John Falcone] at a trade fair and he said something to me that I’ll never forget. This is what cemented our relationship and he became a mentor to me. He said while at the fair, he observed me talking with a customer and for an engineer, I was good at talking with customers. He said he would like to offer me a new position working in sales and marketing capacity and also starting our artist relations program. He would like to offer me that position and also offer me to go to school in the evenings for a master’s degree in business. At that time there weren’t many engineers who had business degrees.
I’ll never forget this one meeting, I was traveling with a salesman and we were visiting a system integrator and we were sitting in a small group around a table and the engineers were asking about some specifications for a product. At that time, I was the president of our U.S. organization and they were asking specifically about the output of a wired microphone and I was able to answer it and they were like how is that a president of a company knows this and that was for me was the realization of what John Falcone saw in me could bring me to a point in my career that balanced my technical training with my business interests.
You’ve stuck with Sennheiser for 27 years now, why is that you think?
I can tell you I became quite fond of this company because — and actually it was my wife who pointed this out — every three years I was changing positions. So the first three years, I was doing application engineering in aviation audiology then I moved to the professional area where I was working on multi channel wireless systems for Broadway and large concerts. It became quite nice that every three years I could take on a different challenge without leaving the company. Many people would say that the average time a person spends with a company is seven years because they look that the grass is greener on the other side and at least at Sennheiser, the opportunities were plentiful to grow internally.
I remember particularly in the year 2001/02 this opportunity presented itself which seemed so profound at the time that I could actually leave the U.S. and move to Europe to be part of a one-year-long management training program. That seemed so far from when I was playing in the streets of Hartford that I would move to a different country and have my second daughter born there – this was one of the most important years of my life, actually. 2003, living in Germany is where I gained the intelligence to know where my passions lay and it was in internationalism. I learned during that year because I was responsible for our south western European business, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal – I visited those countries and got to experience their cultures, of course the German culture because I lived there. I learned that I love cultures, I love international business – I really learned how much I enjoyed building teams. I also learned how I like a challenge. The engineer in me loves fixing things.
What were the challenges you faced?
Still today I wish I could speak more languages. So this to me was always a challenge speaking languages. When I was tapped to become the president of our U.S. operation I didn’t have at the time a wealth of financial experience, like how to run a balance sheet. So I really remember going to my mentor John Falcone. I would go into the office everyday one hour earlier to just watch him and learn from him how to manage balance sheets and financial statements.
Tell me about Sennheiser’s new product range. In particular the XS1 wired microphone and the XS wireless digital.
First I want to talk about the XS1 because its special and in India you wouldn’t know it’s special. But it’s the very first time we made a product special for market development regions of the world. The XS1 product is not available in Europe or the U.S., you can’t have it there. It’s a standard article here to help countries experience Sennheiser and it’s been quite successful for us actually so this was quite a good move to introduce Sennheiser to a younger audience.
The XS wireless range, one of the things I had observed that all of the time I spent in the market helped prepare me for this position. I realized that there’s always this natural tendency for a consumer to have a journey through a brand.
If you look at cars there are products that are very affordable but there are also products that are quite an ambitious reach and something in the middle as well. I’ve transferred that strategy to our company by bringing forward a concept that I am calling good, better and best. So I wanted to work on streamlining our portfolio to see the journey they can take with us. So when it became time to look at our wireless portfolio with all the time I had in Latin America and Asia I realized that we were very good with the better and best but we didn’t have good.
So XS wireless became a project for us to offer a good solution and it has been an incredible success. So much so that when we wanted to look at digitizing our portfolio we wanted to start there and that’s where XS wireless digital comes now and it became a way to take our good, better, best strategy and now move it into the digital realm.
We’ve never done this before and I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of the product managers to make this possible and the developers who helped bring it to life. This is our first year making this. We launched it in January and by February we hit 50 percent of our unit volume so we now have a factory in Romania and its running seven days a week, three shifts to keep up with demand, because we have back orders it has been a tremendous success.
I intended to serve the music industry for aspiring musicians who are again looking at starting their journey with Sennheiser also for content creators who want to find an affordable wireless solution who want to share their messages with the rest of the world. It also serves as a great tool for replacing a wire.
What’s the relationship between artists and Sennheiser like?
We didn’t have an artist relations program before and when I was younger and listened to a lot of music like young people do. I had to start from zero. And one of the things I learned very quickly is that it was the technical people, the engineers who really were my customers. They were the ones I needed to learn from and listen from. So I started to develop a rapport with a variety of sound engineers and I would use them as advisers frankly.
I remember one in particular who also gave me the hint that there are certain clubs that bands perform at that I could maybe imagine working on some sponsorships with. Before you know it you start getting phone calls from people. One call in particular — I’ll never forget because this cemented a lifelong relationship — was from a Sri Lankan gentleman, Vish Wadi. He was asking me for a product for Mariah Carey at the time. Of course I helped him and this is 20 years later and he’s the monitor engineer now for Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and Barbra Streisand.
Because of our relationship, he made it possible that our microphone was used by these artists. But it was never business. It’s friendship. I was traveling with a salesman in Miami, Florida and I get a call from Vish and he was in Miami too. I went to the American Airlines Arena where he was and we were talking about product and by this time we knew each other pretty well and he asked me if I would like to meet the boss. And the boss was Shakira. She’s in love with me but doesn’t know it (laughs).
The Sennheiser Top 50 band hunt here in India has been a tremendous success and a great platform for up and coming artists. We haven’t had the competition for two years now, will it be back? And are there any other plans Sennheiser has to help the music scene grow in India?
So I am going to answer this question in three dimensions. The first dimension is this is my first time visiting India and I can tell you that this is a musical culture clearly. It’s massively obvious so there has to be a stage to share this beautiful music that is created here. Particularly the way music is tied to film is unique and a great way to share this content, so clearly there is talent.
The second dimension, we now have essentially matured our artist relations program and it falls under the business we manage and we have artists representation throughout the world. The other thing that we did is to create a platform to highlight artists — not just the big Lady Gagas or the Pinks of the world. So we refreshed our website – there is an artist section where we highlight local artists as well. It will highlight the artist, we give a biography, it will give their tour schedule and also lists the Sennheiser product they are using. We really opened this up to the world so this is what we work with our Indian team to help to pursue because it is a new venture and we want these aspiring musicians or these celebrated winners of the Top 50 to be highlighted.
Finally, what practice or to whom do you put your success down to?