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Monday, June 10,2013

‘Sound’ business expands into new territories, and gains acclaim while doing it

By Jim Phillips
Photo Credits: Gary Kirksey for The Athens NEWS
Photo Caption: Aaron Thomas of Class A Sounds

Ten years ago, Aaron Thomas was a 24-year-old Ohio University graduate (class of '01), and working at a local sandwich shop, when he started Class A Sounds, a car stereo business, in Athens. Since then, the business has greatly expanded and diversified, and now offers all kinds of high-tech goodies and services for the vehicle, as well as home entertainment equipment.

The store at 447 E. State St., which employs three people in addition to Thomas, boasts an impressive, gleaming showroom, packed with all the latest in car audio, video and phone gear. A large and well-equipped attached drive-through bay provides a space for installing sound systems and doing auto detailing, another service offered by Class A.

"We try to do about everything but truck accessories," Thomas said.

Thomas was helped in starting the business by startup funds from the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACENet). It originally opened in the mall now known as The Market on State, and later moved to its current location closer to the center of town.

Thomas said he has aimed from the start to bring to Athens the kind of merchandise and services that, when he started the business, had to be sought in Columbus or Parkersburg.

"My biggest thing was trying to offer as much as we could in Athens, so people didn't have to go outside of Athens," he explained.

One popular service the business provides, for example, is window tinting. Without Class A Sounds in town, Thomas suggested, local people wanting to get their car windows tinted would have to spend much of a day traveling to a bigger city and having it done.

As the business has grown and diversified, he said, it has drawn a wider clientele.

"Our original demographic was 16 to 25 (years old)," he said. "Now it's more like, 16 to 60. We'll get people bringing their kids in for their first car stereos, and they'll say, 'Oh, I want that for my own car.'"

One part of the business that's taken off for Class A is "smart" televisions and related technology. The store offers high-end big-screen TVs that can be set up to be controlled from a user's phone. Much of its sales in this area have come from commercial users that include local bars and restaurants, as well as Ohio University, where Class A has provided TVs for locations including the locker room of the men's basketball team, and the new Baker Center.

"My focus is commercial sales," Thomas explained. "We're doing more bulk stuff."

Thomas' remarkable success in growing his business has not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, Class A (along with ACENet, a local business incubator) was announced as a finalist in the Association for Enterprise Opportunity's Citi Microentrepreneurship Awards.

"We found out about in on a Wednesday, and the deadline (to apply) was on Friday, so we submitted it at, like, midnight," Thomas recalled. "I didn't win, but it was an all-around great experience."

Former Athens County Commissioner Larry Payne, who stopped into Class A Sounds while The NEWS was talking to Thomas, recalled that during Payne's days with the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, Thomas was considered the "poster child" for effective entrepreneurship.

"He was innovative, hard-working," Payne said. "He runs a business the way it should be run."


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