Whether he's outfitting Mary J. Blige's 1,000-square-foot tour bus or collaborating with Jay-Z on the renovation of the 40/40 Club in Manhattan, Gabriel Karlis is always thinking one step ahead of his clients. Even at the young age of 8, while tinkering in his father's repair shop in Tenafly, Karlis had an intuitive grasp for technology.
"I knew one day we would be able to mount a television on the wall and stream music into any room in the house with a touch of a button," says Karlis, the under-40 CEO and president of JD Audio & Video Design in Fort Lee.
Founded in 1969 by Dimitri Karlis, JD Audio & Video Design has grown from a small television fix-it shop to a multi-million dollar company. Its A-list clientele includes stars (and Bergen residents) Chris Rock, Jay-Z, Sean Combs, Mariah Carey, CC Sabathia, Patrick Ewing and Geraldo Rivera, who turn to the company's expertise for everything from custom audio and video equipment to commercial and home automation, home theaters and smart home design installation. Since 1992, Karlis and his team have installed more than 10,000 residential and commercial systems, ranging in size from $2,000 to $2 million.
What excites him most, however, is the company's fast-paced growth, all achieved through referrals.
"I could sit down and connect the dots to every one of our clients. They have all been referrals," he says. Though the majority of its work is Bergen County-based, the company is quickly establishing a foothold in Manhattan. Most recently, a residential project for music mogul Jay-Z in Alpine led to the company's first commercial installation on a Manhattan-sized scale: the design and installation of a state-of-the-art audio and video system (including more than 100 55-inch flat-screen monitors) for the highly publicized reopening of the hip-hop legend's celebrated 40/40 Club.
Projects vary widely in size and scope – recent ones include a home theater for a 30,000-square-foot house in the Bahamas and a video-assisted shooting range in Saddle River – but one thing is certain: Karlis always finds time to give back. Two appearances on the hit television show Extreme Home Makeover are testament to his passion for helping others.
"We were asked to work on homes for a deaf family in Newark and a family with a blind child in Bergenfield," he says. For each home, Karlis donated or secured $250,000 worth of audio and video equipment to create high-tech systems that ease and enhance the lives of the disabled. The company is also involved with the Jewish Community Center, Elisabeth Morrow School and Tourette Syndrome Association of New Jersey.
"Increasingly, we are moving beyond home theater design and installation to embrace the full breadth of 'smart home' automation. In fact, I've always wanted to start a construction business and call it 'Jetson Homes,'" he says with a laugh, referring to the animated sitcom about a futuristic family. "The fully automated home is no longer a thing of the future. We can install one control panel that manages lights, blinds, air conditioning and heat, music and, believe it or not, it's more energy efficient."
JD Audio & Video Design has grown from 18 employees to 36 in the past two years, fueled by enthusiastic referrals from customers and its own firm grasp of where technology is heading. To accommodate its fast-paced growth, the company recently purchased the original firehouse building in Fort Lee. Built in 1903, it has been converted into an 8,000-square-foot warehouse, laboratory and office featuring an impressive level of technological innovation.
"Not only is it a functional space for us to run our operation, but at the same time it is used as our commercial showroom for clients who are building new office/warehouse spaces," he notes.
It's a far cry from the company's more modest beginnings.
"As prices for televisions and other consumer electronics began to drop, I knew that, one day, people wouldn't spend money to fix televisions," says Karlis, who was studying electronic engineering in 1995 when he helped shift the company's focus into home theater design.
As technology continues to evolve, Karlis keeps pace by attending industry events like CEDIA and CES but draws most of his inspiration from his wife and two daughters. He has even launched a record label and is nurturing plans to introduce local children's recording artist Kimmy Schwimmy on a national stage.
And, in a nod to his company's history, he still fixes a television set or two every year.