Reflection – “Lock-Down” 2020

Covid-19 – The leveler

It forces hindsight, consideration and appreciation for where we’ve come from, where we are at and where it is we are going. 

More than ever before I’ve been reminded of the wise words one of my late father’s best friends used to tell his son and me as youngsters. He said: “Remember, if you can make a career out of something you love, you will never be doing a single day’s work.” 

In many ways I have been lucky to be going about my life in this pleasing way, living out in everyday life the passions I have for music, sound reproduction, electronics, construction, motor vehicles and motorcycles. In some or other way these elements have always found ways of generating income especially when time spent on it was managed constructively and purposefully. Very often however it just came by itself. 

My official career kicked off in 1994 when straight from college I took up the position as product specialist at Hi-Fi Specialists, then representatives for NAD Electronics and several other hi-fidelity related products in South-Africa. Years before however, while still a learner at the respected D.F. Malan high school in Bellville, I began making decent pocket money selling NAD components and systems to friends’ parents and by doing the installations ourselves, we gained valuable early experience.

A little later while at college, it was decided by my late father and uncle, Francois van Rooyen, they will allow me to assist in fulfilling their contract to supply and install NAD & AR systems for a couple of new Spur restaurant franchises in the Bellville area. Being quite labour intensive the situation was considered that should they have kept depending on the workshop staff to do installations, repairs and servicing would have fallen behind.  

At the time one of the first franchised Spur restaurants in the country known as the Silver Spur was our next door neighbour at the old Parksig premises of Hi-Fi Specialists in Durban Road, Bellville. Naturally the very first NAD/AR system for a Spur restaurant was installed here where I recall how my late father often jokingly teased the owners of how the horrible music kept spoiling lovely meals.

By having had a lovely restaurant directly adjacent to us, we naturally dined there very often for business meetings and the like and so eventually the Spur owners just had to give in. Nothing is more convincing than continued exposure to anything that is better than ‘run-of-the-mill’ and so when the time came to open more restaurants, more NAD/AR systems were ordered. High quality sound was quite unique when the norm for the hospitality industry back then was to paste horrible sounding dual-cone automotive speakers all over the ceiling boards.

To successfully fulfill a task that came with a fair amount of responsibility, I called upon a like-minded mate from school to assist me in what I saw as an exciting venture. What followed, to this day, remains as one of the most memorable, successful, fun and trend setting partnerships of my early unofficial career. Andre Roodt went on to become an award-winning electronics engineer and owner of his own software developments company called Sybudata. The best sounding Spur we did was undoubtedly the original Texas Spur in the N1 City Mall near Cape Town. The owners there felt they needed more weight to the sound than the smallish AR 6BX speakers we put up could muster. The large exposed balcony area overlooking the old gaming arena dissipated a lot of sound.

Unlike today where the market is flooded with affordable home theater subwoofers, in those early days we had no choice but to make our own. So at N1, we went ahead and fabricated of our own subwoofer enclosures that met the specific volumetric requirement of the high quality AR 12″ drivers we sourced from the spare parts inventory at Hi-Fi Specialists. I remember we even installed a substantial 3240PE NAD amp to drive the subwoofers separately from the main speaker system in order to have independent level control over them. That setup sounded absolutely amazing considering it was a family restaurant and not a dedicated listening room or theater. It was very rewarding to have done work for clients who understood and appreciated the importance of good sound in the restaurant business. These days all we see is rubbish from China and it sounds even worse than the dual-cone car-speaker era of the eighties.

The Alamo Spur in the Tiger Valley Centre came a year or so later and there we also went a few steps beyond by providing independent zone level control through multiple NAD power amps and a clever (for the time) multi-zone NAD preamp. We had a huge amount of fun doing these installations that always seemed to have resulted in jaw dropping experiences when heard for the first time. Our systems were carefully designed observing acoustical principles as well as amplifier load optimization in order to achieve sound density across entire seating areas. It meant the music sounded authoritative, full bodied, free from the speaker boxes and of uniform level throughout the establishments.

It was a few years later in about my third or forth year as an official employee at Hi-Fi Specialists that I became the target of a head hunt by the late Hicor Trading Ltd. group. Hicor used to be a large JSE listed company with a host of retail outlets that included Audiovision and Hi-Tronix branded stores all over Sourh-Africa. My instruction was to head-up their products specialist position, a task that involved training of staff as well as managing the more advanced requirements of well-heeled Audiovision walk-in clients. I fondly remember Harry Wertheim’s words when I went to go see him about the position. He said “The chequebook’s open, boet… Pick a number.” I also recall one wonderful morning I spent with Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg when she visited our Tiger Valley branch one Saturday morning with her entire family to shop for their very first home theater surround-sound system. It was at her house where I came to hear the ESL63 version of the famous Quad Electrostatic loudspeaker for the very first time. To this day the Hicor Trading era remains a highlight of my career in the corporate world which sadly came to a premature end due to financial constraints haunting the holdings company in the demise of other retail ventures they were involved in.  

At the end of the Hicor era I continued with what essentially originated there and this was to consult and perform advanced multi-room systems design and execution for top-flight architects on the Atlantic Seaboard. Stefan Antoni must be among the most famous with whom I worked. Introduction came as a result of a successfully completed contract at a newly built residence in Camps Bay for the founder of Orbit Motors, which today is known as the Sandown Group, the largest independent Mercedes-Benz franchise in the country. This association in turn brought about my most prestigious residential project for a property now internationally renowned and known as “Moondance” on the upper slopes of exotic Fresnaye.

Moondance gained its early fame because it was built for then Springbok Rugby captain, Harry Viljoen, who often used to host the entire Springbok team there. The property was rumoured at the time to have been the most expensive residential project in the area to date. It covers four adjacent plots, two at the top of St. Bartholomew Avenue and the two directly below, both of which were required to sink gigantic support pillars for the bulk of the structure towering above. 

In the dedicated theater room I installed the very first 60” plasma screen ever to have landed on local shores. It was the largest available at the time, just released and a special import. Back then plasma technology was pretty much in infancy and only available through the Fujitsu agents who also held the exclusive contract of supplying the Carte Blanche channel with flatscreens in their studios. The cost of the Fujistu 60″ was extraordinary at approximately two hundred and twenty thousand Rand. It was cheap compared to the audio however. Harry was after something markedly better sounding than what was generally available and I recall him having a surprisingly critical ear. After several auditions we agreed on the sonic superiority of a full TAG McLaren setup driving five identical professional studio monitors made by Miller & Kreisel Sound, the exact same S-150 THX Ultra model as employed at Skywalker Ranch, workplace of famous Starwars producer, George Lucas. Even by today’s standards the theater system at Moondance is of international reference quality. Together with Stefan Antoni’s team we also made a lot of effort of the acoustics. All t’s were crossed and all i’s were dotted on this project.

At about the same time as the Moondance project was beginning to come to a close, I was again approached, this time by an old friend and Hi-Fi client, but for something somewhat different yet related, because it still involved sound reproduction. My client had knowledge of the Hicor ordeal and that subsequently I was working between home and my father’s offices. He proposed I come out to take look at a successful car audio business one of his long term tenants in Stellenbosch managed to run into the ground because of domestic issues. Sound and cars have always been up my alley, so when I went there to see it at the beginning of 1999 I recognized the opportunity as something I felt compelled to have a go at. We structured a nice deal and a month later I relaunched the business calling it, Eikestad Audio & Aircon. The name allowed for a wide spectrum of related activities which allowed for continuation of Hi-Fi sales and consultancies, professional audio as well as automotive related sound, air conditioning and auto electrical applications. 

Within months this business began to thrive again. I appointed new staff with strategic skills each able to perform different, but vital duties to especially serve the automotive leg of the business that once more became the go-to establishment the motoring industry of Stellenbosch depended upon. My biggest monthly client turned out to have become Eikestad Motors, at the time a sister company of my old fiend, Cecil Norman’s, Orbit Motors. Working on Mercedes-Benz vehicles demanded a level of precision and perfection that boded well with my healthy dose of OCD. Car audio ironically made up a small part of the daily activities which expanded to accommodate installation of air conditioning systems into new vehicles especially Colts and Toyota’s. We also performed professional diagnostic and repair of existing automotive air conditioners, installation of Netstar vehicle tracking systems, electronic diagnostics of vehicle systems including engine management as well as a host of other related tasks. 

From a technical perspective the most satisfying trade-skill I acquired while at Eikestad Audio & Aircon was to have learnt the fine balancing act of heat exchange dynamics within compressor driven refrigeration systems commonly known as air conditioners. This valuable knowledge came imparted to small groups of technicians per session who made the effort of attending the original Dunair group’s highly technical training courses. Established in 1978, later acquired by Smith’s Manufacturing and now only remembered in name, I remain to hold deep respect and appreciation for what those old hands at the remnants of the original Dunair group taught from their decades worth of experience. Similar to my dad’s passing, the loss of genuine experience based knowledge is resonating with the older generations passing on.

In today’s world everything has become ‘push-button’. Of the new generation it is expected to only know what button to press and the process is thereon forth fully automated. I’d love to however see how they perform a refill of the cabin cooling system on a twin turbo-prop airplane as I did numerous times at Stellenbosch airfield where technical resources are limited. Armed only with my set of manifold gauges, a thermometer, barometer and vacuum pump I optimized cabin air quality in those airplanes unlike they’ve experienced before. Hanging onto the open engine cover right behind the propeller with the engine speed raised  for cruising altitude while carefully adjusting pressures for optimum efficiency has been quite the experience. Unforgettable. Now about twenty years ago to this day, I still service and re-gas my own vehicles’ air conditioners the manual way to ensure optimized pressures and thermo efficiency.

Eikestad Audio & Aircon, now owned and successfully operated by Ernest Liberty, my manager back in the day, made another impression and this was a hard introduction to the backbone of the motor retail industry. It raised what I thought to have been high standards a further notch or three up which in later years enabled me to have become very accurate in the ways I went about technically assessing vehicles for reconditioning and resale. I entered the motoring business almost by default when I started buying, reconditioning, enjoying for a while and then selling on. This practice really came on song in the days of Eikestad Audio & Aircon and has been my default ever since. I could never get myself to make debt on a disposable item such as a motor vehicle, so I kept seeking out the good used ones that with a little effort could be returned to former perfect glory. Today it’s a business known as Celestial Auto.

They say experience is as valuable as knowledge and to this I can surely attest. Most of the ventures and paths I’ve embarked upon in my working life involved either having had prior experience or it became experience in the making. There is no better than to observe and learn however. Working closely with industry leading architects and construction companies on those high-end projects on the Atlantic seaboard provided me with enough insight that after 2003 I successfully built three homes, two of which my family and I lived in. The first house was sold to a prominent figure here from the Stellenbosch community who bought it as a retirement home. Him and his wife is still living there.

Relocation to the Eastern Cape at the end of 2005 undoubtedly turned out to be the toughest thing I’ve ever had to come to terms with.  Leaving everything behind was more difficult than I ever thought possible, but identifying and accepting the greater picture pulled me through. It’s about finding comfort in the belief that eventually the goals will be reached and never to lose sight of whatever those may be at whatever point in time. My motto: Remain focused on the target, but ensure it’s a realistic one.  

For my wife, Liezl, to have become a mental health practitioner in private practice she needed to complete post graduate studies and out of all the universities in the country, Rhodes University, happened to enroll her. She was one of three, out of three hundred applicants, that won selections there in 2004. The bitter sweet irony is that today she supervises major students at Stellenbosch University where her application for the same post grad course not even reached the shortlist.

In the Eastern Cape I slowed down the pace, but continued with construction where I subdivided land and built another lovely home in the then thriving small community of Alicedale, all but forgotten now. We will however remember and cherish that season with the fondest of memories.

Despite difficult times around the 2008 world financial crises we persevered through faith and diligence which upon our return to the Western Cape in 2010 served to reignite my motoring and audio businesses shortly after. Celestialsounds is now in its tenth year and CelestialAuto about nine years, both of which are labours of love for the stuff I’m most passionate about. Covid-19 will not stop us. It is only making us stronger.

New and exciting ventures to look forward to once more after “lock-down” is membership of a very exclusive little group of highly skilled business people headed up by Emile van der Vyver, owner of one of the largest privately owned transport companies in South-Africa. Twice annually we take on the Namibian desert for fun, entertaining clients as well as team building exercises in a squad of custom built vehicles of extreme performance and endurance. My job: Make Music in the desert, because if we cannot bring the desert into the listening room, we can take a great system into the desert! Needless to explain, the VDV team loves music as well as the systems that make it sound great. We share passions for the things that make life worth living.

Reflection is inspiring. Life is about keeping the flame lit. Time is short. Do not postpone.

Leander van Rooyen – During ‘lock-down’ Covid-19, April 2020