Re-Tales #34: Succession: VPI & Black Cat

Many family-owned hi-fi companies have experienced generational leadership transitions over the last few years: Wilson Audio, Von Schweikert Audio, PS Audio, and VPI Industries, to name a few. In two of those cases, the founding father is still around. One of those is VPI Industries.

Harry and Sheila Weisfeld founded VPI in 1978. A succession plan? "Initially there really was none," VPI President Mat Weisfeld (above), who took over for his father Harry, told me. "They'd hoped to work to the last of their days. Unfortunately, my mom's days were cut short."

As Mat was growing up, he had some involvement with the company—he worked there in high school and became adept at building motors—but he chose a different career path: teaching school, like his mother. When Sheila was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Harry needed to spend more time with her, so Mat became more involved in the company. Harry was planning to sell the business, and other companies were ready to buy.

"My mom didn't want me to deal with [taking over the business], and I didn't really want to uproot my life," he said. "I didn't think I was properly prepared for it." He hadn't studied engineering or business, and he wasn't prepared to take over the business. Still, father and son began working together as mentor and protégé. They had differences of opinion, different approaches. They fought a lot. It was, Mat said, the best education he could have received.

"We did it together for a while and he turned out to be better than I am," Harry said. "He's better because he's not an engineer. I want to keep changing the design. I always ran it like it was an engineering project. He ran it more like a business."

By 2012, Weisfeld realized his son was ready to keep the business going. The next year, after Sheila passed, that's just what he did. "By 2013, I knew this was my thing," Mat said. "I was steering the ship by that point."

Succession involves much more than just handing over the keys: preparation, training, a specific plan, and a successor with an aptitude for the company's technical and business aspects and the desire to take charge. Above all, it requires a successor who's capable, as Mat Weisfeld puts it, of "just being able to think like an owner."

In November 2022, Stereophile reported the sudden passing of Chris Sommovigo, founder of Stereolab and manufacturer of the company's Black Cat brand of audio cables, in August 2022. There was no succession plan. At first, the future looked bleak for the company and for his widow Mayu Sommovigo and their daughter.

"It was clear that this was all so sudden that there were no succession plans in place and virtually no kind of roadmap to shift the management and production from Chris's hands-on approach to someone else," Christopher Hildebrand of Fern & Roby Audio and Tektonics, told me in an email. To call Chris's approach "hands on" is to understate the case: Chris didn't just run the business; he operated the winding machines and terminated the cables. He did everything himself, and he didn't leave much documentation behind.

Two industry colleagues stepped in: Doug White, of hi-fi dealership The Voice That Is, and Hildebrand. Both were Black Cat dealers and Chris Sommovigo's friends. The week after his passing, they traveled to Atlanta to see how they could help.

Mayu Sommovigo, who is originally from Japan, is a classically trained musician and teacher. She'd had little to do with Stereolab. She knew little about making cables. She wasn't an obvious successor, but Chris's legacy was important to her. She decided to keep the business going. Hildebrand and White agreed. "Losing Chris and potentially seeing his life's work and the entire product line disappear was a very sad prospect," Hildebrand said.

Together, White, Hildebrand, and Mayu Sommovigo found ways to adapt Black Cat's processes so that Mayu can run it without Chris. It wasn't easy. "Chris had everything in his head," Mayu said. "My main focus has been putting all the pieces back together, documenting as much as I can—also to be able to take care of Chris's customers if repairs are needed."

Hildebrand has offered Mayu advice on manufacturing, which, for now, has been scaled down to focus on the Graceline cable series. Mayu hired a local cable contractor to help terminate existing cable stock as she learns to use the cable-braiding machines. "I can see why Chris was telling me that nobody would want to copy him, because it is so much process and it takes lots of time."

Mayu has learned a lot over the last eight months—how to make cables, how to manage her team, how to run the company. She has also learned that she enjoys the process.

And things are going well. Hildebrand said that Sommovigo has been filling orders for several months. He and White have tested the new cables and found the quality consistent with cables Chris made.

Hildebrand has found helping Mayu gratifying, and the work has made him think more about his own succession plans. He's made more preparations than some, he says, but Chris's death made him question whether he's as prepared as he needs to be. "I have recently been working harder to add more layers to my plans for Tektonics and Fern & Roby beyond me," he said. "My biggest concern is to do a good enough job that the companies can continue to support my staff and family. I often joke that my principal responsibility is to make myself obsolete in the company, because it won't be able to exist without me when I am gone if it can't while I am here." That's probably the right thing to do, he thinks, but that doesn't mean it feels right. "I certainly don't have this solved, but I am constantly working on it."

jimtavegia's picture

I am happy for both companies continued success and hope that Audio Research can remain as well. Not easy being a manufacturer in the U.S. .