By Elizabeth Keys
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Soli Deo Gloria — glory to God alone — is imprinted on the floor at the entrance to Stillwater Designs KICKER and the words quietly make an impression following the company’s legacy of livin’ loud throughout its 40-year history.
“Johann Sebastian Bach signed all his pieces with SDG,” said KICKER founder Steve Irby. “I am a Christian — and we work hard — but there is a great deal of luck to success in business — and I credit all the glory to God.”
As a doctrine, Soli Deo Gloria means everything is done for God’s glory to the exclusion of humankind’s self-glorification and pride. A review of the literature shows little written about Irby personally, pointing to his humbleness as this quiet, soft-spoken man stumbled into the automobile audio business from his music interests as a teenager at Stillwater High School in the 1960s.
“My mom wanted me to play the piano so I took lessons — but then the Beatles invaded the United States — and everyone wanted to be in a garage band,” Irby said. “My buddies and I started playing together but I needed amplification on keyboards.”
Irby really wanted to get rockin’. The latest songs often didn’t have written sheet music available so the band members would listen to records to copy the sound. Irby fine-tuned his music skills learning to play by ear from spinning new songs on the record player.
In the garage band, the drummer was drowning out his keyboarding, so Irby went to his father and asked to borrow $300 to buy some amplifiers. Irby recalled his dad dropped his newspaper in surprise — $300 was a lot of money for anyone in the 1960s. But, thinking as an engineer, Irby’s dad questioned out loud, “Can we build some amps?”
As an architecture teacher at Oklahoma State University, his dad built everything — go-carts, camping trailers, even the house they lived in. He marched off to the OSU library and they devoured every book they could find about speaker systems. Piecing together ideas, they built wooden boxes and fitted them with second-hand components and when young Irby plugged it in “we shook the windows.”
“It was pretty exciting,” he said.
Word spread as Irby played in bands throughout his college days at Phillips University in Enid and OSU in Stillwater. Other bands got wind of Irby’s creation and asked him to make some speakers for their bands. He became interested in public address systems and started hand building custom-designed products.
By 1973, Stillwater Designs started operating as a two-person operation, making sound and musical instrument speaker systems in a narrow one-car garage for churches, auditoriums and entertainers. They called themselves Stillwater Designs because Irby figured if the speaker production didn’t work out, then the name was flexible to do something else. He invested a small inheritance from his grandparents and his wife supported them with her teaching job for more than seven years. Irby never had a business class so he had to learn everything the hard way — but through experience “you don’t forget it that way.” It took three years to lose all the money. During those years, he did a lot of research finding out everything he could about speakers.
“God gave me a direction” and with very few resources plus an intense love for music, Irby persevered and invented the mobile-stereo enclosure market in northern Oklahoma through recognizing a niche market and filling it with a quality product as an entrepreneur in the booming oil days of the 1980s.
Irby said he was pushed into it. A friend working in the oil fields asked if he could rig up speakers for his pickup. Long days bouncing over rough country fields went more smoothly with music but the built-in audio systems at the time were awful. The space in a pickup is small and conventional speakers at the time wouldn’t work. Irby developed and built a speaker to fit behind the driver’s seat — and it really “kicked.” People who bought the speakers told others that the speakers literally kicked the back of the seat with a booming sound. The original high-performance KICKER was the first full frequency range speaker enclosure designed specifically for automotive use delivering concert-like audio quality.
A full range speaker is a speaker box with a woofer and tweeter and sometimes a midrange speaker. These different components provide a richer and more accurate reproduction of recorded sound. The woofer produces bass and the lower-register notes while the tweeter produces high-pitched sounds. Prior to 1980, most car stereo equipment was less sophisticated in how it reproduced sound and full-range speakers were reserved for home audio equipment.
“We probably over-designed the product but that’s what customers wanted — it made a big sound in a pickup truck,” Irby said.
Car audio was just beginning to skyrocket and when CD players came out in 1984, the sound improved dramatically in automobiles creating a great demand for car speakers, too. Building on the original KICKER, the company concentrated on the car audio market and applied the same research and design skills to develop a complete line of car audio components within the KICKER brand. Today, they produce home/portable, marine and mobile audio products, and are best known for their subwoofers, as well as their audio crossovers and the amplifiers that supplement them. More than 1,100 dealers in the United States and 2,000-plus dealers in nearly 50 countries sell KICKER’S products. For consumers not likely to frequent a specialty car audio retailer, a limited number of entry level car amplifiers, speakers and woofers were introduced at Wal-Mart in 2012. Although there were challenges to developing a speaker company in Stillwater, Irby has never wanted to live anywhere else. KICKER put Stillwater on the consumer electronics industry map as a leading name with renowned bass and accurate sound.
“Bass is what we are all about . . . it’s our specialty,” Irby said. “From the very start, we’ve been known for rich sound — it’s the KICKER heritage and it’s carried out through all we do.”
Being a musician, Irby can’t stand speakers that don’t sound good. He is heavily involved in the music aspect and listens to every single product with an innate ability to create truly musical components. Nothing gets out the door until it passes a rigorous quality control process and they check it over again and again before putting their logo on the speaker. Although they have more ways to measure sound electronically now, Irby knows ultimately the consumer will listen with his ears — so everybody at the company listens — and “we trust our ears.”
Many employees have stuck with them for decades from moving out of the garage to a Quonset hut on Main Street to the Perkins Road facility — and now the new 21-acre headquarters overlooking Boomer Lake. Although the company hit a rough spot in 2009 with the loss of two major clients, they survived by finding new markets and revamping products. What was once a startup venture with two employees in a single-car garage is now a corporation with more than 200 employees in facilities totaling more than a quarter-million square feet encompassing design, engineering, logistics, research, testing, marketing and shipping. Warehouses are also located in Los Angeles and Shanghai with products manufactured to their specifications in six different factories in China.
“Our focus is on people as people. When I started, I was focused on the product but as I grew as a Christian, I knew it wasn’t all about me — it was about the people who work with me,” Irby said. “I got a lot of help from many employees. We have a management team — employees want to be appreciated, recognized and considered in company policies. They are the heart and soul of the business.”
KICKER employees generate ideas to continue expanding its line each year by adding to existing products as well as evolving into new segments of the audio industry in the digital age. What we’re doing should be fun, exciting and creative so we attract people who like that kind of work environment, Irby said. He wants employees to enjoy life. The job may not be fun all the time so Irby tries to set an example when having to do difficult tasks as employees will model what they see in trying to “love your brother.”
Irby is still a musician at heart, playing in a worship band at his church. As a child of the 60’s, he’s a rock ‘n roll and blues guy loving the Beatles. Give him a piano and he likes to play anything — doing it loud — which is a contrast to the quiet mastermind who’s learned through his faith that it’s not all about him.
“As a Christian, I incorporate treating people right in my daily life. I want this place to be beneficial for everybody. If you are compensated for doing what you like to do, that’s great,” Irby said. “It’s a team effort here. People want to belong to something — and know they are part of something bigger than themselves.”