The gig: Patrick Quilter, 64, is the founder and senior designer at QSC Audio Products, whose sound systems include portable amplifiers and loudspeakers as well as complex networks used by theme parks and cruise ships.
Returning to his roots, the inventor and steel-guitar player this year formed Quilter Labs to market his latest design, a high-powered but compact guitar amplifier.
A 1960s story: A longtime tinkerer fascinated with electronics, Quilter was struggling through college engineering classes in 1967 when a friend's brother, a bass player for a band called the Blown Mind, complained that he couldn't afford a brand-name guitar amp.
"I said, 'How much do you have?' " Quilter recalled. "And he said $250. And I said, 'I can take care of you.' I spent a summer building up an amp by hand -- had to do it twice over, but it worked in the end."
Working in an industrial garage, Quilter formed the predecessor to QSC Audio in 1968 and soon teamed up with Barry Andrews, a cabinetmaker he had met by chance when Andrews' motorcycle broke down. Guitar amps dubbed the Quilter Sound Thing and the Duck Amp were designed by Quilter to blow up less often under "turn it up to 11" abuse. Users of the devices included power trio Wildfire, the house band at Finnegan's Rainbow, an Orange County biker bar where "you did not dis Harley-Davidson if you valued your life."
Evolution: Quilter's start-up survived its early years only with repeated financial infusions from his family. "It got to where my mom would grab her wallet when she saw me coming."
Some stability arrived with a reorganization in 1975. The firm switched its focus from guitar amps to amplifiers for public-address systems, and the company didn't offer speakers again until 2001. Andrews became head of marketing, and his brother John, who had a business degree from USC, became chief executive.
Big break: Dolby Laboratories Inc., the noise-reduction and surround-sound specialists, incorporated QSC's amplifiers in its cinema systems in the early 1980s, giving the firm a foot in the door of the movie theater industry. "The customer base pretty quickly realized who was making the amps," Quilter said.
Key innovation: It's a power-supply technology that Quilter designed to greatly reduce an amplifier's bulk and weight while still allowing it to produce high-quality sound. The technology was introduced in 1994 in QSC's PowerLight amplifiers.
Corporate vibe: Just about everyone at QSC -- salespeople and managers as well as shop-floor workers -- wears T-shirts on the job.
The private Costa Mesa company, which has several hundred employees and an 81,000-square-foot factory next to its 51,000-square- foot corporate headquarters, generates more than $100 million in annual sales.
Former McKinsey & Co. management consultants run the day-to-day operation, allowing Quilter to "semi-retire" and start his new guitar-amp venture.
Amped up: Quilter holds his familiar titles, founder and senior designer, at his new company, Quilter Labs, with longtime QSC employees Christopher Parks and Robert Becker serving as chief executive and chief operating officer.
His new 20-pound, 200-watt amp, code-named the Slantmaster, resembles a cross between an antique radio and a brown-tweed Fender amp from the 1950s. It will cost between $800 and $1,000 when it goes on sale later this year -- more than your run-of-the-mill amplifiers but a lot less than other boutique amps in the $2,000-to-$3,000 range.
Seeds of success: "We had a lot of good, solid base-hit ideas" even if "we didn't invent an iPod," Quilter said. A lesson learned in the self-indulgent 1960s about getting the job done: "It's a lot more fun if you save [partying] for after hours. Happy hour sort of loses its meaning when you've been having it all day."