Meet "Team Leon": A Q&A with our Sr. Industrial Designer, Rob Waissi
Meet the people behind our products. First up: Rob Waissi, our Sr. Industrial Designer. Rob has been with Leon for over a decade now and has seen the company grow tremendously in his time with us. Read his account of what the early days of Leon were like, how he discovered his passion for furniture design, and why he built a traditional Finnish sauna in his Lake Superior home.
Q: You've been with Leon for over a decade now (our longest-term employee!). What has it been like to witness the growth of the company over the years?
A: It has been incredible! I still remember our old shop in Whitmore Lake, MI where there were only about 12 of us working in a dusty pole barn. Our desks were literally one after another, in a single-file line. Shipping, receiving, customer service and sales at the front, followed up by design and engineering, and then Jeff Gordon and Noah Kaplan in the back before accounting. The shop was in the adjacent room, where we fabricated, assembled and painted everything. We finally realized that we needed more space when the line of boxes in the shipping row next to our desks went all the way to the back of the room and out the door. It wasn’t long before we found a new building and it was time to move.
We moved the whole front of house in a day with a rental truck and left a skeleton crew behind to finish off production. At the end of the day, the last thing we moved out of the old shop was our most valuable possession: the Altendorf F45 – Sliding Table Saw—a true legend in its own right. The next morning we all showed up at the new facility and were up and running right away. We had so much space now, and you could see it on everyone's faces, we were all eager to grow again and fill this new building. Everything that was happening was awesome. You couldn't help but to want to be involved with it. We were figuring it all out. We were building a bigger, better Leon. The last 8 years have gone by in flash, but not without a thousand memories. We now have over 50 employees and a global presence that is talked about everywhere I go. I'm extremely humbled to have been a part of it all.
"Everything that was happening was awesome. You couldn't help but to want to be involved with it. We were figuring it all out. We were building a bigger, better Leon."
Q: Tell us a little about your background. What do you have your degree in? What do you currently do here at Leon?
A: I went to college originally as a math and physics major but after about 2 years in that program, I came to realize that it wasn't what I wanted to do at all. In a fortunate turn of events, I heard that John DeHoog, a recent graduate from Rhode Island School of Design was creating a 3D program at Eastern Michigan University that was focused on Furniture Design and Fabrication. I immediately changed my major to Fine Arts and was the first student to enroll in all of John's courses.
John was an incredible furniture maker with a passion for precision craftsmanship and a vast knowledge of fabrication and tools. I worked very closely with him and ended up graduating with a BFA in 3D Design with an emphasis on Furniture Design. I wanted to keep going with my studies so I began applying to graduate programs right away, eventually landing at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Their Industrial and Furniture Design program facility was incredible and I decided to focus my studies on Industrial Design in order to gain a better knowledge of 3D modeling software, digital visualization, and contextual research techniques. I graduated from SCAD with a Masters Degree in Industrial Design.
I returned to Ann Arbor and joined Leon Speakers in April of 2007 as their Sr.Industrial Designer. At any small business/startup, you end up wearing many hats, and at Leon, I’ve worn them all. Currently, I lead the product design and engineering of all Leon Speakers high-value commercial and residential integrations and I work on the production side doing fabrication and assembly on initial new product developments and one-off custom designs. I also spend quite a bit of time interfacing with our clients very early in the product development process to really understand their project requirements and integration plans for upcoming builds. I know that we are always going to change and evolve in our roles at the company. That’s the way it is, and that’s what makes it interesting.
Q: What Leon project or product have you worked on that you're most proud of?
A: I am particularly proud of all my developments and work on the Commercial side of Leon. I don’t think I can choose one specific project that is my favorite, but one thing that they all have in common is that they push me to think creatively about what I am doing. It’s always a challenge too because if I am working on a project for Google, Apple, LinkedIn, or the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGIS), I only have the one chance to get it right. Big corporations like that will drop you quickly and go somewhere else if you can't meet their requirements and expectations. There is certainly a level of stress, but I am confident in my work and decisions.
"At the end of the day, our Leon team always delivers on quality and unparalleled craftsmanship, so we know that we will continue to grow our customer relationships in any market."
Q: You've been to many trade shows with us over the years, and most recently, to this year's ISE show in Amsterdam. What are your takeaways from the show? From a product perspective, what are the trends that you saw emerging?
A: I have definitely been to a lot of trade-shows with Leon Speakers and Integrated Systems Europe is perhaps the most interesting of them all. After 5 years of exhibiting at ISE, it has become a great show for us, as we are growing and teaching the rest of the world about Leon. This is a very dynamic industry—it's changing so fast with new technologies and product innovations being introduced constantly.
We always see interesting things at the show that get us to have the right conversations about what we want to do next. Europe is a place of small distances and great differences. All of the integrators that we speak to at these shows have a very different and unique way or protocol they have to adhere to in order to sell and install custom products to clients in their respective countries. We have to be mindful of this as we move forward with global engagement. I am most excited about the product development opportunities that are available in the marine industry, specifically luxury superyachts. We have plans to go to Germany this year to visit some of the big players (Lürssen, and Blohm+Voss).
Leon is clearly setting the trends though. In all the years that we have brought product to these shows, we have always shown something that was ahead of its time. This year, people were extremely fascinated with our Horizon Interactive FIT at ISE, and it even won us a Best of Show award.
Q: You work a lot on product development, and while some of what's coming up is under wraps, is there anything exciting coming down the Leon pipeline that you can share?
A: There is a lot of new product development slated again for this year—we have been running for about 8 years now with a new product development queue that has been full to the max. We will pace ourselves this year though and focus on some very specific developments. Without giving anything away just yet, let's just say that Leon is going outside to play :)
Q: And of course, no feature on you would be complete without a nod to your Finnish heritage (if you follow Leon on Instagram you might remember our celebratory stories from Finland's Independence Day last December). Tell us what you love about your home country.
A: Of course, everyone knows that Waissi is from Finland. I’m very proud of my heritage and I talk about it all the time. All my family aside from my parents and brother still live back home in Finland, so we are back and forth all the time. My whole life talking about Finland in the States has made it seem like somewhat of a fairytale to my friends here, and that’s because Finland truly is one of the most unique places in the world. It is paradise in both winter and summer—and every day in between. For a country approximately the size of the state of California, and 5.4 million people, we have a huge global presence.
I keep the Finnish culture and traditions very close to me and teach them to both of my daughters so that they can continue them. Perhaps the most important part of my culture and heritage though is the sauna. All true Finns have a sauna in their home, it is a fundamental part of our daily lives. A way to relax, focus your thoughts, and deep cleanse. At my family's cabin in Canada on Lake Superior I keep the woodburning sauna running all day. My family and I are in and out of the sauna and lake year-round. It is awesome. You will never truly know what it’s about until you go.
I highly recommend that everyone visit Finland once in their lifetime to see for themselves.