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Business Observer Thursday, Apr. 19, 2012 7 years ago

Sound Off

One Tampa entrepreneur has a knack for hearing opportunity knock. His product, however, is designed so consumers can't hear a peep.
by: Alex Mahadevan Tampa Bay Editor

Company. Acoustiblok Inc.
Industry. Construction materials
Key. Finding new geographic and industrial markets

For someone in the sound-proofing business, Lahnie Johnson can talk your ear off.

The 54-year-old entrepreneur has big ideas, and he isn't shy about sharing them. As an inventor and innovator they could be about new chemical compounds with the highest insulating properties on earth, or as an unabashed capitalist they tip toward how to make money with them.

Johnson is president and CEO of Acoustiblok Inc., a Tampa-based company that produces material to minimize noise. From its headquarters just north of MacDill Air Force Base, the firm has provided sound-blocking products for structures ranging from oil rigs to beer breweries.

The material used in Acoustiblok's products doesn't block sound, Johnson says, it transforms it. The product, eponymously named, absorbs sound and vibrates, turning the mechanical energy of sound into kinetic energy.

In the 14 years since Acoustiblok started operations, Johnson has created more than four versions of the original product, which sells for $2.20 per square foot.

Some of the innovations were forced on the firm, like after the housing crash. Acoustiblok is installed within a structure's walls, so when construction stopped so did Johnson's production. He says annual revenues halved from 2007 to 2008. “I knew I couldn't put it in the walls,” he recalls, “so I put it on them.”

He had a laboratory test a new iteration of Acoustiblok that had a foam texture rather than a hard rubbery feel. The test was successful — but expensive. Johnson says he spends more than $100,000 to test his products for soundproofing qualities and fire resistance.

As a result, however, the firm started making Acoustiblok Wall-Cover, which covers an existing wall with the same noise abatement properties. Shephard's Beach Resort in Clearwater coated a nightclub in the material to make the surrounding rooms rentable.

Johnson says the capability gives hotel operators a new option to charge more for rooms outfitted with Acoustiblok. “Remember, people used to pay extra for non-smoking rooms,” Johnson says. “I don't see why they wouldn't pay $15 more for a quieter room.”

Although Johnson declines to provide revenue figures, he does say he believes sales will grow 30% this year compared with 2011.

Keep innovating
Johnson got his start working in the aerospace industry for a decade with East Hartford, Conn.-based manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Co. after dropping out of high school. “I learned a lot about finding a problem and working out a solution there,” he says.

However, his career as an entrepreneur started earlier. When he was 6 years old, he learned a practical lesson in arbitrage. After finding a candy store that sold bubblegum for a penny, Johnson bought an inventory and sold them for 5 cents each at his school. “I was making so much money the principal shut me down,” he says.

But when his first business, Tampa-based Sensuous Sound Systems, hit an ironic downturn and began losing sales of its $1 million sound systems because they were too loud, Johnson turned to his scientific side.

After finding a polymer material that had the soundproofing qualities of lead without the toxicity, he started an offshoot of Sensuous Sound to market it in 1997. That material became Acoustiblok.

He still owns Sensuous Sound under his umbrella firm LJ Avalon LLC. But the latter company owns the rights to Johnson's patents to prevent a lawsuit against Acoustiblok from claiming them, he explains.

The patents protect his innovations with Acoustiblok, which are many, and can come from a variety places.

“The ideas come and go so quickly,” he says. Not a problem, for he keeps a voice recorder next to his bed. One such idea came when he saw an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal about Hawaiian police cracking down on barking dogs.

Thus, Barkblok was conceived. It may not be the most creative name, in fact, that's the point. “The name should say everything,” Johnson says.

The naming strategy is consistent at Acoustiblok. The Quiet Cloud is a large panel suspended above a noisy factory and Acoustifence is designed for use on fences around power plants and large chillers.

Acoustiblok has not only moved across industries — it also reaches into the Middle East and the United Kingdom.

Overseas opportunities
For successful entrepreneurs, sometimes a product's innovation is derived from who uses it, not how it's used. A global reach adds customers and also shields a company from national economic crises.

Acoustiblok's international business, which comprises customers in more than 40 countries and facilities in two, accounts for a little more than half of the firm's sales, Johnson says.

Mike Ervine, the managing director of Acoustiblok UK, is behind the British expansion of Johnson's product. He was looking for a way to drown out the sound of clinking buoys that plagued his 150-foot yacht.

A 2002 Internet search, which Johnson credits for more than two-thirds of his business, led him to Acoustiblok. In fact, Ervine was so impressed with the product he decided to take the brand to the United Kingdom.

Johnson sold Ervine 1,500 pounds of Acoustiblok, which Ervine recalls lugging through the rain into his flat. A decade later, the British Broadcasting Corp. is one of Acoustiblok UK's consistent customers, Ervine says.

In 2009, Johnson was surprised by a call from the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council, an organization composed of Saudi and U.S. business leaders. “They wanted me to fly over to the Middle East to talk business,” Johnson recalls. “I was a little hesitant at first but decided if I didn't get any deals out of it I could at least use the trip in a press release.”
David Callahan, the current vice president of the organization, says Acoustiblok was picked because Saudi developers were looking for soundproofing solutions. Also, construction materials suppliers based in Saudi Arabia couldn't fill the excess demand for multifamily housing at the time, he explains.

The secular minority, which is made up of tourism business interests, was concerned with non-Muslim visitors enduring five daily prayers regularly broadcasted on loudspeakers throughout Saudi Arabian cities.

And the conservative culture of the nation calls for stringent privacy measures that would be difficult to adhere to in crowded urban areas.

United by another Internet search, Johnson and the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council brought Acoustiblok to the Middle East in 2009. An undisclosed agreement between Acoustiblok and Arabian Plastic Manufacturing Co. Ltd. created a joint partnership in Acoustiblok Mideast, for which Johnson is the majority shareholder. The manufacturing plant in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, reportedly cost the two firms $30 million to build, according to a news release that did not specify a cost-sharing program.

Projects in Syria and Egypt that Acoustiblok was to provide soundproofing material are currently on hold because of the Arab Spring uprisings. But Johnson just sees this as another puddle to hop in the career of an entrepreneur. That jump could take the firm to a new continent.

“So we're in North America, South America, Europe and Africa,” Johnson says counting out with his right hand. “Antarctica is too cold, so I guess Asia or Australia is next.”

Get comfortable
Although Lahnie Johnson's primary firm is Acoustiblok, he found a way to channel his fascination with the space race into a new company and product.

After traveling to Saudi Arabia with the Department of Commerce in 2009, a fellow speculator asked him to test a product called aerogel for its acoustic properties. Johnson, who has the facilities and resources for sound testing, agreed.

The test was negative. However Johnson found a use for the NASA product's insulating qualities. He named the material Thermablok, and sells it as strips that line wall studs. “It made sense for us to produce it,” he says. “Our business strategy is to make people comfortable.”

Tests showed that Thermablok has a 57% greater R-value, a measure of resistance to heat flow, compared with Polyiso foam, the leading insulating material in the U.S.

Seeing the opportunity to market Thermablok as a green alternative, Johnson turned to the Department of Energy to test the product at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The tests showed similar results, but the department balked at including it in architectural plans used for government tax breaks, Johnson explains.

He founded Thermablok Inc. last year without government assistance to start selling the product — though the government remains a large customer for the product. A recent project involved selling 21,000 feet of Thermablok, which is sold for 99 cents per foot, for the construction of a U.S. Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas.

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