American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Bryan Levy (Eastside A/V)
By Nesha Ruther
The story of Bryan Levy is a unique one; his creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit were all one of a kind. While tragically, Bryan is no longer with us, his memory lives on in the lives of his loved ones, and the customers he worked tirelessly to serve.
Gary and Renee Levy’s relationship is straight out of a romance novel. They have been together 47 years, and upon sitting down for this interview, are still teasing one another and sharing inside jokes. They met in college at the University of Washington. Gary was a senior, Renee a freshman. “I was going for my MRS degree,” Renee says with a laugh, needless to say, she got it.
In a classic instance of boy-meets-girl, the two made eye contact from across the room at a student event. “We were at this crowded event, and I looked across the room and saw this amazing smile. I told the guy next to me, ‘I’m going after that one.’” Gary says of the first time he saw his wife.
Gary and Renee got married and had two kids. Their first child, Bryan, was a firecracker of a boy with immense energy and passion. As a child, Bryan could never sit still, he had inherited his father’s ADHD and was always moving a million miles a minute. “To me, he was normal,” Gary says.
“But to me, he was tough!” Renee adds.
The young parents didn’t quite realize the extent of Bryan’s condition until their daughter, Jennifer, was born. “Nobody knew what ADHD was back then, it wasn’t until our daughter came along that we were like ‘Oh, this is how a child normally behaves,’” Renee says.
The infinite energy that exhausted Bryan’s parents, however, was also the fuel that made him a hugely successful entrepreneur. Renee put it aptly stating, “Is there something wrong with people with ADHD? No, they’re just too smart for their own good.”
From a very young age, Bryan had a knack for business. One winter, the family spent the holidays in a small town in northern Washington State. “We were in a small country store. We gave each child a dollar and said you can buy whatever you want. The kids were very young,” Gary says.
“Jennifer starts walking around and every time she picks something up, we’re like, ‘Oh, honey, you can’t afford that.’ This goes on for like half an hour. In the meantime, Bryan has about 89 buttons and screws and pins, he’s figured out he can get almost 100 different items with his dollar. Bryan learned at a very young age to maximize his money, wherever he could.”
While part of this attitude was uniquely Bryan’s, it was also an awareness of money instilled in him by his parents. “Growing up, they knew they had to go out and earn money if they wanted to buy something. If they wanted a $100 video game, we’d say, ‘You pay half, we’ll pay half,’” Gary says.
Bryan took these lessons to heart and preferred to save his money for large purchases rather than spending along the way. He opened his first business at age 12, making money by stringing tennis rackets, he called his company Strings and Things.
That same year, he came up with a business plan for a hypothetical company that renovated indoor/outdoor living spaces. Knowing very little about the actual cost of renovations, young Bryan centered his business plan around his personal integrity. “He wanted his customer to know that if they came to him, he would give them the best quality of work at a reasonable price,” Gary says. Design was a lifelong passion of Bryan’s, and at one point he dreamed about becoming an architect. “He really liked crafting things,” Renee says, “he was a Lego kid, coming up with designs all the time.”
Bryan’s business plan even accounted for the possibility that he might not be able to complete a service his customer needed; in which case he would call a guy who did. “He would know a guy,” Gary says. “He actually did.” While Bryan was never the most popular boy, he always seemed to know people who had their own unique offerings. “He was never super social, but he had a ton of people,” Renee adds.
This business plan was the skeleton of what Bryan would later use to create Eastside A/V, the real-life company he built in his adulthood.
At 16, Bryan got a job at Circuit City, his first exposure to the world of retail electronics. He continued working until he graduated high school. While Bryan wanted to start his own business from the moment he graduated, his parents convinced him to go to college. He attended business school at his parents’ alma mater, the University of Washington.
College was challenging for Bryan because in many ways, he had never had to work hard before. “Bryan was a bright child, above average intelligence, but he never tried, he never worked,” Gary says. Bryan’s ability yet lack of effort can be seen in a high school math class he nearly failed. Despite getting all the answers right on his tests, he never showed any of his work.
Similar to his ADHD, when Bryan was a kid there was little understanding or infrastructure dedicated to gifted children. This meant that kids like Bryan, who learned incredibly quickly, were left bored, despondent, and restless in classes that were too slow for them. “We just didn’t know about gifted children,” Renee says, “Nobody knew what it was.”
At the University of Washington, Bryan had a rude awakening when it came to his schoolwork. He spent his first semester of school joining a fraternity and securing a free trip to Israel for that summer, but when his report card came in, he was failing everything. At the time he was in the pre-engineering program, yet had paid so little attention to the requirements that he had taken the completely wrong line of classes.
“Bryan never did anything the easy way,” Gary says. “We said, ‘maybe you need to take a break [from school].’ But he said, ‘No, I’m going to finish it out.’ He went from almost failing to getting B+ grades by the end of the year. He had turned it all around.”
Bryan left the University of Washington after his Freshman year and transferred to the University of Arizona, where he made the Dean’s List at Arizona and never looked back.
Bryan graduated in 2008 and went to work for the electronics retail store Good Guys. After a number of years, he began encouraging them to create an installation department that would install home theaters, audio systems, and home automation. Good Guys turned down Bryan’s idea, but his boss suggested he start his own installation business, and Good Guys would recommend him to any customers of theirs who needed installations.
Bryan took his boss’ advice and opened his own installation business, which he named Eastside Audio Visual. He began working out of his garage until he had made enough money to rent out a showroom.
His customer profiles included a wide range of people. From “grandmas” that needed help hanging a TV and a little social time for $150, to high end audiophile’s who would have no dollar limit to their projects. Overall, the majority of his core business was from $5,000-$25,000 range which maintained a steady cash flow. 20% of his customers were higher end projects $50,000 and higher. These took a lot longer amount of time to plan and execute.
However, providing high-quality service, especially in the world of electronics, is expensive. “This is a costly business to scale,” Gary says. “It would be more than double his overhead costs, just to rent a location. When he and his friend later found a building to purchase, this quadrupled his costs, not only for the building but also the equipment required to outfit the space.”
Part of what made electronics retail so expensive was the constantly evolving nature of the product. With every new piece of technology, Bryan had to replace his existing inventory. “Imagine that every two years you had to replace all your kitchen appliances,” Gary speculates.
Despite the challenges of the industry, Bryan opened his showroom and custom designed it, installing speakers and TVs to show off to potential customers. He was ambitious, and his goal was to become one of the top five audio/video businesses in the area.
After a number of years of running the business, Bryan decided that if he was going to continue the success of his business, he needed an MBA. He asked his parents to help pay, but like his childhood video games, Gary and Renee were reticent to hand over money. “We told him we would not pay for his MBA because he’s not going to get a white-collar job,” Gary says. Bryan, however, was not put off.
“He’s like, ‘Well, I want to do it anyway, so I’ll just do it myself,’” Bryan continued running Eastside A/V during the day, and attended classes at night, using the income from his business to pay tuition. He graduated and received his MBA from the University of Washington’s Michael G. Foster School of Business.
After getting his MBA and becoming one of the top A/V companies in the area, Bryan’s next plan to grow Eastside A/V was to partner with three similar businesses across the state. This would provide them with better economy of scale when purchasing, improved inventory management and the ability to service more customers over a wider geographic area.
Bryan continued to grow his business, often to the detriment of his personal life. “Bryan was single most of his life,” Gary says. “We always thought he was just sitting at home alone eating a bag of potato chips in front of the TV every night.”
When Bryan passed away in 2019, the truth of how he spent his time was revealed to his parents. “He was a part of a business network group, every Wednesday he would meet with them. There would be 60, 70 people sitting around. One was a plumber; another was an accountant. Bryan was the electronics guy.
“Jennifer and I went to the next group meeting to tell them he would no longer be part of their group,” Gary says. “We were immediately shocked as all 65 people got up and came and hugged us. They then began telling stories about the Bryan they knew. At least 30% stood up and said that without Bryan’s help they would not have been able to sustain their business.” Many of the members of Bryan’s group would also take time out of their busy schedules to come to the funeral, paying their respects to the entrepreneur they knew and loved.
Bryan had built connections with entrepreneurs and small business owners across Washington. Like when he was a boy, he had a guy for everything. “There was one gentleman who got up and said, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Bryan. He helped me get my business going. Whenever I had a problem, I called Bryan and he would help me fix it,” Gary recalls.
A friend of Bryan’s articulated his effect, saying that while nobody would ever know that Bryan was in the room, when someone needed something, he would appear out of nowhere and be able to provide whatever was needed. “That was truly his life,” Gary says. “He was never the center of attention, but if anybody needed something, he was the first one there to do whatever was necessary.”
This attitude extended not only to his colleagues but to his customers. Part of why he networked so extensively was so that he could aid his customers in recommending someone else if he could not provide a service directly. “Bryan really cared about his customers,” his father says. “They knew that if they called him day or night he would respond. He was a source for solutions, for audio and video, but also for just about anything else. Being able to help his customers in any way was his original business model.”
Bryan’s limitless generosity was never more visually apparent than at his funeral. Gary and Renee, still a little convinced their son had been sitting home alone every night, were floored when nearly 500 people from all walks of life arrived to mourn Bryan and show support for the Levys. “We were in the chapel with 73 people,” Renee says. “We didn’t know what was going on outside. We came out of the chapel and there was this unbelievable sea of people. They were taping the funeral and broadcasting it on Facebook live. There were people watching in Israel, Dubai, and Thailand. It was incredible.”
Many of Bryan’s friends and colleagues were so distraught by his passing, that Gary and Renee ended up comforting them rather than visa versa! “It was a very odd situation for us to be in, consoling hundreds of people at our son’s funeral,” Gary says. “But it was also very cathartic for us, because we found out that he had enjoyed a very full life, for more that we had thought. He had accomplished his dream of being the business owner/entrepreneur of his childhood imagination. It was a very surreal experience.”
Not unlike his ADHD, Bryan inherited his work ethic from his father, which Gary had inherited from his own father. “My father told me, the only thing you have is your name and your integrity. He passed that on to me and I passed that on to Bryan. He loved electronics, he understood how much work it was going to take to build a business, and he committed to it,” Gary says.
“It was literally his dream to be doing what he was doing. He wasn’t working, he was living. That business was his life.”
Still, Bryan’s influence extended far beyond Eastside A/V. Unbeknownst to his parents, he was also on the board of a Jewish historical society he had helped form. Gary and Renee had no idea until they were offered an invitation to their annual gala where they announced The Bryan Levy Memorial Community Award for showing outstanding leadership to ensure the legacy of the community.
When Bryan was young, he attended a B’nai B’rith (BB) summer camp. One of his goals was to help low-income kids whose families could not afford to attend. After his passing, several of his close friends established the Bryan S. Levy endowment fund expressly for that purpose. Not only have several children been able to access this fund to attend camp, but his friends and family continue to add to the endowment so that over the years, more kids will have this same life changing opportunity.
“Most people never get to live their dreams,” Gary says. “But he did what he wanted to do, and we’re glad for that. Whether as parents we approved or not, we’re glad for it.”
While Gary and Renee were forced to sell Eastside A/V under tragic circumstances, an awful experience was made easier with the help of IBA. The pair had originally met Gregory Kovsky years earlier when Gary had retired and was thinking about buying a business. Gregory helped the pair purchase a kitchen store that they owned for eight years.
When Bryan passed, Gregory stepped up again to help the Levy family in their time of need. “In all business transactions, Greg’s personality is very calming,” Gary says. “He gives a laid-back vibe, but he’s like a hawk. He’s watching body language, he’s listening to voices, he’s watching gestures. He inserts comments very restrictively and efficiently. He’s almost like Bryan in that way, in the background, but he’s guiding you with direction.
While Bryan should have had a long and successful life ahead of him, he managed to do an incredible amount in the limited time he had. From building Eastside A/V from the ground up to investing in his community, Bryan made his impact known.
Bryan Levy embodied the American dream through his grit and perseverance, no matter the obstacles. “Bryan was a bit of an old-school entrepreneur,” his father says, “from the bootstraps, he did everything on his own. He worked hard because it wasn’t work for him.”
May his memory be a blessing, and an inspiration to entrepreneurs everywhere.
Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in Narrative Northeast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.