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2018 CT Hall of Fame: Kathy Gornik and Jim Thiel

The Consumer Technology Hall of Fame honors visionaries who have made a significant impact on the consumer technology industry. These leaders and entrepreneurs have laid the foundation for the technologies, products, services and apps that are improving lives around the world.

Kathy Gornik and Jim Thiel will be inducted along with 12 other industry leaders at an awards dinner on Wednesday evening, November 7, at Capitale in New York City. Over the next several months, i3 will highlight this prestigious class. Please join us for the awards dinner as we celebrate this extraordinary group of honorees.

Kathy Gornik, Co-Founder and President, Thiel Audio

As co-founder and long-time president of audiophile speaker maker Thiel Audio, and as an active member of a wide variety of CTA committees and audio groups, there have been few people more familiar, more ubiquitous and more influential in the home audio and consumer technology industries than Kathy Gornik.

Born in Painesville, OH, in 1947, the fourth of nine children of second-generation Slovenians Rose and Joseph Gornik. While working at her family's high-end men's clothing shop, Gornik absorbed business lessons including the values of risk-taking, hard work, innovation, stick-to-it-iveness, and practical lessons on maintaining good relationships with banks, controlling overhead costs, managing employees, handling ever-changing inventory, the importance of pricing, and the power of a good reputation. She graduated from the University of Dayton with a B.S. in education in 1969.

While at UD, Gornik met Jim and Tom Thiel. Once out of school, Jim developed a speaker in his Lexington, KY, workshop and invited a number of college friends, including Gornik to join him. Gornik accepted and drove around the mid-Atlantic states selling loudspeakers to independent audio specialist dealers. Her success led Thiel to name her president of the new company dubbed Thiel Audio in 1976, responsible for sales and personnel.

Unable to secure loans from a bank, Thiel Audio relied on friends and family for early startup funding. To save money during their first trip to CES in Chicago in 1977, Thiel and Gornik packed their own food. After several years of trial and error and a continuous focus on engineering, the company's floor-standing Thiel CS3 in 1980 brought the fledgling company high sales, a genuine place in the industry and, most importantly, profitability.

Gornik turned down most dealer applications, waiting to do business with the best dealer in any given market, a strategy which paid off and allowed the company to double their annual revenues each year for five years running. Under Gornik's fiscal leadership, Thiel was profitable each year except 1991. And under her marketing leadership, the brand became synonymous with high quality at reasonable prices, with speakers all others were measured against.

Gornik's marketing philosophy revolved around a strong focus on customer service and satisfaction. Gornik often told new employees that they didn’t want to be the biggest speaker company in the world, just the best, and had three tenets to their business: "Satisfy the customer," "satisfy the customer" and "satisfy the customer." Gornik also made sure that Thiel speakers were assembled in Kentucky.

In 1993, Gornik was named Kentucky/Southern Indiana Region "Entrepreneur of the Year" by Inc. magazine.

While building Thiel's brand and business, Gornik also became increasingly involved in the industry. In 1994, she helped create and served as the first chairperson of the High Performance Audio subdivision of CTA, from 1995-97 she served as chairperson of CTA's Audio Division, in 1998-2006 she served on CTA's executive board, in 2003-04 as chair, in 2007 was chair of its Small Business Council, and from 2010-12 served on its Business Industry Leaders.

Within the high-end audio community, Gornik served on the steering and executive committees of the Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio, a group she helped form to promote high-end audio.

Jim Thiel passed away in 2009. Soon after the company was bought by a private equity firm in 2012, Gornik retired. She serves on the Kentucky State Board of Education, the Education Professionals Standards Board, the Workforce Development Board, and as chairperson of the board for Newton's Attic, a non-profit organization dedicated to STEM education of youth.

James Edward "Jim" Thiel, Co-Founder, Thiel Audio

For nearly 40 years, a small company in Lexington, Kentucky, churned out audiophile speakers designed to give its customers goose bumps after hearing them. Its speakers were of such high quality they became the yardstick against which every other speaker was measured, and whose brand name became a by-word for the peak of audio reproduction. The company was Thiel Audio, co-founded by Jim Thiel.

James Edward Thiel was born on September 29, 1947, in Covington, KY, the eldest child of Ralph and Mary Thiel, who met while serving in World War II. Growing up, the young Thiel loved music from an early age, taking piano lessons and playing in a band during high school. Thiel also displayed a keen interest in science, especially electronics. During his school years, he built sound reproduction gear and attempted to build flying machines, reflecting his general love of astronomy and space, especially NASA during the 1960s.

After a brief stint at Thomas More College, Thiel decided to start his own audio equipment business, building custom electronic components for studio and stage applications. Not long after, he decided to make products for sale to consumers. He believed there was more room for improvement in loudspeakers, improvements people could appreciate just on hearing the product – even though he had no professional experience in loudspeaker design.

Thiel joined forces with his younger brother Tom, an expert wood-worker, along with college friend Kathy Gornik, who would become Thiel Audio's president, and Walter Kling. The company, officially organized in 1976 as Thiel Audio, initially operated on a shoestring budget, financed mostly by friends and family and equipped with an array of used tools. Its first headquarters was Tom's Lexington dirt-floor garage. The company grew, moving into a 3,000-square-foot space in 1981 and ultimately expanding into 30,000 square feet by 1990. After several years with a continuous focus on engineering, the company's floor-standing Thiel CS3 in 1980 brought the fledgling company a huge amount of sales, a genuine place in the industry and, most importantly, profitability.

Thiel designed all his speakers, along with all their parts, and all were assembled in Lexington. Eventually, the company also would manufacture its own drivers in-house, and farmed out work to local machine shops, print shops and other Lexington businesses.

Thiel was committed to the concepts of phase- and time-coherence in his pursuit of loudspeaker accuracy, leading to some unique technical features. Ultimately, he created what became known as the Coherent Source design concept, which gave his company's speakers a sonic edge along with their iconic alpha designations.

Thiel believed the human ear was an exceptionally discriminating test instrument, and integrated extensive subjective listening tests once the measurements were as perfected as possible. If a change improved the way a speaker sounded but didn’t measure well, he rejected the change. If a change improved the measurement but didn't sound good, he rejected the change. This final "listening versus measurement" stage often involved small subtleties, but always with an eye on the cost-performance of the final product.

Thiel's affordable high-end speakers became legendary during his lifetime, winning nearly every award extant, including six Audio/Video International Product of the Year Awards, five The Absolute Sound/Perfect Vision Editor’s Choice Awards, four Soundstage Reviewer’s Choice Awards, four Stereophile Speaker of the Year or Runner-Up Awards, five Electronic House Product of the Year Awards, Home Theater Magazine 2010's "Top Pick of the Year" for the CS3.7, the Speaker of the Millennium Award for the CS7.2 from Germany's Image HI FI, and 22 CES Innovations Awards.

CTA Staff