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At Consumer Electronics Show, Tampa Bay companies share spotlight with behemoths

The annual Consumer Electronics Show opens today in Las Vegas, a behemoth bacchanalia for the tech obsessed. It's a global showcase for the likes of Google, Microsoft, Intel and thousands more companies pitching their latest gadgets, from smart phones to iPad-competing tablet computers.

While the consumer electronics industry fell in 2009, it bounced back by 13 percent last year with sales hitting $964 billion and clear momentum toward $1 trillion.

The massive show is famous as a place to unveil new products. But it's also the must-be-there spot for smaller companies that can reach a national and international audience of buyers from a modest booth in one of the show's many exhibition halls.

Just ask Tampa Bay's own seller of karaoke machines, JS Karaoke/Emerson of Largo. The company sells its karaoke machines, beefed up with tech that makes them more like home-style recording studios, under the Emerson brand through such retailers as Kmart, Sears and RadioShack.

A veteran of 20 shows, CEO Jack Strauser, 53, was on the Vegas exhibit floor Wednesday preparing for the show's opening and took some time by phone to fill me in on why his business is there, year after year. It's pure efficiency, he explains. No other show draws so many from all around the world who can stop by, see what's new and cut a deal — if they like what they see.

Through the teeth of a bad recession, JS Karaoke has seen sales climb from $9 million to $10 million. This year it should approach $12 million.

The 10-year-old company had outsourced most of its karaoke manufacturing to China but Strauser says he's now bringing the bulk of it back to Florida. Why? Because soaring shipping costs of bulky items like his karaoke machines now make U.S.-based manufacturing competitive again.

With financial help from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the addition of a 57,000-square-foot facility off Ulmerton Road, Strauser plans to build most of his machines in Pinellas County and add as many as 100 jobs in the process.

But for all that to happen, he has to keep selling karaoke machines. That's why he's off to several countries after the show to make deals.

"We have major potential to grow our exports," Strauser says.

The Largo business, in fact, is one of more than a dozen Tampa Bay area companies that are exhibiting at the Consumer Electronics Show. The largest is St. Petersburg's Jabil Circuit, a repeat visitor. Jabil tends to meet with potential clients in the quiet of a nearby Hilton suite to talk about what the contract electronics manufacturer might do for any number of tech companies.

Also at the show is Lakeland's BBI AutoAir. It's unveiling a small device that helps keep interiors of parked cars cool when the occupants are out and about. That may resonate in Florida.

Other area companies at the show include Clearwater's Technology Research Corp. (electrical safety products), Cell Phone Repair School of Wesley Chapel and DeLarco Corp. of Crystal River (mounting devices for electronics).

Exhibitors counting on big sales at this mega-show clearly hope to defy the local tourist slogan: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

At Consumer Electronics Show, Tampa Bay companies share spotlight with behemoths 01/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 9:53pm]
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