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PETALUMA -- Out of its beginnings as Phonic Ear in the 1960s, FrontRow in 2005 specialized in wireless systems that help K--12 students be able to hear and communicate with their teachers and classmates better, and now the company is evolving again to earn a front-row seat on bids for school construction and upgrade projects.

[caption id="attachment_78014" align="alignright" width="350"] FrontRow's wireless amplification systems for teachers and students is being integrated with schoolwide solutions. (image credit: FrontRow)[/caption]

"FrontRow 2.0" plugs the wireless microphone and speaker systems of FrontRow into the classroom- and campuswide audio-visual and communications networking solutions of Minnesota-based Calypso Systems, which merged with FrontRow in October 2011, according to Jens Holstebro, president. The combination gives FrontRow the ability to offer school districts scalable products and gives the company a hedge against the ebbing discretionary budgets during economic recession.

By October, FrontRow and Calypso Systems are set to be under a new roof in south Petaluma. Started in 1963, Phonic Ear moved to Petaluma from the South Bay in 1992 and expanded to 2080 Lakeville Hwy. just after the formation of the FrontRow division. Now, it is set to move into 22,000 square feet of office and warehouse space power-management products maker Panamax vacated recently to move to another south Petaluma location.

FrontRow employs 45, including an outside salesforce of seven. The plan is to hire three to five in the next year. The company's move to more networking products has been helped by the availability of experienced technicians and engineers coming from local telecommunications, solar energy and other technology companies, according to Mr. Holstebro.

"FrontRow 1.0 was very tied into a niche in the K-12 space which focused on audio products for improving instruction and communication in the classroom," Mr. Holstebro said.

"Now, we're looking at a networked ecosystem that will provide all aspects, from basic room audio system to a whole-site IP-based paging systems," he added.

The most recent economic recession made FrontRow's sales growth slow dramatically as school budgets plummeted along with the home property values and tax revenue, and schools have been more focused on rebuilding faculty and staff before technology, according to Mr. Holstebro. Now, sales are growing by double digits.

"Technology is not a need-to-have, but our goal is to be in the need-to-have category," he said. "Schools are more responsive on the value proposal of instructional tools to reinforce audio, the ability to record and capture entire lessons and make them available in the cloud."

Phonic Ear and FrontRow products have been based on research that shows that K--12 students have much harder time understanding language if they can't hear each work and part of a word, particularly for English-learners. Reducing fatigue for teachers in having to speak loudly also is a selling point.

Now, FrontRow can approach users of its tens of thousands of wireless amplification systems globally to consider larger-scale systems such as ezRoom, which builds wiring for computers, amplification speakers and audio-visual sources such as projectors and interactive whiteboards into the walls and allows tablet computer or centralized controls, and Conductor, which provides control of intercom announcements and scheduled bells with a mouse click.

FrontRow accounts for less than 1 percent of the $1.3 billion in annual sales of its parent company, William Demant Group of Denmark.

Trevor Buck of Cassidy Turley represented FrontRow in the new Petaluma lease deal. Steven Leonard and Brian Foster also of Cassidy Turley as well as Mr. Buck represented property owner PB&J Acquisitions.