Naiming the Future
aul Stephenson, the managing director of Naim Audio, and I had been talking about doing this interview for several months. Originally it was going to be about the direction in which Naim, with their commitment to streaming technology and audio in general, were heading, with perhaps a bit of history thrown in. But then the huge news of the Focal deal gave our plans an agenda and momentum of their own. So I traveled from London to Salisbury to conduct the first interview with Paul since the news broke. Over lunch we realized that a bit of context was called for, so he suggested that, to understand where Naim are now and where they are heading, it would be helpful to know something of their history. Paul wasnt at Naim at the very beginning, but soon after his arrival he gave the company a focus and direction that has only intensified as the years have passed and events have unfolded.
Chris Thomas: Take me back to those heady days of 1981.
Paul Stephenson: Its quite pertinent that we are sitting here today, where Naim is in a different place from when you and I started talking about doing this interview months ago. In fact, apart from joining Naim in 1981, Julian Verekers death and now the merger, collaboration or sale with Focal, these are probably the three biggest events in my history with Naim, and two out of those three I had no chance to think about or plan for. Julian and I had spoken many times about my taking over Naim at some point, and hed go on his boats and to do his thing. Would he ever really relinquish true control? I dont know. There was certainly a point in Julians life where he was getting very dissatisfied with the way the industry was going, with overregulation and the like. He had a growing passion for space and time and boats and those sorts of things. So we talked often about my taking over because he didnt like to deal with the crap. He wanted the fun. And he had someone like me who was going to be a bit bullish and take on CE, regulation and the distribution channels, things like that plus the general worries of a growing business. Well, he was quite happy to dump that on me [laughs]. He went to New York, came back and said he didnt feel very well, and six months later he died.
CT: When was that?
PS: That was 1999-2000. The beginning of the millennium. And what was really strange was that there was no time for me to plan. It was very fashionable in the '80s, the Thatcher era, to big-up the guru side, the head of the company. Like Ivor [Tiefenbrun] would have been for Linn, Julian was for Naim. I was the sales and marketing director, so I filled my boots with all of that. Then, all of a sudden, he wasnt there, and I thought, Shit! You remember how the forums and the industry were full of "This is the end of Naim" or the end of the world and all that stuff? I had no plan for that event because it took us by surprise. Julian was the owner and my friend, and here he was dying and the business seemed secondary to someones death. But, once I woke up and shook myself, I understood that the business before was all about the lifestyle, plus Julian made decisions based on if it seemed something was a good idea, then that was good enough for us to have a go. It didnt matter if it made money or lost money. But as soon as he died, I was faced with what would happen next. The bank had an interest in where we were going and the other shareholders obviously wanted to know what was going on. It wasnt exactly panic, but I realized that things had to change.
CT: When Julian died was there a plan in place?
PS: There was no plan. And in fact, when Julian was dying he told me that I would take over the company, but he said nothing would really be revealed until he died. So I went though this period of not knowing if the company was going to be sold or his family would take over. It was very weird. So suddenly he dies and I had the funeral to arrange and all that kind of stuff. I just sat there and thought, Whats going to happen now? And the lawyers gathered and looked at me and said, "Well, what are you going to do, Paul?" So I had to look at the business and realized that there was no plan, and I started to think about going forward, although I was initially very uneasy about it. So I looked at who was in the business and how I could develop things. I made Roy George technical director because he wasnt a director at that time and I told him he had a clean sheet of paper to create whatever he wanted and I needed to decide what Naim would look like in the next ten years. I said to him and R&D, "Come back when youve got a plan." There were probably six people in R&D then. Julian didnt really allow our R&D team to go very wide creatively.
So they were now set free and it was a very big moment because Roy George and his team had been designing 90% of all the products. Julian didnt like taking on some of the new challenges and that meant that, in some ways, he slowed the process of change down, but who could blame him? Take the communications in the factory. We were on CompuServe for comms because Julian hated Microsoft and Apple. Our processes were antiquated. There was just so much to do, so I recruited new people and empowered the management team. We created a new five-year plan. I thought it was all so bureaucratic, but I decided to go with it. I put a business plan together where I said I would double the business in five years, and after two years in I realized it was such a mess. The R&D team didnt have the right tools, and in fact we didnt have enough people. We had to completely throw away the computing system and all the communications. The manufacturing process was in chaos. There had been no investment in the business. The whole thing was creaking. They hadnt used the moment of profitability during those times to reinvest in the business. It needed massive reinvestment. At the same time, if we look back into the '70s and '80s when we started to make it big, why didnt we become the size of B&O? Why didnt we and others become huge companies? They had the possibility. There were wonderful products. There was more competition, true, but we were just having lots of fun. There was no business process, no power management thinking going into organizational growth. So, when I took over, I was made a trustee of the Julian Vereker Trust.
CT: What is that?
PS: There is something called the JV Trust which held the assets of Julian, which were predominantly the Naim shares. Julian made me a trustee of this and the other member was a lawyer.
CT: When did Julian set this up?
PS: He set this up just before he died. JVs view was that I would take over the company and build it up, but, on the other hand, if the lawyer didnt think I had a good plan, he could sell Naim. So I was under quite a lot of pressure to come up with a plan that would grow the business. Well, we didnt grow anything like I wanted to in two years. So in the second or third year I made the decision to discontinue every product in the range and we came out with the new Reference series. Looking back on that now, I think that, with the infrastructure we had, it could have been suicidal. I remember one night lying in bed and thinking, What if they dont like it, or if the dealers wont buy it?
CT: But you didnt discontinue the 250?
PS: No, not the name, but we did. It was in the olive shape before I put it into the new range with a new design.
CT: It was a new amp.
PS: It was a new amp. The 282 came out and the 252. Everything got replaced, not only that but there was the commercial aspect where we launched 24 new models into a market where a dealer would have to invest in demo stock worldwide. Its a big risk. Well, it was amazing, and everybody went for it. The dealers and the press liked it and we started to grow really quickly. It helped a lot. And the whole cosmetic thing, whether some liked it and some didnt, had moved up a lot from a quality point of view. So we started to recruit more and more people in R&D and invest much more money. I had regular reviews with the Trust, who understood what I was trying to do and backed it. I had a really good working relationship with them. I was managing director, a shareholder and trustee, so I had to be very careful with compromising any of these positions by doing things properly.
CT: So, let me get the Trust straight. Its you, a lawyer and who else?
PS: Yes, the two of us and there was also an external financial guy, watching that all was street legal and a sound investment to continue with.
CT: But did JVs family have a shareholding?
PS: They had no shareholding. Only the Trust, the Julian Vereker Trust, which is for the benefit of the beneficiaries and still exists today. We got on really very well, and I started to invest more and more money into the people, the infrastructure and the processes, lifting the qualities of the whole business, and we really started to grow a lot. In one of these particular meetings we reviewed our concerns about what would happen to CD in the future. We had 30% of our business in CD players, and I couldnt afford to take the risk that we didnt think about going forward and replacing our CD sales with something else, so we started to work on looking at hard-disk storage and server technology. We really had no interest then in controlling or writing a database because we were still predominantly digital and analog hardware engineers, not particularly software at that time, although wed had some bad scrapes in some areas with software, but thats another story.
So we made a server, the first one. This was probably eight or nine years ago now, and this gave us a view about how big a challenge it was going to be. I mean, we thought CD players were a challenging environment! But putting a hard disk, heavy power supplies, high-frequency busses with RAM and ripping engines in there and youre trying to keep a signal as pure as possible? It was a bloody big challenge, but we had to learn that trick. I was never going to say it was better than CD, and I certainly wasnt going to say it was better than analog, as I didnt think that even CD had hit that mark, but there was always a glimmer and a possibility. We knew that this route could lead to something beyond CD because of its limitation of 16 bits/44.1, which was always a little bit of a noose around its neck. Im not convinced still today that 192 or 724 are the Holy Grail, but I do believe theres a possibility. I do believe theres a game again and thats worth fighting for.
We made a server and then I met Alan Ainsley who told me about this distributed audio product from America called Stream Net, and at that time the biggest growth market sector on the planet was CI [custom installation] and all the stats were saying hi-fi sales were going down and custom install was going up. There wasnt much point really in Naim getting involved in the custom-install industry, because a lot of people were doing very well already, but they were running long cables everywhere, which is something we didnt believe in as it resulted in noise and signal loss. We didnt see it as true quality. It was about oral wallpaper and it wasnt very exciting. So the Stream Net offered us an opportunity to build IP-enabled electronics that could distribute uncompressed audio at high quality, with almost no latency, throughout the home. So I thought, Geronimo! This is really great news. And then that became more interesting - it started to build on our picture of the server, IP audio, networks, etc.
You know, people talk about RCA phono plugs as being an international standard, but I remember somebody telling me that the only true standard worldwide is TCP/IP. You can put a computer on in Doncaster and you can do the same thing in Vietnam or Shanghai and youll get the Internet. It truly is international, and Stream Net works on TCP/IP, so I thought, What a good idea we have here. Its international and it works. But obviously, at that time I didnt know that the housing world was going to crash, but that really didnt matter because we were really getting a scent at Naim at that point that through iPods people were starting to store more music on computers.
We were building up this competence level with networking audio and at the same time we got a knock on the door from Bentley: "Are you interested in making a premium in-car system?" Well, my R&D guys had finished making DVD players, and it was, "Do you want the keys for a Bentley or should we make another DVD player?" The DVD players were history -- you know what I mean? They set us very big challenges at Bentley. We had to make the worlds most powerful car production amplifier, it had to be this size and it had be quieter inside than outside and it needed lots of digital signal processing and all of that kind of stuff, so we started to work with other people on the digital signal processing -- in fact we recruited Hjalmar Nilsson from Sweden into our team and suddenly we added another competence to our experience and abilities with digital signal processing. Later this would make us see what we could do with loudspeakers, room correction and lots of other things.
So our armory was just getting stronger and stronger. Networking audio, the DSP speakers and everything else -- so the level of excitement was growing. I started to recruit more and more people in our software team -- really great people. One day we were talking about an integrated solution, because on the backside of this some of the marketplace was getting a little concerned about the number of boxes there were in the system. One of the guys had a particular interest in UPnP -- universal plug and play -- and he engineered an all-in-one system for us. He was head of software at Naim, so the Uniti was born, and bingo!
So in the past three or four years weve taken our turnover to just over £16 million. It cost a fortune to get there, but it transformed our retailers position with streaming, it transformed our market position and the competence level that we had, and whats more, even though we havent arrived in terms of audio nirvana, the sound has given us a challenge for the future to make this as good as possible.
CT: So you are looking to offer complete solutions?
PS: One of the backbones of Naim from day one was always giving someone a solution that could have some predictability to the sound quality. So that became a strong feature, to have a Uniti product which was kind of future proof for a lot of people getting into network audio. Also, we had to add a traditional CD and an Internet radio. It was just too good to miss really. This has lead to a whole generation of Uniti family products and servers, and we are stretching this going forward with NDX, which is a network client. It has no amplification in it and is aimed at a higher-end market. Over the next year you will see us add to this client range, and well probably end up with a series of clients which are at the same sound-quality level where CD players are today. These will also have servers, as this part of it, for me, is important. Its all right to say rip it to your NAS and use EAC or dBpoweramp, but there are a lot of things that can ruin the rip. The quality of the transport, the environment its being ripped into. So Naim right now is controlling the ripping, storage and playback and thats important to us if we go back to the "source first" in terms of where we first started, which was coming from and promoting turntables as being the best. Getting the best stored file at the highest resolution has to be the Holy Grail for storing new music for the future. So I think the industry now finds itself in a really fascinating place where hi-fi could become fashionable again. Apple have done such a fantastic job educating the world with wonderful products, so the man on the street knows how to use his telephone to download a song, how to replay it in his home and store it. Kids certainly do. And being in the right place at the right time, which is where I think Naim and some other companies are, is great because the competition has disappeared, especially if youve got the right set of products that people will want to buy and that relate to their lifestyles. I think Naim is in the position where the skys the limit. It is only limited by our own resources.
CT: Okay, that brings us up to now. So lets talk about the Focal thing and how that started.
PS: We interact with a number of companies anyway, whether we are sharing parts or intelligence, sometimes even design, and I was aware of Focal for many years through their drive-unit capability. They have a great reputation and they also have a [speaker] cabinet manufacturing plant that I believe you have visited. What has happened is that there are very few people left in Europe who make cabinets, and we were certainly interested in trying to keep all of our cabinets sourced within Europe, so we met them a couple of years ago when Naims R&D people went to look at their technology to see if they could make a cabinet for us. That was really the start of the introduction between the two brands.
Nothing much happened relationship-wise then, but Naim was beginning to grow, and I had to ask myself that, at age 57, what do I need to put in place for the next generation of Naim products and how can we as a company deal with that? On the other side is the JV Trust, who is the major shareholder with 58% of the business, and the Trust, by and large, is a static entity that is not reinvesting in the business. So, usually you have a company whose owner is reinvesting, but in our case it wasnt. And I definitely realized that the next stage of Naims growth must come the same way as it had before, from reinvestment. But the numbers had become so much bigger that it had become difficult to invest from your own petty cash, because now that is squeezed as we are 130 people. So a lot of your money is tied up with just running the business and paying the staff, including an ever-growing R&D department, which is very expensive, as well as marketing and everything else.
So we needed more cash. We could go to the bank or a venture capitalist or we could do a small flotation. There were a few options, and on the other side is the Trust, who, quite rightly, have some concerns about having all their eggs in one basket. And where would be their exit route to allow them to sell some shares for us to get new investment? Putting two and two together, I could see that there was an issue there. We had many meetings where I refused to talk about succession or a sale because I knew that what we really needed was a lot of cash. I had many calls and letters from people who wanted to talk about us selling Naim, but we didnt take any of them seriously. We just didnt go there. Then one day last year I got a letter from an intermediary who was working with Focal, who said they would be interested in talking to us about some collaboration or investment.
CT: So, you are saying that, as a company, Naim had reached a tipping point?
PS: Certainly a position where serious decisions had to be made. One point that I would emphasize is the increased rate of change and the speed of technology. We make streaming products, and if you havent got your app out the same day, people think youre insane. Everything has to be now, and we are in the business of meeting our customers expectations about the technology -- the way its presented, the way its controlled and the way its supported.
CT: So, what do we call the tie-up with Focal?
PS: Well, it was a sale but with a strong merger element. But let me tell you about the meetings. Jacques Mahul, who is the founder of Focal/JMlab came personally to Salisbury and told me the story about how he had started his company and there were a lot of similarities between him and what Julian had done, and we spoke for a few hours about the possibilities. Was Naim looking to sell? Was the trust looking to sell? How could companies work together to consolidate? It was certainly interesting, but in truth it wasnt a greatly productive meeting. You would have to ask Jacques what he thought about it, but it didnt really go very far. It seemed to be about consolidation and things that I didnt have too much interest in. It was just pure commercialism.
So I said to them that if we were going to talk, it had to be about raising the bar in creativity and reinvestment and those sorts of things. After that we didnt talk for a while until Jacques called and asked the Naim directors over to Focal, and as soon as we got in the factory and Jacques took us around the plant and showed us, step by step, how they make things and how fastidious they are about quality, I was bowled over. It was just so impressive.
CT: And was the personal chemistry good by this time?
PS: It was fantastic. It was like hand and glove because they knew everything that we had been through over the past 30 years. They have been through it too. They really understood how tough it is to be a manufacturer, especially in this world of today. We had so much in common. We were so fascinated with what they had achieved that we began to talk about the possibility of combining resources, because we realized that if we could find the investment then, between the two of us, we could have a real push forward into the next generation of products for both of our companies. Look at Bowers & Wilkins -- £120 million; look at Sonos -- £300 million plus. There are other big players out there. Between us, we would be around £40 million, but it just shows how big the market size is if you get it right. Once you are at the size of Naim and Focal, theres no going back really. You cant say, "Okay, I will let half the staff go and well just build the 250." I suppose you could, but that wasnt the route we wanted to take. And that is certainly not Jacques idea either. At this point, Jacques had been planning to go into retirement, but after this deal, although he wont be involved day-to-day, he is certainly back on the bus. He is so excited about this deal.
CT: A shared vision?
PS: Yes. I have been working with him and Christophe, the new president, and over the next year we will be looking at where these investments will be placed for the development of both brands to have a shot at the bigger basket where there is less competition, and if we get the right products we could be extremely successful and extremely profitable.
CT: What form will these new products take?
PS: Naim are really focused on getting the very best sound we can, as of course every manufacturer says, but we will definitely invest and develop the next generation of network products as well as two channel -- and in fact the whole chain.
CT: Will they be Naim products?
PS: They will only be Naim products. You will never see a Naim/Focal badge on a product together.
CT: What is in this for Focal?
PS: If we have an R&D team, we are not working in isolation. Its good to have a load of friends and colleagues who can feed off each other and inspire each other in terms of thinking about a marketplace. So, straight away, theres a cross fertilization of ideas and inspiration thats there. They gain a very, very strong electronics partner, so with any of their needs for electronics, for instance, we can help them with guidance, supervision and all that kind of thing. If they are going to be involved in networked audio products -- youve already seen things like The Bird and some of their streaming products -- then they have a vision of how acoustics will evolve in the next generation of streamers and we have our vision of how electronics will develop, so, for example, there will be big possibilities to share a platform.
CT: So, whats in it for Naim?
PS: The enormous freedom we get from releasing this shareholding from a static trust to have millions of pounds pumped into my R&D team to develop these particular products. Focal will end up owning Focal and Naim. Thats the big picture and together it will be a hugely profitable business. So the market will allow these two companies to grow and end up making a hell of a lot of money and jobs for people. It is all about growth and development. The technology crossovers are with R&D in terms of the next generation of electronics and streaming.
CT: Will you still design and build your own loudspeakers?
PS: Yes, we already are. The S800 has arrived and we have plans for an S200. We arent going to rebadge a Utopia.
CT: Will you have access to the Focal parts bin?
PS: I would think that absolutely we would have access to that.
CT: To the Beryllium tweeter?
PS: I am not sure whether it would be appropriate for our design. Our speaker systems are designed using our solutions, and everything we are doing right now is around the BMR technology in the Ovator range. If we wanted to kick the BMR out and put the Beryllium in, we could, but its not really about that. Weve already conceived this idea and we believe there is a lot more sound quality to come. The story isnt finished with the BMR and the Ovator range. We could ask them to look at cabinets perhaps. That could be interesting. They can make 3000 drive units a day. Could they make us a bass unit? Of course they could. Will they? I dont know.
CT: So what immediate differences, if any, are we going to see at Naim?
PS: No one, retailers or customers, will see any difference at all other than a step up in confidence from Naim as we build for our future, because we are recruiting.
CT: And your customer base, which must be just about the most devoted and loyal. Will they still recognize the company in the future?
PS: Absolutely they will. Roy George is still very active with design and he is the keeper of the voice of Naim. But we are both really in caretaker roles. We add experience and move the brand forward. Everything changes. As you can see from the forums, in some cases the jury is still out, but from an end-users point of view, I dont think you will see anything other than a brand that grows stronger and makes great products.
CT: Lets look ahead, say, three years then. What will be the picture then?
PS: If everything goes okay, then we will see Naim get stronger and stronger and have products that are even more desirable than they are today under the Naim badge. There are no plans by Focal, who have invested this money, to try and destroy something that has been built up over 30 years. They understand the value of the brand.
CT: It has been suggested that this is really just a takeover, but what you are saying to me is that this is technically correct, but one that leaves you with huge autonomy.
PS: Okay. Lets sort this. The truth is that Focal & Co bought 100% of Naim shares. And the way this deal has been managed is that, as part of them acquiring those shares, almost half of all the Naim shares that they acquired were turned into Focal shares, so myself, the Trust, etc., anybody who was a shareholder of Naim, becomes a shareholder of Focal & Co. So I am now a director of Focal and I sit on their board, but I am also personally a shareholder of Focal & Co. that owns Focal/JMlab and Naim. But you asked whats in it for them? Well, some of Naims strength comes from the success that we have had in Europe particularly, and weve got a good understanding of how that has happened. Part of my job, sitting on the Focal board, is to pass on some of the experience of our success into how we can help to influence the Focal brand to get stronger and have more market share.
CT: Do they have an interest in your in-car technology that you acquired through your successful experience with Bentley? I know they make automotive audio products themselves.
PS: Focal are extremely successful in aftermarket, and we are not in aftermarket at all. Our design has been made specifically for Bentley and all of the digital signal processing was made for that car, so we cant add to what they already do.
CT: Will Naim continue with Bentley?
PS: Yes, we have a contract with them and we are just finishing working on their new cars. Well see what they think about our relationship with Focal. But we are still a British brand and we are still British registered. That is important. Bentley is a strong company with strong vision, so they will understand this move.
CT: So lets just talk a little about the future of audio from your point of view. Is CD dead now?
PS: I dont think so. I really dont. There are still things to learn about CD replay and making a good CD player. Is it difficult to get hold of some of the parts now? Yes, it is, but if you look at the emerging markets like China for example, well, there are a lot of CD players to be sold there. They are well behind the curve in terms of downloads and although a lot of people have abandoned making CD players, I think we will see a lot more come back.
CT: Is streaming absolutely the future?
PS: I think it is absolutely the future and that people will download music, store it in a particular way and there is certainly the possibility of moving sound quality beyond where CD is now. The music industry is in really good shape, apart from CD sales. More people are going to concerts and there is more music being played in the home. Once youve got your music on an iPhone or a computer, doesnt it make sense to get a better amplifier or pair of speakers? Storage is getting cheaper and cheaper, bandwidth is getting faster and faster, control is now easier, so there are so many elements going in our favor that the people who want a higher-quality experience will seek it out. Look, I dont believe that streaming is totally at the peak of sound quality today, but I think it has a future beyond CD that is really worth fighting for. Were not there yet. But it is the challenge of having somewhere better to go that is exciting.
CT: So, we met over 30 years ago. It was a couple of weeks before you joined Naim, as I remember. Overall it has all worked out okay then?
PS: [laughs] Yes, it has and the best thing is that today I really believe the audio industry has a great future, and because communications are better and the business is so much more organized we are in a much better position to take advantage because we are ready. I understand about the process, I understand about the teams, I understand about the marketplace. We have very well-defined distribution channels and the technology and communication paths to have an effect worldwide. We can grow the business a lot and it wasnt like that 30 years ago.
CT: I speak to people a lot about streaming and there are as many opinions as I have ever heard about anything audio. I have heard some mildly impressive results but never anything that, as a customer, would make me want to make a large investment. I am quality driven and at this moment anyway I would rather just put another CD on and enjoy that. As an audio writer I certainly need to understand it, but as a music lover I am, as yet, unconvinced.
PS: I know what you are saying. I talk to retailers and say to them that, if they havent got streaming equipment in the shop, and their customers have, then theyre getting behind the curve. I tell them its your job to show them what you know, to help them set it up, to let them get the best sound. You dont need to sell it on the basis that this is better than anything else, because they will catch you out if its crap.
CT: So, then I should embrace it?
PS: Look, Chris. The lifeblood to any true audiophile should be the music, and I know that is your heartbeat. For a lot of audiophiles its not. Its the kit. But access to music is a bit like feeding your habit. If youre not finding and listening to new music, then why have the kit?
CT: I am with you 100%. The real reason I have such a long history in audio is that I love listening to new music. I need a constant stream of the stuff. I am a bit like a junkie, I suppose. Most of what I hear doesnt grab me. But I suppose its the promise that keeps me hooked.
PS: Absolutely. And a lot of this new music is going to be in the digital domain for download. This is why I love Internet radio. Without that I would be listening to Radio 1, Radio 2 and the rest. Our local radio station is terrible for new music. Theres a record shop in Salisbury that is awful. Where do I hear new music? Because I am older and Im not mixing with a younger circle of friends I dont get such constant recommendations. So, with my Internet radio, I get access to world music and I can buy it at the push of a button. I listen to Radio Paradise at 320k, where you probably listen to it on your iPhone at 128k. Have a listen to this.
aul then played me some high-quality Internet Radio through a Naim HDX. This is an imminent software release from Naim that adds Internet Radio to the HDX HD player/server, and the updated app will automatically allow complete control. I have to say that listening through Pauls system to such high-resolution music from radio was impressive, and I cant wait to install it on my home HDX. Paul compared 128k, 192k and 320k, though he was quick to point out that he still didnt feel it was as good as FM can be, providing you have an expensive aerial installed on your roof.
With the interview over we sat back to listen to some music after all the talking. Paul played me some of his current favorites and a number of very high-quality downloads from numerous memory sticks. This was a great way to end what had been a long day. Sitting there, with the music flowing, gazing out over an English country garden, seemed the perfect answer to all the questions I had been asking. It is early, but I have the feeling that the Focal deal will work out very well. I know that Paul is very comfortable with the situation. Julian Vereker had real foresight when he offered him the job over 30 years ago.
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