Walking into Harms Labs in Old Town Square, Fort Collins, one immediately discovers that founder Steve Harms’ passion for music and high-quality speakers drives him every single day.
But Harms is a discovery all his own. The Chicago native, whose father wanted to name him DoNo (as in ‘Do No Harms’), attended Colorado State University in the ‘70s, where he stumbled upon his life’s work. Harms, who started building speakers at 14, was an electrical engineering student at the time. He started to realize speakers were his future when he unexpectedly had to provide a P.A. for a band whose monitors had blown out during a campus party.
“I don’t remember the name of the band, but there used to a be a four-day drunk called College Days,” Harms recalls. “School was about to get out and Corporate Hall hired a band to play in the courtyard. They rented a system from National Speaker and they blew it up after three songs, so I said I’d run up and get my Hi-Fi.
“I lugged down these folded corner horns with these 15-inch bass speakers and 12-inch guitar speakers, and we set it up. At the end of it, they said it was the best P.A. they’d ever used. I said, ‘No that was a Hi-Fi but I could build a P.A.’ At that point, I was very proud of myself.”
It took him until his third year in college to finally figure out electrical engineering wasn’t the way he wanted to go. Required classes included differential equations and other things to “prove you’re an idiot.”
“I went to Hewlett-Packard and saw all those poor bastards in their cubicles and thought maybe that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he says. “I decided maybe I just want to build speakers. Maybe I could make a living doing that.”
In 1974, he opened the doors to Harms Labs’ original location, which just so happened to be his first house with a mortgage of $170 a month.
“My second store was my house, too — just a different house,” he says with a laugh. “I bought my first house about a mile away from my current store. I was working part-time at Citizen Printing making a whopping $5 an hour, and I qualified for a home loan. I built the speakers in the garage and sold them in the living room.”
Harms Labs is in its ninth location and 44th year as a company but like anything, his work requires balance. Over the years, he and his wife — who he met in college — have enveloped themselves in adventurous hobbies.
“Building speakers was my hobby and my business,” he says. “After about 10 years of running the business, I took up bicycle riding, skiing, and my wife and I did scuba diving. For the last 15 years, I’ve done competitive weightlifting.”
Now, as he inches toward 70 years old, Harms continues to innovate, recently launching a brand new line of furniture-like speaker towers for in-home listening. All the while, he has lived the majority of his life doing what he loves, with music itself at the heart of his livelihood.
“Yes, I build speakers and I made my living selling speakers, but people would come in and I’d turn them on to music,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh you’ve never heard of Frank Zappa or this or that?’ It was a reason to own the good stereo equipment because you’d hear the nuances or the details in the music. That’s always the fun part.”