Victor Tibaldeo and the Sale of an Institution
After 60 years in the piano and organ business, 85-year-old Victor Tibaldeo is retiring. Victor is the owner of Victor Pianos and Organs, located in five two-story showroom buildings in downtown Miami. He is selling his business, buildings, and even some luxury condominiums. But, as MMR found out, Victor may not be ready to exit the stage just yet.
How did you get started in the musical instrument business?
“I grew up in New Haven, Conn. I went to the public schools there and used to walk by the Yale admissions office everyday. One day I walked in and said, ‘I want to go to school here.’ I filled out some paperwork and they let me in. I graduated with George Bush in the class of 1948. I was one of the few guys who worked and went to school. During my time at Yale, I taught piano and accordion and had 55 students. I also played piano in nightclubs and in the orchestra pit at the Shubert Theater. After I graduated, I opened a studio and taught piano, accordion, and trumpet. I also began to sell pianos and organs, and that’s how it started.”
How did you end up settling in Miami?
“I used to visit Miami a lot; I loved the weather. After a trip there in 1958, I went home and told my family that we were moving to Miami in 90 days. I had 10 upright pianos moved down there with my furniture. I started my business in Miami with those uprights. I sold each one for $500.
“I went to visit the original owner of my place; back then it was called Miami Piano Mart. I have always and still do visit dealers all over the world. The owner was ready to retire and he said to me, ‘You know so much about pianos and organs, why don’t you buy this place?’ He wanted $75,000. I went to the bank and got a cashier’s check, and that was it. At the time, there was only one building, about 10,000 square feet. Since then I have acquired four more buildings next to the original.”
How large is your staff now?
“We have a small staff of five people. They are all family members. We also have service people, but they are all independent contractors. Twenty years ago, when the organ business was booming, we opened nine stores in various malls and, of course, had a larger staff then. As the organ boom diminished we closed all of those stores.”
What products have you had the most success with?
“Our specialty and the reason for our success, has been used pianos and organs. People in the business today who are selling the new stuff are suffering. People aren’t buying the new stuff; the prices are too high, and the quality is not as good as it used to be. We have Steinways that are half the price of the new ones, and they are better than the new ones. We have the largest selection of grand pianos in the United States, both new and used. We have Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, and all the famous pianos. Our used pianos have always sold the best.”
What trends have you noticed in the industry over the years?
“The old pianos were made by the technicians in New York years ago, when Fifth Avenue was lined with piano shops. During that time, there were 275 piano companies in New York and now there is only one, Steinway.
“It’s different today; the quality is not the same. I have always been passionate about what I sell, and I don’t see that in many dealers today. Dealers today who are passionate are usually old-timers. Since I’ve been here, there have been 50 dealers who have opened and closed, even the big ones like Baldwin and Steinway. They can’t survive because expenses are too high.
“The problem with pianos is that they are large items and need a lot of space. Most people don’t have that luxury anymore. Even in New York, people are paying $30,000 a month for rent and still don’t have the space. Diamonds are easier to sell—they don’t take up a lot of space. What I have here in Miami couldn’t exist in New York now, like it did at one time. No one could afford the rent. One of my buildings here is called the Grand Building—it’s two stories full of 400 grand pianos, mostly used, and that is what most people want.”
During the past 60 years, what were the times when your business has struggled the most?
“Oh sure, there have about a half dozen times over the years when the entire industry has suffered. Since I started in New Haven in 1939, there has been a dip every 10 to 15 years, mostly due to the economy. This period right now is probably the worst I have seen, due to all of the home foreclosures. Even though there are tough times, I am a firm believer in pianos. They will never go away; people will always want them.”
You have had so many famous clients, from Itzhak Perlman and Ray Charles to Donald Trump. How did you amass such a clientele?
“At one time we were the only ones in Miami, and we have a great location in the center of downtown. It has been word of mouth for the most part. They call us.
A vintage shot of Victor (seated) with representatives of Hallet, Davis & Co., Boston.
“Tennessee Williams called me and ordered a piano. It took a while for us to deliver the piano to him. He kept calling me over and over saying, ‘Where’s my piano?’ I spoke to him a lot. Itzhak Perlman came in with his daughter to buy her a used Steinway. He didn’t even look at the piano; he stood on one side of the room while his daughter played it, and he just listened. After only a few minutes, he knew it was what he wanted. Jackie Gleason was a regular customer and I gave him piano lessons. He came in one day and said he wanted an organ. I showed him a $10,000 Allen organ, which is a fabulous organ. He bought it and we delivered it to his house.
“One day five young guys came into the office. I was sitting at the front desk, as I always do, and one of them was so little, I could barely see the top of his head. They rushed in at closing time and said they needed a piano, right away, to be delivered to their hotel for a show. As it turned out, they were the Jackson Five and the little one was Michael Jackson.
“Ray Kroc, the owner of McDonald’s, and his wife came into one of my mall organ stores. His wife was a fantastic church organist. She pointed to a Conn organ and said, ‘I want two of those organs, refinished in driftwood, for my boat.’ We didn’t know who she was at the time, but we found out when they signed the contract. We delivered one organ to the boat, which was a 140 feet yacht. We shipped the other one to her home on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
“Francis Ford Coppola came in one day. He arrived in a taxi. He was wearing an old t-shirt and had a scruffy beard—I thought he was a street person. He said he wanted a piano. My salesman came back and said, ‘He bought the piano.’ I said, ‘Who is he?’ My salesman said, ‘He’s Francis Ford Coppola, and he wants the piano shipped to his hotel in Belize.’ So, we shipped the piano to Belize.”
What are you going to do now that you are retiring?
“I will never leave Miami. I am going to help whoever buys this place, if anyone buys it. I am not going to sell this place to just anyone who calls and has the money. It’s not a question of money for me. They have to be qualified and they have to really want something like this. They must be dedicated to it or else I won’t sell it to them. I won’t answer any questions on the phone. I want to meet them, know who they are and what they’ve done. I want to make sure that they understand this business and feel the way I do about pianos.
“I have been going to the same piano convention for 55 years. The first one was at The New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan. I’ve been to every one of them. I used to travel all over the country and visit piano dealers to see how they did things. I have always said that I have learned at least one thing from every dealer. Even if they were doing everything wrong, there was always one thing they were doing right, and I learned from that.”