U.S. Band On the Run
Don’t tell Mark Ragin about tough times in the music instrument business.
“Every year for us has been a record year,” U.S. Band’s president and CEO says. “Last year sales were up 28 percent, and this year, just the first three months, they were 30 percent above that. So for us this is the best of times.”
“We just have a lot to offer.”
And there’s a lot of hard work involved, too – Ragin regularly works six or even seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day. “It’s just what you have to do when you want to grow a business,” he shrugs.
Retailer Turns Wholesaler
Ragin grew up near U.S. Band’s current home in St. Louis, and at the age of 17 found himself working in one of the St. Ann’s Music store chains. He also found himself quickly moving up the ladder: “Shortly after I started working, a manager quit right before the busy season started, and so they made me a manager,” he recalls. Seventeen years later he was president of the entire retail operation. When that company’s owner eyed retirement, Ragin was then poised to buy the largest music chain in Missouri with a partner, but the deal fell through at the last minute and Brook-Mays came in and swooped it up.
But Missouri’s musician’s loss would turn into a gain for retailers everywhere else. St. Ann also operated a wholesale company, called Wolf Imports. Ragin was actually president of that segment of St. Ann’s operation, and while he had a job offer on the table from Brook-Mays to continue working there, he decided to take on the wholesale company in June of 1999.
In an era where there seems to be fewer wholesalers all the time, it certainly seems risky to start one, but Ragin knew from his years of experience that there was a niche to be filled. “When I was in retail, there was no one place I could call and get everything I needed,” he says. For the band and orchestra dealer in particular, waiting for that special order to be filled was all too typical. “After all, who would carry nine different timpani mallets and keep them all in stock?”
Ragin then shows off a 104-page color catalog and points out what is on the first page: valve oil, tuning slide grease, and cork grease. Certainly not the sexiest stuff in his warehouse, but that’s the point. “With this page, we lay the foundation that we’re a band accessory specialty house, first and foremost.” (Not that they are above into expanding in other areas – most recently the guitar market, offering some instruments and accessories in that category.)
U.S. Band has served 3,000 dealers at one time or another, and about half of those buy from them regularly, Ragin says. His sales team is growing, and he now has six onsite and two offsite. “That’s something else we do a little differently than other suppliers,” he says. “Our sales people come already having a connection, a rapport with dealers. We don’t just divide up the territories, for example.”
Ragin is interested in highlighting other things the company is doing to distinguish itself.
“We’re very big on drop-shipping,” he explains. His Drop Ship program allows dealers to deal directly with their customers yet have full, instant access to the 7,000 items in their warehouse. How it works is the dealer supplies U.S. Band with their store’s logo, which is uploaded into their computer. “We have a very high-tech computer system, and when we get an order, we put the retailer’s information on the label and ship it directly to the customer immediately. It comes out real nice and looks like it came directly from the dealer. Even the receipt inside contains all the retailer’s information. There is no mention to U.S. Band on anything.”
Yet that’s not even the biggest thing on the proverbial plate of U.S. Band.
“Our biggest initiative, what I believe will really send our growth rate soaring, is our Dealer Catalog Program,” he says, again referencing his full-color catalog. Next year they plan to print up to 100,000 of the catalog for each of their top 100 dealers who are interested in participating in the program. “They will own the front and back covers, and that’s where information about the individual retailer will be. They can talk about the store, their rental program, whatever they want.” Again, it will not have U.S. Band’s name on it anywhere, and all that is needed is the payment of a modest co-op fee and a minimum order run of 1,000.
“Excitement about this is growing very quickly,” Ragin says. “It’s the biggest thing we can do to support dealers, and will be a serious tool for them. When I was a retailer, I really wanted my own catalog but could never have it. Now retailers can.”
There are other programs being instituted including a Road Rep Flyer, where U.S. Band will supply monthly promotional offers to their dealers which again will appear as they come directly from the individual retailer with their logo and information on it. They will feature pre-planned programs like “March is Clarinet Month,” etc., with specials related to that. “Again, this is something else that is not being done by any other band wholesaler, but we really understand the business,” he says. “You have to live and breathe that side of the business, really work with band directors like I did for 25 years, to come up with programs like this.”
Other dealer-friendly aspects include a Web site where a dealer can log on and look at what the inventory levels at U.S. Band are at any time. This allows the retailer who is fielding an inquiry by a band director about a certain kind of woodblock to see that it’s there and ship it out immediately, for example. There’s also another Web site for the public that shows what’s available, and then points them to a local dealer who they can get that from. “We never sell direct to the public.”
EK Blessing’s Blessing
In an unusual deal, instrument manufacturer EK Blessing has recently partnered with U.S. Band.
“At the past Midwest Convention, we met with [EKB's] Randy Johnson and Vince McBryde, and they expressed that they thought it was time for them to turn over all sales and marketing to someone else,” Ragin explains. A partnership was soon struck; one that Ragin says will be mutually beneficial. “They instantly have access to over 1,000 of our dealers, and now almost every day we are opening a new dealer for them.”
EK Blessing is a 102-year-old company, and the oldest manufacturer of instruments in the historic town of Elkhart. They are currently producing 41 different instrument models, 35 of which are made in the U.S., which is to Ragin a major marketing point. “The whole concept here is putting American workers back to work.” But that doesn’t mean the instruments are expensive, as the EKB line covers student, step-up, and professional lines.
Another big selling point is there is no demand for big buy-ins with the instrument, and there are many retailers out there who for other reasons don’t have access to some of the larger brands. U.S. Band has not only brought many dealers access to the instruments, but is going to be exposing the instrument to many more band directors. “Last year, EKB was at five state music teacher conventions. Next year, they will be at 50. They will have more dealers by the end of this year then they probably ever had in their distinguished history.”
A distinguished history is what U.S. Band seems to be aiming for, too. If achieved, it will simply be because Ragin still thinks like a retailer himself.
“I have real experience, definite ideas about what a retailer can and can’t do. Most know what they want to do in terms of promotions, but the reality of running the store keeps them from doing all that they want to or should do.
“That’s where we come in.”