Paul Effman Music Service Builds on Parochial Programs
Few have what it takes to turn a profit from servicing budget-starved parochial schools and fewer still can build an impressive corporation from it. Throw into the mix the creation of a musical instrument company from scratch, and it adds up to a unique success story.
“There are a few other companies that have a similar educational concept, but none are in the instrument business,” says Paul Effman, founder of Paul Effman Music Services. “Students in my program can purchase or rent instruments, accessories, and print music from us. Today we have offices and warehouse in Long Island, Poughkeepsie [N.Y.], Buffalo, and South Plantation, Fla., and soon there will be one in Boston.”
Today Paul Effman Music Services employs 112 people (mostly teachers) and serves over 14,000 students at over 350 schools. Out of frustration stemming from what he saw as the poor quality of inexpensive instruments, he recently founded his own musical instrument company, LJ Hutchen named after his three children: Lucy. Jesse, and Hutchen. (Despite its growth, LJ Hutchen is very much a family operation: Hutchen is in charge of daily operations, Lucy runs the office with Effman’s wife, Kathryn, and Jesse handles Web duties.)
Filling the Void
New York-born Paul Effman graduated from Queens College in New York, and started out as a band director for two parochial schools in the early 1970s before getting a full time-position as chairman of the music department at Catholic High School in Tampa, Fla. “I realized there were 13 parochial schools that fed into my high school, and none of them had instrumental music programs,” he says.
In 1978, he returned to New York, and started trying to “fill the void. I started a feeder program. It was fee-based program, and it was successful right away — I had 300 students my first year.” He went to principals asking for the use of a room for rehearsals, staged a demonstration for parents, and signed kids up. The parents paid Effman directly. “The principal agrees to it on the premise that he or she gets a band for free,” he recalls.
Effman says that while there are likely a dozen or so with similar operations, “nobody has gotten as large as I have doing it, and no one else has figured out how to do it beyond the immediate area they live in. They haven’t figured out how to manage a teacher who doesn’t live next door.”
His success is based on his ability to get, train, and retain quality music educators. No less than 20 teachers have been with him for 20 years, and the company is able to offer opportunities for growth. Recently, he relocated a teacher to Boston to gain a foothold in New England. Eventually that educator will become a manager of a staff as the company grows there.
While managing music educators in different states might be considered as challenging as herding cats, he’s been able to do it and keep uniformity by developing and maintaining an educational program that the teachers adhere to: “I’m not to be confused with a booking agent — every one of these teachers gets more visitations from us then they would if they were teaching in a public school.
“The teachers follow educational guidelines, use my own method books, and are expected to reach certain goals at the end of every level,” Effman continues. “We have expectations of where a band should be at the end of two years, and if those expectations are not met, the teacher is let go.
“Our greatest single formula for success is our ability to hire teachers who are competent and compassionate. Each and every student must feel that they are important. Principals must perceive our employee as being their band director as opposed to an outside contractor.” Overseeing this aspect is long-time educational administrator Lou Varuzzo.
One of the challenges is not with the teachers, but the principals. He has to work with a very broad spectrum of administrators, ranging from those who are so enthusiastic that they find ways to buy percussion instruments, to those who “are not so crazy about it — there are certain schools where they would love for us not to be there,” he laughs. “Some don’t understand the value of a music education.”
More challenging then getting good educators was getting good instruments, Effman report:
“In the beginning I would simply print out a list of music stores within an hour’s drive, and tell the kids to show up with an instrument on Monday,” he says. “So I would give my blood to get these kids recruited, and then they would show up with these terrible instruments! Some would get unplayable ones at a pawnshop, some would even get the wrong instrument. Kids were losing interest in the program from Day One because of that.”
By the second year, he would rent instruments from dealers himself, and then re-rent them to students. He quickly started buying instruments himself to rent. By the mid 1980s, he became a UMI dealer (now Conn-Selmer).
“Hal McIntyre, an industry veteran at UMI, took a chance on me, and in a few years I was their largest dealer on Long Island. Now we own a 6,000 square foot building on Long Island, rent another 3,000 square foot one here on Long Island, and have a 2,000 square foot one in Poughkeepsie.”
These warehouses are fast filling up with his own brand of instruments.
“As an educator, I was increasingly appalled at the products that the students were coming in with,” he says. “I found them to be simply beneath standards, so I invested a lot of money into going to China.” There he visited myriad factories until he found one that could build to his specifications. He says he spends more money per unit then others who are taking the same Chinese instrument route, and that allows him to offer higher-quality instruments.
Effman is elated with the quality of LJ Hutchen instruments, though frustrations still arise: “Every time we come up with an idea, we have to wait 90 days to see it!” he laughs. “I say, ‘I want a metal thumb rest,’ and it’s three months until it happens.” Today instrument division is producing flutes, clarinets, alto saxes, and trumpets from China, and a snare drum which is made in Taiwan.
Initially he started simply mixing in his new instruments with his inventory of rentals to see how they would compare well with the others. His testing came back with good marks, and four years later, Effman is aggressively shopping his instruments to retailers nationwide.
Slowly, the list of retailers that carry the LJ Hutchen instruments is growing.
“We’ve been successful with the dealers we’re working with so far, and have a number who are return customers going on four seasons,” he concludes.