So you will know, Bill Boyce says with a smile, leaning back in his leather chair. Im really big on outside promotions.
Speaking on a Tuesday evening in his new St. Louis store opened just four months earlier, shortly after being handed the keys to the Yamaha Dealership for the metro area, the comment seems to be an understatement. Boyce has redefined and perfected the outside sale event to the point that the company has evolved as one of the most successful piano dealerships in the country. Under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, hes hit the ground running. His newest store, housed in a former Ethan Allen Furniture store located in the affluent suburb of Chesterfield, has spearheaded several outside events.
Next weekend were doing the boat show here.
Sure. You can put a Clavinova on a boat.
Its surprising to learn that he and his wife Sandy, a long time industry professional herself and a partner in the business, had already retired from the business for eight golden years before diving back in, as she says, with the passion of a couple of 18-year-olds. So really, all that has transpired since 2001 is just for fun.
Fun in this case tallies more than $23 million in annual sales. Its a long way from the $40 a week Boyce made working in an uncles piano store.
Boyce grew up in the small town of Windsor, North Carolina. He was studying engineering at North Carolina State in nearby Raleigh when he got a call from his Uncle Eddy asking him to work for his music store, E.R. Poole Music Company. He spent a year there earning $40 a week plus three percent of what he sold. The experience left him unimpressed with the business, so Boyce decided to go back to school. His uncle countered with upping his commission to 10 percent, which intrigued him enough to try the music business again (though he would also finish college).
One of my favorite stories is that when I finished school in 1962, I had an opportunity to work for IBM, which had just set up shop in the area. They were offering me $5,600 a year, and I told them Id be taking a $10,000 pay cut, so I couldnt do it, he laughs. I like to joke that if I had taken that job, Id be president of IBM now instead of being the damn president of a piano business!
In 1963, he and Poole opened another store together in Durham. By 1969 they were partners in several stores, while each owning a few others on their own. In the 1970s they continued to expand, sometimes as partners, sometimes not, and by the early 1980s they had nine locations in North Carolina, a few more in Virginia, and one in South Carolina. In 1982 Boyce got his first Yamaha dealership. He had floorplanned many of these operations and when the economy went soft in 1984, they were deeply affected.
We shut down all the stores except three, he says. I had tons of merchandise and I decided Id never floorplan again — Id use my own money. That was also the year he got out of the general music business and focused on pianos and organs.
By the early 1990s, he had parted ways with his Uncle Eddy, and owned six stores under the Piano Distributors moniker in North Carolina. In 1992, he met Sandy McCowen, then the Lowrey national sales manager. In a hint of what was to come, their first date was at Frankfurt, Germany, at the Musikmesse show. Soon they decided to marry, but her heavy travel schedule was unappealing to him. I didnt want to be sitting around during the week while she was flying around everywhere.
He wanted to get me off the road, Sandy says. But I loved my job and was afraid of being bored. So I told him, if I retire, then you retire too. So in 1993, two successful industry professionals left the business. While still the owner, Boyce handed the operations over to his son, William Clifton Cliff Boyce III, who continued running the stores smoothly and profitably. The couple ended up with a home in Sanibel Island, Florida, near Fort Myers. We had both been in retail all our lives working weekends, holidays, keeping mall hours. Now it was time for ourselves, time to travel, play with the boat.
And that should have been the end of it.
But eight years later, there was a second act. On a whim, Sandy decided to go to the 2001 NAMM Show in Anaheim. I had absolutely no intention of getting back into the business, she recalls. I just wanted to socialize and buy a portable keyboard to put in our motor home. But once in California, Yamahas Jim Lynch, a good friend of Boyces, cornered Bill and mentioned that Sam Ash was leaving the keyboard business in Clearwater and Sarasota, thus opening up the Yamaha line in central Florida. Why dont you take it? he asked Boyce.
Boyce went back to the hotel room where he and Sandy started pulling up information on their computer. We started looking at population figures, and there were three and a half million people in the Tampa market alone. We didnt have three and a half million in all the markets in North Carolina combined! I asked Sandy if shed be interested in running this together, and she said, Yeah, that might be fun.
As she tells it, she only agreed to talk about it. But the next day I came back to the room, and he was on the phone with Yamaha, and suddenly we were a dealer! she laughs. We didnt have a truck. But its been great starting from scratch.
Theres only so many times you can travel to Europe, so many boat docks you can build, Boyce shrugs.
Fast Growth in Florida
MMR: When did you open your Florida stores?
Bill Boyce: In April of 2001, we opened the Sarasota business. We did $1 million in the first nine months. Then we opened a second store in Clearwater. Then we bought two stores then another, and another until we had 10 locations.
MMR: And the North Carolina stores?
BB: Sandy and I run all the Florida stores, and now this one [in St. Louis]. My son, Cliff, runs the North Carolina stores. Among all the operations, we did more than $23 million this year.
MMR: We know Yamaha was not happy with Ludwig-Aeolian Piano Exchange here in St. Louis. When did you get wind of trouble, and when did you get interested in the possibility of coming here?
BB: It had been going downhill for four or five years, and finally hit bottom. Yamaha said enough is enough and cut them off. They then basically had two or three good people that were interested in taking over the line here, including David Slan [co-owner of St. Louis Steinway Piano Gallery and Baldwin Piano Gallery]. We told them that we were interested. We actively pursued them, but it was not a sure thing. They didnt let us know until April 1st.
MMR: Why St. Louis?
Sandy Boyce: I grew up across the river, in Mount Vernon, Illinois, and worked for the Wisniewski Music retail chain for 15 years. When they expanded to St. Louis, they sent me to open two stores here. Today I have two daughters who live here, and four grandchildren.
BB: It was driven by a lot of personal interest, but I cant tell you that its not a good business opportunity. To have the exclusive Yamaha dealership in a market that is about two million people is a pretty interesting proposition.
MMR: Beside Yamaha, what are your other lines?
BB: Yamaha is basically 90% of our business, but we have two sidelines. One is Wyman Pianos, which is run by Tim Wyman and George Benson. George is a good friend of mine and lives 20 miles from our Florida home and he was trying to sell me Baldwins before they fired Tom and George both! They responded by starting Wyman. They are good pianos.
In Florida we also sell Pearl River. But we cant sell them in St. Louis because Ludwig-Aeolian has them. But we have Pearl River make a private-label piano that we call Clifton & Sons, after my son.
MMR: Are you still in the organ business?
BB: North Carolina still handles organs. But just church organs B3s and other Hammonds. In Florida we never handled organs because my good buddy Bob Fletcher [of Fletcher Music] has many stores selling organs there. When I had the chance to take Florida, my first call was to him. I told him I didnt want to do it if I was competing against him. He said it was fine he sells organs, I sell pianos.
MMR: How many outside promotions do you do?
BB: We do anywhere from six to 10 a month total with all the stores. Right now [early January], we dont have an open date for a promotion until April 15th, and the only reason were not doing one then is the manager doesnt want to do it on tax day.
We say the outside drives the inside. Outside events drive people inside the store.
SB: Some think that all you need is a beautiful showroom and some ads in the paper and people will walk in looking for that 58 shiny black piano. But we feel were successful going outside, gathering leads, and pushing people into the store. Today there are so many new products that theyve never heard of before, more easy-play instruments. You have to go where they are and tell them about them.
MMR: Including malls.
BB: We just did the Plaza Frontenac here in St. Louis. We furnish a piano for them for free and they let us do an event there this past weekend. We did okay. We picked up 210 good leads, which could lead to $50,000 in good business.
We do colleges, Sams, Costco, home shows home shows are very good for us.
SB: I think because of all those years of working in malls selling easy-play organs, and teaching classes, I can go out and create fun. I know how to do those split-second sales at home shows and fairs sometimes traditional piano stores dont think that way.
MMR: You do fairs
BB: Starting in1972, we were big in selling home organs, and we did the North Carolina State Fair. It brings in 900,000 people in a 10-day period. Weve been there every year and we sell anywhere from 60 to 150 instruments, depending on the year. In the beginning, we had three or four competitors there with us. Now its just us.
MMR: Youre aggressive in advertising and marketing, at least it seems so in St. Louis.
BB: We are aggressive. Were spending more money in St. Louis the first year than normally you wont see that next year. We believe in developing a brand name, and I tell people we were successful in Florida because I spent a ton of money the first three years in advertising and building that brand name. Now I can coast on that a bit. Weve built a presence.
Our philosophy is to run a promotion every month, and right now I can tell you we have a promotion planned for every month for the next eight months. They are all planned and done. We have television bought, newspaper ads ready to go, and know what direct-mail pieces were going to use. We can change it if we want to, but its all worked out.
MMR: So you do television?
BB: We have some spots that run in Florida, yes.
BB: We dont use radio. Probably havent in ten years. It just didnt feel like we were getting any results from it.
In Constant Communication
MMR: How is business overall?
BB: Our Clavinovas are up 25 percent over last year and our Disklaviers are up four or five percent. Our pianos are off at least 25 percent. As you probably know, the last quarter of last year was not a great quarter for anyone. Our core stores are off about 10 percent. Business has been a little soft.
MMR: Whats selling? Whats not?
BB: Console pianos are really soft acoustic pianos are soft in general.
You have to be able to plug it into the wall. If you can plug it into the wall, you can create excitement. The Disklaviers now allow you to make a video and send it to someone else and have them play it on their Disklavier. Its hard to create excitement with a traditional piano. You cant make it sound like a harpsichord, or a jazz guitar, or add strings in the background to what youre playing.
MMR: Any ideas why business is soft?
BB: I have one theory: were tied a great deal to the furniture business because for many customers, its furniture. Were tied into that guy who builds a million-dollar house and wants a grand piano in it whether he plays it or not. And the housing market in Florida is off as much as 50 percent in some areas.
I also think people are a little concerned about what oil is doing. Its gone way up. Then it went way down. We had a really big month last September and we felt that it was because gas prices went down almost a third. It put people in a positive frame of mind.
MMR: Whats your secret to maintaining such a large organization?
BB: Im in constant communication with my people. Im not too big on e-mail, but I fax them a memo every day or every other day. Itll be about inventory, specials, or even the ball game thats on that night. If you cant communicate with your people all the time, its trouble.
If we have a sales contest, Ill send faxes every hour and tell them where they are, ask them if they made that phone call they were supposed to make. Someone has to drive them.
MMR: So you do a lot of sales contests?
SB: We take them on an incentive trip once a year, a cruise. Selling different units gains different amounts of points. But its not just the top guy that wins. Anyone who reaches the goal wins. It can be 15 employees with their spouses or partners. And you cant take the trip by yourself we all take it together. We get to party with them. I like the camaraderie. Its like one big family.
MMR: Sandy, what is your role these days?
SB: We dont sit in an ivory tower and send out someone else to do something. We go pick up piano benches and take them to another store, vacuum and dust a showroom, help set up an outside promotion we do whatever it takes. Theres no hierarchy.
MMR: Can you generalize about the demographics of your customers, and how theyve changed since youve been in business?
BB: You have to remember that the stores in North Carolina are very different than Florida, which is very different from St. Louis.
In Florida, its retired people, 60- to 80-year-olds, who just built a $3 million house on the water and want to put a piano in that house. Thats 70 percent of our business. Here in St. Louis our business is more educational-related. Little Suzy is taking lessons thats most of our business. About 30 percent is that grand piano for that new house.
In North Carolina we sell a lot of consoles and used pianos. In Florida, its all grands.
MMR: These people who buy pianos as furniture. if its just supposed to fill the living room, and there are so many other cheaper brands, how do you sell them on Yamahas?
BB: A lot has to come from third-party endorsement. Its great to say Paul McCartney or Elton John plays a Yamaha.
We tell a little story that is very true: The reason these guys play Yamahas is that the quality is consistent. If you take five C3 pianos and put them all in the same room, there is very little difference between those pianos. But if you take five Steinways of a similar model and put them in a room, youre going to see a wide variance because they are all made by hand. So if Elton John is playing in Chicago one night, and New York the next night, and the piano is not coming with him, whats he going to ask for? The Yamaha. Thats what we tell people.
MMR: How are the institutional sales?
BB: Were doing a little bit in Florida. We have a lot of schools there, colleges and universities. Here in St. Louis we have to start from scratch. We have a couple already but it takes a while to grow that business. They want you to be asking for their business for 30 years. Youve been around that long, been asking them that long, then maybe theyll buy one or two pianos from you.
MMR: What is your take on the impact of Chinese-made pianos and their effect on the retail market?
BB: It has lowered the average selling price quite a bit. But I think the Chinese have experienced a drop in their business, so they dropped their prices to try to keep market share, and I dont know if theyve been successful or not. I dont think they have.
MMR: And the impact of the Internet on the piano business?
BB: I am opposed to selling pianos online. Its definitely not the way to go. Yamaha has seen that and shut it down. You cant have a price for a new Yamaha on the Web. You cant have someone living in Atlanta buying a piano in Seattle and having it shipped. Yamahas rule is, if you sell it, you have to service it.
I think the Internet can be the downfall of the piano business because if you dont make your margins, you cant afford to give the service that products of this level require. So unlike guitars, where you can live off 28 percent margins, we just cant do it. [Laughs.] Ive tried it! Ten years ago I decided I was going to see how cheaply I could sell pianos and build on volume, but you cant build on volume. You have overhead. Salespeople, not clerks, sell our products. Then you have delivery, incoming freight, music lessons the average individual might think hes making money selling pianos at 30 percent margin, but hes losing money.
MMR: Why isnt there a national piano chain? A store that does for pianos what Guitar Center does for MI? What would be the barriers?
BB: People. If you open a Guitar Center today you can take a kid who is kind of a hippie, plays guitar, and is a good clerk, and he can sell a lot of guitars. You take that same kid and try to teach him the proper way to demonstrate a piano, he cant do it. So at the Guitar Center and Sam Ash stores, you only sell keyboards to people who walk in to buy a keyboard. They are not sold.
This is the same reason why Costco and Sams Club dont do well with pianos. You go there and see that Suzuki digital piano and its $1,995, but you dont buy it because there is no one to demonstrate it for you, to show you the value of the instrument. Thats why Sears never got into the piano business. Or Wal-Mart though theyve all tried.
This is a people business and youve got to have a professional sell the piano, a professional who knows how to play.
MMR: Is it hard to get good sales staff?
BB: We have a lot of good people. Im proud of them. To be in business in Florida for just five years, and develop the staff we have is good. When we first started there, the first couple of years, we went through people like crazy. Now we dont have a lot of turnover.
Needless to say weve been on the high end and the low end. We have good stores and bad stores Sandy and I have this joke: you always have four stores that are up, and two stores that are down, but its never the same four or the same two! If you could get them all clicking at the same time [Laughs.]
MMR: What do you look for when hiring?
SB: I think there has to be excitement in that person. And the key component is youve got to like them. If your customers dont like them, they wont buy from them. Likeability, a great personality, warmth, a good listener and intuitive. Intuitive so they can figure out what the person is looking for.
MMR: What kind of training do you do?
SB: Most of the salespeople get trained on the products from their store manager. But we try to take them out to home shows, fairs and other high-traffic situations and work along with them. Then you can watch them, and you can get involved with their sale and help. You get the chance to observe and tell them how you might have done things a little differently. Being in a live situation is the best it beats being in a classroom and talking about it.
MMR: Will you be opening other stores in the St. Louis area?
BB: I think well open more stores here.
MMR: And then onto other markets?
BB: [Laughs] Were spread a little thin now!
Its great to have Sandy here in the business with me. Shes a tremendous salesperson and motivator with a wide knowledge of this business. Between the two of us, it gives us the opportunity to have more stores because she can go one way and I can go the other if necessary. Though we like to go together, whenever possible, naturally. And without my son in North Carolina, I couldnt do any of this.
Nor could we do any of this without our general manager, John Slump. Hes from St. Louis, and was formerly general manager of Ludwig-Aeolian. He takes all the administration duties off me.
MMR: So whats the challenge?
BB: The problem with this business is mid-level management.
Bruce Johnson, who started a retail data company after he left Wurlitzer, used to say the hardest situation is to go from one store to two, and from two stores to three. When you get past three, then you have breathing room. You can run 10 stores as easily as you can run three. When you get beyond 10, then you rely on mid-level management, and thats when you have another challenge. To find that individual that has the same fire and desire that we have thats our stumbling block right this minute.