Kathi Kretzer and the Art of Reinvention
On a sunny fall morning 25 years ago, an up-and-coming piano sales manager in the Baldwin organization was driving to her store’s grand opening day in West Palm Beach. More excited than nervous, as she drove she scoured the horizon for that eye-catching 40-foot giant Baldwin balloon she had rented for $1,500. No slouch at self-promotion, Kathi Kretzer thought it would be a nice way to tell the area that she had arrived. Not taking anything to chance, she had her brother the sailor tie the balloon down on the roof. The closer she got to her store, the more confused she grew. Sure enough, she pulled into the lot on her first day of business and the balloon was gone.
Someone had cut it down.
“I went into the store and cried,” she recalls, appearing to still smart from the experience. For support she had her mother on hand, who gave her the ol’ “when life hands you lemons” speech. This led to calling all the media outlets. Talk about “earned media.” She, the story, and most importantly, her new piano store, was on television, the front page of the local papers, and was the talk of the town. Then the tragic turned to comic: The balloon was found at 3 a.m. in a field, too damaged to use; she got another one from Baldwin… and that too was cut down and stolen.
“For the first five years, I was known as the blimp lady, but it really put me on the map.”
Kretzer is still very much on the map, even if her GPS coordinates have changed a few times. On the eve of her 25th anniversary, she has moved to her fourth location – a smaller one. Not needing a weather vane to know which way the wind blows, she’s expanded when she could and not hesitated to reinvent and get “lean and mean” when necessary.
Her first store was 1,400 square feet; the next one doubled; the next one doubled again. But with this location, Kretzer is in a cozy 3,000 square foot space.
Personnel-wise, it’s now just her and a full time accounting person. “I’m back working the floor, and enjoying it.” She relies on two part-timers. Monte Lambert, who at one time had three piano retail operations in Washington State, is “a wonderful sales person who works weekends.” Lambert is now vice president for Forte Interactive, a Web site consulting firm. (Forte developed the new Kretzer Piano Web site, just launched.)
There’s also Gillian Kerr, “a beautiful person who loves working in business.”
Jessica Tietboehl handles bookkeeping and Web site duties. “She also helps plan promotions – she’s my right hand.”
Doing the Math
Kretzer was raised in Leesburg, Fla., where she started piano lessons at the age of six. Her mother was a piano teacher for 50 years before she turned to public relations. Her father was a minister, so her early public performances at the piano and organ were in the church. She went on to major in music education at Florida State University in Tallahassee. While there, she taught at Sims Baldwin in Tallahassee.
“I was in the back teaching and I made like $10 a half-hour, and I would sneak out between students and watch the sales people,” she recalls with a smile. “I was trying to do the math on how many students I would have to teach to equal one $400 commission…” Her math on that never added up, so she started selling and found she was good at it. This led her to work for a Baldwin dealership run by Ken Ambrose in Atlanta. One of her side jobs there was organist for the Atlanta Braves.
“The regular organist had broken his arm and I ended up filling in but then played the whole season,” she recalls. As much fun as that was, she kept her day job, and was succeeding in a manner that did not go unnoticed by the Baldwin top brass.
Bill Joseph of Baldwin, who used to call on Lee Sims’ store, approached her and proposed she open her own store. “I thought what would I have to lose?” In October of 1985 she opened Kretzer Piano. Since then she has racked up a wall full of awards, including: Woman in Leadership Award, Business Leader of the Year, Small Business Person of the Year, Cultural Arts Innovation Award, and the Glass Ceiling Award.
She’s also been honored by many community service organizations including the American Diabetes Association, American Lung Association, Ballet Florida, Deaf Services Center, Lighthouse for the Blind, and Make-a-Wish Foundation.
“Passion is what embodies Kretzer Pianos, and Kathi Kretzer carries the torch,” says Paul Calvin, vice president and general manager, Keyboard Division, Yamaha. “She is both a dynamo and a true class act. Her store is beautifully decorated and her focus is always on fulfilling the needs of her customers. Equally important, she puts a premium on community service, regularly getting out of the store to conduct special events and performances. We are grateful that we can help build her success in reaching people throughout the community.”
“It Looks Like a Home”
MMR: What was it like in those beginning days of opening a piano store?
KK: Traumatizing! I had worked for several corporate stores for 10 years, managed stores in Chicago and Atlanta, and thought it would be easy. But I had so many questions! I was kind of out there, and I called on [former coworkers] a lot.
KK: I never let it bother me and I don’t think it’s held me back; but yes, there still aren’t many women [store owners] like me. It’s funny, because in the country as a whole there are more women small business owners then men, but here it’s still a male-dominated industry. Look at the NAMM board – there are one or two token women, but that’s about it.
MMR: You’re no longer selling Baldwins…
KK: Oh, God no. Are they even still making them?
MMR: So how did you become a Yamaha dealer?
KK: Years ago, we had a local Yamaha dealer who didn’t want to take on the Clavinovas, so I did. A year or two later I got the whole line.
I love Yamaha. They have something for everybody, and it’s a widely recognized name. It drives in customers. It’s almost like a cult! Their Web site is superb and makes it easy for customers to locate a dealer.
MMR: Tell us about your new location.
KK: It looks like a home. I hired a college friend who is a professional interior designer, and the walls are all different colors: aqua blues, gold, and green. We have big baseboards and crown molding and things like that. It’s not a fancy showroom; it’s a place that’s comfortable, a place like [the customer's] where they can imagine the piano in their home.
MMR: It’s an approach not seen often in piano retail stores – not many hire an interior designer.
KK: Interior designers know buyers and what colors are warm and inviting. I’ve never had a white wall in a store ever. White doesn’t encourage people to get involved, excited, or to buy.
MMR: What piano lines are you carrying these days?
KK: I used have other brands, but I’ve narrowed it down to two: Yamaha and Pearl River. People get confused when they have too wide a selection. Yamaha offers a lot of bang for the buck. But if they want something else, Pearl River is the best.
But at this point, I need to deal with the actual manufacturer. I’m not interested in dealing with someone who buys a name, then has someone else make the piano. If I have a problem, I want to call the person in charge of the actual instrument. I want to get parts.
MMR: What else are you selling in the store?
KK: No print or anything like that. We sell lamps, and all the Disklavier software.
MMR: What else have you done in these challenging times?
KK: I’ve scaled way back on inventory.
When I first opened, the only way I was able to do it was to floor plan – otherwise I couldn’t have been in business. I based this business on $15,000 that I got for selling a house in Atlanta. I had a little girl, Amanda, four years old at the time, and was struggling to support her and me. Five years of that, I looked at it and realized it was crazy. When I think of all the money [lost] …. Now not only in making more per sale, but when you go to negotiate in cash, the incentives are tremendous.
“I’d Rather Get the Good Will”
MMR: What do you do to promote Kretzer Piano?
KK: In the last 48 hours I sponsored a concert for my Music for the Minds, which I started in 2002. It was at CityPlace, a multi-million dollar development featuring shops and restaurants. They converted an old Methodist church there into a theater that holds 500 people. We do this event the third Tuesday of every month, and have had 7,139 performers participate and have raised over $180,000 for area school music programs.
MMR: Where do the performers come from?
KK: Area schools – Catholic, Christian, public, magnet. When we have the youth orchestra with 300 kids perform, we can raise anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000. Whatever school is performing keeps the proceeds. Yamaha has donated a C7 to the venue, the theater donates the space, and we have media sponsors that help with other cost.
MMR: Do you have teachers in your store?
KK: I used too, but when I factored out the cost per square foot, it didn’t make much sense. And I’m much better off not competing with area teachers.
MMR: How do you keep a good relationship with then?
KK: Once a year I through a huge Pampered Teacher Party – we just had one. We met at the store in the morning, and we had champagne, mimosas, and ginger ale. We milled around for 30 minutes. Then we went to my house in a stretch Hummer limo. There we had a catered brunch, entertainment by local pianist, and posed for pictures. For the event I had a 9-foot Yamaha Concert Grand. We also had a top-of-the-line Clavinova there, and we did Karaoke. That was our fifth year of doing that, and I had as much fun as anybody.
MMR: The teacher’s directory on your new Web site is very impressive. Photos, teaching philosophies – was that hard to put together?
KK: We had to work at it. We had a form teachers filled out that was very detailed, almost like a resume. But we’re trying to use it to drive people to our Web site. I used to get a million calls for teacher recommendations and I’d have to ask, “Where do you live? What kind of music – popular, church, jazz, classical?”
Now with this new Web site, they get to look and study it in private, and also see all the things we offer, and maybe it helps them decide to get rid of that little keyboard and get a real piano.
MMR: What advertising for the store do you do?
KK: That’s a problem. Local ads don’t pay off like they used to. We do some direct mail pieces, like for this new grand opening and back-to-school-sales.
My advertising dollar is spent doing community events. Sponsoring community concerts, providing music for the Chamber of Commerce in Palm Beach – which I’ve done for 20 years. There are 400 to 500 members in that group, and they have events at a five-star hotel, so yes, it gets the store’s name out there and I meet a lot of people.
MMR: What other things to do you?
MMR: Do you do all these community outreach programs because you like to do it or because it’s a good ROI?
KK: It’s both. It’s definitely part of my business plan to get out there and support the community. It’s better than sitting here and hoping someone comes in – so often the foot traffic is just not happening.
The funny thing about the things I do is that it doesn’t cost me monetarily. I’ve built some influence and goodwill, and then it’s just my time. This morning I was on the phone getting free tickets donated from three different theaters for a Rotary Club event. It’s all, “Hey can I have free tickets for this?” I then give a good plug to them, and it’s win-win.
Another example: Maltz Jupiter Theater is big here and they do a lot of shows. I let them use a Yamaha C3. They pay for the delivery and tunings, and I get free full-page ads, sometimes worth $2,000 to $7,000. The local PAC has one of my grand pianos. I have signage on all of this with my number and Web site.
MMR: So do you do much rental business?
KK: I don’t do a lot of rentals. In the cases I just cited, I couldn’t get more than $800 or $900 for those. Then I pay for delivery and tuning, what am I making? $400? $200? I’d rather get the good will. I’d rather be on their Web site and then link them to my Web site.
MMR: Are you active in institutional sales?
KK: We used to do a lot more institutional sales, but the numbers aren’t where they used to be. I maybe do two a year.
MMR: How about outside sales?
KK: There’s the Kravis Performing Arts Center where we do a big sale. But we just do it one weekend a year because I think it loses its effect if you do it more than that. We make a big splash with that.
MMR: What’s the future of Kretzer Pianos?
KK: [Pauses] I talk a lot about this to dealers my age, and it’s a little freighting. Now over this past week we’ve sold some high-ticket items. We’re about on par with last year, but we don’t want to be on par with last year! [Laughs]
I had a piano student come in shopping, spent time with him, and then he went online and got [the keyboard] at cost-plus-nothing. With the Internet being what it is and people seeming to not care as much as they used to about a relationship, it’s all a little scary. All we talk about is thank goodness we’re not in our 30s!
It’s a lot more fun being in this business when you’re making money. Breaking even, making a little money – that’s not quite as fun. Until the government pulls back, until small businesses aren’t pounded and we feel like we can hire, it’s a problem. Small businesses have gotten lean and mean and the government has to, too