At her recent presentation to the members of the Retail Print Music Dealers Association in Los Angeles, Senseney Music president Lori Supinie offered a straightforward set of guidelines for running a successful business that began with this simple instruction: “Be Nice.”
Supinie has run Senseney Music, a full-line shop in Wichita, Kansas that covers a market which spreads west to the Colorado boarder, since 2008, when she bought the company from founder and mentor Denny Senseney. She says it’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s hard to tell from the outside – her tenure so far has included an extremely popular run as president of RPMDA and a 2011 “Retailer of the Year” award from NAMM, along with membership in NASMD. Throughout, she’s made the transition from her background in finance – she’s a CPA who came aboard at Senseney as an accountant – to her current role managing a whole team of 60 employees. Her philosophy is straightforward and no-nonsense. As she told the ballroom full of publishers and dealers at the conference, ensuring that a business stays relevant depends on staying passionate, resourceful, consistent, and curious. One would be hard-pressed to argue with the diverse and robust business she’s maintained at Senseney Music.
“One of the best pieces of advice I received from Denny was, ‘Hire people whose parents raised them right,’” said Senseney in that presentation. When she spoke with MMR earlier over the phone from Senseney headquarters she laid out the even-tempered approach that’s made Senseney such a steady presence in the retail music world throughout her time with the company, and in its entire 32-year history.
Supinie is a bassoon player and began taking piano lessons when she was six years old. It’s that music background that led her to Senseney. “I first got to know Denny Senseney when I started playing in the store’s community band, before I had come on board,” she says. “That’s happened with a lot of people in the band, actually – many of them have become employees just like me.”
It’s Supinie’s relaxed, common sense approach to the business that’s been a hallmark of the company’s success as she works to maintain her predecessor’s momentum while transitioning into a new world of business.
“Denny and I have very different styles in how we work with people and manage, so that was a transition,” she says. “It was and still is an adjustment for me to learn how to be a leader rather than an employee. That didn’t come overnight, so it’s a work in progress. That can be scary, but mostly it’s fun. It’s a challenge.”
The timing could have been better – Supinie took over right in the middle of the 2008 financial collapse – but she’s focused on just making sure operations are moving along. “I try to keep the financial wheels on the bus and make sure the people I hire do their jobs,” she says.
Meanwhile, there have been plenty of new developments to explore in retail, most notably the emergence of social media and e-commerce and the abilities to expand to new market it can afford. Aside from social media marketing and using technologies like YouTube and QR codes in conjunction with store kiosks, Supinie says she’s been focusing on getting involved with setting the store up with e-commerce capabilities (they’re currently using Tritech’s Active-e system). “We kind of got it up and running and right now it’s kind of at a plateau, so we want to spend some more time on that,” she says. “I’d say that’s probably one of the biggest initiatives that we’ve done.” The company is working expanding their band and orchestra rental business to Kansas City and farther west in the other direction.
Moreso than just expanding business geographically, though, Supinie says that the new online systems have enabled Senseney to offer existing customers increased convenience. “We’re certainly looking for ways to expand, but really the idea was to server our existing customers better,” she says. “I don’t really want to rent an instrument to someone in North Carolina or Texas.” To that end, the new system has enabled customers to rent instruments directly through the website and see those instruments delivered straight to their schools without needing to visit the shop or go to a school-run rental night.
And more technology is on the horizon, including the area all print dealers and publishers alike are starting to dip their toes in – digital and tablet sales. “We do digital downloads of sheet music and we know that we’re doing more and more of those and people are looking at it more,” Supinie says. “I don’t think print folios are going to go out anytime soon. But eventually, who knows?
“I don’t think anybody knows how this is all going to shake out with print. It’s an opportunity – you can always look at challenges as opportunities or you can hide your head in the sand. Digital delivery of music is definitely something that’s going to happen more and more. So just figuring out how retailers will be part of it again is something we all want to do.”
Otherwise, the company has continued to explore traditional means of community outreach typified by classes and recreational music-making groups. “We’ve been all over the place on that,” she says. “We’ve done the rock band camp during the year as well as in the summer (that’s seven years old) and we’re going to try a middle school jazz band camp this summer.”
“The rock band camp is a lot of fun. The kids are great – some of them come in and don’t know anything and they leave at least being able to do “Smoke on the Water” by the end of the week. And they’re happy!”
Senseney also runs a robust band repair and school lessons program (wind and string instruments, pianos, guitars, drums, and voice), including a deal to include four free lessons with beginning band and orchestra instrument rentals.
“There are four Saturdays and we just have 45-minute long group lessons just to supplement what they get in school,” says Supinie. “It’s really helpful – we just hire an experienced teacher to teach those with some helpers. We’ll have anywhere from 25 to 50 trumpets or clarinets here all getting a little better. “
On the manufacturing end of things, Supinie’s not noticing much of a difference in band instrument products. – “a clarinet is still a clarinet and a flute is still a flute” – though she says there has been a greater tendency for manufacturers to reach out directly to customers.
Through it all, Supinie has says she’s learned about everything she knows from Denny Senseney. “I get buried in the details and can’t see teh forest for the trees and he always had a 20,000 foot view of the forest,” she says. “One of his favorite things to say was, ‘Are we doing the right thing or are we doing things right?’ We can do things right, but maybe it’s the right thing to do, to always choose what we focus our time and energy on. Is this the right thing to do?”
It’s a question every business would do well to ask itself, and an attitude that’s helped Supinie through a chaotic economy onto an admirable command of the business. “There are so many ways you can go in this business, but you’ve only got the mental capacity to make do so many,” she says. “You’ve got to do the things that make you money and that fit with who you are.”