Steven Wasser of Verne Q. Powell Flutes
This past fall, Verne Q. Powell Flutes announced that it had acquired the assets of E. K. Blessing of Elkhart, Indiana from Randy Johnson, the fourth generation of the Blessing family to have owned and operated E. K. Blessing.
With the acquisition of Blessing, Powell gained its own factory to produce Sonaré brass. The Elkhart operation will be managed by Steve Rorie, who had over 20 years’ experience working for Selmer and who managed the Bach factory.
MMR recently spoke with Powell owner, Steven Wasser, about how the acquisition came about and what the new developments mean for the company’s brands.
MMR: What was the catalyst for the recent deal with Blessing?
Steven Wasser: The catalyst started, really, with the establishment of Sonaré winds. The conception behind Sonaré winds was that there were people who wanted the qualities of our professional instruments, but couldn’t afford it. The goal was to deliver Powell quality to flutists at a much lower cost.
We identified what component of the flute was most important for acoustical quality. I think the answer that most everybody would agree with is: the headjoint. Probably the second most important component is the scale, the body. We decided to establish a company that will partner with a high-end boutique maker – in the case of the flute, it would be Powell – identify the most important acoustical component, and have that boutique maker either design or produce that component and then outsource the remainder of the instrument to a third party who’s very experienced in mass production. And, so, this partner-branding concept was established and as you’ll note the name was “Sonaré Winds,” not “Sonaré Flutes.” Flute was to be the first product that we did this with, but it was also to serve as a model for how would apply the same approach to other wind instruments. The second product we undertook, three or four years ago, was trumpets, and the high-end maker in this case was Blackburn. In this case, we contracted the “mass production” to JA Musik in Germany. So we have other, similar projects that are in various stages of development. Anyway, what happened was that JA Musik informed us that they didn’t want to do OEM for us anymore, so we started talking with Blessing about a possible arrangement for the trumpet line as well as some other ideas.
MMR: How did it progress from that type of relationship to a scenario where you wound up purchasing the Blessing operation?
SW: Well, at some point in the middle of all of that, I was asked whether I would have any interest in purchasing Blessing. Since we were looking to control our source of supply for Sonaré and we had already been talking to Blessing and I was impressed with what they were able to do, I said, “Sure, we’ll be happy to talk to them.” The more I explored that, the more interested I became, because I saw it not just as a source of instruments for Sonaré, but as a potential strong brand in and of itself – a brand that had been starved of capital – little investment, no marketing, no artist relationships – for years. I felt like here was an opportunity to buy a 103-year old company at a very fair price, with very good quality instruments, and rejuvenate the brand. The quality of execution on their products in the last year and a half has been excellent. I think it’s kind of the best-kept secret in the brass market right now.
MMR: What areas did you feel needed improvement?
SW: Their designs need updating. Again, that’s been a capital problem. They haven’t had the money to invest in that. We do. By this winter’s NAMM show we’ll have retooled for most of their trumpet product line, we will have a new logo, we will have improved bells and other components. So not only will the execution quality remain high and continue to improve but we will also have improvements in the design quality. There will be additional improvements we can make as we move into a new facility, which is also in the works.
MMR: What’s the timetable for that?
SW: Six months.
MMR: But you plan to remain in Elkhart, yes?
SW: We do. That was another advantage. We looked at Blessing and said, “Well, here’s a way for us to tap into the skill base. There’s an abundance of laid off workers, so any additional expansion into other instruments becomes much easier, because we have no such skill base in Massachusetts. We have people who are skilled in high tech and other fields, but not musical instrument making. So here in Massachusetts, aside from the fact that everything’s more expensive, we also have to train people from scratch. In Elkhart they’re sitting there, waiting for somebody to pick up the phone and call them! So that was another benefit to locating in Elkhart and committing to that marketplace. Also as you see here, we have a very charming old mill building with wooden floors and all the rest – well, it looks charming, but the reality is that from a manufacturing standpoint it is very difficult to get heavy equipment in here, we have floor load issues, we have stability issues, so that’s a factor here that isn’t a problem in Elkhart. Also everything in Elkhart costs about half the price of what it is in Massachusetts. So there are many potential cost benefits without sacrificing anything on the skill or quality side.
MMR: What’s been the reaction from the community thus far?
SW: We’ve got the support of the local community. We’ve met with the economic development people at each level – city, state, and county – and there are various programs that we can tap into that provide tax incentives and other things for investing money in equipment and for hiring workers and we have plans to do both.
MMR: Will you ultimately be fielding a full range of instruments, from student through professional?
SW: We’re probably going to be in what I’ll call the “advanced student” segment up through professional. How we rationalize what gets the Sonaré brand vs. what gets the Blessing brand is still a somewhat open question. I think that in the true beginner student segment – the $99 flute you can buy at Costco and the like – we can’t compete with that. But we will be very strong in the areas we can compete in. Our strategy is “Made in U.S.A.” Anything that’s going to have the Blessing name on it will be made in America.
MMR: Will your distribution approach be similar to Sonaré or no?
SW: I’ve reached the conclusion that I want one point of contact with our customers. I don’t want outside reps between our customers and us. So we are reorganizing our sales department into a single sales organization that will represent all of our products and we’re already starting to see some synergy where Blessing dealers are interested in Sonaré and vice versa. Powell dealers are sort of in a rarified element, but between Sonaré and Blessing we’re seeing synergy.
MMR: Sounds like a win-win, all around, really.
SW: We’re very excited about this acquisition because we think that: A) it locks up our source of supply for brass instruments, B) it gives us a 103-year old brand that we feel has tremendous potential in the marketplace and we’re willing to put money behind that.