The gregarious businessman has been asked a question that causes him to pause: “Considering today’s economy, and all the other companies making guitars today, is there a need for yet another?”
A smile finally breaks and he says: “I’m going to answer a rational question with an emotional answer: We did not say, “What a great business opportunity this would be!’” He laughs, adding, “I’m doing this because I love guitars, love music, and I want to build the best guitars in the world. I’ve been successful in my previous endeavors and I will be successful in this one.”
Bedell certainly makes his case.
It may seem like a contradiction that the self-described “old hippie” has such acute business sense, but in fact the combination will be fundamental to the success of the new guitar company that carries his name. Quality products made with an unwavering devotion to the art of music making are backed with decades of successful marketing and manufacturing experience. From this fertile ground two lines have sprouted: Bedell Guitars, all made from hand-selected wood designed to compete against higher-end names priced higher than the $700 to $1,400 range that these will be at; and also the Great Divide line, for the entry-level priced between $200 and $600 MSRP.
Today they have two workshops in China producing the guitars. But he is acutely aware of the negative attitude toward Chinese made guitars, and says that this is because other companies go there for the low prices only and end up with poorly made final products. “That’s not what I do,” Bedell says emphatically. “I built a fish and tackle operation into a $500 million business with offices in 22 countries and 50 percent of our products were made in China … but we had a huge staff, well-supported research and development, and true quality control. That’s what I’m doing with these guitars.”
There are two lines within the Bedell name: the Performance ($895 to $1,495 MSRP) and the Inspiration Series ($695 to $995). Additionally, there’s Great Divide guitars, which will have models priced between $159 and $600 MSRP. “What is fascinating is when we went through every step in the process, we learned it doesn’t cost that much more to do it right,” he says. “So many of these factories building lower priced guitars are just slapping them together. Even with a $300 guitar it’s important how it sounds; you just have to make more effort to make those guitars sound great, and we’re dedicated to doing that.”
Bedell’s beguiling journey begins in the small town of Spirit Lake, Iowa. His great-grandmother moved to the lakeside picturesque village in the later 1800s, as soon as the U.S. Cavalry made it safe to do so.
In 1937, his father, Berkley Bedell, began his fishing tackle business while he was still in high school. Berkley Fly Company, now called Pure Fishing, became the largest supplier of all things fishing in the world.
On a Christmas morning when Bedell was 10, he noticed his siblings were far out pacing him in presents. When it was done, the elder Bedell “remembered” there was one more present to give out. “He left the room and brought back this beautiful blond Strat,” recalls Bedell. “I actually cried – I couldn’t believe it.” By 13 he was earning money giving guitar lessons at the local music store. Having his father’s insight for business, he thought he deserved more than just the half he received of the $2 payment, especially considering that in addition to the large student roster he had built up, he was also selling guitars for the store and not earning any commission. The owner said no, and he left the store taking his students with him.
Two years later Bedell decided inexpensive guitars were needed in his area, so he contacted an agent of his father’s who was based in Japan overseeing manufacturing there. Firing up what was then cutting edge technology, a Telex, he asked to have a few sample guitars from various manufacturers. He picked the best one, made some changes, and designed his first Bedell Guitars logo. “Once they came in, I had a good buddy with a driver’s license, and we drove around to music stores selling them.” In 1966, at 16, he opened Bedell Guitar Company, a retail store in Okoboji, Iowa, which was quickly followed by a second on in the central part of the state. (With glee he tells this story: When he applied for a sales tax license, he got a letter from the state saying he had to be 21. So he wrote back that he’d be more than happy to keep the sales tax money … that rule was later amended to include young entrepreneurs.) Both stores carried all the major brands of the day.
He greatly values those days as a young retailer, and the lessons he took away from it – even the ones he can’t recreate.
“Every Friday night, the community centers would all hold dances, so I also started a booking agency,” he recalls. “Kids would come into my store to buy gear, and I would book their bands. It’s sad that there aren’t more opportunities to play like there was in those days.”
Bedell kept putting his name on guitars, too, and in 1968 he became the youngest person to ever show at NAMM. While he admits he didn’t write up a lot of orders, he says, “It was great to be a part of it.”
His family convinced him to forsake the MI business for college, and he would graduate from Stanford with a degree in Asian studies, and end up in Washington D.C. where he set up a political consulting business (his father was a congressman from 1975 to 1987).
“The fishing company had been left to a manager who wasn’t running it well, and in 1979 my father asked me to return to Spirit Lake and run the business,” he says. He did, and he rebuilt it. In 2007 he sold the business that was now referred to as Pure Fishing, and globe trotted for a year. But retirement didn’t fit well, and one day in 2008 he turned to his wife Molly and said he wanted to go back to work.
“As much as I enjoyed the fish and tackle business, guitars were in my blood.”
Bedell Guitars Revisited
On February 7th of last year, he and Molly bought a music store in Aspen, Colo., and renamed it Two Old Hippies. “I wanted to design guitars, and she wanted to design hippie chic clothing, and it’s been a nonstop blast ever since.”
He knew he would need help, so he turned to Dan Mills. With 20 plus years spent in music retail and management at Nashville’s Gruhn Guitars, four years with Gibson, and two years as a district sales manager for US Music, Mills certainly had the skills and experience Bedell was looking for.
“The opportunity to develop new brands at a startup company was intriguing,” Mills said from China, where he was overseeing manufacturing. “In light of the economic situation, I thought it was a perfect time to introduce new thinking and attitude into the guitar business. Tom’s enthusiasm is infectious and he is a brilliant guy. I was hooked after our first meeting.”
His journey of a thousand miles began with one step – or rather, several visits. He hit the roads visiting great guitar makers like Richard Hoover (Santa Cruz), Bill Collings (Collings), McPherson (McPherson), and toured factories like Martin’s. “I wanted to learn the passion and magic of guitar making, and where in the production process it’s often lost. I wanted to learn about woods, what’s the difference is between a good and a great piece, everything. Dan [Mills] has been my mentor all the way through.”
With great effort they found just the right workshop in China where Bedell’s dream could bear fruit. “It’s one of the finest workshops in the world.” Team Bedell designed every step in the manufacturing process, and each piece wood is hand selected for Bedell models –no laminates need apply. “I even have ebony in the head stock.”
Meanwhile, he’s also launching a unique program that will essentially turn every music retailer who participates into a satellite of the Bedell Custom Shop. “The customer will go into the store, log onto the Web site from the dealer’s computer, and choose not only the wood but also the actual boards,” he says. “They can say I want a top made of Adirondack spruce, binding made of rosewood, etc. We will build that guitar and ship it to the dealer.” Depending on the materials and features, these individual guitars will cost between $1,400 and $3,000.
“Our instruments are products of our lifelong love of music and guitar in particular. The all solid wood Bedell Guitars are wonderful instruments,” says Mills. “We are very stringent in quality control, have the highest expectations of ourselves and enjoy interaction with dealers and customers. We want the player to love our guitars as we all love the music they make.”
“The best thing we can do is have people play our products,” Bedell says. “I’m going to individual stores and putting the guitar into the retailer’s hands, and they play it and say, “Wow I can sell that.’”
Yet he’s acutely aware of what he’s going up again – not only in terms of competition, but the economy. “2009 will not go down as a great year for guitars, and everybody has inventory they wish they didn’t.” But Bedell is going to make it to the beachhead with an advertising campaign that includes placements in lifestyle magazines like Rolling Stone, Forbes, men’s journals, etc. He’ll also be using guitar magazines to establish the brand. “We’re aggressively going out and telling the world about our instruments. Thanks to magazines like MMR, dealers are becoming aware and we’re getting a great reception.”
He does admit he’s getting interest from dealers who want to try to carry some of his guitars, but need to wait until Winter NAMM. “We need to clean up inventory and when we do, we’ll try Bedell and Great Divide,” is what he’s hearing. And NAMM is what he currently has his sites set up: “We have a great booth at NAMM in Hall C and we’ll have eight instruments from our custom shop, and all of the Bedell and Great Divide products,” he says. Plus the booth will include the work of Molly’s hippie brand of clothing and accessories.
Clearly, Bedell is back in the MI game for the love, love, love.
“The chance for me to go out and design my very own guitars is a thrill,” Bedell says.
|New Merchandising Ideas|
|When Tom and Molly Bedell opened their retail store in Aspen, Colo. last June, they knew it would be just as much as a lab for merchandising experiments as it would be a traditional brick and mortar shop. Hippie-inspired clothing and accessories share the space with acoustic guitars – a pairing that makes more sense then it first might appear. The bought and remodeled the store (previously called The Great Divide) to fit what each was creating (he, guitars; she, clothing) and their eclectic personalities.”It’s been fascinating,” Tom Bedell says. “Aspen is a tourist community, and we get flooded with people from June through Labor Day, then again from Thanksgiving through Easter.” They quickly learned that while they were selling more musical instruments then the previous owner (and they carry other lines besides Bedell’s), three-quarters of the sales were clothing. “The peace, love, rock and roll memorabilia, the t-shirts, sweat clothes, scarves, and belts all sold like crazy – and all at good margins.”
As for the mix of products, “it’s so much fun to watch. Men buy more guitars than women, and women like shopping. So the guy comes in and goes into the guitar room and has the time of his life playing all these great guitars – Santa Cruz, Collings, Bedells, etc. Meanwhile the wife is having a blast shopping for gifts and apparel [items]. If it was a typical apparel store, he’d be standing there going “let’s go,’ but here, the women get to shop longer. And he doesn’t want to go.”
It works in reverse too. The guitarist spends more time with the instruments, and the longer they play, the more likely they are going to get into that “gotta have it” mood. “It just brings a synergy to the store to have other [non-musical] stuff. It’s almost magical.”
Even when there isn’t a guitar sale made, they’ve created a shopping experience that leaves a lasting impression. Bedell laughs and tells the tale of a recent afternoon when a gentlemen spent 45 minutes playing in the guitar room. He didn’t buy a guitar, but the next day Tom found a six-pack of beer on his doorstep. Included was a note that said, “You gave me the most fun of my vacation! Thank you very much!”
In addition to retailers trying his guitar, he’s also wants them to consider experimenting with the apparel like they have. “We’re going to be developing two old hippie products that dealers can buy and make full margins on, and these will be at our booth at NAMM. The “lifestyle’ approach has worked well for us, and we want to share.”