Elkhart – ‘Band Instrument Capital’
Those who have lived in this charming town for any length of time will likely refer to the bygone days when Elkhart, Indiana was, unquestionably, the musical instrument capitol of the world. But outsiders are apt to still be impressed with how many instruments are coming out of Elkhart today. And the fact that several companies are hiring instead of laying off is encouraging.
The population of a mere 51,000 belies this modest region’s rich music heritage. When the first passenger train passed through in 1852, young Charles Gerard Conn had already been in town for a year. By 1861 he was playing the cornet in the Union’s regimental band. After the Civil War ended, he was a Colonel and returned to Elkhart. Legend has it that a bar fight which resulted in a split lip lead Conn to switch from playing brass instruments to building them. He patented his rubber-rimmed mouthpiece in 1875 and by 1877 had a factory. By 1905 it would be the largest musical instrument factory in the world.
“It all started with C.G. Conn,” says Rocky Giglio of J.J. Babbitt. “At the same time they started their business, they helped many other companies too.” Babbitt still makes mouthpieces for Conn-Selmer. He is pleased with the recent developments at E.K. Blessing, too: “They are devoted to keeping their manufacturing in Elkhart.”
Many others besides J.J. Babbitt founded companies in the town in the early part of the last century. But market changes, as well as the trend of moving manufacturing overseas took its toll on the town in the last few decades. Yet today things are looking up, and those who live there know why.
“Elkhart is a great place to live from a quality of life standpoint,” says John Stoner of Conn-Selmer. “People here take pride in their work, and that’s a key element needed in the band instrument making profession. They are diligent, hard working, and so many have a background in music. Many who work in our plant today had parents and grandparents who worked here as well.”
“Elkhart is a very industrious city – there’s a lot of entrepreneurs here,” Charles Walter of Charles Walter Piano reports. “I’m really confident that Elkhart will come back strong. The new owners of E.K. Blessing seem like they are going to be a little more aggressive, and the recreational vehicle market is recovering some.”
As the American economy continues to slough off the grip of the recent recession, many are still wondering just how productive the U.S. can ever be, so long as it continues to eschew the bread and butter that made this country so strong generations ago: the manufacturing of high quality goods, made right here in the U.S.A.
So it was met with more than a little relief and pride when Powell Flutes purchased E.K. Blessing in late 2009, that one thing was made abundantly clear: Blessing’s trumpets, cornets, flugelhorns, mellophones, baritones, French horns, and trombones would continue to be manufactured in Elkhart.
On September 22 of this year, Blessing, led by new president Steven Wasser and general manager and V.P. Steve Rorie, unveiled a brand new manufacturing facility in Elkhart that will be a full-line producer of brass instruments. The property, which had previously housed machinery for RV assembly, was seen by Blessing’s incoming management as a blank slate upon which they could install the latest tools and equipment for making high quality brass instruments, while enhancing the company’s capacity to control batch size and improve manufacturing efficiencies. Said Rorie, “This new facility represents a commitment to how we intend to do business: build great products in a safe and environmentally friendly facility, right here in the U.S.A.”
In addition to keeping the factory in town, Wasser demonstrated Blessing’s commitment to Elkhart and the people of the area through the purchase and installation of cutting-edge environmentally responsible waste and chemical management systems. Rorie and Wasser indicated that this dedication to going green was also demonstrated by the new factory’s enhancements to worker safety, including dramatic improvements and re-design to lighting, heat management, debris ventilation, and even state-of-the-art showers for technicians involved in polishing and other often dirty jobs.
At the factory’s grand opening, which featured a tour of the facilities, snacks and refreshments, a jazz band, a ribbon cutting, and a number of guest speakers, Elkhart mayor Dick Moore reiterated the community’s dedication to restoring MI manufacturing in the town. “What is good for Blessing is good for Elkhart,” he said. In Wasser’s negotiations with local government officials, “there was never a question [of relocating the factory]. Mr. Wasser made it very clear: ‘We’re buying one of your companies and we’re staying here.’” Dorinda Heinden-Guss, president of the Elkhart Economic Development Corporation, echoed that sentiment, stating, “E.K. Blessing is a blessing to Elkhart, Elkhart County, and Indiana.”
Randall Johnson, who was the third generation of E.K. Blessing and consummated its sale to Steven Wasser and Powell Flutes, told MMR, “It’s great to see money being invested in American manufacturing, and I was very lucky to find Mr. Wasser and see my family business carried on like this.” [Incidentally, MMR's Rick Kessel was recognized and thanked for playing the role of matchmaker by helping connect Johnson with Wasser, thus facilitating the sale of the company.]
As noted in his closing speech, Steven Wasser sees untapped potential in the Blessing facility, considering the already skilled labor force and the unequivocal support of local government. Said Wasser, “In my estimation, E.K. Blessing is like a flower that has not had enough fertilizer and water for a long time. But the root system is strong. The root system is comprised of the talented people who work at blessing. Randy transitioned to me a fundamentally sound company that simply needed fertilizer, and that is what we have given it. We have brought in talent and we have invested in the people. We have invested in the tools, technology, facilities, and marketing” to make the company grow.
While the previous Blessing factory had been forced to scale back workers’ shifts, Wasser intends to ramp up production and restore full shifts to the people that make the factory function. “We kept everybody, and we’ll actually be increasing hours and maybe even adding additional people,” he said. That may be in part because Powell Flutes will be shifting some of its heavy machinery from the company’s Massachusetts flute manufacturing facility out to the new factory in Elkhart. Wasser explains, “We’ll be doing that because of practical reasons: our Massachusetts facility has old wooden floors that don’t handle heavy equipment very well. Here [in Elkhart], we have concrete floors and plenty of space, so some of our parts making to support Powell will be shifted from Massachusetts to Indiana.” In addition, the new facility gives both Powell and Blessing the potential to expand their respective product lines. “Any new products that Powell is likely to come out with will inevitably be made in Elkart, not in Massachusetts. We will continue to make flutes in Massachusetts, particularly the high end products, but anything new is likely to be done here.”
The surprise of the evening came when Wasser lifted a curtain and revealed two saxophones. He then informed the assembled audience of local government officials, industry professionals, factory workers, and media that Blessing had just purchased the machinery and equipment to being manufacturing saxophones at the same Elkhart facility. Wasser stated that Blessing will be producing a full line of pro-level saxes, with early models expected to be ready for the January 2011 NAMM Show. Once the top-level saxes establish the quality of the Blessing brand in the saxophone market, the company will consider adding mid- and student-level saxes to the product line. Blessing’s Saxophones will reportedly be the only ones in the world that are made in the U.S.A.
Still, even with all for the good vibrations surrounding the opening of the new Elkhart factory, Wasser remains pragmatic about the current state of the MI market: “We’re starting to get traction. It’s a very poor economy for the musical instrument market right now, but we are starting to get some traction and I feel like we are building some momentum in the marketplace. It’s not like if you build it they will come; you still have to actually get out there, work, make the sales, and cultivate relationships.”
President/CEO John Stoner is bullish on his company and Elkhart. “We’re having a very good year,” he says. “We’ve launched several new products, all domestically made.”
The focus today is getting that “made in the U.S.A” label on as many instruments as possible. Acknowledging the challenges left after a long, cantankerous strike, the cure seems to be reaching out to retailers and band managers and having them visit the updated factory. Since early 2009, Conn-Selmer has hosted summits and over 70 dealers and nearly 200 band directors have taken them up on the invitation.
“It was a fairly expensive proposition, but it’s paid dividends,” Stoner says. “Those who visited years before saw a dramatic change with regard to efficiency and progress.” Hiring at all their U.S. factories was on the rise in 2008, though it was slowed by the economy. Today Conn-Selmer has a total of 750 people employed in their U.S. factories.
“There’s no question that it’s still cheaper to make instruments overseas,” Stoner says. But a renewed interest in high quality American-made products has worked in their favor. While American-made student instruments might be a little more costly then their foreign competitors, retailers tell them over and over that their old Bach and Conn instruments can be rented for 15 or 20 years as opposed to five or ten. “From an economic standpoint, it’s a better investment.”
When Conn-Selmer analyzed their operation, they came up with a conclusion that while simple actually went against more than a century of tradition. “We realized that there was a lot of reworking on instruments before they went out the door, which was labor intensive,” he explains. “Our focus has been on streamlining so we make the instrument right the first time.” Stoner, who came to MI from outside the industry, rebuffed the call for more inspectors and instead focused on fixing the part of the process that was the cause of the problem rather than merely reworking the individual instruments over and over again. “If you don’t have to remake the same instrument three or four times, you can get to the point where you can price it competitively. Fixing the root cause takes a different mindset, and historically the call has been for more inspectors. But adding inspectors only add cost, so the team has done a phenomenal job in fixing the root cause.”
The efforts have paid up, and he says despite the soft economy their student instrument sales are up considerably. “We spent the last three years getting the price point right. People won’t pay $600 for trumpet just because it’s made in the U.S., but $350 seems to be the sweet spot.”
He remains optimistic about their progress and their made in the U.S. of A. philosophy, and is especially enjoying that in an ironic trend, sales of these products are growing overseas, particularly in Pacific Rim nations. “We probably sold $2 million worth of instruments to China last year. As they are developing into better players, they are inspired to play better instruments, and they are very brand-conscious.”
Stoner is also pleased that others are enjoying success. “E.K. Blessing is making a comeback, and there’s a lot of smaller custom people doing work out of Elkhart.”
Rocky Giglio, president of J.J. Babbitt, says the thought of making their mouthpieces elsewhere was never an option. Yet the trend of overseas manufacturing reached such a fever pitch that some assumed that’s what J.J. Babbitt did.
“We have so many people who don’t know what we do, so many people who think we have things made overseas,” he says. “We’d never go overseas. We’re very proud of what we do, and our craftsmen have been with us for many years. Most are cross-trained so they understand each job in the factory, and this allows them to do an even better job because they understand how what they do affects into the next person down the line.”
The heritage of this company is rich as well, and last year J.J. Babbitt celebrated their 90th year. They used that opportunity to take a look at their legendary product, the Otto Link mouthpiece. “It’s always been popular with tenor players, but some have felt it didn’t quite play like it use to,” Giglio says. The reasons for this is understandable – attrition, tools wearing down, etc. But a Herculean effort beginning with buying out mouthpieces and studying them followed by intense analysis, has lead the new “old” version – the Otto Link Vintage. It’s been a successful reworking, he reports, saying that both the metal and rubber versions of the vintage series has “gone crazy.” “People who have ordered it like it, but we still sell our ‘regular’ Otto Links. Our philosophy has been not to have one replace the other.”
He laughs and threatens that “if I ever retire,” he’ll write a book to put out the myths about their mouthpieces and the player’s perceptions. “I’ve learned over the years to try not to convince [players] about why our mouthpieces today are every bit as good as ever,” but perceptions if not prejudices will forever remain. And even creating the Vintage products was complicated when they listened to their customers. “We couldn’t get even two or three to agree” on what made one better then another. “So we had to figure it out by dissecting old products. But even if there are some musicians still convinced that we’re not doing it right any more, I say we’re selling 2,000 a year so we must be doing something right!”
Many things appear to be going right at J.J. Babbitt, as Giglio reports that every year for the last six they’ve experienced an increase profit and sales. Even this year looks “good” – “it’ll be at least as good as last year. We’ve not laid anybody off in years.”
This has involved maintaining traditional, and keeping quality job one. But also becoming more efficient has been key. They’ve changed up their method of distribution. “The problem is that so many dealers are reluctant to keep inventory, which means they want something tomorrow – and that’s been increasingly difficult for us because we’re a traditional company. So we convinced our distributors all over the world to work with us on this, and they give us scheduled orders. And we’ve stayed loyal to the distributors who have been loyal to us.”
Charles Walter Piano
Despite the generally soft economy and the particularly challenging times acoustic pianos have faced, Charles Walter is still very much in the game. “We’ve done some work on our present models, making improvements on the soundboard,” Charles Walter reports from his office in Elkhart. “We’re also working on a new 50-inch model. Though our 45-inch models sound better than most other 50-inch uprights, institutions seem to want the slightly bigger ones.” He adds that their instruments are doing well in school because when compared theirs offer a better tone.
As they celebrate their 40th anniversary in the piano making business this year, Charles Walter Piano continues to maintain a strong presence with their dealers. Walters reports that some carry over 50 Walter pianos at a time – though these days that’s the exception. “A lot of dealers are really watching their inventory, and some who are in areas where the economy is especially soft, they certainly aren’t ordering the five or 10 at a time they used to.”
These days he focuses on the business aspect, leaving the manufacturing details to his son, Richard Walter. “I inspect them as far as the guts, making sure they are sound and playing how I expect them to.”
The challenges of the general market has also made them to get creative as far as getting the materials they need to build their instruments. “A lot of manufacturers of cabinetry material have gone out of business, and we’ve had to find new suppliers.”
But they will forever continue to build in Elkhart: “If I had to go oversees to make our pianos, I’d just stop making them!” Walter says. And he too thinks a buy American mentality is on the rise: “I think people are resenting China, but frankly it isn’t the Chinese people that are the problem. American legislators have made it profitable for companies to move manufacturing over there. We’ve really been penalized by our own government.”
Meanwhile, “we do have one fella’ who is trying to sell our pianos over there.”