By Dan Ferrisi
Andy Zildjian, President of Sabian—the well known cymbal company, based in Meductic, New Brunswick, Canada, that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year—has quite a story to tell, having essentially been born into the music products industry and, en route to helming Sabian, having served in a number of roles, each of which helped pave the way for his successful presidency. In this frank discussion, Zildjian shares his story with us, while also shedding light on Sabian’s latest product developments, its relationship with the dealer channel, how it handles economic difficulties and what makes it unique among competitors in the industry. Let’s jump right in.
The Music & Sound Retailer: To start, let’s touch on your background. Share the highlights of your own story as pertains to the MI industry. Recount the path that you’ve traveled, bringing us right up to the present and where you are today.
Andy Zildjian: I was born into the industry. I’ve done pretty much everything you can do in the industry, other than being a professional player. I worked as a retailer, selling drums in Worcester MA for a year.
After the retailer position, my career has essentially always been affiliated with Sabian. I worked in the warehouse for our wholesaler. I also worked at the factory doing production. I worked on the road as a salesman. I actually had the four poorest states in the country, plus Virginia. I was basically living off Virginia; the rest of them were kind of like charity. [Laughs.]
Then, I moved up to the Boston area and worked out of our East Coast office, where I was doing artist relations, sales support and sales training. Then, I took over South American and Central American sales, and I did that for a while. In essence, I worked my way up through the ranks, until I finally got to the point where this job became available. It was then that I became President.
All too often, people seem to decide, “Hey, I’m 21 now. I’ve grown up around this family business. I’m going to be Vice President because I know everything.” And, man, I have seen many of them fall on their face. And that’s the last thing I wanted to have happen. You can be fooled by anybody, and that includes yourself. I really did not want to be that guy. I wanted to know that I was prepared.
Zildjian: My favorite thing to work on is setting the vision. In other words, figuring out where we want the company to go. I enjoy shepherding it to that point, after which you really need to learn to delegate. We have great people coming up with great ideas. We all know where we need to go, and these folks know how to “drive” their departments. Sometimes, I feel like I’m sitting in the passenger seat, tagging along for a ride. It’s great!
I definitely subscribe to the quote that says the smartest thing you can do is hire people who are smarter than you are. You can’t go wrong if you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. [Laughs.]
The Retailer: Let’s talk about Sabian in broad strokes. Share an overview of the company, talking about some of its principal milestones.
Zildjian: The opening of the factory in 1968—as a part of another company, at that point—was the starting point. In 1976, the family bought the old Turkish factory—that was huge. Mike Zilcan and his father and older brother eventually ended up in Canada, teaching us all about hand hammering. So, somewhere in the late ’70s when we acquired the hand hammering knowledge was also a huge milestone. At that point, we were taking our knowledge of how to make cymbals and expanding it…in fact, expanding it into the past. We did not want to get stuck on a single method. Rather, we started to go down different paths in developing cymbals.
Although we signed the papers in 1981, the company officially started in ’82. This year is actually our 30th birthday. We had cake and everything a couple of weeks ago! All I’m looking for now is another 430. That’s it! Try to do the same as the Roman Empire. [Laughs.]
Also, I’d have to mention ’87, when we developed the lower-priced B8 cymbals and opened up an entirely new market segment. And then, somewhere around ’92, we developed AAX, which used a completely new hammering method, unlike anything anyone else had ever done. It changed the way cymbals sounded…opened up their dynamic range hugely. AAX was the first truly modern cymbal series.
There are just so many things to name here…even the strange things that we’ve made, like the Radia for Terry Bozzio. They’re so different from anything else anyone had ever created. It’s not the kind of thing you look at and say, “Man, everybody’s going to want to play this.” But, again, it certainly opened a completely new avenue to pursue in how to make cymbals, and why they sound like they do, and how to design them so that they sound exactly the way you want them to sound.
The Retailer: Has there been considerable strategic pivoting or realignment of focus, company-wise?
Zildjian: B8 seemed to be an extremely important part of our whole mindset, up until about 2006 when I stepped in. And B8 is still an important part of what we do. However, the cast product is our blood. That is what we make. And, so, we put more emphasis on improving the cast…coming up with better sounds and innovations. We also place much more emphasis now on trying to explain what each of our products is all about, so that it’s very clear to our customers.
The Retailer: When you reflect on Sabian, of what are you the proudest? What makes the company stand apart not only from competitors in the market, but also from all manufacturers in the MI industry?
Zildjian: The way we started with traditional methods of manufacturing cymbals by hand, and yet still came up with really innovative—and, in some cases, futuristic—methods to enhance this traditional manufacturing. That was fantastic. Not to mention all the innovative sounds that have resulted from that process. I don’t see that in any other company.
Now, granted, I really only know the percussion industry. And some people are doing pieces of it. But it’s not to the same extent that I see it in our company. There are drum head companies out there doing interesting things, and drum companies that are coming up with new methods of making different sounds because they’re forming their shells differently…different layers…the way they’re producing them. But I still don’t see it to the same extent as what we’re doing—using traditional manufacturing methods, along with innovative techniques to essentially transform the entire instrument.
Also, I would have to say our customer service and positive team attitude set us apart significantly. The people and the attitude of our company make us open to try new things. They make us listen to professional players and non-professional players alike. I would say the attitude is one of friendly helpfulness.
The Retailer: In the music products segment, there are often a great number of creative individuals who work within manufacturers. Would you say that the Sabian team is a very creative one, where the products you manufacture and sell are actually a big part of the team’s own lives?
Zildjian: We have a group of people at the factory who play, and who are in bands. We have drummers, people who are into recording, guitar players, etc. There really are all types of musicians at the factory, which is great. It’s one of the things that appeals to the people in the area when they want to work for a company. They look for something that draws them in…and there we are. So, yes, we do have many creative individuals.
But, one of the neatest things—and it might sound a bit contradictory—is that a guy like Mark Love, who’s in charge of our Research & Development, and who really could be considered our cymbal guru, has never played an instrument in his life. This is actually beneficial, because you end up with a guy who is totally open to other people’s ideas and doesn’t have preconceived notions of how he wants a cymbal to sound. That is left entirely up to the drummers who are counting on him to create cymbals that can make the sounds they’re looking for.
The Retailer: Shine a light on some of Sabian’s most recent product developments. Going forward, what are you going to be pushing most aggressively? What do you have in the pipeline that you might want to preview? Why are these products important additions to the market?
Zildjian: Actually, our newest cymbals are being selected through a promotion we call Player’s Choice. We asked Mark and his team in the Vault to design a dozen new cymbals, and we invited a group of our top endorsers to L.A.—guys like Dave Weckl, Mike Portnoy and Neil Peart. In L.A., we got them together to play those cymbals so that we could film the entire process. We put those videos up on a mini-Web site dedicated to this promotion, so that our customers could hear what they sound and perform like. Watching those videos, you can really get a great feel for what these cymbals are all about. And anyone who wants to can vote for the cymbals they like the best. Right now [Editor’s Note: this interview was conducted in mid-December], we’re down to the top seven cymbals. The final four will be the models that we’ll introduce at the NAMM show as our 2012 product offering. As far as we know, no one else has ever used a process like this to decide what products to manufacture.
It’s really a win-win: not only do consumers get to vote for what we make—essentially making the decision on what cymbals we come out with—but we can honestly demonstrate to our dealers that there’s already a built-in market for these models. When a retailer looks at the product, they’re going to say, “I’m going to buy this, because I know I’m going to sell it.”
The Retailer: What is your philosophy when it comes to working with dealers and the dealer channel? Would you say that working closely with dealers is a big part of Sabian’s approach to business?
Zildjian: That relationship is probably the most important one you can have. Retailers are the people who have physical contact with the players who are coming in to pick out instruments. Having worked in retail, I know that they do have a great deal of influence on what people buy. Players want to be able to pick the cymbals that they play. They want to know the sound; they want to actually hear it. They want to have good advice from someone who knows what he’s talking about. And there’s only one place to get that. Sure, you can listen to cymbals online and, in some cases, really know what that cymbal is all about. And, you can learn from each cymbal company what it thinks about its products. But, to get an objective opinion from somebody whom you can physically relate to—retailers are that place.
The Retailer: Is there anything that the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to you, as a manufacturer? Do you have any suggestions to give the channel, which would help them sell Sabian products even better?
Zildjian: The only advice I could give would be to remain focused on brands that are out there to help you. When I was in retail, a few companies promoted their brand and helped us to understand the products that they made…the features and benefits and applications. More important, though, was the brand recognition and the promise of that brand.
The Retailer: Economic times during the past few years have been generally difficult. How well has Sabian weathered the continuing economic storm? What proactive steps has the company taken to minimize any economy-related pain?
Zildjian: We realigned earlier than most companies did. Copper was going through the roof, and that was about two years before the recession started. Shortly after that, the rising Canadian dollar started giving us heartburn on a daily basis. So, when the recession hit, we were already easing down our inventory and had started the process of finding the correct scale for our company. Not that it’s been easy, but we were already in that mode of trying to realign most of what we were doing when the recession hit.
So, when the recession did hit, it was just a continuation of what we’d already been doing. As I said, it hasn’t been easy. Europe has been a real worry; it’s been up and down and all over the place. The U.S. has been relatively better. Asia’s been surprisingly good, as has South America. For the most part, I would just say that having been in the right mindset before the recession hit, we had already started preparing ourselves to be at the right size for the economic times.
So, to be clear, we were readier. To some extent, everybody was probably deluding themselves that the good times were going to go on forever, right? But, for us, change wasn’t something new. We were already in the mode of figuring out the correct scale for our company and how to handle economic pressure. As far as the additional pressure brought on by the recession, it was basically this: You’re already going in the right direction. Now, just push down on the pedal.
The Retailer: Thoughts about 2011, in talking to a number of manufacturers, seem to be quite mixed. What are your feelings on 2011 overall?
Zildjian: From our point of view, it’s actually been relatively strong. The emphasis that we’ve been putting on our better products, our cast products, has been growing. And that’s been great, because the guys in the factory are working overtime. The feeling is much more positive that way. Some of the retailers whom I’ve spoken to are taking advantage of everything they can and growing, whereas others are staying pretty much status quo, just riding through the whole economic situation. And then others, for sure, are going by the wayside, which is unfortunate. But, at the same time, there are new retailers out there on a daily basis. So, it’s kind of hard to say at this point whether it’s positive, negative or what.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for Sabian? Do you foresee any major changes or shifts in terms of products, market segments, business relationships or company strategy?
Zildjian: I can say that we’re definitely going to continue innovating. There’s no question about that. Being relevant to your market is the most important thing that you can be. As far as we’re concerned, that means listening to players, professional or non-professional, and manufacturing the products they want.
It all comes down to innovation and, in my view, that puts us in a great position—because we’re all about innovation. We can design our products any way we want. We’re not stuck with a CAD/CAM situation where you can’t change anything, where the nuance is lost because it’s all either done by computer or pre-programmed. We don’t have that problem.
We’re also trying to maintain better contact with retailers, distributors and consumers. We want to foster a better relationship with all our market segments. That will be mutually beneficial.
As I look back, before we started Sabian, there were probably 300 different types of cymbals from which you could choose, including different weights, sizes, shapes and finishes. Now, there has to be more than 4,000. And that’s a benefit to drummers. I know that inventories can drive stores and distributors nuts and, at times, it drives us nuts! But, at the same time, having an inventory that is the most relevant in the industry…that’s what we’re going to keep doing. Because, ultimately, it’s all about serving the players.
The Retailer: Could you expand on your thoughts about the current situation with inventories?
Zildjian: I’ll just say that additions represent kind of a touchy subject for us at the moment, because inventories need to be as tight as they possibly can be. Although we are certainly making additions to our inventory, the most important thing about them is, as previously stated, they have a built-in market. So, the relevance of any new product to players—to the people who are actually buying and using them—is paramount.
That’s something we’ve been working on for the past three years: trying to get much more in touch with the consumer. We have always been trying to talk with players, and trying to understand what they want. But now, we’re trying even harder. We’re taking new avenues. We’re listening to focus groups. We’re going out into the field. We’re talking to players as much as we possibly can.
In the past, R&D essentially took the form of, “Hey, we have a cool idea. Let’s build it and see if anyone wants it.” That’s one way of doing it. But, we’ve come to the point, especially in the last three years, of deciding it has nothing to do with what we want to make. It’s all about what the player wants. All about that. So, if the player has an idea, we’ll work hard to make it sound exactly like what he or she wants.
The Retailer: What closing thoughts would you like to share?
Zildjian: I just love this industry. It’s great. Nowhere else can you can hang out with people who are as creative and funky as drummers are. They can take you to the outer limits of thought, and then, when that becomes too much, you can just jump right in and do some accounting. [Laughs.] So, you have a really great balance.
And, I have to say, there’s just no one else like drummers. They’re a group of people who are creative, sharing and open…much more so than any other group of people whom I’ve ever worked with. A group that was working with us a while ago said, “We’ve worked with people in the microphone industry and with guitarists. We’ve worked with people associated with accessories and with drums. And the one thing we notice is, drummers, when they get together, they don’t just talk to each other—they do the drummer hug.” Drummers don’t just say, “Hey, how are you doing?” and shake hands; drummers give each other hugs all the time. There’s a real camaraderie there, and there’s no fear in sharing, which is the other part that I find really cool about drummers. I know that, among band members, drummers are the ones who are hanging out most. That attitude is strong among the percussion industry, as well. And I love that.