This month being our annual Drums & Percussion issue, The Retailer scoured the industry for a company that, in addition to being a dominant player in that segment of the market, also illustrates the level of success and profitability—and commitment to best practices—that “Five Minutes With” seeks to celebrate. We found the ideal candidate in Andy Zildjian, President and CEO of Sabian, a company that has had a fantastic last several years, as evidenced by its numerous Music & Sound Awards wins. In 2014, Sabian won in the “Best Cymbals” category, as well as being named “Manufacturer of the Year.” In 2015, Sabian once again prevailed for “Best Cymbals,” while also earning honors for “Product of the Year.” Pretty impressive stuff!
In this extensive interview, Zildjian discusses not only Sabian’s rich history and its recent successes, but also its internal dynamics and some major changes undertaken—and initiatives launched—in recent months and years.
There’s a lot of value to be gleaned from the discussion. I hope you enjoy it.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s begin with your personal background. Tell us a bit about your own history—and your family history more broadly—with cymbals, percussion products and musical instruments. Touch on how you entered into the cymbal business, and trace your career trajectory from its earliest days to the present.
Andy Zildjian: Well, the family, of course, has been in the business, in one part of the globe or another, for 400 years. And the family business has done quite well throughout that time. My dad and my uncle just disagreed on how and why to run a business. And, so, we split off and started Sabian at a factory that we had as a sub-factory for our old family business, at that point. It was located in New Brunswick, Canada. It was easier to ship over to Europe from there, because of the tariffs that were going on in Europe during the ’60s. If you were in a commonwealth or an ex-commonwealth country, it was a lot less expensive to ship than it was from the United States. So, that’s one of the main reasons why we’re up here.
‘As soon as Mark Love, our cymbal guru,
gets an idea from a player, he can do it. He’s got it together.
His ability to transform bronze into sound is amazing.’
When my dad and my uncle decided to split from each other, it was a very logical continuation of this factory. We had already been making all the things…the “Hand-Hammered”…the hard-to-make Chinese…the extra-thins and that kind of thing. All those cymbals were not quick-production and mass-production stuff. They were skillfully made products we’d been producing up in Canada. So, when we left, we were pretty lucky, because we had the folks who could do that, and we didn’t have to play catch-up. And, in some processes and skills, I don’t think anybody else has caught up.
So, how did I get into the business? Well, actually, I wasn’t even thinking about getting into the business. I wanted to be a hockey player. I was getting ready to go do that, but I blew out my knees. And, back in those days, they said the only thing you could do for that was to rest up. You’d think doctors would be a little better than that…. So, I had to rest the knees. I was going to college at that point, and I started having so much fun at college that I really wasn’t learning anything. Well, I was…but I wasn’t learning things that you could actually apply in the real world. [Laughs.] So, anyway, I left college and joined the army. And that was a wake-up call! I learned an awful lot about discipline and subordinating my goals to a larger cause, as well as about how to follow orders.
As far as the music industry goes, before I went to college, I had worked in a music store for about eight months. I ran the drum department there. Not only was it a great learning experience, but it was also a blast. I had a great time. Retail can be a lot of fun. [Laughs.] And, after a while, you really start to appreciate it and understand it’s a difficult job. Because you have to deal with all different types of personalities, and all different types of wants, needs and, especially nowadays, immediate desires. It was tough, but it was fun.
So, anyway, after I got out of the army, I was a road rep for about three years. I had Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. So, I had the four poorest states in the nation, plus Virginia. And I had to make a living off that! It was tough. But, I did learn a lot about what it means to be a road rep, and I learned what it means to sell. Then, I applied for—yes, I did have to apply—and got the job as Artist Relations and Promotions Manager of the east coast for Sabian, and that’s when I actually started working for the company. That was back in 1990. From there, I worked my way up from the east coast to doing all the United States. And then I had Central and South America, along with that. I grew the territories by about 400 percent. And then, eventually, I started working my way up so I was working here at the headquarters more often. Then, when the old President retired, I applied for and I was awarded that position up here.
I had watched other family businesses allow the next generation to join the company in positions of responsibility without earning the position. Those companies have not done well. Much of what made the company what it was gets lost, because the new leadership doesn’t appreciate what got them there. I was adamant that I wanted to avoid that. That’s why I had to apply for, and earn, each position that I’ve had in the company.
The Retailer: We last spoke for “Five Minutes With” back in February 2012. Looking at the categories of product that Sabian provides, what can you tell us about the competitive landscape?
Zildjian: We do both cymbals and gongs in MI and B&O. We also do Gon Bops in the Latin market. In both of those, it’s kind of funky, because you get some small companies that will come into both of those markets, and they’ll try to grow and take market share. And what happens is, they end up being a group of very small companies that have four percent or five percent of the market share, both in cymbals and in the Latin instrument market.
‘Other companies just don’t have the knowledge or ability to do what we can.
That part’s very cool: having that craftsmanship, and the courage to do it.’
Let’s look at the cymbal market. You’ve got all these Turkish brands, and they’ve had a combined four percent of the market for years. And that’s all they’ve had…that’s all they do. They don’t grow anymore. One of the European companies has reached five percent. And that’s all they’ve done, ever since they entered the market about 10 years ago. Then there’s another one that’s been in the industry for a long time, and they haven’t shrunk as much as you’d expect them to. They’ve got their nine percent, and they’re there.
The Retailer: What general trends are you seeing right now in the cymbal and percussion space?
Zildjian: B&O has absolutely taken off. In percussion in particular, if you’re not getting into B&O, you’re going to have a hard time…a very hard time. I’ve also found some smaller companies—those that have remained small, try to be small and just focus on their niche—will do well. Because they know what their cash-flow needs are. They know what their income needs are, and they model their business that way. And they’ll actually thrive, but not grow, which is fine. That’s where they should be. And then you find some that are trying to be all things to all people. That’s a very difficult business model to get into. It used to be difficult just because the competition was hard. Now, not only is the competition hard, but the markets aren’t looking for a company to support. They want to be supported by a company. It’s the other way around. It’s a new paradigm, but it makes good sense.
The Retailer: Earlier this year, Sabian announced that sales and distribution of the company’s cymbals and accessories in the United States would be handled exclusively by Sabian itself. Describe the significance of this move and the impetus for making it. Discuss the extent to which Sabian’s implementation of “Lean” as a corporate philosophy factored into the decision.
Zildjian: It was somewhat frustrating to see the focus we were getting from our distributor out in the field. As you know, if you have a rep who has five or six items, they’re going to give them plenty of time and lots of effort to sell. But, if your rep has thousands of items, you’re going to get maybe a minute…you’re going to get a flip of a page. You don’t get the focus and attention that you want. Your message doesn’t get to the dealer, or even to the consumers, in the way that you’d like it to. We were very upset with that happening. So, we had decided back last year that, sometime during this year, we were going to go direct to dealers in the U.S. and in Canada.
In January, we started in Canada. We figured that we’d start in Canada, go through six months and then break away from our distributor in the United States and do that there. Well, with the sale of our U.S. distributor, and with the following discussion I had with Chris Lombardi, who bought KMC, we both decided that, instead of our staying only for six months and then going off on our own, we should just make that break right now. And, so, Sabian left and started doing direct distribution in January, which was six months earlier than we had anticipated. So, we were semi-prepared.
Lean principles helped us put together a lot of what we needed to have, as far as internal administration was concerned, and as far as inventory and inventory control were concerned. But, because it happened six months earlier than we expected it to happen, we weren’t quite in the position of being really confident in, and comfortable with, all our processes. So, we’ve been working very hard over the last six months to really draft out, plan and execute better processes in hopes of becoming more convenient for the stores, and so we can offer them good options in terms and freight, and other specials.
Lean definitely had an impact. If we didn’t have Lean going on when we started this, we really would have been way behind the eight ball. Just looking at and tracking your processes, understanding what they are and trying to make them easier, streamlining production and going through your inventory…if we hadn’t done that beforehand, we would have been in big, big trouble. We probably could have pulled through, but it would have been much more difficult and a really bumpy ride for everybody. It would not have been nearly as smooth.
The Retailer: Earlier this summer, Sabian announced the launch of the Sabian Education Network. Describe what “SEN” is, and discuss why drum educators worldwide should be aware of—and participate in—the network.
Zildjian: It is a network, and the idea was to try to help educators have more resources and a better understanding of how students learn, how better to teach them, what resources are out there that you can use and how better to use them, as well as to have a community where you can discuss your issues. What are your problems? What solutions are out there? And we wanted to do that in a way where everybody is on the same page, everybody’s at the same level and everybody has the ability to talk with people like Dave Weckl or David Garibaldi. Not on a regular basis…but you can. You can put out a message, and that person will answer a question for you. It’s not only to have a network of connectivity, but also to raise the abilities of each teacher so they can teach—and even play—better.
There’s a guy named Hans-Peter Becker. In Europe, he’s put together, I think, 40 schools. One of the major keys to his success is his ability to ask the right questions, find out how a student learns and put him or her together with a teacher who has the best ability to teach to that specific style of learning. So, when someone comes in and he or she starts learning, if that person learns verbally, aurally, visually or by doing it themselves by manipulation, that style of teaching is the teacher’s own strength. And the numbers of students he has retained are astounding. Most drum teachers will retain a reasonable percentage of their students, whereas he’s kept very high percentages of his students. And that’s the kind of thing we want to help teachers understand and be able to use to their advantage, as well as to the advantage of the students.
The Retailer: For a few years, Sabian administered Cymbal Vote, which concluded in conjunction with the NAMM Show and enabled your loyal players and fans to have a voice in the cymbals that Sabian manufactures. Discuss the importance of player feedback in terms of developing Sabian’s product pipeline. Do you have any other promotions coming up for this coming NAMM Show?
Zildjian: Well, no, we don’t have anything coming up like Cymbal Vote. If you start doing it too much, it begins to lose its appeal. It wouldn’t have that sense of urgency anymore. So, we’re letting it rest for a little bit. We have plans to bring it back, though. Not immediately, but someday soon. The best part about it was that not only could you ask your artists—who are very important and who are trendsetters—what is good, what will sell and what the market is looking for, but you could also go to the consumers in the market. You could say to them, “Here are some things that we think are cool. What do you think? What do you think is going to sell? Which would you want to buy?” And that part, I think, is the coolest. Once consumers decide what they want to buy, that’s what they want to buy! They go into the stores, and they actually buy it. I love that!
We get a lot of feedback from artists, and we also do surveys every few years. Part of the survey is asking what type of cymbal sound people are looking for. What are the new movements in the market? What sound are you looking for? And, so, we pick up a lot of information that way. It helps us design initial products. Then, we send them out to artists, or we’ll bring it out to focus groups and have them take it apart. We’ll see what they think. What’s working? What isn’t working?
As soon as Mark Love, our cymbal guru, gets an idea from them, he can do it. I’ve watched him listen to somebody on the phone, hear what he or she is looking for, design it and send it to them, and they’ll say, “Yeah, that’s right.” It’s just amazing! He’s got it together. His ability to transform bronze into sound is amazing. He’s really got it together.
The Retailer: When you look at Sabian as it currently exists, what would you say you’re the proudest of? What makes the company stand apart, not only from direct competitors in the cymbal and percussion space, but also from companies in the broad MI industry? What’s the “secret sauce” at Sabian?
Zildjian: There are a few things. One, of course, is our ability to innovate. It’s not simply that we will; it’s that we can. We’ve got craftsmen. We do things by hand. We can make products, alter them and innovate with them every day, on a whim. We can do that. Other companies just don’t have the knowledge or ability to do what we can. That part’s very cool: having that craftsmanship, and the courage to do it. I love that. The other part is, we’ve just got really great people. Part of it may be being up here in Canada. [Laughs.] But, seriously, it transcends that. The people who work for us in the United States and over in Europe are just really nice people, too. One of the things I’m adamant about is that we need to be very kind and inclusive.
It really comes down to our core values. We decided that we should define our core values and try to put together a system so that we know who we are, what we’re doing and what makes us who we are. Not the things we aspire to…who are we really? And we came up with three things: the first is, we have the passion to perform. That’s service, quality, just trying to be friendly and doing a really good job that we can be proud of. The second is being genuine and humble, which absolutely fits our people. I suppose it’s a benefit of being from a rural area. And the last one is family, and it really is true. We try to treat everybody not, perhaps, as though they’re our own flesh and blood but, instead, as though they’re part of a family of friends. We treat everybody fairly and honestly.
So, to me, that’s the key. Those are the points that really make the company. That is who we are.
The Retailer: Discuss Sabian’s commitment to the brick-and-mortar MI store channel. Is working collaboratively with brick-and-mortar music dealers a key part of the company’s bedrock, fundamental approach to doing business?
Zildjian: Oh yeah…definitely, it is. With a product like a cymbal, or even a conga, you actually need to hear it to know what you’re going to get. There are people who will buy these products online, and that’s fine. They don’t have as discerning an ear, or they’re not as concerned with a specific sound as others are. But, absolutely, having the ability to go in and play the product, hear it and talk to somebody who has some kind of training, education or passion for the product is really important to what we do. You can’t just buy a cymbal online like, for example, buying a guitar string, where it’s going to be the same and sound right whatever you do. Cymbals have their own personality.
Supporting the retailers is one of the reasons we decided to go direct-to-retail. We thought our presence in retail was not being represented to retailers well. That meant we weren’t maximally able to help our retailers sell our products, or help them understand our products and be educated about them. We wanted retailers not only to know what products we have available, but also to know about our abilities, our services and us personally. So, is there a commitment? Absolutely, there is. I’m very committed to working with retailers.
There are definitely people who think the Internet is going to be the only place where anybody sells anything. They think, if you’re not on the Internet, you’re going to have no business at all. I think that’s crazy…even closed-minded. I do think the Internet is probably going to be 50 percent of all sales, on every type of item: musical and non-musical. But, at the same time, there are people, like me, who want to touch it, know what it’s made of and see the quality, and who, when they buy it, want the thing in their hands right now. I go to Nordstrom’s when I go shopping. Why? Because they take the time to talk to you about their products. They’re giving you customer service. They’re giving the customer a chance to get the right product the first time, and to enjoy doing it. I love that.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for Sabian? What can company-watchers expect over the next year…five years…10 years?
Zildjian: Part of the way we decided to organize our business, with the management system, was to set out one-year, three-year, five-year and 10-year goals. And, you know, 50-percent market share is one of them. [Laughs.] Do I really want to say that?
We’ll continue working to try to craft better instruments. We’re going to continue creating the best that we can for musicians, whether that is a cymbal product, something from Gon Bops or something that’s associated with, or that’s a partner to, either one.
The Retailer: Is there anything you’d like to say in reference to the recent passing of Vic Firth, about his contributions to the industry?
Zildjian: His contributions to the industry? There are a lot of people who know what those are. I’d really like to talk about the friendship between my dad and Vic. That’s what I’ll always think of and remember when I think of Vic. They were really good buddies. They would laugh and joke with each other all the time. There were times when one of them would win an award for something, and the other one would be asked to be onstage or presenting. There were times when, afterward, people would come up to them and ask, “Who wrote your material?” So, these two guys were really good, good friends.
‘We do things by hand. We can make products, alter them and innovate with them every day, on a whim.’
And when Vic started his business, it was in the garage of his place in Dover. His mother-in-law was winding the yarn on his mallets. At that point, he was just starting out. He and dad talked about things and, together, they decided to give each other a hand. We used to have Vic on our booth in Frankfurt, and he and dad would talk a lot about dealers and distributors and with whom to work. And we ended up having pretty much the same network. When Vic was finally big enough to have his own booth at Frankfurt, it was a pretty big year. We felt pretty good for him. So, there are a lot of contributions he’s made and, really, I’m sure there are people who can list them all better than I could. But, just on the personal side—on the friendly side—he was a really funny, nice guy. A really nice guy.
I feel sad for his family because Tracy, Kelly and definitely Olga are some of the greatest people I’ve ever met. I’m sure they’ll miss him.
The Retailer: Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask?
Zildjian: Actually, there was something I forgot to mention earlier. You asked if we have any plans for promotions centered on the NAMM Show. We have revamped and remastered our HH line. I was finding that the sound wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be, and it wasn’t like it was during the ’80s and early ’90s. Mark and I talked about it for a while and, finally, one day, I saw something that was being done to the cymbal that wasn’t the way we did it back in the day. I spoke to Mark and the Vault team, and we all decided that, yes, that was different. So, what we did was, we said, “OK…everything that’s in inventory right now that’s a ‘Hand-Hammered’…cut it up. Just get rid of it.” They still sounded good, but they didn’t sound like the HH we all know and love. So, we cut them all up, started over again and built a whole new inventory of HH. I am very proud of our HH and how closely it matches the sound, shape and character of the almost-mythical original family cymbal.