Few companies in the music products industry boast the passion, devotion and loyalty that a family business can stimulate. For Jim Cavanaugh, President of Super-Sensitive Musical String Co., which is one of two brands under the umbrella of The Cavanaugh Company, carrying on his grandfather, father and mother’s business is a continual source of inspiration. In this extended interview, Cavanaugh discusses how his family came to acquire the brands, where they sit in the marketplace, what makes his business different from its competitors and the extent to which maintaining close relationships with dealers is core to his fundamental business philosophy. He also broaches the subject of the accessory category’s ascendance as a big-time profit center in the MI world.
As always, we believe there’s much wisdom to be gleaned from our industry’s most successful individuals. Enjoy the interview.
Let’s start with your personal background. How did you initially become interested in music? Did music factor heavily into your hobbies when you were younger?
Jim Cavanaugh: It all started with my parents taking me to violin lessons. And that’s how it all began. From there, I switched to piano. After a few years, I decided to quit music for soccer. [Laughs.] I wanted to do sports at the time. Then, in sixth grade, my school had a Wheel Program, which meant we rotated elective classes. One of them was orchestra, and they needed a bass player. That has been my instrument ever since…string bass. I played in the school orchestra, the all-state orchestra, a high school jazz band and the Florida State University Symphony Orchestra, which is where I went to college.
How did you further pursue that initial interest, setting yourself on a course for a successful career?
Cavanaugh: Since this is a family business, I eventually wanted to take over. I am the third generation, and I’m hoping one or both of my children will continue the legacy. I grasped the music side of things quickly, and I also had a passion for engineering. I learned a lot from my grandfather, Vince Cavanaugh, who was also an engineer. He was one of the Owners, along with my father, John Cavanaugh. During that time, I started learning as much as I could from my grandfather…basically anything involving small engineering and mechanical projects. I attended Florida State University with a major in business and a minor in music. After graduation, I returned to Sarasota FL and began full time in the business as Operations Manager, as well as attending evening classes at a technical institute for machining, electronics and computers.
One of The Cavanaugh Company’s most well respected properties is Super-Sensitive Musical String Co. Give me some insight into how you acquired Super-Sensitive.
Cavanaugh: Super-Sensitive Musical String Co. was established in 1930, and it had two Owners prior to my father and my grandfather purchasing the company in 1967. The company was established by its Founder, Ed Wackerle, an amateur violinist, who was a machinist by trade. He began working with different alloys and metals. Wackerle came up with a metal string versus what were considered good strings during that time. The company was then sold to Harold Allbaugh, who was an employee of the company. In the ’50s and ’60s, my grandfather was actually the CPA for the company. In 1965, my father was ending his tenure with the Navy, and he and my grandfather decided to buy the business shortly thereafter.
What is the back-story for Black Diamond Guitar Strings? What is the brand’s history, and how did you acquire it?
Cavanaugh: Black Diamond has been in existence since 1890, and several people owned it before my father and I purchased the company 16 years ago. It was the only guitar string you could get in the heyday. You could even buy them in drugstores! That’s how they used to sell them, by single packs. After that, the company was neglected for several decades. We then had the opportunity to purchase it and make a big comeback.
Shed some light on the development, evolution and eventual growth of both Super-Sensitive Musical String Co. and Black Diamond Guitar Strings.
Cavanaugh: On the Super-Sensitive side of the business, my father did a lot of experimenting with different alloys, synthetics and nylon. It’s very similar to baking a cake: You add “ingredients” here and there; you come up with a final product; and then you have it tested. You take the scientific approach to it. Then, you have the ultimate test: the musicians. You are experimenting all the time.
Throughout the decades, there have been different genres of music. A jazz player might want a different sound than a classical player. Then, you have a rock player, which is an entirely different animal. You need to experiment with different materials to get that preferred sound. There is also another variable: the variations among instruments. Some can be a naturally bright instrument, versus more of a dark instrument. Therefore, the type of string might help to brighten it up or to darken it. There is definitely a huge scientific aspect to all of this. That applies to Black Diamond; however, it applies even more so to the Super-Sensitive orchestral strings.
Marketing and selling tactics have changed drastically over the years. We are constantly building more bridges to educators. That has been our focus. We are concentrating on the educator. We consider ourselves an educator company…the educator string. We want to help students achieve a better sound, so they can achieve their goals.
What makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning and head to the office? What motivates and engages you?
Cavanaugh: The family business aspect has always been the key to my motivation. My wife, Susan, has been working in the business for 16 years. My mother, Ellen Cavanaugh, worked in the business for more than 40 years before retiring last August. My father still enjoys the research and development, and he still comes in when my mother and he are not traveling. Susan and I work very well together when it comes to mapping out the future, thinking about new approaches to run the business and doing strategic planning.
Is there a particular task or responsibility that really gets you going? What are your favorite job duties?
Cavanaugh: Since accepting the title of President in 2010, I am involved in every single aspect of the business. The most enjoyable sector for me is research and development, along with designing new equipment. That has always been a passion, but, of course, I can’t do that all the time. That’s why we have a fully staffed engineering department. We brainstorm together about how to create the best equipment to make the finest strings. Then, we work with our Production Manager to determine the best flow and logistics for the process of making the strings. I was lucky to do quite a bit of research and development with my dad. Therefore, the most enjoyable part is to work with the R&D department.
Is there a “secret sauce” at Super-Sensitive Musical String Co. and Black Diamond Guitar Strings that makes you stand apart not only from your direct competitors, but also from other music products companies in general?
Cavanaugh: That is a great question. Super-Sensitive is extremely committed not only to quality, but also to customer service. It’s not the type of organization where anyone can get lost in the shuffle. A musician can get in touch with me at virtually any point during the day; that’s never a problem. I am in constant contact with endorsers, too. We are a company that still has that personal touch.
Can you discuss your commitment to brick-and-mortar retailers and selling through the dealer channel? Is working collaboratively with dealers a fundamental part of your bedrock business philosophy?
Cavanaugh: The brick-and-mortar stores are our business. Of course, a majority of the business funnels through distributors, and distributors support the dealers. However, in our case, we also e-mail brick-and-mortar stores that might be buying from a distributor, because we still need to support them. We do that with promotional items, posters, T-shirts, pencils…things they can give out to their customers and their students. At the same time, we want to interact with them more, because they are the front line of what is happening out there. We want to make sure they’re partnering with their schools and their local bands and orchestras, and that they’re maintaining those relationships. We need them to know that we have products that can help with the schools they’re servicing. It could be rosin, guitar strings or violin strings. We want to stand behind our products. We have an ongoing commitment to those brick-and-mortar stores.
Quite a few companies out there right now are trying to sell direct to the consumer. They bypass the distributors; they bypass the dealers. They go direct to the consumer. Unfortunately, if it’s for the same price, it isn’t fair. You can buy our strings online, but you will actually get a better price if you go to the store and support the local dealer.
Do you have any constructive criticism that you’d offer to the dealer channel to help brick-and-mortar stores be more able to handle an increasingly difficult competitive landscape?
Cavanaugh: Right now, there are fantastic band and orchestra dealers that are catering to the schools. They are definitely doing a great job. It’s a matter of figuring out what they are doing so well, and then having other dealers duplicate that effort…get some ideas from them. The dealers are reaching out to the schools, making those connections and finding out what they need. They are offering lessons and products that are well received in the marketplace. They are also offering products that warrant the cost…that offer the longevity people want out of a sale.
How can dealers improve? That’s where we come in. If we have a new product entering the market, it’s important for us to push it through the channels easily to ensure that musicians are aware of it as soon as possible.
For several years now, retailers, in general, have talked about the strength of the accessories category. Talk about the ascendance of accessory products as profit leaders in the MI industry.
Cavanaugh: Accessories are definitely a key point for dealers, and they should be taking advantage of that. Often, a teacher will say to a student, “You need to have a cake of rosin,” or “You need to have an extra E string,” or “You need to have a maintenance kit.” Dealers need to be carrying those products, because a student has to purchase them. And where are they going to purchase them? Of course, they’re going to purchase them from their local dealer. They need to make sure they are carrying those necessities.
And, of course, the dealers should be partnering up with the schools and making sure that they are carrying what the teacher needs. And, as I mentioned, that could be rosin, strings, maintenance kits, polishing cloths, etc. Those can definitely be profit centers. You can only sell one instrument, but, in turn, you can sell lots of accessories for that one instrument. Or, maybe you rent out an instrument, but the player is ultimately going to buy accessories for it. Accessories are an integral profit center for dealers.
Do you think one element of accessories’ strength in the dealer channel is that they’re often low-price but high-margin products?
Cavanaugh: Most definitely. As I said before, most of the time, you are not walking in to buy an instrument. Maybe you’re renting an instrument. Nevertheless, you still have to buy, for example, the rosin. You are not going to be able to reuse the rosin; once it’s yours, it’s yours. The same with a polishing cloth or anything else that is going to be used and that you can’t resell. Parents are going to put down X number of dollars and buy it, because it’s a small item. An instrument, meanwhile, they will most likely rent. Perhaps the player will become proficient, and that person will eventually purchase his or her own. But, when it comes to accessories, they are low-cost items and a good margin can be made on them.
Talk about the importance of music education, the good work of the NAMM Foundation in that regard and your recent presentation of a Support Music Merit Award.
Cavanaugh: NAMM is a fantastic organization in terms of the research they have done, as well as what it is doing for the music industry and the community as a whole. We have adopted many of their principles and ideas, and we’ve incorporated them into our own community. We have worked with many teachers regarding how to get students more involved.
Our area has been hit particularly hard with economic cuts, and school officials and administrators don’t understand why it’s so important to have a school orchestra or band. It isn’t just a benefit to the students; there is also an economic value to having it. Once you make clear the economic value related to why those programs would be more cost-effective, the decision-makers can start to be persuaded.
The administrators at the local level need the facts about the benefits and the economic value. It’s so easy for them to say, “OK, I’m going to cut the band. It doesn’t make enough money.” Well, if you decide to take away the orchestra and band programs, which classrooms and teachers are going to accommodate those 300 kids? You’re going to have to hire more teachers—math, science, etc.—to handle those students. If the school administrators grasp the numbers involved, they will understand. They say, “OK. Now I do see why we should have a band. Now I do see why we should have an orchestra.”
I have gained so much knowledge from NAMM, and I wanted to give back by presenting awards to schools that are excelling with their music programs. And that’s what I have been doing recently: physically presenting what NAMM has awarded them.
What does the future hold for Super-Sensitive Musical String Co. and Black Diamond Guitar Strings? What are you still looking to achieve?
Cavanaugh: The future is in the educator sector, and it lies with the students who make the Red Label brand the number-one student string in America. And that is what our concentration is, has been and always will be: the educator and student. That is Super-Sensitive’s focus, and we never want to deviate from that, because that’s our passion when it comes to the future of the company.
With Black Diamond, we are finding many different genres of music that we are very well received in. We are extremely well known in the bluegrass and country sector, and we’re now breaking into the rock ‘n’ roll business.
We are working within our niche, which happens to be in bluegrass and country, and we have an enormous following.
Is there anything I ought to have asked you about that I’ve forgotten to ask?
Cavanaugh: Earlier in our conversation, I was discussing product development. As time goes by from decade to decade, the types of products that musicians and teachers want tends to change. I have seen the trend moving more toward nylon violin strings. We developed a fantastic student nylon string, Red Label Pearl, which has just been unveiled in the marketplace. We have done extensive research into what musicians and educators want. The teachers are the driving force when we develop a product. And when we see trends are changing, we, as a company, need to change with them. Companies in our industry cannot remain stagnant.