The music products industry has often been described as one big, extended family. Perhaps one reason for that familial vibe within our industry is that many of the most successful, most highly regarded companies supplying music products are, themselves, family businesses. That brings us to The Music People (TMP), which Jim Hennessey created in 1979 and for which two of his children, Sharon and John Hennessey, now serve as Co-Presidents. In this month’s “Five Minutes With” interview, Sharon dives deeply into the company’s DNA, which is inextricably linked to the Hennessey family’s long history in both music and business.
Sharon discusses TMP’s founding, its growth and development over nearly four decades, its tight-knit dealer relationships, and the ways in which it can be a partner, and a friend, to others in the MI business. The company, which has succeeded even during difficult economic times by embracing a philosophy of “responsible risk,” is a model for strategies that might benefit others in the market, as well. Our eye-opening interview gives you the full story.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s start by focusing on your personal background, as it relates to both music products and business. Tell us about your early years and how they set you on a trajectory to be where you are today.
Sharon Hennessey: I’ve always been moved by music, and I love the talent, skill and passion that musicians have. That, I think, drives me to reach goals. I am not, however, a musician, per se. My father worked for Ovation Guitars for 10 years and, as a child, I grew up going to the Ovation factory on the weekends. Essentially, I played make-believe business with my brother. I remember using Bill Kaman’s phone on the weekend, calling my brother, telling him, “I needed that report an hour ago!” and hanging up on him. Looking back, I guess playing make-believe business turned into real business. Thinking back on those weekends, I remember being around guitars, the manufacturing aspect of them, and the smell of fiberglass and wood.
Today, when I hear that song “Dream Weaver,” by Gary Wright, I remember being connected to that song so deeply in high school. I knew that, mentally, I was already past high school. I was ready to jump into a career, and I knew I had something I wanted to create value with. A lot of times, it’s lyrics that create an emotional response in me. So, I’ve always been around music.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have my father, Jim Hennessey, who was the head of advertising, trade shows and endorsements for Ovation Guitars. He started in Kaman Aerospace, and he was later transferred by Charlie Kaman to the Ovation Guitars side. At the time, Jim was on the road giving the original Roundback to guitarists for endorsements. So, during the 1970s, I was fortunate enough to grow up and travel in the Ovation van, going to see concerts like Jim Croce, Neil Diamond, Paul McCartney, Linda Ronstadt, Loggins & Messina, Pink Floyd and more. Being around music, going to concerts and having that exposure had a big influence on me.
The Retailer: Can you share a bit about how The Music People was born? What led to the company’s creation?
Hennessey: When I speak to the company at our annual holiday party or other events, I often speak about “responsible risk.” Given the economic climate or whatever is going on in the market, it’s about being very aggressive, but also being responsible. By that, I mean, if times are a little tough, we don’t necessarily batten down the hatches; we tend to expand and grow during challenging times. So, when I reflect back, I’d have to say my father embraced that. He has vision…the ability to start with a blank piece of paper and then execute.
Working for Ovation for 10 years and attending over a hundred concerts, he recognized the need for better stands and accessories. He pitched an accessory program to Ovation, but it wasn’t well received. Jim had the foresight to, again, take a blank piece of paper and start a company. At the time, he was 44 years old, with four kids: two in college and four in braces. But, he decided to go out on his own, start his own company and design the stands to hold the guitars, which, he thought, weren’t out there. He designed the first double and triple guitar stand in 1979, but he never put a patent on it. Since then, we’ve learned and we have had many patents. So, we give him a tremendous amount of credit for, back in the day, having that vision and having that drive…taking a blank piece of paper and creating a company that—almost 38 years later—is still here, still vibrant and never more exciting.
The Retailer: Tell us about TMP’s evolution from its earliest days to the present, as well as the creation of its currently existing divisions: TMP Pro Distribution and On-Stage.
Hennessey: We’re very fortunate to have been, for the last 37 years, very true to our core product. By that, I mean we’ve never really gotten involved in manufacturing musical instruments or other pro-audio equipment. We’ve stayed focused on stands and accessories.
However, in TMP’s early years, back in 1985, we realized that there weren’t really any distribution programs with the professional audio companies. My dad realized that microphones, in particular, are lightweight, and they can be shipped anywhere in the United States at a low cost. So, if we could go out and become experts in just one category, such as microphones—Shure, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica and 13 other manufacturers—well, no one else had distribution programs. TMP was their first distribution partner. Also, in 1985, interest rates were at 18 percent and microphone manufacturers had minimum purchase requirements that made it difficult for many dealers to carry multiple brands. Being a distributor for 16 microphone brands allowed us to sell to dealers with no minimum requirements. So, our business was able to grow rather quickly.
The concept was to be able to have the cash flow from the distribution of those brands to fund On-Stage Stands as an importer. We were initially able to fund the On-Stage original designs through a different division, called TMP Pro Distribution. As we were quickly becoming the microphone experts and carrying every brand of microphone, we were easily able to consolidate them on our On-Stage orders. And it became a nice little business. The sales department, over the years, has grown to know about installs and gained in-depth knowledge of the pro-audio brands. Today, we distribute 180 brands of pro audio, and we’re known for being in-depth with every brand. If you take the Shure brand of microphones, we sell across the board: All models of wireless and wired microphones are available to our dealers and us.
Over the years, we’ve actually had three distinct divisions, the third one being in OEM. Because we have so many close relationships from distribution, we’re the first ones they come to for OEM. A fair amount of our business is doing OEM for the major manufacturers. Sometimes, accessories are an afterthought for others, but that’s what we’ve lived and breathed for the last 37 years. We have the experience to do everything “in-house,” meaning that we’ve built those relationships overseas to source materials, design the products ourselves, and do the research and development, packaging and sales marketing. The OEM division has been a nice balance for our company. All three are headquartered in Berlin CT. Our company in China manages our manufacturing and it oversees inspections, export and more.
The Retailer: Tell us about the management changes announced this past January, whereby John Hennessey and you became Co-Presidents. Talk about the succession from generation to generation and what it’s been like.
Hennessey: Over the past few years, we’ve done a couple of different things. We took our headquarters here in Berlin CT and we moved our distribution center outside of our headquarters. We now have a 45,000-square-foot distribution center about a half-hour down the road from our corporate headquarters. We also took the opportunity to expand, remodel and redesign our offices. I think that had a big impact on the physical culture of the company. We finished that at the end of 2014. Then, in 2015, this building actually came up for sale. John and I created a separate entity and we purchased this building in November. We wanted to create a space in our corporate headquarters that spoke to who we are and what we do. We took a step back, because we’re not really box movers, per se. What we are is an import, manufacturing, design and packaging company. We wanted our offices to speak to that, and for all the departments to be together to create that synergy.
As another part of the build-out, we included an updated photo/video studio where we are able to create all our marketing materials in-house; now, we have a dedicated creative team behind our new branding initiatives. Another addition was a new “Experience Room,” which is a specialized sound-isolation room. Not only can our staff train and demo products from our manufacturers there, but we can also invite our dealers to join in the training and demos.
After the build-out, and after John and I personally purchased this building, which was a great fit, we also became Co-Presidents of the organization. My father, Jim, is now Chairman of The Music People. John and I have been with the company for a long time—I’m on my 27th year—and we’re running the business side by side with our father. If you go back to the core of a family business, we complement one another. Jim is still doing patentable product design; John manages most of the business, IT and HR aspects; and I manage a fair amount of the sales. And, together, we create a nice synergy.
John and I officially becoming Co-Presidents has been very well received by the employees. Recently, we expanded our benefits, and we’ve put a 401(k) match in place. Those have been greatly received by the employees. We do a lot of little extra things that, we believe, create a better environment for the employees. Although we’ve had a changing of the guard by becoming Co-Presidents, Jim is still very active in the company and he’s still designing. Our product designs are now a combination of On-Stage originals and partnerships with our customers. As we look forward to the future of the company, we are continuing to try to find new opportunities to design products, whether it’s through offerings of pro-audio distribution or putting it under the On-Stage brand.
The Retailer: What’s the best part of your job? What keeps you motivated, excited and engaged after more than 25 years working for TMP?
Hennessey: The relationships. We are very fortunate to have relationships that go back as far as the company itself—and even prior to that—with dealers, distributors and factories. To have the relationships that we have, and to be able to sell products in between, is amazing. I’ve known our customers for many years, and I consider them a part of our family. We’re just recently coming off Summer NAMM, and we’re so invigorated coming back from the show. It’s like a shot of adrenaline. I’m excited for the future. I’m encouraged about the future. We actually won three “Best in Show” awards. If that doesn’t help you jump out of bed in the morning, I’m not sure what does! [Laughs.] We won two product honors, and we were also recognized as a “Company to Watch.” That’s pretty cool! After 37 years in business, we’re still a company to keep your eye on. And, you know, those awards and accolades are done by some of our customers.
It was a really exciting show. Not that many companies launch products at Summer NAMM, but we just came off launching 50 new products. What’s so unique about our industry is that it’s a very passionate one. Most of our customers are musicians, and they’ll do just about anything to stay in this industry. So, I’ve had the pleasure, all these years, to have so many friends. Sometimes, they’ve switched around to different companies. But, at the end of the day, I’m still probably doing business with them, either through a distribution channel or through a customer channel.
We’re fortunate enough to be in 86 countries with the brand On-Stage. A few years ago, we dropped the “Stands” off what used to be “On-Stage Stands,” because we truly aren’t just a stand company. We’ve evolved into cases, gig bags, straps, drum sets, tuners, etc. We’ve really tapped into more categories. Also, more recently, we launched our China office. Five years ago, we created Meifan, which is a separate entity that is our China office and distribution center. Meifan allows us to ship from China to 86 countries.
As we all know, the consumer is driving the bus these days, and things are moving extremely quickly. The beauty of still being a somewhat small company is that, you know, we’re open enough and agile enough to take a right-hand turn tomorrow morning if we need to. Maybe we’ve been accustomed to taking a left-hand turn for years. But, having our own entity in China helps us meet the needs of our customers, and that’s exciting.
The Retailer: What makes The Music People different from not only its competitors, but also companies in the music products industry more broadly? What’s the “secret sauce” at TMP?
Hennessey: The “secret sauce” is that we have extremely strong relationships. We’re constantly trying to find ways to communicate with our customers on a daily basis, through lots of technology. Our sales team is in constant contact with our customers: serving all our customers, knowing all the products and knowing what they might be missing. There’s constant communication. We team with our partners to develop products, and we have them as part of the process. It’s a great way to spend more time together. And, it allows them to get a little snapshot of what it’s like to be on the manufacturing side. They’re on the front end all day long. They let us know if there’s a niche and a price point we could hit, along with certain features and benefits. When we combine forces, it’s pretty magical that we have the back-end resources and infrastructure to come to market with a product that’s a combination of the two of us working together.
The Retailer: Can you discuss the line-card additions recently made on the TMP Pro Distribution side? What’s powering this rapid growth?
Hennessey: I think we have a very unique sales department here at The Music People. Many of my salesmen have been with the company anywhere from 10 to 15 to 20 years. On the pro-audio side of the business, I think a lot of the major manufacturers recognize that The Music People—our systems, our processes and our background in the industry—serves them well. When they come to visit The Music People, they recognize that we’re able to meet the needs of that installer or customer more quickly and more efficiently than they could directly. Our sales specialists will get a bid from a contractor, and we’ll put together a quote and make further recommendations. And we stay with the project from beginning to end. Over the years, we’ve worked very closely with those brands to be an extension of their organization. So, a lot of times, we’re using their marketing information, and we’re able to go out to the market pretty quickly on their behalf.
We know what our terms and agreements are with each one of our partner organizations. So, I think our reputation out in the marketplace, earned over many years, centers on my team and their pro-audio background, as well as their ability to take on a brand and make sure it grows, as opposed to cannibalizing existing business.
The Retailer: Tell me about TMP’s relationship with the dealer community. Why are good dealer relationships such a high priority within your organization?
Hennessey: One of our top initiatives is to be able to understand the needs of our customers and to nurture our relationships with them. Many on our sales team have installation or FOH backgrounds. We’re constantly trying to find ways internally to be the back-end for our partners’ organizations and to make sure their teams are efficient. And we’re constantly finding ways to improve our purchase-order management. Better communication is one of our biggest company initiatives. We’re also focused on finding ways to stay ahead of our customers. If we anticipate anything that might impact their business, we want to reach them on the front end and have solutions. I think they appreciate the fact that we are constantly trying to find ways to make their business more efficient, as we do for ourselves.
Two years ago, we lifted the hood and looked underneath. My brother and I probably spent a year looking to see where we might be inefficient. We asked, “How can we do things better?” We often share that information with our customers. By doing that, we’re able to help them, as well.
The Retailer: Do you have any constructive criticism for the brick-and-mortar dealers in our industry?
Hennessey: I think it’s important to partner with a company like The Music People. We can help them. Today, with technology, there are lots of ways for us to supply our marketing materials. We spent a fair amount of effort in the last year to really keep our look current and fresh. We have a brand new trade show booth…a brand new catalog…a new building. We have lots of resources here at The Music People to help populate our dealers’ Web sites and move their inventory. Partner with us to stay fresh and stay current on the brands you should be carrying.
We believe that brick-and-mortar retailers face the challenge that it’s difficult to be everything to everybody. But, yet, there are so many brands out there that, nevertheless, they must offer to the consumer. We’re a great resource to be an extension of their organization. I have distribution centers in Kentucky, Connecticut and California, and the brand offering that we have for them is 180 brands on the pro-audio side.
We’re continuing to expand what I would call our MI distributed lines now. It’s just the next natural fit for us…things that we haven’t gone into in the past. One question I often hear from my partners is, “Why do you not carry more of the MI distributed brands, whether it be strings, sticks or something else?” It’s the next logical fit for them. There are skids leaving here on a daily basis, and it’s going back to that idea of consolidating and saving under one roof. Partnering with TMP gives our brick-and-mortar retailers the confidence to carry multiple brands, which, in turn, gives their customers the confidence to keep returning to them for more.
The Retailer: The accessories category has been, and continues to be, particularly strong within the music products industry. Since that’s a big part of TMP’s world, tell us about the ascendance of accessories, particularly those that are low-price/high-margin.
Hennessey: Going back in history, in 2007 and 2008, we were growing at a rate of 22 percent. Sometimes, you would look at that and find that odd. But, when the world is going through difficult times, we tend to grow. And, a lot of times, that’s because of our accessory business. I think that, you know, during difficult times, people still tend to want to play out, or to do something that distracts them. In your own world, if you’re going out to a Target or a Walmart to shop, I definitely have noticed a flip-flop of the store model: The accessories are up front and the higher-ticket items are pushed to the back of the store. Rather than buying a new phone, if you can put a new case on it, it gives it a new look…a fresh look. You feel like you have a new product. So, a lot of our accessories are complementary to something larger, which you already have, whether it is a drum set or a guitar. It makes you feel like you’ve added on something that might be giving it a little color or flair—a little extra design that you didn’t have in your previous product—without adding a lot of out-of-pocket expense.
When I look at other industries, like toothbrushes, for example, it’s amazing to me how many different toothbrushes are offered, and how much square footage they get today in a retail brick-and-mortar. There are so many different ways to add features and benefits that speak to the consumer…that give them different ways to enjoy what it is they like to do. So, we’ve always found that niche of being able to add on to larger-ticket items by offering the consumer different ways to have something that organizes the category for them.
The Retailer: What can company watchers expect from TMP over the next year…three years…five years? Is there anything you want to preview for us?
Hennessey: When we look at On-Stage, we’re always trying to come out with more items that we currently don’t have offerings for. So, if you just look at Summer NAMM, what we’ve done is, you know, we’ve come out with utility carts. We’d never had one, and it won “Best in Show.” We’ve come out with cajóns…again, bestsellers at Summer NAMM. We’ve come out with acoustic products. We’ve never really been involved in isolation shield or ASP foam speaker platform. So, we’re trying to expand our proprietary brand to touch on areas that we’ve never been involved in before.
And, recently, we launched 40 new band and orchestra accessories. We recognize that the band and orchestra market is significant, and we have prioritized adding a significant amount of new accessories to meet the needs of our current customer base, who reflect the heavy, long-term B&O relationships that we have.
Earlier, I said it’s a natural next step for us to expand our MI distribution offerings, as we’ve done on the pro-audio side of the business. So, recently, we’ve added Mérida Guitars and LuLu Ukuleles, and we’re the only U.S. distributor. We’ve also added MJC Ironworks Strings…also the exclusive distributor of their new electric and acoustic strings. And we’re the new exclusive distributor for ddrum’s electronic drum kits in the United States. So, just taking those three categories of new, distributed MI offerings is exciting to us. In the near future, our depth of offerings on the MI side will be equivalent to what we’ve done so well on the pro-audio side of the business.
The Retailer: Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask about that you’d like to discuss?
Hennessey: We’ve had a lot of new hires at The Music People, and we’ve done a lot of internal promotions. We’re looking for new top talent. We’re looking for talented individuals to join the TMP family.