If there were an award in the music products industry to recognize the company that, in the past half-dozen or so years, has most increased its profile and most gained market share, respect and admiration in its categories, the winner would probably be Casio America and its Electronic Musical Instrument Division. That’s due not only to Casio’s talented R&D team, but also to its sales and marketing brain trust, of which Mark Amentt, Director of Sales, is an indispensable member. In this month’s in-depth interview, Amentt discusses his winding path to a career in the MI space, Casio’s concerted efforts to raise its products’ profile, the company’s bone-deep commitment to its brick-and-mortar dealer partners, and its desire to expand relative to both vertical markets and product categories.
If you want the skinny on what’s going on with one of the most exciting companies in MI, this interview’s a must read.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Tell me about how you initially became interested in, and passionate about, music. Did it begin in early childhood? Later on in life?
Mark Amentt: I actually started playing drums when I was six years old. I played drums for about 20 years…self-taught. Then, I played guitar…played that for about 12 years. During this time, I began playing bass, and I still play bass as my main instrument. I actually still gig quite a bit. I didn’t always have a desire to get into the music products industry, though. That happened later. But, I’ve been a musician most of my life. It’s a significant part of who I am.
The Retailer: Starting from its beginning, how did your career progress? Did a passion for music factor into your early jobs? If not, when did you transition into the music products industry?
Amentt: Believe it or not, I started out in the pharmaceutical and publishing industries, working in sales and sales management. But, as time went on, I realized that I didn’t love my job. I had a really good conversation with my wife about this, as well. I’d been in that industry for quite some time. Then, about 17 years ago, a friend got me a badge to go to Summer NAMM in Nashville. I went there with 300 résumés and three of my best suits. I walked the floor and I talked to people about opportunities. I wanted to do something with my passion for music. I’m a firm believer that you should follow your passion to feel more fulfilled in life. Music had always been such a big part of my life. The pharmaceutical industry was great. It paid very well, and I had great opportunities. But I wasn’t passionate about it. I was passionate about music. So, that’s how I got into the industry.
The Retailer: What was your first job within the music products industry?
Amentt: When I went to Summer NAMM and I was passing out résumés, I actually did have some interviews. There was one quick offer that came out of it, which I didn’t accept. But, a few months after that, I was contacted by the folks at the Alliance of Independent Music Merchants (AIMM). I was brought in as Director of Operations. Having a heavy sales and sales management background, I found myself doing a lot of finance and operations duties. I was at AIMM for a little more than 10 years. While there, I worked with some of the best independent retailers in the United States, as well as many of the top manufacturers. So, I had a pretty good overview of everything that was happening in the industry during that time. I learned quite a bit.
The Retailer: What initially brought you to Casio? Was there something in particular that attracted you to the company? If so, what was it?
Amentt: I heard about the Casio opportunity, and I felt that it was time to make a change. I also felt that there were things I could contribute there. I’d watched the company make great strides for several years. And, I think that, if you speak to people, they’ve almost all owned a Casio keyboard at one point in their life…and I’m no exception. So, I ended up making the transition to Casio. The AIMM folks were very gracious while I was there, and very good about me moving on. It was a great move both personally and professionally.
I’d heard about the position through the grapevine and, because of Casio’s place in the music industry, I felt it was a great opportunity. In addition, I understood that some of the products they were starting to come to market with were innovative and different. I viewed Casio as a little bit of an underdog, since they became known for their very successful portable keyboards, but they were bringing professional instruments to market again. I liked that challenge. So, that’s what brought me here.
The Retailer: Discuss your contributions, responsibilities and achievements within Casio’s four walls. What have been your career highlights within the company?
Amentt: I have to frame my response first by saying this: It would be wrong for me to take credit for any highlights solely on my own, because I couldn’t really have accomplished anything without the folks I work with here. We’re a very, very small team, and we wear many hats. It’s important for us to have open and honest dialogue, and for us to collaborate. We have a great team. Any achievements are because of everybody I work with.
I think one of the contributions that I—again, along with everybody else—am proud of is that we’ve continually grown the business, in a somewhat declining market, since I’ve been here. When I first got to Casio as Director of Sales, I was directly responsible for the independent reps and one admin person. But, now, that’s grown to a handful of regional managers and internal staff. We’ve also expanded into the piano dealer market, which has definitely been a highlight. We’ve seen some great success in that area in a very short period of time. Part of that has to do with the folks I brought in.
I mentioned AIMM earlier, and John Anning is someone I worked with at AIMM for 10 years. We just had a great chemistry. I managed to bring John over to Casio, and it’s been even better ever since. John has had a major impact on our success with piano dealers. That, in conjunction with some of the regional managers I’ve hired, has been powerful. These folks are really hard workers. They understand the goals that we’re trying to achieve, and they know how to get us there. Additionally, the internal staff at Casio has had a great impact. It’s a great group of folks. We’re all chasing the same thing. We all have the same mindset.
If I were to name one additional highlight, I would have to say that, after leaving AIMM, I saw an opportunity to help continue to foster a connection between the manufacturer and independent retailers. I feel as though I’ve managed to do that, and that’s very important to me. So, in addition to my responsibilities being expanded, bringing in the right folks and continuing to realize growth, I’m proud of the continued focus on our dealer partners.
I would identify those things as the highlights. But, again, those highlights couldn’t have happened without our great team and strong leadership.
The Retailer: What is the very best part of being Director of Sales with Casio’s Musical Instrument Division? What makes you most excited to get out of bed in the morning and get to work?
Amentt: Well, I have to begin by saying this: I get up at 4:30am every day, and I’m in the car by 5am. I have a two-hour commute one way. I travel quite a bit, so it’s not like I’m doing that every day. But, when you’re in the car for four…sometime six…hours a day, you have to have a reason to get up and do that. I’ve yet to oversleep, because I realize the importance of what my responsibilities are. I realize that what we’re doing is making a difference in a lot of ways. I really feel that I’m making a contribution to the success of Casio: not only in America, but also worldwide. In some ways, it’s a big responsibility; in other ways, it’s a really fun challenge. I love my job!
I really care about the people I work with. We have a fantastic management team. I get to work with folks like Mike Martin and Stephen Schmidt. It’s a great place to be, and I’m very proud to be there. I see us making a difference. That’s what gets me out of bed every morning.
The Retailer: What is the “secret sauce” at Casio that serves to distinguish the company not only from its direct competitors in the electronic musical instrument space, but also from MI companies more broadly?
Amentt: There are several things. Because we’re a small team and we wear several hats, and because we collaborate so effectively, we find ourselves in a good situation to be a little bit more agile. We can react differently and more swiftly, in some cases. There’s also the fostering and support of the MI and piano dealers. That’s something that’s been very helpful to us…just keeping that focus on those brick-and-mortar retailers. We all see what’s happening currently in the industry. The Internet, in many ways, is taking over. But, we’ve done a lot of things to make sure that we’re supporting these independent retailers with our policies and programs. It’s been mentioned several times that we have very flexible programs. That’s kind of the “secret sauce.”
The Internet guys are going to continue to grow, and we know that. But we’ve limited the number of online retailers with which we work. The way I grew up as a musician was going to the local store. It was a destination. It was a place that was cool. You got to know the folks in the store. That’s still very important to me. And, piggybacking on that, we’re doing more things now in the education market. We’re doing things more in the house of worship area. Education, for example…this past year, we were intimately involved with many programs as part of the VH1 Save The Music Foundation. All those things are important, and all those things are factors for our success, because we always run all these programs directly through our dealer network. We don’t go direct to the schools.
We rely on our dealers, because we want to do anything and everything that we can to support them. It’s a tough market out there, and I see folks that are small to medium-sized businesses that, you know, have a passion for the business like I did when I got into it. We’re all helping each other here. That’s the common thread. That’s the beauty of it. We all have a love and passion for music. All those factors together—trying to create more players and more musicians—drive us all. And that kind of thought process is very prevalent inside Casio. So, those are some key things that really make the difference for us.
The Retailer: For a number of years, Casio had a reputation as a seller of “toy”-type products, as opposed to being perceived as a manufacturer of pro-level musical instruments. Describe the dramatic way in which that perception has changed in recent years.
Amentt: I remember vividly being in a meeting two weeks after I was hired. Mike Martin, who’s now the GM of Marketing, and I were meeting with the Chairman. Stephen Schmidt, the Vice President of the division, was there, as well. The question was, “How do we sell more keyboards?” We looked at each other and kind of came up with some quick answers, the least of which was, “Well, how do we make Casio cool?” Because we realized there was this stigma out there. Now, that was six years ago. What’s interesting is, the stigma isn’t as strong as it once was. I believe, on a personal level, that the idea that they were toys was because of the price points, the availability and the outlets where the products were sold.
It’s no secret that Casio built a very big foundation in the mass channel. It’s also no secret that Casio has influenced several musicians. Mariah Carey was actually quoted as saying that she wrote one of her Christmas hits on a Casio in her bedroom. Back in the ’80s, the Casio MT-40 played a significant role in modern reggae. You take a look at Jimmy Fallon today, and he uses one of the smaller Casios on his show. Everyone’s been influenced by Casio. All we have to do is continue to change the mindset and show that Casio is more than that. We make products for every level of player.
Much of the shift is because of people like Mike Martin. Mike realized some of the things that we could do to enhance the existing products. We also made sure that we spoke to the right artists about the different enhancements. And we’ve come to market with pro-level products at an affordable price.
I have to add something here that I think is interesting, and that I believe is an American mindset. When people see something inexpensive, they think it’s cheap or that it’s a toy. The original concept from Casio was to create an instrument that was feature-rich, but of significant value to the consumer, while also adding value to the dealer that sells the product. That got turned into, you know, the “toy” stigma. I thought that was interesting, because it’s really not the case. If you take a look at some of the products we have out there…being affordable doesn’t mean they’re toys.
We’ve also utilized other things that are happening in the Casio group of companies. Take a look at the watch division, as an example. The G-Shock helped put Casio on the map. Casio is a very strong brand. So, we saw what they were doing, and we recalled that original meeting where the thought was, “How do we make Casio cool?” Well, Casio’s now cool. We’ve attracted various artists, such as Joe Sample, Steve Weingart and Larry Dunn from Earth, Wind & Fire, just to name a few. These folks play our instruments on stage in front of thousands of people. These are affordable instruments that sound great, play great and that are durable. It’s having an impact.
The Retailer: Looking at the markets in which Casio musical instruments are used, are there particular categories or markets that are seeing growth, contraction or other changes?
Amentt: Ever since I’ve been here, it’s been a roller coaster, changing daily. We’ll have a conversation today about what may be happening in the industry and, next week, it’ll be something different. It’s changing that quickly. We’ve been pretty steady with our growth. I mentioned earlier that, you know, since I’ve been here, we continue to see opportunity and grow. But I also see that, in various markets, there are still opportunities for us to continue our growth. So, I guess about a year-and-a-half ago, I was given the responsibility of handling the education and house of worship markets. There are a lot of opportunities there. And, again, running all that business directly through our dealers helps them, as well.
I think the biggest challenge, really, is how to market effectively to consumers, because even that’s changing on almost a weekly basis. But we really don’t see any kind of a decline. We’re still realizing growth, because there are new products that are coming out. I mentioned the piano dealer space…that’s been a big benefit to us. Although I can’t talk about the number of outlets, it’s significant how many we’ve put on in a short amount of time. So, those dealers…those piano dealers…they realize the value that we offer. They realize the great margins. They realize the quality of the product.
Along with that, I need to mention something very important: We are finding other companies to partner with. For example, C. Bechstein is our partner on our latest product: the Celviano Grand Hybrids, which are winning quite a few awards these days. These new pianos are really making an impact. So, we continue to see growth. We’re very lucky in that respect. You know, to be honest with you, it’s a great place to be. I frankly love my job. [Laughs.]
The Retailer: Give our brick-and-mortar-dealer readers insight into Casio’s commitment to working through the dealer channel, as opposed to pursuing direct sales like some companies have done.
Amentt: Well, look, anything can change, but we’ve always been focused on the brick-and-mortar retailers. We also have some great relationships with Internet-based retailers. I should add, though, that we only have relationships with Internet retailers that are good partners. That’s very important to us. We don’t want to overshadow the brick-and-mortar retailers with our Internet business. We really have no desire to go direct to consumer. We feel as though the brick-and-mortar retailer, in particular, adds something. It’s part of the community!
Our initiatives with education and houses of worship, which also align with this communal theme, all go through our dealers. We value what they bring, so we try to make it as easy as possible for them to do business with us. Not everybody is completely happy, but you’re never going to satisfy everyone. We do our dead level best to do that, though.
The Retailer: Do you have any suggestions you’d offer to the brick-and-mortar dealers who are reading this interview…ideas that you think would help them bolster their business? Do you have any constructive criticism for your dealer partners?
Amentt: Yeah, I do, and part of it comes from my 10 years at AIMM. You know, I had a great opportunity to work with, in my opinion, some of the best independent retailers in the United States. I learned a lot from them. I learned a lot about what they need from a manufacturer, so I try to incorporate that into the things that we do. And the one thing I told them then—and it’s something I’ll tell them today—is this: You have to be unique. You have to be a destination. You have to “use” the Internet. You have to use social media. You have to embrace technology to help get the word out about who you are.
You know, I do a lot of Facebook posting, and I’m always talking about shopping local. I make it a point to “like” on Facebook every retailer I can find whom we sell to. I want to see what they’re doing, and I want to find ways to help them. The retail world has changed significantly in the few years that I’ve been with Casio, and it’s certainly changed in the 17 years I’ve been in the industry. It’s a whole different market now. So, the advice I would give to these retailers—I’ve kind of mentioned it—is this: “Be unique; be a destination; be a part of your community; embrace the teachers; and embrace the musicians. Do whatever you can to foster music in your community, but don’t neglect the opportunities that you may see on the Internet.” Whether it involves having a decent Web presence or even a decent Facebook page, dealers should use the Internet to their advantage.
The Retailer: As people watch Casio over the next one, three and five years, what can they expect? Do you foresee major changes, or largely a continuation of what we’ve seen in recent years?
Amentt: You know, it’s a combination. Obviously, there will be changes that I can’t discuss. And, when I say “changes,” I mean new product offerings and things like that. I think what you’re going to see is more innovation. We’re on this path where Casio is definitely being taken seriously: not only by dealers and by consumers, but also by our competitors. That’s flattering, frankly…that our competitors look at us so closely. I think it’s a good thing. I think it helps everybody in our space kind of sharpen our pencils and be better at what we do. We’ve come to market with some significant products: the CGP-700 with its color touchscreen, the Celviano Grand Hybrids and so on.
Our market base—with the MI retailer, the Internet retailer and, now, the piano dealer, which is growing significantly due to the new product offerings—is getting us to the next level. You can see it with all the awards we’ve been nominated for—or outright won—in the past six years for the products that we’ve introduced. The Celviano Grand Hybrids are a perfect example: a collaboration between C. Bechstein and Casio where, basically, we’re using components of a Bechstein grand piano key action, coupled with our digital piano technology. It’s a great collaboration that’s being recognized and very well received. Most companies find themselves in a situation where they’re trying to emulate a grand piano action. We just put one in. [Laughs.] It’s that simple. So, those types of things are going to continue to evolve and, really, they’ll continue to take us to the next level.
There’s one thing I’d like to add to that, which I think is important. Earlier, I mentioned the Casio philosophy…creating a product that is affordable, feature-rich, etc. One huge piece of it is making the product accessible to everybody. That was the original concept of how, really, Casio keyboards in their purest form came to be. One of the original principles of the company was to bring music to the masses. Casio has a standing vision: to bring valuable products to the marketplace under the premise of “from nothing to something.” We want to be innovative. We want to be the first to do certain things. We want to make sure that we’re satisfying the needs of the customers, while keeping in mind the dealers we sell through to get to those consumers. Those kinds of things really motivate and drive us.
We’re always exploring, looking at areas other than digital pianos and keyboards. We always have to look at those opportunities. You always have to be open-minded to what the opportunities may be, and we’re constantly looking at that. We’re a global company. As such, you always have to make sure you’re looking a few years ahead. We constantly do that. There are products coming in the pipeline that are pretty remarkable. I’m happy to say that we have folks in Casio America, like Stephen Schmidt, Mike Martin and Rich Formidoni, who are part of our team and who are so innovative. They come up with some great ideas, which we use to collaborate with Tokyo.
So, I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next year. I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen in three years. And, you know, like I said, these are the things that get me up in the morning. They’re the reason why I love my job.
The Retailer: Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask?
Amentt: Nothing immediately comes to mind, but I would like to add that Casio, more than ever, has a clear and defined focus on innovative products and cutting-edge technology. We’re doing a lot of things that are changing the way that people look at digital keyboards. It’s a great place to be, and I am very proud of what we do.
For the future, just keep an eye on Casio. We’re going to continue to innovate. We’re going to continue to be nominated for awards and, as we have recently, we’re going to continue to win them.