At 95 years young, St. Louis Music (SLM) continues to exude impressive strength. Headquartered just minutes away from the Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium, the division of U.S. Band & Orchestra Supplies Inc. is the corporate owner of Austin Guitars, Knilling String Instruments, Perfection Planetary Pegs, SIGMA Guitars USA, Union Station accessories and Zonda Instruments & Reeds. It is also the exclusive worldwide distributor and producer of Alvarez and Alvarez-Yairi guitars, and exclusive USA distributor of Dixon Drums & Hardware. St. Louis Music also distributes more than 10,000 products from more than 150 brands, including Audio-Technica, C.F. Martin, D’Addario, Dunlop, Korg, Manhasset, Rico, Remo, Selmer, Vandoren, Vic Firth, Yamaha and many more.
Given all this information, we probably could ask Mark Ragin, chairman and CEO of St. Louis Music, a million questions. But since we only have five minutes, we reduced the question list to 10. Find out about Ragin’s background, how the company distances itself from the competition and, since this the drum and percussion issue, we find out about, specifically, how Dixon is doing. Enjoy.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Discuss how you first became involved in music and what you enjoy most about the industry.
Mark Ragin: Like many people in our industry, I started as a musician in school. I played clarinet/sax and enjoyed band and, unbeknown to me then, I was starting a lifelong career in the music business with this coming January being my 44-year anniversary. What I have enjoyed most about our industry are the people and a feeling that we are doing something beneficial as we all try to make a living. Music helps us all, it helps our kids, it helps society as a whole in a multitude of ways, from making us feel better, improving education, breaking down barriers, and this is simply a fun business to be in. As for the people I have met along the way, I feel blessed to have met so many interesting, intelligent, inspiring and committed professionals.
The Retailer: Tell us about your work experience and career.
Ragin: In 1974, at the age of 17, I started working for St. Ann Music, a Missouri school music dealer that had five locations. I was stocking shelves to begin with, and over the years worked hard and rose through the ranks to become president of the company in 1986. In 1998, the owner of St. Ann’s decided to sell the company, and I managed to purchase its wholesale division, Wolf Imports, and renamed it U.S. Band & Orchestra Supplies Inc. We were a small distributor with just myself and four other people, but retail had taught me what dealers expected from a distributor. I started putting many of those ideas to work, and we grew quickly and started picking up some great band and orchestra accessory lines. By 2007, we were doing well and started adding more combo accessory products.
In 2008, I approached LOUD Technologies, who had purchased St. Louis Music in 2005, to see if they were interested in selling the Knilling brand of violins. I thought they’d be interested in selling, as they were more focused on audio and amps, and Knilling would have been a great fit for us. At first, my offer was declined, but a few months later they came back to say Knilling was for sale, and so was St. Louis Music, along with Austin Guitars, other small goods brands and a warehouse full of accessory inventory. We put together a business plan, acquired bank financing and purchased SLM in November 2008. The last nine years has been an incredible roller coaster ride. We have added 60 additional employees, and our company has become one of the largest general distributors of music products in the United States.
The Retailer: What is the best part about your job? Tell us about your job and who/what you are responsible for.
Ragin: The best part of my job is working with the incredible employees here at St. Louis Music; some have worked here 50 years. We approach our challenges and opportunities as a team, to make sure we grow and remain relevant, even treasured by the dealers who support us day in and day out. As the owner, my main responsibilities are to meet with most of the managers on a regular basis, and talk with customers and suppliers. Daily, I keep an eye on inventory and make sure our financial picture is in good shape, which will allow us to grow and take advantage of any opportunities that can bring further prosperity to our company and our customers.
The Retailer: What differentiates St. Louis Music from competitor manufacturers?
Ragin: We’re big enough to compete and small enough to care. We are still a family-owned business with core values for service, fairness and loyalty. We carry everything for the school music dealer and offer the largest range of band and orchestra accessories in the business, as well as world-class products from Hamilton, Knilling, Blessing and P. Mauriat. For combo, we carry most of the major string brands and thousands of other essential products, as well as what we believe to be one the best acoustic guitar lines in the business, Alvarez. Percussion is also a very important sector for us, and Dixon drums goes from strength to strength, and we have all the big names in percussion accessories. We have become a major supplier offering more than 13,000 different products backed up by super-proactive sales and marketing initiatives, all aimed at increasing margin dollars for our dealers.
The Retailer: Tell us about your approach when it comes to the brick-and-mortar channel and how dedicated you are to this channel compared to the internet.
Ragin: I think our approach is simple: do what we can do best, support and supply a service that we can be proud of; that comes first. Breaking that service down, or tailoring it to what type of dealer you are, is mainly handled by our sales and marketing teams who know our customers the best. Also, a large percentage of independent stores have an ecommerce platform that can be a huge part of their business, and conversely, many of the large national internet dealers are also independent, even family-owned, businesses. So, we don’t split our approach to supplying dealers who have an internet store and those who don’t. If you are an authorized dealer for one of SLM’s instrument brands or on our Advantage Accessory dealer program, we support you. This includes offering further discounts, better terms and monthly specials, enabling you to make more margin on our products.
The Retailer: Do you have any advice for retailers when selling your products?
Ragin: We produce endless amounts of sales and product information from websites, brochures, videos, ads, banners and merchandise. We have 24 reps on the road offering training and product knowledge. We do clinics, social marketing support and more. My advice is to please call us so we can share whatever knowledge we have to help your business. We constantly strive to improve the tools we offer to help you sell more product and increase your bottom line. We have monthly, weekly and often daily specials. We also have the amazing “Retail Catalog Program” where we will produce for the dealer their very own full-color, 300-page accessory catalog. We have freight incentives, extended terms initiatives and more. At SLM we work to become a partner, not just a supplier, and that sort of approach seems to have served us well.
The Retailer: Since this is a drum issue, can you tell us how Dixon is doing and the state of the overall drum industry today?
Ragin: I believe Dixon is quite simply one of the best drum brands in the world. Superb quality, constant research and development, amazing artists and true value. No doubt, the drum business has faced its challenges over the past few years, but we are doing well and Dixon grows year after year. The best profit center for dealer’s drum departments is parts and hardware. Dixon has expanded its parts, offering more than 150 of the best-selling service parts with great POP [point of purchase] packaging. We support that with the “orbiter” free-standing display and Plan-o-gram setups for dealers’ slat walls. Dixon hardware has expanded a complete offering for B&O dealers with a concert cymbal stand, plus a wide selection of extended-height snare stands. The newest drum set is called the “Little Roomer,” which is designed to be ultra-compact and low volume, and is getting a lot of interest.
The Retailer: Please tell us about cool new products you have released recently/at Summer NAMM.
Ragin: We were excited to recently partner with Warwick Music Group to distribute the P-Instrument line of band and pre-band instruments. We see this as an excellent opportunity to inspire and enhance music education programs in North America. We introduced the newly revamped line of Austin Guitars that are ready for the selling season. The acoustic guitars are open-pore, satin-finished for a big sound at a very affordable price. We’ve introduced the Compass ligature. The Compass is a universal ligature for soprano, alto and tenor sax. This year, we have seen Alvarez release its Armrest guitars, which have been a big hit. The new Nicolo Gabrieli American luthier-built, premium European tonewood, pre-professional violins, violas and cellos are garnering impressive accolades from top professional shops and players. Hamilton won the [NAMM] Best in Show award for the new KB130E iPad/Tablet holder. E.K. Blessing is back as a full line again, with the addition of Standard Series Woodwinds, along with the expansion of the Performance Series Brass, including an improved design of the classic Blessing 1541 Flugelhorn.
The Retailer: What can we expect from SLM in the future?
Ragin: We are currently working on our new B2B online ordering system, which will make doing business with us even easier. Our product managers are in the middle of their development for NAMM 2018 product launches, and our operations team has just installed a state-of-the-art telephone system, so we can service our customers better and more efficiently. You can expect us to keep pushing ourselves to be true business partners. We are committed to improving our technology. We continue to develop awesome instruments and add world-class brands. If we continue to put our customers first, we will continue to grow as we have in the past 10 years for decades to come.
The Retailer: Anything you’d like to add?
Ragin: St. Louis Music will be celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2022 and has been a legendary name in the music business. Even with the recent purchases of Hamilton Stands, E.K. Blessing, Zonda, etc., we are still looking to acquire additional companies and brands. I cannot say thank you enough to our dedicated employees. Our management team consists of the very finest in the industry. An extra thank you goes to our customers and vendors who support us day in and day out. SLM is committed to dealer satisfaction, and dealers are welcome to pick up their phone and call me directly, anytime.