A&G Central Music, winner of the Music Makes a Difference and Dealer of the Year awards at NAMM’s Top 100 Dealer 2017 event in July, is also one of the most respected full-service band and orchestral music stores in the Detroit area, having cultivated a knowledgeable and community-minded brand over the past five decades. What started out as a musical instrument repair shop in 1968 has now grown to offer band instrument rental, lessons, repairs, and retail and institutional sales across two store locations.
Steering that ship successfully into the future has been Robert Christie — an educator, a performing musician playing drums and vibraphone, and a NAMM Scholarship recipient with degrees in music and business from Valparaiso University. Christie came to A&G Central Music as general manager after meeting the daughter of George Welder: “The ‘G’ of A&G,” Christie explained. “Within a few short weeks [of that meeting,] we had a handshake agreement that came with a commitment that, if I proved worthy after five years, I would have the opportunity to purchase the company. By the close of 2007, a deal was signed and I was the new owner of A&G Central Music!”
Christie oversees a staff of 19 — including his wife Peggy, who steps in to help with school rental programs during the busy season — but if you ask him, Christie will be the first to tell you that he sees himself more as their equal than as their boss.
“Here at A&G, we have a very different way of operating. We have no traditional manager or supervisory roles,” he explained. “My former employer, one of A&G Central Music’s competitors, had layers of management, very strict limits on employees and an environment that discouraged input on operations from all but the top tier of management. I try to empower all my co-workers to do what is necessary to have the best outcome for our customer, while still being fair to A&G.
“This requires a lot of trust, training, communication and personal responsibility,” he continued, “but operating this way allows us to be immediately responsive to our customers, and I find that operating in this way also builds a strong team spirit. We pick each other up and are able to accomplish more together without concern for who gets credit or blame.”
By embracing A&G Central Music’s staff in this way, Christie has helped to foster a community of people who care about the store and its customers, which Christie says is key to the store’s continued success.
“Perhaps our biggest competitive advantage is our people. We are a goal-oriented bunch who offer a personal level of service that’s difficult for most companies to match,” said Christie. “Virtually all of us have some musical background. About two-thirds of my co-workers have what I would call extensive musical background, up to and including post-graduate-level study. Together we are a human database of successes and failures. Sharing what we know about what works and what doesn’t can be extremely valuable to our customers.”
Christie also feels that some credit for the store’s success belongs to its size, which he describes as “big enough to have what our customers need and small enough to be agile in the marketplace.” The original location, which started out at 1,000 square feet, has grown to 5,500 square feet today, and the second location opened approximately seven years ago. Christie hopes to continue growing the store in the years to come, but in a slow and steady way that maintains A&G Central Music’s core identity.
“As we identify areas of the market we wish to impact more deeply, we plan out how to reach long-term goals through series of short-term projects. Focusing closely on growing in one market segment at a time allows us to build infrastructure and financing without jeopardizing our competitive advantage in segments where we are already strong,” said Christie. “While the ‘shotgun’ method has worked well for many businesses, we find our more focused strategies are best for long-term growth.”
One area in which Christie has had to grow the business considerably is in the community’s school music programs, which have been struggling more and more in recent years. According to Christie, in the past five years alone, he identified several troubled programs in the store’s sales territory, where funding has become a big issue. A&G Central Music has been working closely with those programs to provide “nontraditional services, up to and including educational assistance in the classroom,” to help keep them afloat, Christie said.
“Providing teachers for individual instruction during the school day, inventory maintenance agreements, assistance with grant writing, staffing and operating jazz and popular music programs, educating parents on the value of a musical education and then offering them the opportunity to learn alongside their child, and preparing and printing concert programs are just a few of the programs we offer,” Christie explained.
“Our industry has done a commendable job in spreading the word on all the cognitive, social and even physical benefits of music making. I believe that appropriate funding of school music programs has been, and will continue to be, positively affected by these efforts. But, we can do more,” he continued.
Not only does this pursuit help to grow A&G Central Music’s bottom line, as the relationships it builds increase sales and rentals, but, Christie hopes, it’ll also make these efforts unnecessary down the road. “We recognize that if we want to expand the community of music makers, we need to be creative in finding ways to bring opportunity to both children and adults,” he said. “Beyond just creating more customers, having more active music makers may increase the volume when it comes time to demand proper funding of our school music programs.”