1125 James Dr.
Hartland WI 53029
Mon – Thurs: 10am – 8pm
Fri: 10am – 6pm
Sat: 9am – 2pm
Lawrence A. McDonald, D.M.A., Piano Technician and CEO
Lawrence McDonald, CEO of Hartland Music and the Waukesha County Conservatory, has been a key fixture in the Hartland WI music market for many decades. At the time this article was written, McDonald reported having 2,300 music students in a town of 8,000 residents, which means nearly 30 percent of Hartland residents are gaining a love and appreciation for music making from McDonald’s various businesses.
McDonald’s first steps into the world of MI were taken almost by chance, as he was hired as counter help at the store owned by his girlfriend’s father. “My first day on the job was October 15, 1975,” McDonald recalled. “I was there nailing studios together, putting up displays and painting, but I had no input regarding the management of the business.”
McDonald went to college, earning a degree in music education, but he quickly realized that being a public school music teacher was not going to be a satisfying career choice for him. Again, luck stepped in. According to McDonald, “The Owner of the store was bemoaning the fact that none of his children wanted his music store. They were quite worldly, and they wanted out of our small village in Wisconsin.”
One handshake later, McDonald and his new wife, Ellen Bartel, who had been working for a competitor’s music store, were the Owners of Hartland Music. “It turned out that all I did was buy a job that didn’t pay very well,” McDonald joked.
Even with more than 10 years’ floor experience between them, McDonald and his wife faced challenges in getting their new business off the ground. Whereas, today, McDonald takes advice from his teachers on what to stock at the store—this includes expanding the store’s print department and, recently, stocking Yamaha acoustic guitars—McDonald and his wife had a difficult time in the beginning getting the products necessary to fully stock the store.
“We were so small that the suppliers couldn’t be bothered to check us out,” McDonald stated, admitting, “I wouldn’t have, either.” He continued, “For years, we had a difficult time getting franchises. So, we plodded along, selling the stuff we could buy from jobber catalogs. We made our living teaching lessons and playing in various local bands, keeping the profits, if any, in the business.”
Eventually, they were able to turn the situation around. Ellen landed a franchise with Roland U.S. in 1985, when the company was new, and McDonald was able to secure Kramer Guitars. By playing a lot of gigs in the area, they were able to show off the products live. “That’s how we sold them,” McDonald revealed.
Another way McDonald brought new customers into the store was by selling LPs. “It was a way to bring local customers to the store who had no prior musical experience, possibly encouraging them to become musicians themselves,” he said. “We encouraged those same folks to purchase lessons and rent instruments.”
Being able to rely on their lessons and rental programs made good business sense, as McDonald was searching for profitable franchises, but it also saved Hartland Music from going under in its early days. A bridge foundation failed next to the building where the store was located, which meant the front of the store had to be excavated just three months after McDonald bought the business. “Our main entrance was gone, and there was a 12-foot pit in front of the store,” McDonald said. “We missed the entire rental season and the entire Christmas season in our first year of operation. We needed to take our business off site, and it was school band and orchestra rentals that saved our bacon. The lesson we learned was always to have multiple avenues of revenue.”
One such avenue of revenue is the Waukesha County Conservatory of Music, which McDonald opened in 1987. As part of that effort, McDonald went back to graduate school, teaching at four colleges in the area to get the necessary experience.
“We wanted to be the place that is known for teaching excellence…the place where teachers come to study, and which they’re proud to put on their résumé,” McDonald explained. “The plan worked. We were profitable in the golden age of catalogs and the nascent Internet. We used the term ‘Internet proof’ around the store.”
Through an affiliation with the Royal Conservatory, the Waukesha County Conservatory of Music now offers degrees in piano, guitar and strings. The conservatory, along with the retail store, a coffee shop and a music therapy lab, are housed in a 15,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building that McDonald and his wife purchased in 2000.
A far cry from the 750 square feet that Hartland Music occupied back when McDonald started in 1975, the building’s size and scope have allowed for another major avenue of revenue for the store: pianos. In the last three years, Hartland Music has added both Kawai and Yamaha acoustic pianos and home digital keyboards.
“Adding major piano franchises is a challenge for us, but it allows us once again to expand beyond the borders of our small village,” said McDonald, who recently took on the role of Piano Tech for Hartland Music. “At age 58, I am now our apron-wearing Piano Tech and a member of the Piano Technicians Guild,” he continued. “I’ve even restarted my career with a little 200-square-foot shop…with a paycheck, this time.”
So many years, square feet and customers later, Hartland Music continues to remain a strong presence in the community. McDonald, for his part, continues to look toward the future, trying to anticipate trends and stay ahead of them, thereby meeting the needs of his customers.
“If I were to give a piece of philosophical advice to those who are just starting their careers,” McDonald began, “I would say you need to anticipate the changes in our industry, and then re-educate yourself so you can appear in the pole position in your market when the change happens.” He concluded, “It doesn’t matter how hard that will be or how old you are. You don’t get to have any excuses.”