This month, our “Five Minutes With” interview features Dan Roberts, President of Manhasset Specialty Company, whose involvement with the music products industry goes back many years…but whose love for music and the beautiful instruments that make it can be traced back to childhood. Roberts’ extended conversation with The Retailer delves into his background and Manhasset’s proud heritage, and it also provides insight into differentiating characteristics that make the company stand apart. Roberts also explicates Manhasset’s absolute dedication to excellent customer support for all its partners: distributor, dealer and end user alike.
This discussion is one we think you’ll really enjoy.

The Music & Sound Retailer: Begin with your personal background. Trace your own history with music and instruments, as well as with the creative field in general, touching on what first captured your interest. What steps did you take to pursue that interest initially?
Dan Roberts: I got my start in music in fifth grade when I started learning to play the trumpet. I played the trumpet for a few years at school events and in church. When I became a teenager, I wanted to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band. So, I got together with some neighbors and friends, and we started a band. I played bass guitar, sang and played some drums for a couple of years in some gigs. But, amazingly, we were never discovered and no record label signed us. [Laughs.] I sang a lot in choir in high school after those early band-development days.

I played just about every sport as I was growing up, and I came to understand what it was like being part of a team. As I began participating in band and choir performances, I recognized that everyone plays an important role as part of the team to make the performances the best they can be. Without a doubt, my involvement in music helped develop more of my creative side, which I have been able to harness in the business arena.

The Retailer: Discuss your career trajectory, starting from the earliest days and continuing straight through to just prior to your arrival at Manhasset Specialty Company.
Roberts: From college, I started at Rival Manufacturing Company (in the housewares industry) in Kansas City MO as a Management Trainee. I had the opportunity to progress into sales and marketing management there, while getting my MBA in night classes at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. Later, I had the opportunity to accept new challenges with companies like Coleman Sporting Goods, Flexible Flyer Company and a diversified manufacturing company doing business in hardware, sporting goods and outdoor furnishings.

I was recruited to join Musicorp in 2003, and I was very excited to get into the music business after my early days as a budding musician. My first NAMM Show was an incredible experience! And working with the great people at Musicorp, and later KMC Music after our acquisition, was a real joy! There was such a strong bond between our employees…a real family atmosphere. We all shared the passion to provide excellent service for our customers, who really became friends as we worked closely together in a challenging business environment.

As a number of changes were made at KMC Music, I left the company and helped to start up Direct MI Distribution, which lasted about a year. I started looking to do some consulting for companies in the music business. Once the music industry gets in your system, you are hooked for life!

The Retailer: How did you find your way to Manhasset Specialty?
Roberts: I was approached by Paul Damiano, a member of Manhasset Specialty Company’s Board of Directors, and Barry Heid, former General Manager of Manhasset, to work with the company in a consultative role. I was happy to accept the offer. From my days at Musicorp and KMC Music, I was well aware of Manhasset’s exceptional product quality and its position in the industry, particularly in schools and professional music programs and venues. Starting in July 2014, I had the opportunity to work closely with Barry Heid, visiting our U.S. distributors to introduce some new products and other initiatives to help spur more sales of Manhasset music stands and accessories. In the months that I worked with the company as a consultant, I learned a lot about the people who make Manhasset’s great products, and then I got to see how passionate music dealers and band directors are about Manhasset.

I knew that I wanted to do all I could to help make sure we keep that spirit burning bright. So, when Barry Heid announced that he wanted to retire at the end of 2014, I asked to be considered in the search for his replacement, and I was fortunate to be selected by the Board of Directors. And moving to Yakima WA has been great!

The Retailer: Manhasset Specialty Company was created in 1935, which means the company recently celebrated 80 years. Discuss the company’s founding, history, growth and evolution over the decades that followed. Now that you’ve arrived at Manhasset, what changes have you helped bring about?
Roberts: The Manhasset Specialty Company began in 1935 when Otto Lagervall, an inventor and a musician, dissatisfied with the quality of existing music stands, set out to develop a better music stand. He succeeded in developing the initial Manhasset music stands, using the highest quality materials and workmanship; that tradition continues today. At the time of the company’s founding, Lagervall lived in Manhasset NY, hence the company’s name.

During the early 1940s, Lagervall moved the company to Yakima WA. Interestingly, Lagervall founded Yakima Industries, which has become famous for its car top carriers, in 1973, after he had successfully launched his music-stand business. The company grew its position in the music industry from the 1940s through to today by continuous innovation in product design and via a passion for excellence in product performance. Product and process improvements made from around 2000 through to 2014 have enabled the company to offer a lifetime warranty on our music stands. And, during this same period, the company began to pursue global markets to export its excellent products; the result has been very rewarding. Today, Manhasset stands are used in schools, churches, studios and symphony halls in thousands of venues around the world!

Since my arrival at Manhasset, we are continuing to assess our production processes to make sure we continue to consistently manufacture excellent-quality products. We are also working to finalize the last details of new product introductions to get them shipped into the market, and we are developing more new product concepts that can provide additional options for musicians’ use. We get a great deal of positive input and suggestions for product improvements and options. We appreciate them, and we work to incorporate them.

The Retailer: When you look at Manhasset Specialty Company as it currently exists, what would you say you’re the proudest of? What makes the company stand apart not only from direct competitors, but also from all companies in the accessories category and the MI industry broadly? What’s the “secret sauce” at Manhasset?
Roberts: At Manhasset, we are proudest of the quality of our products, as well as the role we play in helping to provide products for students as they seek to become great musicians with the instruments of their choice. It’s a thrill for all of us at Manhasset to see our stands being used by professional musicians in concert performances, or by the kids at the YAMA program at Garfield Elementary School in Yakima in practice sessions after school.
The difference between Manhasset stands and those of our competitors lies in our innovative design and our production execution, which provides excellence in quality in every stand that we manufacture. Over the years, patents were received for features like the Magic Finger Clutch, and the company’s products have distinctive designs that are recognized around the world as being Manhasset stands—meaning, they’re the best. The company is very protective of the Manhasset trade dress and trademarks. And we’re aggressive in defending our position versus imitative products that are brought to market. We do not want consumers to think they are buying a Manhasset stand and then receive a product of lesser quality.

Because the company is an ESOP [Employee Stock Ownership Plan] company, every employee-owner is driven to make sure that the products we ship are exceptional in quality. Everyone understands that our growth depends on providing great products, so we can continue to enhance the Manhasset brand within the music products industry.

The Retailer: Let’s talk a bit about the product side specifically. On a product level, what have been Manhasset’s areas of concentration in recent months? Have you pursued any changes in your product offerings, or changes in your areas of focus?
Roberts: In our manufacturing processes, we continue our efforts to produce excellent-quality products. In the last couple of years, we have implemented the use of robotics in some of our production processes, which allow for even greater consistency and efficiency in the production of our parts. The company also transitioned to an innovative new treatment process for preparing our parts for powder coating, which helped Manhasset to eliminate all waste from those manufacturing operations. That, as a result, earned the company the “Green Manufacturing Award” from the Association of Washington Business in 2014.

On the new product side, Manhasset has been working to introduce new products that fit new market applications. Our new Universal Tablet Holder models have patented features that allow users to mount their iPad or tablet securely for use in many applications, including electronic media usage. These Universal Tablet Holder models include one version that allows for attachment to a Manhasset music stand shaft; another model allows for attachment to any 5/8-inch microphone stand; and the third model has an extension bar to allow for attachment to any stand, with a multitude of adjustment positions available for the user’s convenience. We have also introduced two versions of the Percussion Trap table, and they allow percussionists to keep several percussive instruments at their fingertips, as well as allowing for quiet handling. And Manhasset introduced the Clear Desk Music Stand at NAMM to allow the audience to view musicians more fully as they are performing. There are several other new-product projects that are currently underway at Manhasset for introduction later this year and in 2016, including updating our packaging.

The Retailer: Discuss Manhasset’s commitment to the brick-and-mortar MI store channel. Is working collaboratively with brick-and-mortar music dealers a key part of Manhasset’s core philosophy and fundamental approach to doing business?
Roberts: Manhasset is proud to work with our distributor partners in the U.S. and in several countries around the world. Although we do not sell direct to dealers, we work very closely with our distributors to help all music dealers to be as successful as they possibly can be in selling Manhasset products. Sometimes, that means providing parts for customers in Japan or helping to answer questions from a band director about how to make a competitor’s music stand functional, until they can replace it with a Manhasset stand.

It is very important to all of us at Manhasset that we provide excellent customer support to the end user, band director and music store owner, as well as our distributors, so that Manhasset is their brand of choice for many years to come. It is highly rewarding to hear dealers and band directors at NAMM, NASMD [National Association of School Music Dealers] and TMEA [Texas Music Educators Association] talk about how much they love Manhasset stands!

The Retailer: Is there anything the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to Manhasset as a company? Do you have any suggestions for the dealer channel that would help retailers, in addition to helping the company itself?
Roberts: We welcome suggestions from dealers, distributors and consumers to help Manhasset make even better products, and to help us be an even better company. Because being the best drives our company’s employees every day, industry input is important to us. We would ask that dealers share the economics of buying Manhasset stands versus less-expensive competitors whenever buying decisions are being made. With a lifetime warranty on Manhasset versus buying competitors’ models that might only last a couple of years, the decision to buy a Manhasset stand is a smart move!

We would encourage music dealers to offer upgraded accessory options for student instrument packages that would provide a Manhasset music stand (rather than an inexpensive stand) for home use. Budding musicians could eliminate one frustration if they could rely on their stand at home to hold their music dependably. (I can speak to this from experience!) Another option might be to include a Manhasset music stand as part of a rent-to-own instrument program to make the purchase of an upgraded music stand even more affordable.

The Retailer: What is your sense of the relative strength—or weakness—of the broad music products market, as well as the particular categories and product areas in which Manhasset has a large market share? Are you feeling optimistic about our industry? Are there significant challenges that we must yet overcome?
Roberts: The scope of music products available today is truly amazing, as are their capabilities. Yet, we have less music being played live than ever…or so it seems to me. It certainly creates a challenge for us in the industry when a tablet or smartphone can simulate an instrument, but it requires no real mastery on the part of the player. Fortunately, school music programs have continued to operate successfully, in spite of budget constraints in many states.

We have seen the data about the benefits that result from having our children involved in the arts, and that has helped motivate parents to help their children get involved in playing music in their schools (as it did for my wife and me). We are very fortunate that Manhasset can play a part in helping school music programs to be successful. And, we’re very thankful that our music stands are the preferred choice of school band directors, as well as being used in a wide range of other venues, because of their good looks, reliability and durability.

I think all of us in the music industry should make every effort to ensure we keep our school programs going strong, and we keep the organizations and venues that perform live music operating successfully. In so doing, we can help create the desire for more people around the world to start playing music themselves.

The Retailer: What does the future hold for Manhasset? What can company-watchers expect over the coming years?
Roberts: The future is bright for Manhasset. The company is strong financially, and we will continue to invest in new equipment, technology and our people so that we can continue to make the best music stands and accessories for many years to come. We are also pursuing the development of new products, which will allow us to meet the changing needs of the global marketplace and to expand our product offerings. One thing will not change, though: Manhasset will remain committed to producing great-quality products that will last for years!

The Retailer: Is there anything else that you’d like to discuss?
Roberts: I would like to make one more plea for all of us to help support live music performances. Whether that is attending the local high school’s band performances, stopping in at a bar where bands are playing or attending a symphony performance. I would like to see more people listening to music together, as opposed to being plugged into headphones. But that’s just my opinion. We don’t have to go to expensive concerts to encourage more people to become musicians. We can do our part at the grassroots level.

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