Each year, for The Retailer’s big NAMM Show Issue, the editorial team and I try to find a “Five Minutes With” interview subject whose stature in the music products industry befits appearing as the centerpiece of our biggest, most important issue of the year. In the past, we’ve welcomed Sennheiser’s Greg Beebe and Taylor Guitars’ Kurt Listug. This year, to that list we add Fred Gretsch, President of The Gretsch Company and a true luminary in the MI business.
In a detailed conversation with The Retailer, Gretsch not only delves into his background and the fascinating history of The Gretsch Company, but also broaches the subject of “exceptional leadership” and the extent to which our industry may have drifted from its roots…a time when the company president’s last name was emblazoned on the headstock or the drum head. He also discusses The Gretsch Company’s meticulously created brand plan, the company’s devotion to pursing that which is “modern” and its truly devoted family of fans worldwide.
Pull up a chair and join in the conversation.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Describe a bit about your career progression, starting from the very beginning. Weave in general information about The Gretsch Company’s evolution and development over time, touching on the role you played in shaping the Gretsch of today.
Fred Gretsch: My first claim to fame was being on the delivery truck in the summer of ’58—going along with the driver from Brooklyn and dropping off Gretsch guitars and drums to Music Row music stores on 48th St. I remember meeting Manny of Manny’s Music. He sat on a barstool right near the front door, greeting people as they came and went. Manny started his shop in Manhattan in 1933 and received a lot of attention from the Gretsch family. I remember that my dad, Manny and Manny’s daughter, who was a drummer, were all in a Gretsch drum ad together in about 1946. So there I was, 10 years after my dad’s passing in 1948, in Manny’s Music, with Manny…someone who had obviously been close to my dad.
Manny said to me, “Why don’t you come work for me this summer? Don’t work in the factory in Brooklyn. Work for me at Manny’s. We’d be happy to put you to work here.” I didn’t take him up on it, but I do look back now and I say to myself, “Wouldn’t it have been incredible to have worked at Manny’s Music in 1958 on Music Row?”
Fast-forwarding to 1965, I worked in the engineering department of Gretsch manufacturing. Engineering supported Gretsch drum and guitar production at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn, and on the other side of the bridge in the expansion facility at 109 S. 5th St. That’s where we made Gretsch drums at that time in our history. In ’67, my dad’s older brother, Fred Gretsch, Jr., who was running the business, sold it to the Baldwin Piano Company, a competitor of Steinway. Everybody knows where Steinway is today, but, at that time, Baldwin and Steinway were strong competitors.
I worked for Baldwin for a number of years before starting my own wholesale importing business. I had moved my family to Chicago, and I was working in the Gretsch office in Elmhurst IL at that point in time. In 1971, I branched off from Baldwin and started Fred Gretsch Enterprises. We had a specialty of supplying instruments to the largest musical instrument retailers of the day. The number one and two—I’m not sure in what order—were Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. They sold more musical instruments than any single retailer in the United States back in the early ’70s. Montgomery Ward was a great name, but the Millennials and young people today don’t know it. Since then, Montgomery Ward has completely disappeared, and Sears is a fraction of what it once was. It’s been an interesting time to live and see all the changes in retailing.
In any case, we lived through a downturn after the Baby Boomer generation stopped buying guitars in the ’70s. I expanded my business into banjo-making, and I moved that business to South Carolina in 1978; nearby Savannah GA is the base of operations today. In 1984, we got a chance to buy the Gretsch business back from the Baldwin Piano Company, which had gone through a bankruptcy. In 1984, Baldwin-United was the largest bankruptcy Wall Street had ever seen up to that date. They were a New York Stock Exchange company that had expanded into banking, insurance and financial products, in addition to musical instruments. And their demise, along with interest rates at 20 percent, gave us the chance to buy the business back.
When we got it back, drum making was based in Arkansas. We eventually moved it to South Carolina, where it still is today. Baldwin had stopped guitar making in 1978, so we had to restart the Gretsch guitar manufacturing business completely. We did that, and we reintroduced our guitars to the market in 1989 internationally, and in January 1990 at the NAMM Show.
And, as I mentioned, we specialized in mass-market musical instruments. So, over the years, our customers included Walmart, Sam’s and Kmart, in addition to lots of others that are out of business today, such as Montgomery Ward. We sold that division of the business in 1997. In 2000, we partnered with Kaman Music on the Gretsch drum side to build the Gretsch drum business. And then, in 2000, we partnered with Bill Schultz at Fender to bring the Gretsch guitar business to a higher plateau in world distribution.
The Retailer: It could be said that The Gretsch Company has unique DNA as compared to its peers in the music products industry. Describe the distinguishing characteristics and unique factors that serve to differentiate Gretsch from other organizations.
Gretsch: Our team regrouped in 1946, after World War II, when so many of our folks served in the war. We focused very heavily on professional instruments. Somehow, family members and our teammates, all of whom are gone now, recognized a growing market in professional instruments. We had professional-level percussion and guitar marketing people leading the team. It was all about being cutting edge. The key word here is “modern.” In the 1955 catalog, I think we said, “Guitars For Moderns.” And, in terms of a 1955 slogan, I guess it was right on. Today, it kind of speaks to our history 60 years ago.
So, the colors that we did…the things we did that were different…the designs…it was all about being modern. When you think about the post-war era—after the Great Depression and World War II—bright colors, modern automobiles and modern styling were all the rage. Looking back, I think that’s a tie that continues to bind today. Although I partnered with Fender in 2002 on the guitar business—and they lead the marketing, manufacturing and worldwide distribution under license from us—it’s fun for me to look back at the things I did or updated in the ’90s, when I was wearing a marketing hat on the guitar side and, likewise, on the drum side. I think the “modern” theme has always stuck.
The Retailer: How would you characterize The Gretsch Company’s relationship with brick-and-mortar music products dealers? Is The Gretsch Company unwaveringly committed to selling through the brick-and-mortar dealer channel?
Gretsch: I personally believe that dealers are an important market builder. They’re out there enhancing our community…building our community. And our community is not only the Gretsch community but, in addition, the community of music makers. So, a particular dealer in Savannah GA or Lenexa KS or San Antonio TX is our representative to the music makers in that community. To the extent that they’ve got a good selection of Gretsch instruments in their store, they’re building our business. Basically, our business is going nowhere without them.
The Retailer: What is your assessment of the viability of brick-and-mortar music products retail in a world that continues to digitize rapidly?
Gretsch: I think we can take instruction here from school music dealers. They are fully engaged in their communities. They’re dealing with the most important constituency of our future: the beginning musician. If you look at the biggest cohort of people who are starting as musicians, it’s people who have had an opportunity to play music in school. So, school music dealers are in a community, they’re brick-and-mortar and they’re very active service providers to an important customer base. I think every other manner of retailer needs to look at those very profitable stores and ask, “What are they doing in their specialty that I need to be doing in my specialty?” That specialty might be percussion…it might be acoustic guitars…it might be electric guitars…it might be full line. But, I think we can all learn from the successful school music dealer model, which all of us can readily observe.
The Retailer: If you were speaking to brick-and-mortar dealers who want to improve their business and sustain themselves for the future, are there any general principles you would enunciate, which would be helpful to them?
Gretsch: We have a Gretsch family principle that I enunciate frequently: “Enriching lives through participation in music.” To the extent that people get that, it enhances our market and it enhances our customers’ quality of life. And, you know, it’s a guiding principle for me in the years ahead. Looking to the future, anything I can do to give more people the opportunity to enjoy music making…well, that’s important to me and it’s worth my time.
The Retailer: Drawing on your multi-decade perspective, what are some of the most profound changes—for the good and for the bad—you have witnessed in the MI industry?
Gretsch: The Baby Boom was part of the guitar boom that happened in the ’60s. But, when the Baby Boomers entered adulthood, only a small percentage of them played guitar. And then, with the arrival of disco in the late ’70s and early ’80s, there were tough times in the business. So many of the marquee brands changed hands at that point in time, because the large conglomerates that owned them weren’t able to roll with the punches of the business. Obviously, the business did come back again.
Now, we’re faced with the current digital age, which, obviously, has changed how musicians make money. They’ve moved from selling records and CDs to downloads and touring. It’s kind of the same momentum we saw in the ’80s with disco. In any case, I think it has made more music available. I also think the digital age will continue to evolve, and that music making will probably become a greater focus for people’s leisure time, especially as we endeavor to get away from looking at everything on a smartphone, iPad or computer screen.
The Retailer: Thinking about the music products industry right now, you lead The Gretsch Company, Bob Taylor leads Taylor Guitars and Hartley Peavey leads Peavey. But, many of the iconic last names are no longer present at music products companies: no more Leo Fender at Fender, for example. Has the lack of family ownership in the industry been a detriment to us?
Gretsch: When you talk about Hartley Peavey or Bob Taylor, you’re talking about exceptional leaders. For our industry’s brands to continue to prosper, I think it’s going to be a next-generation thing. The challenge for all of us is to find the next generation of exceptional leadership. Hartley and I started in the same year, so he was at 50 years in 2015, as well. In the Gretsch family, we have 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with one daughter involved in the business. It’s certainly our hope that, 50 years hence, there will still be a Gretsch family member involved in the business.
I’ve looked at the retailers who have family continuity and, really, there’s a great many of them. We can celebrate that. One that obviously comes to mind is the Ash family. They’re the greatest example of all, having come out of a great city—New York City—and expanding around the United States. They’ve had the wonderful leadership of Jerry and Bernice Ash, as well as Paul, whom we lost a couple of years ago. And they’ve got third-generation leaders running the business now.
Ken Stanton Music, in Marietta GA, is a second-generation retailer that sells Gretsch drums and guitars. School music is a significant part of Ken’s business and, incidentally, it’s a significant part of Sam Ash’s business, as well.
I ran into Rosi Johnson and her husband in the Atlanta airport recently. Her business, Mississippi Music, was started by her father-in-law in 1946. I’m sure there’s a special Gretsch connection there, as there is with the Peavey family: My dad and Hartley’s dad were good friends.
There’s also Schmitt Music in Minneapolis, as well as many others. So, all that being said, I think the family model is still out there and it’s safe. I plan to reach out to more of them.
The Retailer: What special plans, if any, does The Gretsch Company have for the NAMM Show this month?
Gretsch: NAMM is an exciting time, certainly. Gretsch drums will be putting forth new, interesting and dynamic products…new colors and new features. And, likewise, you’ll see the same on the guitar side. It’s a challenge every year to get people’s attention. We do it by doing things that are intrinsic to us, which is—back to that word—to do things that are “modern.” It’s that word from 60 years ago, which is very telling today.
The Retailer: After a long, successful career in which you and your family have earned numerous honors, what continues to keep you motivated, inspired and deeply engaged? What makes you excited to remain in the music products industry?
Gretsch: I got an entrepreneurial gene and a hard work gene from my family, and they’re still going strong. We have a 100-year brand plan in place that covers the next 100 years, and it was written on my watch. I’m humbled to be part of this great family legacy. It’s also wonderful and exciting to meet Gretsch fans out in the world during our travels, such as in Europe, Japan and throughout the United States.
In celebration of my 50th anniversary in the business in 2015, I’ve been in Brooklyn…in Wisconsin…in Atlanta…and in Illinois. It’s been a terrific opportunity to meet our extended family of Gretsch fans.
While in Wisconsin, I met one special family of fans. The mom and dad named their little boy “Gretsch.” They introduced me to him at an event, and I asked, “Is ‘Gretsch’ his first name on his birth certificate?” And they replied, “Yes.” The dad even had “Gretsch” and his son’s birth date tattooed on his arm. The love that people have for music and their instruments is very genuine and very touching. I think that’s what keeps me going: the goodwill of the folks who are making music with our instruments, and who appreciate our hard work in continuing to make them available.
The Retailer: If you could write the Gretsch legacy, what would it be?
Gretsch: My hope is that history will recognize that Gretsch was never the biggest brand of drums and guitars, but that Gretsch makes the best instruments when it comes to drums and guitars. That’s our goal. We want to continue to be recognized as the manufacturer of the best drums and guitars in the world.
The Retailer: Is there anything I’ve not asked about that you’d like to discuss?
Gretsch: My wife, Dinah, has worked with me in the business for the past 36 years. It’s not a record, certainly, as Bernice Ash and Jerry have been married for more than 60 years, and Bernice was involved in the business for quite some time. I attended their retirement party and Jerry’s 90th birthday last February. Dinah, who is very active in running the business, and I have set a goal to be at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Gretsch business, which is 18 years hence. We invite Gretsch fans everywhere to join us along the way over the next 18 years, whenever we’re in their town. We look forward to attending our 150th anniversary, when the company will be under the guidance of the next generation of exceptional leaders.