British-based John Packer Ltd. has been professionally servicing the needs of woodwind and brass players of all stages and standards for more than 40 years. Its initial axiom of “serve as you would be served” has remained a central company theme. To get much more insight about the company, the state of the band and orchestra market, as well as how its U.S. and British MI retail markets are faring, we reached out to Rob Hanson, John Packer’s director of sales and marketing.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Tell us about John Packer and its history.
Rob Hanson: John Packer is a real person. He is more or less retired these days. He does still work, though. He started the company a little more than 40 years ago. He started his career as an oboe maker for the Howard Co. in London. He did that for a while and then moved back to the southwest of England and opened up a repair shop. One day, someone walked in and said, “Would you like to buy a clarinet?” John said, “I don’t sell clarinets. I fi x them but don’t sell them.” But the person wanted to sell it to him, so he bought the clarinet, sold the clarinet and with the proceeds, bought two clarinets. He sold those two clarinets, and with the proceeds, he bought a flute, a clarinet and a saxophone. In the next several years, that business grew into becoming one of the largest and most specialized brass and woodwind stores in the UK. He did a lot of work with education authorities. He did quite a lot of design work with companies as well.
John Packer still is a brass and woodwind store in the UK. Our retail shop is something we are very proud of and invest a lot of time in. The reality though is the UK market is very different than the rest of the world. We don’t have a rental market here like they do in the U.S. School districts here tend to do most of the central purchasing. So, they tend to own instruments and lend them out to children. That’s fantastic, but it also comes down to school bids. So, when you have a situation when these bids are so big, it becomes increasingly difficult to make any margins. So, in the early 2000s, what John decided to do was to make his own line of products. That way, you can control the products, control the branding and control the price point. It was very good timing for him. He had done design work for Schreiber and Yamaha. It was really a natural step for John to do his own thing.
At the time, I was the “road guy” at the company, selling to school districts. Over the next 20 years, we built the manufacturing side of John Packer to be much bigger than the retail side of the company. We supply 45 countries all over the world. The U.S. is our biggest single market. We have had great success. We are becoming known for doing things the proper way and looking after our dealer base.
The Retailer: Tell us a little about your career.
Hanson: I was a UK brass band cornet player. I started playing the cornet when I was 7 years old. But it was never enough to earn a living. I was pretty good, but it never was going to be a full-time career. I was always quite good at selling things. So, the natural progression was to find a job in MI that would support my hobby. I have been at John Packer for 21 years. I called John up and said, “Give me a job.” After a little persuading, he did. He began by putting me on the road as a sales rep visiting school districts.
It’s interesting that I wanted a job to support my hobby. Now, I don’t have time for my hobby. My enjoyment now comes from hearing other people play. [That includes] my son, who took the exact same path as me. He started playing at 7. He is a very fine trumpet and cornet player now. He got a job working for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers.
The Retailer: Can you tell us some advice John Packer imparted on you?
Hanson: When John Packer made me director, he only gave me one piece of advice, which still sticks with me to this day. He said, “Rob, never, ever chase a profit. Because if you chase a profit, you will never find it. Get everything in its place. Do everything the right way. The profit will come.” That is something we have done as a company and are very proud of. We do everything the right way. We work hard. We are nice to our customers. We have a wonderful working relationship with them. We have an honest and open relationship with them. We have never chased profit, but it comes and treats us very well.
The Retailer: What is your take on the overall band and orchestra market and how is it different when you compare the U.S. to the UK?
Hanson: There are a lot of similarities in the markets. Both are based around central government funding. When central government decides that music is a wonderful thing, both sides of the Atlantic benefit. About 12 or 13 years ago, the UK Government thought music education is a wonderful thing. They invested several hundred million dollars to make sure every child nine years old learned to play a musical instrument free for a year. That was what changed John Packer from a retail shop into an international force. So much money arrived, and we had the right production in the Far East, the right product and the right price point. They really set us up for life, having control over production in China, quality control, branding and more. That money was life changing for the entire UK music industry.
But as quick as it came, it was gone. So, we had seven or eight tremendous years of growth in the UK, but that is now completely down the toilet. The budget has been cut and been cut and been cut more down to levels that we probably haven’t seen for 20 years. Sadly, with the politician situation in the UK, I don’t see it getting much better at least in the short to medium term.
As far as our perspective on the U.S., it is a much stronger market. In places like Texas and North Carolina where music is centrally funded, the level of interest we get is astronomical, compared to what it even used to be in the UK. You go to high schools and 300, 400 or 500 children could be playing music. That is incredible. In England, you may have a high school with only two or three children playing.
In England, there is some apathy toward music because parents have so many other things to pay for, whereas in the U.S., it is easier for parents to fund it, because music is more of a normality. It’s almost like, “You are in this school, you will be in the band, so you need to go to your local music instrument store and you will go and rent this trumpet.” In England, it is more of an optional thing, so music tends to fall by the wayside in favor of something else, whether it is cable TV, the latest electronic gadget or something else.
The Retailer: We in the U.S. were out fighting for more music education funding at the NAMM Music Education Advocacy Fly-In in May.
Hanson: The NAMM organization is a wonderful thing. A wonderful friend of mine, and fellow Brit, Alun Hughes, is on the NAMM board. I have the utmost respect for him. How NAMM mobilizes for this cause is totally incredible. I am a big fan of NAMM. To be honored by NAMM with an achievement award this year is just incredible for us.
The Retailer: Tell us a little more about the award you received from NAMM.
Hanson: We were nominated by Alun and received the Believe in Music Award. We were honored at The NAMM Show this year. It recognizes our service and input to MI. We take great pride in it and it has a prominent place here [in our headquarters], as well as other awards we have won in the past 12 or 13 months. In 2018, we also won the Queen’s Award for international growth. That involved a trip to Buckingham Palace.
The Retailer: For those of us not as familiar with the Queen’s Award, can you tell us about it?
Hanson: There are many companies that get nominated for the award. It recognizes sustained and achievable growth over a period of seven years, which we did. There were several hundred UK companies awarded in 2018, but we were the only musical instrument company. To go to Buckingham Palace and meet Prince Charles was just incredible. We also had a presentation by the Queen’s representative in our part of the UK. 2018 was a year of awards and pomp and circumstance for us. We got a bigger trophy cabinet (jokes).
The Retailer: What differentiates John Packer from other companies?
Hanson: It’s currently a difficult marketplace. There has never been a point where there was so much product for sale by so many people, to a market that is overall shrinking. It’s a bizarre time and is difficult for certain products to rise to the top and get onto people’s radar. The big advantage we’ve got is the heritage of this company. We are also a retailer, so I can walk into any retail store and know what the retailer needs from us as a manufacturer. Maybe it’s about dislike for minimum buy-ins or payment terms. Manufacturers tend to not be good at listening. We listen. If there is a problem, we fix it. Retailers want a product that they can supply and supply with confidence. We make sure everything is simple, concise and easy. We really have a two-way relationship with our dealer base. The retailers find it refreshing. Many tell us we are their favorite supplier just because there are no complications. We sell musical instruments. It isn’t rocket science.
The Retailer: On the other side of the coin, you are looking for more retailers. Is there anything you seek from those retailers?
Hanson: We often look for small- to medium-sized dealers. We don’t generally go to the large retailers. We need to provide products so small- to medium-sized dealers can supply with confidence and margin. We are very protective of our dealers. We look over their territories and make sure they don’t have too much price competition, which ultimately affects us. If there is too much price competition, the retailer will find something else.
The Retailer: It might be different in the UK, but there has been some chatter about a recession coming to the United States, perhaps as early as next year. If there is an economic downturn, how do you prepare for that?
Hanson: I’m not sure you can prepare for it fully, because we don’t know what’s around the corner. We have a unique thing going on in the UK with Brexit. We don’t know about Brexit, but we think we are going to have one. But what will happen as a result of that? Who knows? Tariffs can also cause huge complications for MI, because [at the time of publication] everything from Asia could be subject to a 25-percent tariff in the U.S. There will be backlash from the retail customer, who might think the industry is profiteering. In the last recession, the [British] pound dived against the U.S. dollar and the euro. It caused one manufacturer to raise prices [on us as a retailer] nine times in seven months, just to keep up with currencies. It was about a 35-percent price increase over nine months.
Do I think there is a recession coming? I think people are borrowing up to the hilt again. When they can’t borrow any more, there has to be a little bit of a downturn. I think it will come. I think it will come fast and loose. We think we will be in a very good position to counteract that because we have good value products at a good price point. We should be able to ride out that storm pretty well. Retailers will look to downsize their purchases to a slightly less expensive brand, and that’s where we fit in really well.
The Retailer: Can you tell us about any products that have been selling well lately?
Hanson: One thing we are selling really well is the JP2057 Sousaphone. That has become a real star. Our JP379BB 4/4 Tuba is something we can’t keep in stock at the moment. The JP164 French horn is perfect for rentals. It is always backordered, particularly this time of year.
The Retailer: Anything else you want to add?
Hanson: We just want to make sure we do everything the right way, which is unique in this marketplace. Manufacturers generally work in one-way traffic, where we always make sure the communication is two ways.