This is The NAMM Show issue, where we tend to bring out our “heavy hitters.” Few are bigger than Tom Sumner, president of Yamaha Corp. of America (YCA). Sumner took over this role on April 1, and we ask how things have gone during this nine-month period. We also broach plenty of other topics, of course, including how Sumner was offered this job. Enjoy.

The Music & Sound Retailer: You became president of Yamaha Corp. of America on April 1, the first American to take on this role. Tell us about the significance of taking on this role and how you first found out you had earned the title?

Tom Sumner: There was a process to earning the role, so I knew there was a possibility they would offer me the job. My current boss from Yamaha Japan flew to Los Angeles International Airport for one evening and met with me and my boss at the time — Hitoshi Fukutome — to offer me the job. We met at the LAX Marriott, and it was a bit surreal, as there was a fantasy-creature convention going on — kind of like Comic-Con — at the hotel that weekend, and we were about the only people there not dressed like a troll or a pixie. Having an American in the role has been an energizer for our team in the United States. Part of the significance of my appointment is for me to remain in the role, which actually gives me a longer time horizon to plan and implement than my predecessors had.

The Retailer: What advice did your predecessor, Hitoshi Fukutome, give you?

Sumner: Hitoshi didn’t leave me with specific advice, though he taught me plenty in the five years we worked together. I think the two most important things he taught me were patience and how to collaborate and gain consensus across multiple groups. Maybe it’s because I’m American, but I tend to want to see results pretty quickly. Hitoshi really demonstrated showing patience and pacing the organization to achieve the best results. He also worked really well across multiple groups — multiple teams at Yamaha Corp. of America and multiple teams at Yamaha Japan — to gain consensus and drive outcomes that everyone could support.

The Retailer: Please tell us about what you’ve seen in your nine months as president. Anything you didn’t expect? Any surprises? Please explain.

Sumner: Since I have been working in the U.S. market from the beginning, I didn’t have to “learn” the market, though it definitely changes every day. One of the big challenges over my tenure so far has been hiring the best people for our team. We have many long-term employees at YCA, which is a testament to our company being a great place to work. But that also means when folks retire or leave the company, they walk out the door with 20 to 30 years’ experience. That is hard to replace. We also have a rigorous hiring process. We take time to try to be certain that the people we hire are a good cultural fit. The challenge of finding and hiring the right people for our team has been my biggest surprise.

The Retailer: Take us through your typical day as president. What responsibilities do you handle?

Sumner: There isn’t a typical day. I travel a fair amount of the time — sometimes to visit our dealers, sometimes to meet with dealers and customers at trade shows, and sometimes to Japan to connect with our leadership, product and marketing teams. I usually fly about 150,000 miles each year to try to stay connected with folks. Of course, I’m responsible for YCA overall, and for me, jobs one and two are making certain our customers and our team members are taken care of. If there is an employee or customer issue, I take care of that first. I don’t get many customer issues, as our team takes care of that really well. A typical day in the office would involve one or more meetings with my direct reports. I have a weekly scheduled meeting with each direct report. Then there are meetings about specific projects or initiatives we are working on to build our future. I often stop by team members’ offices if they have been traveling or if something interesting is happening in their channel. The day may finish off with a Skype meeting, email or phone calls with colleagues from Yamaha Japan.

The Retailer: Tell us about your overall philosophy and how you have implemented it at Yamaha. Is it different than past presidents?

Sumner: I try to be really direct and honest with our team members and encourage them to be so as well. Part of our corporate culture is to treat everyone with respect, but you can be truthful and show respect at the same time. Each YCA president to some extent has been able to hold people accountable while at the same time treat them fairly and value their contribution. I think I am a bit more direct than past presidents.

The Retailer: Yamaha always has a fantastic presence at The NAMM Show. Tell us about what retailers can see from Yamaha in terms of events that will make the show special?

Sumner: Yamaha has a team that puts everything they’ve got into creating a great NAMM Show for our guests. Our first production meeting this year was right after Summer NAMM, and we are preparing right up to the final minutes before we open the doors on Thursday morning, the first day of the show. For all retailers, we have two blockbuster music events, including our 10th annual Night of Worship event on Thursday (Jan. 24) featuring Matt Redman, Steve Malcolm and Ellis Hall. And we are presenting our second Yamaha All-Star Concert on the Grand on Friday night (Jan. 25), a big musical hug for the industry right out on the grand plaza between the Marriott and the Hilton. Both of these will be really special evenings. For the show, we are launching more than 50 new products. But our big reveal — which I can’t let out of the bag just yet — is a new campaign that you will see everywhere at The NAMM Show this year.

The Retailer: Any more information about the 50 product launches?

Sumner: Most of the products we are launching are embargoed until the first day of the show, but we have some new categories as well as products that expand some areas that are really resonating with customers and doing really well for us. TransAcoustic technology — where guitarists can get studio-quality reverb and chorus effects from an acoustic instrument without any external amplification or device — is one area that we continue to expand to reach more customers.

The Retailer: What segments (types of instruments) are showing the most strength for Yamaha recently and why?

Sumner: We are actually showing strength in most categories. Two I would point out are pianos and school music. Acoustic piano is a category that has literally been down trending since 1909, but we are growing this category by reaching customers directly and driving them to a local dealer. In 2017, our team developed a campaign that targeted key potential piano customers. People thought we were nuts to run TV advertising for acoustic pianos, but Yamaha is growing the category. School music is a category that is strong overall and particularly robust for us. Our strength in this category is driven by longer-term investments and not just a single campaign. It’s a combination of continuously working to improve the quality of our instruments and working with the high-service-level dealers that support educators so well. A couple of years ago, we launched a specific dealer program — which we call Shokunin — to provide an even higher-level retail experience in dealer stores to complement the high service level they already provide. Shokunin translates to “craftsman” or “artisan.”

The Retailer: Explain your philosophy when it comes to MI retailers. How do you ensure it’s a great relationship for both you and them?

Sumner: In some categories, the retail channel is just a way to get products to consumers. That’s not the case with MI retail. What differentiates MI retail is the fact that most of our products are tactile and that MI retailers help build their local market. Having a place where customers can actually get their hands on a keyboard, guitar or mixer is crucial. It makes a big difference and expands the market. MI retailers also develop communities and help create more connected musicians in their markets. For Yamaha, hiring the right people with the right mindset is a big part of what we do to keep a great relationship thriving. We try to hire the right district manager (DM) and the right customer service associates to help dealers. We also keep open communication between our DMs and management team, so any issues are raised quickly.

The Retailer: Beyond The NAMM Show, tell us about goals you wish to accomplish in 2019.

Sumner: We are focusing the whole YCA team on the customer. We’ve always tried to provide the best service to our dealers, and that won’t stop. But we need to do a better job of “making people love music more” and “creating new music makers,” which are YCA’s two main BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). We, as an industry, are only catering to about 5 to 6 percent of the U.S. population. Almost everyone enjoys music, and most would love to play. Our job is to get more people happily involved in making music on a regular basis. If we can connect more strongly with the customer, we should be able to provide more customers for all of us in the MI business. We’ve been on this path for several years, but you can see we have been building step-by-step. Several of the big steps were rebuilding our website, building a blog and most recently hiring a vice president of marketing, Matt Searfus, who joined us from Nike.

The Retailer: Anything else you want to add?

Sumner: I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at The NAMM Show this year. It will be, as always, a great time to connect and to strengthen our relationships in this wonderful industry.

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