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Meet New NAMM Chair Robin Walenta

...that had ended abruptly when her car broke down. Once on the job, though, she found the enthusiasm of her coworkers infectious. She enjoyed the company’s low-key culture and discovered an unexpected and passionate interest for every facet of music retail. That passion propelled her rise through the ranks at West Music, culminating in being named President and CEO in 2008, and being elected NAMM chair last month. Reflecting on her unplanned thirty-five years in the music industry today, she says, “Coming across the West Music classified in the newspaper was maybe one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

On her new post, Walenta remarks, “I am honored to be elected the first female chair of the NAMM Executive Committee. I wouldn’t be here without the incredible support, mentoring, and friendship of so many talented people. I am proud and excited to be at the forefront of the increasing diversity and broadening inclusivity of both our members and the products we represent.” She adds, “In my 30 years of attending the NAMM Show, I have witnessed a growing sea change in the importance of women and in the positions we hold throughout the industry. From the time I was first elected to serve on the NAMM Executive Committee, I realized my importance as a role model. But it was after the Breakfast of Champions interview with NAMM President Joe Lamond at the 2014 show that I really felt the impact. Shortly after the interview, a gentleman and his high school aged daughter called out to me for a personal introduction. They were encouraged by the interview and wanted advice on how the young girl could learn from my experiences and succeed in the music world. It was at that moment that I realized the magnitude of being the first woman Chair of NAMM.”

Walenta wasn’t the typical job applicant with her lack of background in music or music ed. Growing up in Iowa City, she had taken lessons in piano and banjo, but as she puts it, “I was a much better audience member than a performer.” At Middle Tennessee University, she majored in graphic design with the hope of parlaying her visual skills into a job designing record album covers in Nashville. When that didn’t pan out, she returned home, enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa, honed her financial skills, and took a banking job. But she quickly became unhappy with what she describes as “banking’s incredibly low glass ceiling” and quit to head out on her fateful road trip. Although not ideally groomed for music retail, once on the job at West Music, she more than compensated with a strong work ethic and a drive for perfection.

When Walenta joined West Music in 1982, the company operated two stores in the Iowa City metro area, and with a staff of 30 served school music programs in eastern Iowa. Today, the company is a diversified $44 million operation, with 210 employees. West Music’s seven retail locations in Iowa and Illinois stock pianos and m.i. products, and service local school music programs. A 40,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Coralville, Iowa provides support for specialized online operations that address the percussion market and preschool and general music educators. In addition, with the Flute Authority division, the company distributes the Miyazawa, Trevor James, Sankyo, and Phillip Hammig flute brands. This evolution is a story of thoughtful market analysis, creative management, and the hard work of a dedicated team. But according to Walenta, it all got started because the price of corn collapsed.

Pearl and Eleanor West had launched West Music in 1941 in Iowa City, as a repair shop serving the nearby University of Iowa. By the time their son Steve joined them in 1969, the business had grown to become a full-line retailer, with an emphasis on the school music market. 1982 was a tough year for the music industry everywhere. Double-digit interest rates depressed consumer demand and made it nearly impossible for music retailers to finance their inventories. Demographics didn’t help either, as school enrollments were sharply down due to the “baby bust.” For West Music, these problems were magnified by a severe downturn in agriculture that some compared to the 1930s era “Dust Bowl.” As hard-pressed Iowans sharply curtailed their purchases, Steve West made the strategic decision to expand geographically so, as he once put it, “the fate of the company wasn’t tied to the price of a bushel of corn.”

As a bookkeeper, and then company comptroller, Walenta worked side-by-side with West, crafting this diversification strategy. “Steve began looking for underserved market niches where he felt our expertise in education would be useful,” she says. Pearl West had briefly produced a professional flute under the Westwind brand and had an intimate understanding of the subtleties of head joint design. Drawing on this skill, they secured distribution rights for Miyazawa flutes and helped the Japanese company tailor an instrument for the U.S. market. Close working relationships with band and orchestra directors led to the conclusion that the needs of general music teachers were not being addressed. From this insight, they built out a division offering Orff instruments, recorders, mallet instruments, method books, and everything else a preschool or general music educator might need. Initially addressing the local market, the division soon went national, and today mails out more than 100,000 248-page catalogs that have become an indispensable educator resource. The same targeted approach was also used to develop the Percussion Source website, which offers a deep assortment of specialty concert and marching percussion instruments.

What these diverse operations have in common according to Walenta is a “focus on customer engagement.” She elaborates using a hardware store analogy. “When a customer comes in to buy a drill, what they really need is a hole. It’s the same with our customers. They may ask for an instrument, but they have some underlying need. Whether it’s online or in-store, we try to determine that need and work backward to understand how best to fulfill it.”

West Music’s expansion into the mariachi market illustrates the unusual synergy that exists between the company’s websites and its traditional retail operations. Several years ago, Walenta became intrigued by the potential of mariachi after attending an NASMD session on the subject led by Las Vegas educator Marcia Neel. When she got back to her office, she promptly underwrote a trip to Las Vegas for two Iowa educators to learn more about setting up school mariachi bands. Later, West Music worked with them in their schools to determine an optimal mix of instruments and curriculum. Walenta says, “The Iowa educators were our ‘bell cows’ guiding us as we created a proprietary product line and a national website.” Today, mariachi is one of the company’s fastest-growing product categories.

Walenta started her career at West Music working in finance and operations. Her promotion to vice president in charge of retail operations in 1995, along with becoming a shareholder in the company, represented a major career turning point. Suddenly having responsibility for merchandising decisions, promotional strategies, sales training, and store operations was a new and initially daunting challenge. She graciously attributes her subsequent success to “the incredibly talented people I was fortunate to surround myself with.” However, as a self-described extrovert, she naturally gravitated to the customer facing aspect of retail. Ultimately, the direct retail experience sharpened her management skills, gave her a concrete understanding of what makes for a satisfied customer, and led to her current position.

On management, she says, “I’m not sure I buy the whole ‘right brain-left brain’ concept. You need to have both the creative and the analytical to be successful. They need to play well together. You have to be willing to think differently—if everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking—and respond to customers who can sometimes surprise you. But you also must have discipline and accountability. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

On the essence of a successful store, she says, “We all have pretty much the same products on the retail floor. Setting yourself apart requires creating a successful buying experience for the customer.” She elaborates, “A successful experience involves everything from creating product bundles the customer can identify with—like a home studio package—to making sure every associate is dedicated to finding out what the customer really needs. It’s also about making sure that you’re ‘show ready’ the minute the doors open, with everything in place, plugged in, and ready to go.”

From managing retail operations, Walenta steadily expanded her responsibilities, finally becoming president and CEO in 2008 when Steve West stepped aside to become board chairman. The transition was a seamless one, given her three decades of immersion in every facet of West Music. She expresses gratitude to Steve West for “treating me like a person, not an employee from the very beginning,” describing him as “an exceptional teacher and mentor.”

While many are writing obits for specialty retail in the age of Amazon, Walenta maintains an unshakable optimism. She’s realistic and acknowledges that Amazon is a growing force, that some of her suppliers are now selling direct, and that the internet puts West Music in direct competition with retailers around the world. But she says, “You can get so distracted about what’s going on online that you can lose sight of the basics of creating a personal and relevant buying experience.”

For West Music, this relevance is sustained by well merchandised stores and a team of “educational consultants,” a broad job title that includes road reps who call on local schools, product specialists who write the catalog and website copy for educators, and front-line personnel who deal directly with customers. It’s the expertise of these consultants that differentiates the company from price-driven competitors. Walenta explains, “If a customer tells us the size of their class, their curriculum needs, and how much they have to spend, we can set them up with the best products for the task. When we do that, we’re adding value and we’re building relationships that sustain the business.”

Walenta describes her 35 years at West Music as a continuous exercise in searching for opportunity in a changing marketplace. As NAMM chair, she sees this experience as particularly relevant at a time when the association is expanding the scope of its flagship January tradeshow to include stage lighting and tour sound exhibits, technical sessions sponsored by the Audio Engineering Society, and TEC Awards presentations. “The world is changing, and NAMM has to adapt,” she says. “We’re creating a ‘crossroads’ to attract everyone involved in music and live sound. Creating a bigger community ultimately will make us a more successful advocacy organization.”

Having been steeped in the culture of music education at West Music, Walenta also has a strong affinity for NAMM’s stepped-up role in advocating for music education at the state and federal levels. She singles out Mary Luehrsen, NAMM’s director of government relations, for her work raising the profile of music education in Washington D.C. “Mary has done an incredible job,” she says.

A personal goal as NAMM chair is to do a better job communicating the benefits of membership to the industry at large. Citing her own experience, she traces much of her advancement to decades spent walking the aisles of the NAMM show and attending the NAMM U educational sessions. “My career has been based on the relationships I’ve made with key suppliers, the networking I’ve done with peers, and the information I’ve picked up at the educational sessions,” she says. “Going to shows and being part of NAMM has allowed me to develop professionally and expand our business. Membership at $225 is one of the best investments in your business there is.”

NAMM’s retail membership is divided between businesses operated by second- and third-generation family members and start-ups. Walenta’s career at West Music has given her firsthand experience with the needs and challenges of family enterprises. However, she sees an opportunity for NAMM to provide more assistance to the entrepreneurs who lack family support. “The newcomers represent the future of the industry,” she says.

Whether it’s at the helm of West Music, or at NAMM, Walenta has experienced enough upheaval to recognize the dangers of complacency. In an evolving marketplace, she lives by the maxim, “the only two things you can control are your attitude and your effort.” Having mastered both has made for an enviable career to date.

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