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Five Star Guitars Named Oregon’s Top Small Business

...is presented annually to exemplary small businesses in each of the 50 states, defined as those with fewer than 50 employees. SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet said, “These small business owners represent the best of the best and showcase daily their entrepreneurial spirit and what it takes to be successful in today’s evolving and competitive business environment.” Jeremie Murfin, Geoff Metts, and Johnpaul Simonet, the three partners who have owned Five Star Guitars since 2012, visited the White House on May 2 for an award ceremony and flew back to Oregon the next day to attend State ceremony.

“We were completely stunned,” says Murfin. “We have friends who run great small businesses in the state—restaurants, construction companies, clothing stores. To be selected was an amazing honor.” The award was especially gratifying, he says, because it affirmed the partners’ business strategy, and their successful transition from store employees to owners.

After working at Five Star Guitars for several years, Murfin, Metts, and Simonet teamed up to buy the business from founder Ken Potter in 2012. They downplayed the transition at the time, because, as Murfin says, “Ken had built a good business and had a lot of trust in the community. Nothing was broken, so we didn’t see any reason to make a big deal about it.”

The three partners had at various times performed every job in the store, but initially struggled after taking on ownership. “We were really green,” relates Murfin. “Managing a storefront is not the same as running a business. We had to learn about managing cash, balancing our inventory, dealing with landlords, and setting employee policies.” For guidance, they enrolled in a small business development program at nearby Portland Community College. One of the first lessons they learned was to divide responsibilities. Murfin took over finances and budgeting; Metts became the chief operating officer, handling sales training, IT, and inventory control; and Simonet became the “public face” of the company, directing marketing efforts.

Courses on marketing, financial management, and store design helped the trio refine their strategies and generate consistent double-digit sales gains. Murfin says, “We’d sit through the classes, take the lessons home, apply them to the business, and then come back a few weeks later and report our results. We sort of became a case study for the whole class, and the professor encouraged us to fill out the application for the SBA award.” The Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, on which Murfin serves, and the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, where Metts is a member, also provided encouragement. However, Murfin adds, “We never really thought we’d win.”

Five Star Guitars is a full-line m.i. store with an active lesson program. Eleven teachers handle upwards of 300 students a week, and supplying beginner and intermediate instruments generates the majority of the company’s sales. A large selection of boutique electronics and high-end guitars has also made the store a destination for serious players throughout the state. Five Star was recently named one of the country’s top Mesa Boogie dealers.

Murfin and his staff pride themselves on doing a complete set-up on every guitar they sell, making sure they all leave the store in perfect playing condition. “Customers buying expensive guitars expect it,” he says. “But we do it on lower-priced instruments as well. It costs money to pay the luthier, but if you want to create a musician, it’s worth the investment. If you’re a beginner with an unplayable guitar, you think it’s your fault and you quit. If you have a playable guitar, you see success and you stick with it.”

Five Star Guitars operates its main location at a high-profile shopping center in Tanasbourne, and last year opened a smaller location on Hillsboro’s historic Main Street, just 12 minutes away. The second store came about almost by accident. The partners had been looking for additional space to house back-office functions and extra stock. “The retail space in Tanasbourne was just too expensive to use for warehousing,” says Murfin. The closure of a local music store on Main Street presented an ideal solution. The rent was attractive; there was ample space for offices, repair facilities, and warehousing; and as an added benefit, it provided a presence in a hip downtown area enjoying a rebound.

Murfin adds, “As soon as we moved our office functions into Main Street, our sales at Tanasbourne took off. All of a sudden, we weren’t trying to cut a paycheck on the computer at the counter while trying to sell a set of guitar strings, and the customers noticed. We also had the space to set up a photo studio for our website and expand our repair operation.” Five Star Guitars is an authorized warranty repair center for many brands.

The SBA award will raise Five Star’s profile in the community, but Murfin attributes the recent success to the in-store experience he and his staff deliver. “A lot of stores have closed in our area, and we think customers have missed the experience they provide: the opportunity to see great gear, talk to someone who knows what’s going on and what’s going to be released next, and to hang with other musicians. It’s something that Amazon or a smart phone app can’t deliver. We think the key to success is the store experience. You have to give people a reason to come to your store.”

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