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Pearl River Bets Big On The Future Of The Piano

...in the dominant American music products market 80 years ago. More significantly, the instrument has been around for more than 300 years, and several esteemed brands have roots that are at least a century old. Named for the vast river system that runs through its native southern China, Pearl River, though founded in 1956, was introduced to the North American market in 1984 and didn’t establish a dealer network here until 1999. What drove this company with very different musical and manufacturing traditions to ramp up piano production to more than 100,000 units a year in such a short period?

In July 2013 Pearl River put into production the world’s largest piano factory. Located in the Zengcheng district of Guangzhou, the new manufacturing complex occupies 1.2 million square feet, and its equipment and systems could only be described as state of the art. The company has ramped up production to build about 130,000 pianos this year. While U.S. piano sales continue to lag pre-recession levels and the European economy remains extremely challenging, the piano market in China is still underdeveloped—and very promising. Approximately 85% of Pearl River’s 2014 production will be sold in China, with the balance headed primarily to the U.S. and Europe.

One of the brightest lights on Pearl River’s horizon shines from China’s demographics. The nation’s population of one billion-plus citizens is relatively youthful and could, according to industry insiders, produce 30 million music students over the next decade. This, in itself, is good news for the music products industry. But other factors are germane to the piano industry in general and Pearl River in particular.

Over the past 30 years, as the West became more familiar with China, China’s younger generations were exposed to many aspects of Western culture, a trend that has been accelerated by the widespread use of the internet. Many Chinese students learn English in school and study, along with their native art forms, Western classical music. Some continue their music studies abroad in Western conservatories and return to China, further churning interest in Western musical styles. Over time, to a large degree, the disparate traditions have merged in China’s cultural consciousness. Because Pearl River was one of the first piano manufacturers in China, and has grown to be the largest, most young Chinese piano students grew up with the Pearl River brand. Familiarity has made it a trusted friend to many schools and parents.

Another good omen for Pearl River’s success in all markets is its growing reputation for building a quality product. At least since the 1980s, competing with American and European brands has honed Pearl River’s quality control and spurred world-class design. In recent years it has focused on a brand and product development strategy that promotes science and technology. Recognizing that scientific production techniques and innovation are the keys to state-of-the-art manufacture, from early on Pearl River has enlisted the talents of great piano designers and technicians from around the world in the pursuit of product excellence. In 2007 it appointed internationally acclaimed master piano designer Lothar Thomma and master technician Stephan Mohler to head the team re-engineering the Kayserburg and Premium Ritmüller piano lines to compete in the upscale segment in the United States. (Thomma had also led the development of the company’s upright pianos starting in 1997.) In recent years the craftsmanship, quality, tone, and playability of Pearl River pianos have achieved mid-range European piano ratings by domestic and international experts. For example, the 2013 Fall Edition of Larry Fine’s Piano Buyer magazine ranked the Ritmüller premium piano line at the top of its Consumer Grade Piano category.

In 2008 Pearl River established its Engineering Technique Research Development Center, unique in China’s musical industry, to expedite new technique applications and new product development and quickly convert process innovations into increased productivity. Its research has resulted in the Pearl River Piano Group being awarded patents in several advanced science, technology, and craft applications.

Pearl River has invested heavily in state-of-the-art digital technology throughout Pearl River’s operation, greatly improving product precision and consistency. Advanced CNC equipment is used to produce all back assemblies to ensure their accuracy of scale, the down bearing of the bridge, and bridge pin position, all contributing to the optimal crown of the soundboard. CNC technology also ensures the precision of the thousands of keyboard and action components. In another CNC operation, the weight of each key is independently adjusted so that the downward force of the key is even and uniform, and the touch is comfortable and natural.

Broader implementation of advanced tooling has significantly improved the new factory’s efficiency. Despite increasing production, the company has been able to reduce its workforce by 1,000 to about 2,500, thus enhancing its cost/price/value equation to benefit dealers, consumers, and internal stakeholders alike. However, the factory’s high-tech machinery and stringent quality standards demand a more highly skilled workforce. Pearl River technicians receive three years of campus education emphasizing music knowledge, piano design and construction, theory, etc., as well as two years of factory apprenticeship, where they concentrate on piano assembly, tuning, regulation, and voicing.

Pearl River is currently celebrating the 30th anniversary of its introduction to the North American market. In addition to a new logo commemorating this important milestone, it launched a new piano series at the 2014 winter NAMM show. As a “thank-you” promotion in the North American market, Pearl River will reward 30 top-performing retailers with a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the company’s new factory in Guangzhou.

Pearl River’s management feels that the best way to advance the interests of its North American dealers is to adhere to the longstanding Pearl River Piano Group credo: “Credibility First and Customers Foremost.” A strong dedication to customer satisfaction has established Pearl River as both a domestic and international sales leader. A statement representing the “entire Pearl River team” explained, “Our overall objective is high-quality service for dealers combined with strong after-sale service and dedicated customer service support. Pearl River believes in giving customers a trustworthy product that is a joy to use. The combined strengths of providing total satisfaction, a good reputation, and a high degree of customer loyalty have increased business in all markets over the last ten years. We feel this is our best strategy for growth in the coming years.”


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