“New” company with a longstanding tradition of customer service
St. Louis Music is a relatively “new” company that enjoys nearly a century of tradition. The business has roots going back to 1922, when Bernard Kornblum set up shop as a violin importer in a small office in downtown St. Louis. Today, under the leadership of Mark Ragin, St. Louis Music operates as a full-line distributor with a stable of proprietary lines, including Knilling violins, Alvarez and Austin guitars, Dixon drums, and Blessing brasswinds. The thread that links the “old” and “new” St. Louis Music is an intense focus on customer service: prompt deliveries, consistent pricing policies, a responsive sales team, and a willingness to “do whatever it takes” to help its retail customers succeed in the marketplace.
Ragin’s strategy at St. Louis Music was forged during his tenure heading St. Anne’s Music, a Missouri-based retail chain. There he saw firsthand that some suppliers helped his business grow while other consistently impeded progress. When he opened his own distribution business, U.S. Band & Orchestra Supplies, in 1999, he put that experience to work, crafting a “dealer first” approach. As the name implied, U.S. Band & Orchestra Supplies focused on the school market, and its responsive service quickly made it a favorite supplier for full-service school music dealers.
Bernard Kornblum’s son Gene dramatically expanded St. Louis Music, in the 1980s and ’90s, adding the Crate and Ampeg amplifiers lines, Alvarez guitars, and Knilling violins. He retired in 2005, selling the thriving business to Loud Technologies, the parent company of Mackie Audio and EAW. The transaction unintentionally created an opportunity for Ragin. Loud proved ill-equipped to manage an m.i. distribution business, and three years after making the acquisition, it put St. Louis Music up for sale. Ragin immediately recognized the company’s potential, and eventually prevailed in the bidding. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Band & Orchestra Supplies and St. Louis Music were merged under the St. Louis Music banner.
Since completing the acquisition, St. Louis Music has posted double-digit sales gains for nine years straight, despite a stagnant market for music products. One reason for the stellar performance has been the company emphasis on two of the industry’s bright spots: acoustic guitars and school music. The Alvarez and Austin guitar lines offer a comprehensive product selection at compelling prices, P. Mauriat saxophones are distinguished by professional features at entry-level price points, and Knilling violins, with proprietary features like the Perfection Planetary geared tuning peg, are educator favorites. The recent acquisition of the Blessing brand also gives the company a strong position in the brasswind market. Product managers in St. Louis are continually refining designs and feature sets to address customer needs. And all of these proprietary lines are supported by an extensive social media campaign and content-rich websites.
St. Louis Music’s proprietary brands are augmented by a comprehensive selection of accessories, making the company a “one-stop shop” for more than 3,000 dealers in the U.S. The accessory offering is supported by attractive freight programs, designed to speed delivery and enhance retail selling margins. To help retailers maximize market opportunities, St. Louis Music will soon be supporting its product offering with a B2B web portal for easy ordering and inventory management. The portal will also provide access to a comprehensive selection of marketing assets. A program where the company imprints a 300-page product catalog with a dealer’s logo and contact information has also contributed to sales growth.
St. Louis Music has faced a problem that is increasingly rare in the music industry: coping with rapid sales growth. Adding product lines and increasing inventory while maintaining prompt shipping has taxed the organization. Ragin has responded by strengthening his management team. Paul Damiano was named executive vice president and chief operating officer and Robert Lee was tapped as senior vice president of sales. Both spent decades at Kaman Music. Rounding out the team, Chris Meikle, senior vice president of marketing, has developed and sourced most of the guitar lines, while Craig Denny, vice president of band and orchestral products manages the Blessing, Knilling, and P. Mauriat lines. The newest addition, Dale Kroke, senior vice president of operations successfully completed the installation of a new computer system without even a day’s lost shipping.
Ragin is optimistic about St. Louis Music’s future potential. “One of the biggest advantages in the U.S. is the great culture of music that encourages marching bands, school orchestras, and church bands across the country,” he says. International markets also hold the potential for growth. Alvarez guitars are currently sold in 35 countries, and he says “that’s a good beginning, but expect much more in the future.”
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