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St. Louis Music’s expanded management team (l-r) Richard Grossman, national sls. mgr.;
Ken Fredenberg, dir. percussion product design; Jim Uding, Dixon prod. mgr.;
Ken Hartnagel, dir. IT; Paul Damiano, EVP & COO; Mark Ragin, President & CEO;
Robert E. Lee, SVP Sales; Chris Meikle, SVP Marketing; Rich Dumstorff, VP SLM Marketplace;
Craig Denny, VP Band & Orchestra; Dale Kroke, SVP Operations.

St. Louis Music

Generating growth with a “dealer first” approach

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, Blessing brasswinds, and Zonda reeds. 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 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 others 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, they put St. Louis Music up for sale. Ragin 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.

St. Louis Music has posted double-digit sales gains for the past nine years 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 addition of the Blessing brand also gives the company a strong position in the brasswind market.

St. Louis Music product managers have also been highly effective in responding to market shifts and uncovering under-served niches. Alvarez was one of the first guitar makers to offer a broad selection of smaller parlor sized acoustics, as well as baritone acoustic and electric guitars. Under the Blessing trademark, the company has found success with niche products like double French horns, small bore baritone, and flugelhorns.

St. Louis Music’s proprietary brands are augmented by a comprehensive selection of accessories, making the company a “one-stop-shop” for nearly 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 has developed a new B2B web portal for easy ordering and inventory management. The system even makes it possible to manage their purchasing and inventory anywhere, using a cell phone or tablet.

Dealers can access a comprehensive selection of marketing assets for all St. Louis Music products at the B2B site. Chris Meikle, director of marketing, emphasizes that “With the growing importance of online commerce, it’s vital to provide our dealers with all the tools to present our products as effectively as possible.”

More recently, St. Louis Music has rolled out its “dealer first” approach on a global basis as it addresses markets in 35 countries. In Thailand, for example, the company reached an agreement with Aed Carabao, the nation’s top singer-songwriter, to develop a high-end signature Alvarez guitar model. Backed by an extensive program of retail seminars and clinics, the guitar has been an unqualified success.

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. Despite the challenges of growth, Ragin is confident that his company’s full potential has yet to be reached. “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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