Europe’s top keyboard maker returns to market
Generalmusic, once Europe’s leading keyboard manufacturer, is returning to the market with an updated version of its popular Promega 2 stage piano that combines the company’s proprietary DRAKE modeling technology with an improved case, and additional features including digital out and USB ports. Newly designed digital pianos for the home market will also be introduced in the coming months. The new products reflect the considerable progress CEO Jukka Kulmala has made since acquiring the business two years ago.
Generalmusic traces its origins back to 1890, when Antonio Galanti and his three sons began manufacturing accordions in the town of Mondaino, Italy. As the popularity of the accordion began to wane, Antonio’s grandson Matteo pushed the family into electronic keyboards, founding General Electro Music in 1959. (The name was shortened to Generalmusic in 1994.) Matteo initially parlayed his engineering and production expertise into OEM contracts, building home organs for Baldwin and Thomas and performance keyboards for Vox. A few years later, he began selling keyboards under his own brand name. Generalmusic consolidated its position as Europe’s largest keyboard manufacturer with the 1987 acquisition of its main rival, ELKA. A line of audio products was also added under the LEM brand (Laboratorio Elettroacustico Musicale). At its peak, the company employed more than 400 and sold a diverse range of digital pianos, synthesizers, and church organs in 80 countries worldwide.
Generalmusic faltered in 2009, following the global financial panic, and filed for bankruptcy the following year. For Kulmala, the situation represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. An enthusiastic bass player and singer, he had been immersed in the music industry, having spent six years on the board of F-Musiikki Oy, Finland’s largest music retailer and distributor. Reviving Generalmusic seemed like the perfect career progression.
Kulmala says that he has “spent his career seeking out challenges,” and on that count, Generalmusic hasn’t disappointed. The first hurdle he faced was navigating the exceedingly complex Italian bankruptcy courts, a process that took nearly four years. The second unanticipated challenge was three sprawling factories. He had wanted to buy only the Generalmusic trademarks and technology, but to close the deal, was compelled to buy the contents of the idled factories as well: 100 tons of inventory, equipment, and component parts to be specific. Moving the gear up to a new factory in Salo, Finland took 12 trucks and five months.
The arduous purchase process was made easier by a group of what he calls “amazingly helpful and friendly people.” In particular, he cites Pier Robert Renzi, an LEM development engineer, and Andrea Paterniani and Gianandrea Cocchi, who were involved in the development of the DRAKE tone generation technology. “They helped me find everything necessary to create the next generation of digital pianos,” he adds.
The decision to relocate production in Salo, a small town 40 miles northeast of Helsinki, proved fortuitous. The former site of Nokia’s mobile phone headquarters and manufacturing, the town has abundant engineering talent and a vibrant network of electronic suppliers and contract manufacturers. “Finnish engineering and quality is absolutely top notch,” says Kulmala. “We may be a little farther north, but we have the people and the know-how to compete with anyone.”
Generalmusic has a history of investing heavily in R&D. In the early 1960s, it was one of the first keyboard makers to embrace solid-state technology. More recently, its DRAKE digital sound engine, employed in the Promega stage keyboard and the soon to be released digital pianos, has been described by many players as “ten years ahead of its time.” Kulmala says that the new Generalmusic will continue this tradition of pursuing advanced technology. Drawing on some of the same engineers who made Nokia phones top sellers around the world, he contends the new keyboards will set a new standard of quality and reliability.
The European Union was Generalmusic’s largest market, and Kulmala says that there is a large group of consumers “cheering for our comeback.” With production ramping up, he is planning a distribution strategy that favors local brick-and-mortar stores. “We believe in traditional, local music stores,” he says. “Customers need to get their hands on an instrument to try it, test it, and compare it before buying. We don’t want m.i. stores to be just showrooms for online stores.”
Rebuilding a company is a difficult project, but Kulmala is undaunted. “I am a problem solver by nature and I don’t give up,” he says. “And the reaction we’ve been getting from customers has made the process very rewarding.”
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