With the Gemeinhardt team in Elkhart, Indiana:
(center) Lady Jeanne Galway; Jennifer Baunoch, v.p.; Sir James Galway;
Dave Pirtle, Gemeinhardt CEO.
Pursuing a leadership position with a “back to basics” emphasis on qualityDave Pirtle, Gemeinhardt Flute CEO, has a straightforward goal: to return the Elkhart, Indiana-based company to its former position as the world’s largest exclusive manufacturer of flutes and piccolos. Based on his résumé alone, he’s uniquely qualified for the challenge. He began his career 35 years ago on the production line as a tenon fitter, moved to the buffing department, and then began rising up through the ranks of management. By the time he was named CEO in 2009, he was not only steeped in the Gemeinhardt company tradition but he had an intimate understanding of every facet of flute building.
Pirtle’s formula for restoring Gemeinhardt’s leadership is equally straightforward. He’s embraced a “back-to-basics” approach, setting rigorous quality standards for the entire product line, and he’s forged an alliance with the world’s premier flutist, Sir James Galway, to develop compelling new products for the aspiring student flutist.
Gemeinhardt’s 2SP flute has been the first instrument for millions of students since its introduction decades ago, and it continues to receive top marks for performance and value from band directors worldwide. However, the relationship with Sir James has enabled the flute maker to successfully move upmarket, with instruments aimed at aspiring students and professionals.
Sir James, who in addition to his performing career, is also active on the education front with his wife Lady Jeanne Galway through their First Flute program, initially approached Pirtle about a possible collaboration. He wanted a high-performance flute that he could confidently recommend to his First Flute students, and was unhappy with the available options. His suggestion was to create an affordable sterling silver head joint based on his personal favorite gold head joint. Jennifer Baunoch, Gemeinhardt’s executive vice president and an accomplished flutist, immediately recognized the merits of the idea, describing Sir James’s head joint as “an ideal” balance between the high and low register. “It has an evenness throughout the registers giving it flexibility for ease of volume variation, articulation, and tonal color,” she says.
After a year of close collaboration, the factory team at Gemeinhardt came up with a prototype of the head joint that received Sir James’s enthusiastic endorsement. He went so far as to use it in a performance at the Kennedy Center. Dubbed the “Crusader” and mated with Gemeinhardt’s 33SB flute, it has received rave reviews. “In my 35 years here, we’ve never put out a product that’s been accepted as enthusiastically as that,” says Pirtle. “It also reminds people that Kurt Gemeinhardt started this company making high-end handmade instruments, and that we have skilled people who can make an instrument to a top level.”
In many respects Gemeinhardt’s focus on higher-end products represents a return to the company’s roots. Founder Kurt Gemeinhardt was a fourth generation flute maker, born in Markneukirchen, the center of Germany’s musical instrument making tradition. In 1928, he came to Elkhart to help several manufacturers develop their woodwind production, and in 1948 he launched his own company.
Initially, Gemeinhardt’s vision was to produce a limited quantity of professional all-silver flutes. But as school music programs proliferated across the country, he was soon overwhelmed with orders for entry-level and mid-level flutes. Within three years, he had outgrown his original factory and moved to a new purpose-built facility that he designed himself.
Although still based in Elkhart, Gemeinhardt is a global manufacturer with additional factories in Taiwan and China. Many of the key components are produced in all three countries. The Crusader flute head joints, piccolos, and Kurt Gemeinhardt Generation (KGG) Series of C flutes are made in the U.S., while flute final assembly is done in Taiwan and China. Harnessing the discrete skills and capabilities of factories in three countries has enabled the company to offer enhanced value.
In addition to its line of flutes, Gemeinhardt also offers a line of saxophones under the L.A. Sax brand, student woodwinds under the Artisan brand, and the Redline brasswind line. High-technology methods are employed in the production of all Gemeinhardt instruments to deliver exceptional levels of precision and consistency. To replicate Sir James’ prized headjoint, an MRI-like process was used to precisely measure dimensions. However, from his experience on the factory floor, Pirtle knows that there is no substitute for the human touch. That’s why every instrument receives a rigorous quality check and set-up in Elkhart before being shipped.
In addition to yielding a successful new product and expanded marketshare, the collaboration with Sir James has served to validate Pirtle’s strategy. “To have the world’s greatest and best known flutist collaborating with us and telling the world about what we’re doing is historic,” he says. “It confirms everything we’re doing.”
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