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JC Curleigh, Gibson's new CEO.

Meet New Gibson CEO
JC Curleigh

Former Levi Strauss executive pledges to make a more guitar-focused Gibson “easier to do business with” and instill a “start-up culture” to make Gibson guitars number one “in the hands and hearts of musicians.”

JAMES "JC" CURLEIGH brings a varied background to his new position as Gibson CEO. The son of a naval aviator, he gained an international perspective, growing up in five countries. As an avid skier, he landed his first paying job working in a specialty ski shop in Nova Scotia, Canada. Learning how to balance service, proper product, and competitive pricing to deliver a positive customer experience was a formative influence that continues to shape his outlook. His early success at retail caught the attention of the management at ski manufacturer Salomon, which hired him as a marketing manager. During his tenure there, he played a role in expanding the Salomon product line beyond ski equipment to include snowboards and equipment for trail running and hiking. After a brief stint at TaylorMade Golf, he joined Keen footwear, a start-up that successfully introduced an innovative sandal line. For the last seven years, he served as President of the Levi’s brand. He’s also a guitar enthusiast of long standing who says, “Apart from my family, music is my greatest passion.”

Curleigh brings this experience to bear on the task of reinvigorating Gibson, as it emerges from bankruptcy court. Prior Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz had borrowed more than $300 million to finance the acquisition of the consumer audio business of Philips NV in a bid to turn the illustrious guitar company into a “lifestyle brand,” or as he put it, “The Nike of the music industry.” While Gibson’s guitar business remained relatively healthy, the subsequent collapse of the audio business forced a Chapter 11 filing. Gibson’s bankruptcy received extensive media coverage, contributing to the popular “guitar is dead” narrative. However, leading private equity firm Kohlberg, Kravis, & Roberts (KKR) saw value in the guitar business and in a complex debt for equity swap took a controlling stake in Gibson.

The KKR strategy for Gibson is to discard the consumer electronics business and focus on building the guitar business. In the following interview, Curleigh outlines how this strategy will take shape, his approach to retail distribution, and his goals for Gibson.

How did you end up heading Gibson? What’s the back story?

I was at Levi’s for seven years, where we did some amazing things. We took a struggling brand, which had once been iconic, and we re-earned its iconic status. Then about six months ago I was reading about brands that I loved, and I saw these two words, “Gibson Bankrupt.” I thought to myself, “How could that be?” I was just looking from a personal, not professional standpoint. Then a month later, I got a call from the KKR team that was trying to navigate the bankruptcy obstacle course to get ownership of Gibson. They asked if I would be interested in joining the team. My first reaction was, “no, not interested.” Things were going great at Levi’s, and I was happy where I was. But I was curious anyway, and asked them, “What’s going to happen at Gibson?” As they explained their idea of refocusing on the guitar business after emerging from bankruptcy, I got more and more interested.

Everyone who knows me will tell you that my number one passion in life, apart from my family, is music. I started thinking that if the opportunity arose where my professional experience could have a positive collision with my passion in music, why wouldn’t I take it? So after a lot of thought, I said yes. I was leaving Levi’s in great shape, and everyone on my team was just happy that I wasn’t going to a competitor in the fashion industry.

“I want to be known as a great
manufacturing success story
that oh, by the way,
is in the guitar business.”

In the two months since you’ve been officially on board, how have you been spending your time, and any first impressions about Gibson the company, and the music products industry in general?

I have unapologetically spent a lot of time internally over the past 90 days. As you can imagine, the team has been a little beat up, not just from the bankruptcy, but from all the dynamics that you may have heard about or read about Gibson. The majority of people on this earth don’t fully understand the dynamics of bankruptcy or what it’s supposed to do. They just see it as code for a company going out of business. It’s the SOS sign. My first priority was a series of company town halls. I did one in Nashville for four or five hundred people, I did one in Memphis, and I did one in Bozeman. First and foremost, I thanked everyone for getting us through the obstacle course. Then I explained how the company would emerge better and stronger from bankruptcy and our vision for a new and more focused Gibson. I also asked lots of questions. The easiest one was, “If you were me, what’s the one thing you would focus on?” I got lots of responses, but very quickly they were bucketed in relevant ways.

More recently, I’ve been spending more time with musicians and our dealers to try to understand the dynamics of what’s happening there. I’m also spending time with our products in our factories—Gibson USA and Gibson Custom in Nashville, the factories in Memphis and Bozeman, and with the Epiphone team.

KKR has been public about exiting the consumer electronics business that Gibson acquired from Philips. But what’s the status of the non-guitar-related m.i. brands. Specifically KRK monitors, Cerwin-Vega, and Baldwin pianos?

We have a number of brands that should be more relevant than they are, that could be more successful than they are. We just have to choose to prioritize them for the future and see if they fit within the strategic architecture that we’re going to build. After a month on the job, I’m in no position to tell you which ones are in or out. What I can tell you is that every single brand that we have post-bankruptcy has meaningful value. Cerwin-Vega is one of the originators of the true sound of bass, KRK studio monitors have a leading market share. There is a lot of value there. But it comes down to how we decide to prioritize, invest, and resource accordingly. The good news is that all the brands are connected to music and sound.

What about the manufacturing operations? Will you maintain the current configuration with operations in Bozeman, Memphis, and Nashville?

We’re in full evaluation mode, but the concepts of scale, synergy, and simplicity will absolutely drive our decisions. We’re under-scaled with multiple factories that prevent us from getting all the potential synergies we could. We’re also a bit too complex for the size of our business. (Since this interview was conducted, Gibson closed its Memphis plant, relocating production to Nashville facilities.)

When you were at Levi’s, you stressed the importance of simplifying the customer purchase experience. Do you see this as similarly important at Gibson?

Any great experience is all about eliminating the friction points and elevating the fascination points. If you think about going to a concert, you think, “where am I going to park?” “what about my tickets?” “will I have a good view?” and “are there going to be long lines?” I helped design Levi’s Stadium (home stadium of the San Francisco 49ers) and we looked at every point of friction and tried to reduce it or eliminate it so that the concert experience would be amazing. No matter where you sit, the sound is awesome, the screens are amazing, and we provided artists with multiple points of delivery.

How does this relate to Gibson? It’s really about getting much more sophisticated about our insights into our fans or consumers, and then reducing all the friction points to deliver a great experience in a simple, seamless way. It’s about how to deliver the message that we make amazing instruments and we put creativity into your hands.

“After coming through the
obstacle course of the bankruptcy courts,
we’re cleaner and more focused
than at any time in this century.”

You’ve mentioned that you’re a guitarist and have had a long standing interest in music and Gibson guitars. Could you give a little background on your musical experiences?

My musical experiences started with my parents. My father was a navy helicopter pilot, my mom was a true free spirit from Nova Scotia, Canada. Their common denominator, even before they were married, was a shared love for music festivals. Wherever my dad was in the world, he would try and find his way to the nearest music festival and meet my mom there. We grew up in a world of music. My mom played an Epiphone guitar and my dad played the banjo. I started playing the guitar, first on my mom’s Epiphone, but I coveted a Gibson. When I could afford my own guitar, I bought a Gibson Les Paul. It was one of the first major purchases of my life. Later I bought a Les Paul Smartwood guitar, and a Gibson J-45.

How about your artist preferences?

I have to put Bob Dylan in there, then it goes into all those bands from the Rolling Stones era, and on through U2. I also like Mumford and Sons and I’m not afraid of a little country action either.

Describing Levi’s, you said there was a need to keep one foot in the past, but take a confident step forward with innovation. Is this approach relevant to Gibson, and if so, how?

There’s always a fine line between innovation that is a breakthough or solves problems and innovation that may create problems or is just a novelty. At Gibson, we have inherited a brand with amazing guitars and an amazing heritage. But going forward we have an opportunity to innovate.

Most people see innovation as this huge capital “I” breakthrough. But, it can be incremental too. There are opportunities to innovate around the sound, the playability, the access to learning to play, production methods, and even how we come to market. As one of the market leaders, these are areas we are considering, all with an eye towards growing the market. If the market expands, premier brands like Gibson and Epiphone will benefit as well.

When you look back at the 1950s and 1960s, when all those breakthrough innovations on the shapes and the sounds came through, every luthier and electronics engineer today wishes they could have been part of that era. Our challenge at Gibson is to set up better conditions for innovation to thrive and take hold.

How do you do that?

At Levi’s, we set up the Eureka Innovation lab in San Francisco. We used it as an experimental place where we examined everything, from sustainability to craftsmanship to the vintage dynamics of denim. We also examined modern ways of manufacturing. It was a collaborative approach that led to a number of breakthroughs. I anticipate we’ll look at something like that at Gibson.

“A simple mantra I’m introducing here
is that I want to make it easier
to do business with Gibson.”

From your comments on innovation, it sounds like you envision a series of incremental advances, rather than a revolutionary change. This is also probably reassuring to the market because the classic Gibson guitar designs have been so well accepted; they don’t seem to need a revolutionary overhaul.

There’s a parallel with denim. The Levi 501 blue jean was invented in 1873. It was blue denim, five pockets, a leather decorative patch on the rear, and you can still buy it today. Every jean in the world today is derived from that basic design. At Levi’s, we innovated around comfort and style. The current generation is getting their comfort cues from athletic wear, so we added a dimension of stretch and made the material softer. Then they asked to make them more stylish, so we tapered them to show off shoes. People might say “that’s not a major innovation,” and they’re probably right. But improvements like that have made the jean market very healthy today.

What would be the equivalent of that in the guitar market? I don’t have the answers yet. Our challenge is to leverage our history, but continue to innovate in ways that are meaningful. You try things and see what people say, and keep experimenting.

Gibson’s history is a great asset. The fact that your guitars are instantly recognizable and have been used in so much memorable music is tremendous. Butat the same time, you have to deal with a vocal customer base that doesn’t want you to change anything, ever.

It’s a great challenge. If we listened to everyone online, we would probably just make the ’59 Les Paul burst. At Levi’s we picked out the specific eras and had a vintage team create faithful reproductions for the true aficionados. But, we also were continually coming out with new products. It’s similar at Gibson. We have to reconcile the people who say “don’t go changing anything” with the ones who are asking, “what’s new?”

One of the things I preached at Levi’s and believe very strongly is that we need to act like a start-up. Gibson has an amazing 124-year heritage and a body of work, with styles, sounds, and earned iconic status. But we need to think like a start-up, where the future is as important as the past. That’s not just in a sales and marketing approach, but it goes down to how we manufacture. Strip away the cool industry we’re in, and the Gibson name, and I want to be known as a great American manufacturing success story that, oh, by the way, is in the guitar business.

In the past, Gibson’s annual buy-in requirements and fairly restrictive online promotional policies created somewhat strained relationships with the retail distribution channel. It might be premature for you to outline your distribution strategy, but any comments on these specifics, or working with retailers generally?

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years. Brands and markets need specialty retail. Specialty retail is where ideas, creativity, engagement, and relationships can happen. These aren’t just words from the CEO; this is something I truly believe. My first real paycheck was in specialty retail. Working with my brothers, we would spend hours discussing the products we’d stock, how we’d merchandise, and we were very connected with the brands. Show me a healthy industry, and I’ll show you a lot of specialty retailers. You see it in the food and beverage industries.

But, I also believe in providing broader access to encourage more people to play a musical instrument. If there are more places selling consumer electronics than there are selling guitars, there’s a reason more kids are playing Fortnite than playing guitar.

I can’t apologize for what Gibson has done in the past, but what I can do is set better conditions for success and become a better business partner. A simple mantra I’m introducing here is that I want to make it easier to do business with Gibson. I know where the friction points are. I’ve met with a lot of dealers, both big and small, and there are a lot of common denominators about how we can do better. We’ll be showing up at NAMM with an orientation on making it easier to do business with Gibson.

While your trade partners may have some complaints about Gibson the company, it doesn’t seem to have affected players’ affinity for Gibson guitars. Does this line up with your experience to date?

It does. But, I think we can make our company as well regarded as our guitars.

Gibson has one of the broadest product lines of any fretted instrument manufacturer. In addition to the Les Paul, there are great flat top acoustics, the big box jazz guitars, archtops like the ES series, not to mention the mandolins and banjos. It seems that Gibson has neglected, or at least not fully developed, all of these categories. Any comment?

That goes back to the notion of refocusing on our core, which is fretted instruments. I’m not going to look too far in the past, but when you declare that you’re going to take your brand into a lifestyle dimension, by definition, that sets up a series of priorities that might divert resources from the fretted instrument business. The good news is that after coming through the obstacle course of the bankruptcy courts, we’re cleaner and more focused than at any time, let’s say for dramatic effect, in this century.

If you knew nothing about Gibson, I’d tell you that we’ve been in the business of building great musical instruments and that our instruments have shaped sounds for generation and genres for over a century. We need to get back to doing the things that made us famous in the first place. Putting instruments in the hands of musicians to shape the sounds of generations and genres.

“The outpouring of goodwill
has been just amazing
and unexpected.”

Looking at your résumé, you’ve been involved in both enthusiast markets with Salomon and TaylorMade Golf, and broad-based consumer products with Keen footwear and Levi’s. Any lessons from these businesses that are applicable to Gibson?

The experience at Keens, a true start-up, was particularly valuable. We created an amazing brand with a truly innovative product. We started with a simple question: Can a sandal protect your toes, and if it could, would anyone care and would they buy it? In 2003, the sandal market was pretty generic, and the highest price you could pay for a pair of sandals was about fifty bucks. We came along and said we’ll give you toe protection, better comfort, and durability, and we charged eighty bucks. People thought we were crazy, but we hit a homerun and changed the market.

There are a lot of lessons to learn from that start-up experience. Most companies wait until they’re pretty big to install an enterprise resource program (ERP), and then they go through this awkward implementation process. At Keen, I put one in when we had less than $100 million in revenue so we could leverage the benefits right away. It was a real growth enabler. Now with, let’s call it Gibson 2.0, where we’re a leaner, cleaner business with no debt and a handle on our inventory, why wouldn’t we look at putting in an ERP system?

This culture of a start-up is to take advantage of putting scale tools into play. I have every reason to believe that we will grow again. But, if we’re not putting the conditions in place to make that growth successful, it could get awkward again. That’s where this start-up culture is relevant.

Any noteworthy challenges or issues you have faced in your career that have had a lasting influence?

A lot comes down to learning to be patiently aggressive or aggressively patient. You can use it either way. Sometimes I’ve come into a situation and tried to do too many thing too fast and then realized if I had exercised a little more patience, it would have worked out better. Other times I’ve been too patient, saying “it will work out,” and it didn’t. Those are the times where I wish I had been more aggressive. Learning to find the proper balance is the challenge. When you have good information and your intuition says “go,” you should go. Where you don’t have that, exercise a degree of patience, because with a brand like Gibson that’s been around for over a hundred years, a week or two might not be the difference maker. If you’re in a room of leaders, this is something they all have in common.

Any other important influences that have shaped your outlook?

My dad was a naval aviator, became a general in the Air Force, and later became the Defense Ambassador to Canada. As a kid, I lived in five countries. Growing up in an international environment really opens your eyes and makes you curious. Of course, we spend a lot of time thinking about the USA and everything that’s amazing about it, but at the same time, I understand there’s a whole world out there that, if connected properly, can yield amazing results.

Any surprises since you’ve taken the job?

Every musician, every retailer, and even a few competitors have said to me words to the effect of: “We’re behind you 100%; what can we do to help Gibson.” The outpouring of goodwill has been just amazing and unexpected.

What would you like to see at Gibson a few years down the road?

I would like to see Gibson, as a brand, contributing to a thriving music industry. As a leader in the industry, we have both an obligation and opportunity to make the market healthy. Also, being recognized as the clear leader, not just in measurable metrics of market share, but in the hearts and hands of musicians who recognize that Gibson is truly the best instrument on the market.

 

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