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Mississippi Music, Inc. President and CEO Rosi Johnson.

Staying Power

How Mississippi Music has remained a regional retail powerhouse by not only accepting change, but by boldly, strategically initiating it for more than seven decades.


MUSIC RETAIL IS HARD. Profitability requires a combination of adaptation to changing customer demands, careful buying, strong internal controls, promotional skills, and attention to many managerial and operational details. Less easily defined, but equally important for long-term success, is maintaining a winning attitude—resisting the distraction, boredom, and fatigue that have brought down more than a few once-dynamic enterprises. These challenges can multiply over time and in the face of adversities ranging from the perennial and mundane—small margins and the “daily grind”—to the extraordinary—up to and including Mother Nature’s devastating wrath. Few retailers are as time- and battle-tested as Mississippi Music. In business for more than 70 years, the four-store chain is a model of determination, industry, and perseverance. Reflecting on the events, decisions, and culture that have shaped it through Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the economy tanking in 2007, and the BP oil spill in 2010, long-serving captain Rosi Johnson says, “We’re all pretty dang tough.”

Mississippi Music’s four stores are located in Biloxi, Flowood, Hattiesburg, and Meridian. With 80 to 100 miles between them, the chain serves about three-quarters of the state, plus parts of Alabama and Louisiana. The company has been developing its own e-commerce capabilities, but so far the strategic positioning of its brick-and-mortar stores has satisfied its market, supplemented only by sales on Reverb.com and eBay.

The founders wanted Rosi
in the company “no matter what.”
“It meant a lot that they had
that much faith in me.”

The product mix varies slightly among the four stores to serve particular market needs. All carry Hammond organs to serve the area’s strong church market, and three sell acoustic pianos. All four offer a full selection of digital pianos, combo gear, school band & orchestra instruments, accessories, and educational media. Each store location has its own school band repair and service shop employing a total of six technicians, and the Flowood store houses an electronic instrument and pro audio repair shop. The chain’s lesson program teaches about 400 students per week. And its Audio Services division provides audio-video installation services primarily to churches and schools.
Administrative functions are headquartered in a separate, non-retail building near the store in Hattiesburg. Parent company Mississippi Music Inc. (MMI), established in 1961, also owns Mississippi Music Acceptance Corporation, a finance company that purchases retail installment contracts from Mississippi Music and services the accounts.

What is now Mississippi Music opened as The Music Shop in 1946, filling the front three rooms of a Hattiesburg home occupied by husband and wife founders Jim & Bertha “Mac” Johnson. Over the next two decades, the business grew both organically and through a series of mergers and acquisitions with other piano-centric retailers in cities throughout the state. Its name was changed to Johnson Music Co. in 1950, and parent company Mississippi Music, Inc. was established in 1960. All stores were rebranded Mississippi Music by 1973.

Mississippi Music founders Bertha “Mac” & Jim Johnson circa 1958.

Jim and Mac became acquainted with Rosi Kling when she was dating their son Dex in high school and through the time they both attended University of Mississippi. While Dex left school to join the U.S. Navy, Rosi graduated from Ole Miss with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. With Jim seeking to modernize his chain’s business systems, Rosi’s previous work as an accountant for her parents’ flower shop and especially her knowledge of early IBM mainframe computers earned her a job offer in 1973. Even before Rosi and Dex were married in 1974, their relationship could have put additional pressure on Rosi to succeed. But years later Jim and Mac confided that they had wanted Rosi in the company “no matter what,” based on her strong work ethic and promising business acumen. “It meant a lot,” she says, “that they had that much faith in me.”

Rosi characterizes her early approach to the position as “cautious” in part because, at that time, Mississippi Music “had a lot of issues.” But cautious didn’t mean timid. Just four years into the job, she was already wearing the hats of accountant, secretary-treasurer, and office manager. A numbers person by education and analytical by nature, she led the charge to scrap and replace the business’s old computer system. Among the most pressing challenges was transitioning from two discrete systems operating at just two of the four store locations—but not communicating with each other—to a fully integrated companywide system. With critical work by Dex’s older brother Bix, Rosi helped drive its implementation.

In 1974, the Johnsons purchased a building in Hattiesburg to serve as MMI’s administrative headquarters. Something of a local landmark, with a music-themed mural on its side, it would become the staging ground for the following decade’s development plans.

As with many successful businesses, Mississippi Music’s evolution has been shaped by trial, error, and continuous adaptation. More acquisitions and strategic consolidations followed in the ’70s, with the total store count topping out at eight in 1974. Mall locations complemented downtown stores, addressing the shopping trends of the day. However, high rents made them less profitable, and by the late ’80s all were closed or migrated to non-mall settings. Over the decades, underperforming stores in weak or oversaturated markets were shuttered as well. Meanwhile, as modern highways made some stores more accessible, some mid-distance locations were consolidated into larger stores, reducing overhead and facilitating broader and more compelling product selections.

The combo department at Mississippi Music’s Flowood store displays a wide array of products and brands.

Embracing Change
Similar bold adjustments have continued into the company’s modern era. For example, in 2002, the Jackson store was moved to a modern new location in Flowood, a thriving business community within two miles of downtown Jackson. Five years later a 5,000-square-foot expansion of that facility was completed to accommodate shipping, receiving, and repair departments, and clearing space for new teaching studios.

Although Jim didn’t fully retire until 1996, the business was run by trusted lieutenant Bill Dollarhide for three years starting in 1979, then by Dex’s brother Bix for another 20 until Rosi took the helm in in 2002. According to Rosi, Dex, now semi-retired, was always content to be the company’s executive vice president and “backbone team member.”

At key moments in the company’s history, management has expanded MMI’s purview beyond standard retail operations. After many banks stopped financing musical instrument sales, MMI responded in 1975 by founding Mississippi Music Acceptance Corp. to help customers finance their purchases. That same year, the Johnsons also launched Eagle Distributors, a wholesale distribution company dealing in guitars and musical accessories it imported from Asia as well as accessories and sheet music from domestic manufacturers and publishers. At its peak, Eagle served 750 retailers in the southeastern U.S. while benefiting Mississippi Music with higher-volume purchasing of many items sold in its stores. But seeing the handwriting on the consolidating music distribution wall, MMI shelved Eagle Distributors in 2001 to refocus on its core disciplines.

In 1994, MMI established Audio Services as its professional sound installation division. Certified by top audio manufacturers such as Peavey, Bose, Yamaha, and many others, Audio Services’ personnel offer the expertise and experience to handle any project, from the smallest church to the largest stadium, and the division continues to contribute significantly to MMI’s success.

"We pride ourselves on customers
wanting to work with our salespeople.
Part of it is their expertise,
but it’s also the hands-on attention
they get from our associates."

From the company’s inception through the ’60s and early ’70s, pianos and organs were king. While managing a thriving rent-to-own program, in addition to offering instruments by Yamaha, Pearl River, Kawai, and Baldwin, Mississippi Music promoted its own piano brand, Musart, and Dex drove an 18-wheeler to a factory in North Carolina to pick up 40 pianos per load. It’s no wonder, then, that the decline of the acoustic piano and home organ markets has represented one of the biggest challenges in MMI’s 70-year evolution. “There was a time when many people who wanted music in their homes felt that they had to buy an acoustic piano and have their child take lessons,” Rosi recalls. “In our market, that has mostly gone away. We built three of our four stores with recital halls. We still find ways to use them, but we would have built them differently if we’d known how the market would change.”

The chain still sells many Yamaha and Roland digitals, but the only acoustic piano line it now offers is Yamaha, which it has carried since the brand first hit the U.S. market in the early ’60s. And reflecting Mississippi Music’s loyalty to the brand, Rosi notes, “Mr. Johnson took on Yamaha school band instruments when they first came out, and [Yamaha] never forgot it; we have a great relationship, and they’ve always treated us very well.”

Mississippi Music is a longtime dealer of Yamaha acoustic pianos, along with a range of digitals.

Jim Johnson’s eye for quality band instruments came naturally, as he had been a school band director for years before, and even for a time after, launching The Music Shop. A pillar of the music products industry, over the years he served as president of NAMM, president of AMC, a board member of NASMD, an honored member of the American Bandmasters Association, and a founding member of the Omega buying group. His affinity for the B&O category helped him redefine the business as its acoustic piano market shrank. (Mississippi Music’s proprietary JW Strings brand of orchestral stringed instruments is named for Jim “J.W.” Johnson.) To this day, it remains one of the chain’s main drivers of sales, backed by excellent customer service and repair services. Six educational reps serving around 200 schools are on the road every business day, seeing most schools at least once per week, and even distant schools at least once every second week. During peak season, Rosi and others from the headquarters office hit the road every night for up to six solid weeks, working the local band programs and meeting with school band directors and band students’ parents.

Like the rest of the world, the South turned its eyes to combo gear in the ’60s and ’70s, and Mississippi Music geared up accordingly both in its product mix and the composition of its sales team. “We pride ourselves on customers wanting to work with our salespeople,” Rosi says. “Part of it is their expertise, but it’s also the hands-on attention they get from our associates who have worked there for a long time.”

Like Jim & Mac before her, Rosi sees Mississippi Music’s seasoned workforce as one of its strongest assets. Once part of MMI’s Eagle Distributors division, 36-year veteran Anthony Everette now leads its IT and marketing teams and works closely with Rosi and all store managers on day-to-day operations. Store managers Barry Jones, Carl Johnston, and Richie Jones have been with the company for an average of more than 27 years. (Lone newbie Tim Miller has logged just three years—“but he’s still a huge asset to the company.”) All four work closely with 16-year veteran Mike Guillot, who coordinates the company’s purchasing.

A team that has “seen it all” has also helped Mississippi Music adapt to an evolving consumer profile. “Baby boomers liked to touch and feel,” Rosi explains. “Gen X were more into research and [coming in already] knowing what we carried. But they also got conditioned by Walmart and K-Mart to expect stores to keep products in stock all the time. That made us step up our game, which became more challenging as suppliers expanded their offerings, such as when one guitar comes in ten colors. Gen Y were okay ordering products we didn’t stock, but today’s customers will do special orders only if we can get them in within, say, three to five days.” Today more than ever, she says, satisfying customers requires maintaining good relationships with vendors, smart buying, stringent inventory control, tireless product transfers between stores, and, when the need is truly urgent, strategic use of FedEx or UPS.

Mississippi Music, Inc. President and CEO Rosi Johnson with (l-r) Anthony Everette, vice president IT/marketing; Carl Johnston, Hattiesburg store manager; Aaron Locke, accounting.

The Hits Keep Coming
Experience and steady-handed management guided Mississippi Music through shifting economic, cultural, and consumer trends, but nothing prepared its team for the calamitous 2000s. When Hurricane Katrina roared through the South in 2005, Mississippi Music’s Biloxi store incurred only minor damage, and its power was restored within seven days, allowing its second floor to serve as a temporary home for two displaced employees. The Hattiesburg store, 80 miles north, was harder hit, requiring it to close for nearly two weeks. The other two stores lost power but weren’t damaged. So on the whole, Mississippi Music’s properties were very lucky. Nevertheless, the region’s economy—and customers’ discretionary income—were throttled. Then came the Great Recession, which doomed even many businesses not handicapped by Katrina. And then just three years later, the BP oil spill re-devastated the already reeling regional economy.

After Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi Music
leaned on a motto, “retail ready.”
“We want our customers to say
‘Mississippi Music is here for us.’”

There was “just a moment” after Katrina, Rosi admits, when she wondered “why we bothered to [re]open the doors for business.” But then, she recalls, a customer came in a week after the storm and made a payment on his account. “He did it mostly just to ‘do something normal,’” she believes, but those interactions helped Mississippi Music reconnect with the community. Normal business flow didn’t resume for nearly six months, but then it boomed, as people set about replacing lost and damaged instruments—before ebbing again, foreshadowing a years-long stretch that thoroughly tested her team’s inventory management skills.

Throughout this monumentally challenging time, Mississippi Music leaned on a motto, “retail ready,” that originally meant “making sure that the garbage cans are empty, the stores are clean, the products have been dusted, and our bread-and-butter products are all stocked and ready to sell.” But over time, and with so much pain and loss around them, it came to mean, “When our customers come in, we want them to say ‘Mississippi Music is here for us.’”

This heightened sense of community and prevailing over uncommon adversity are now baked into Mississippi Music’s company culture, along with the can-do, never-say-never spirit that Rosi projects to her troops every day. She characterizes her headquarters staff and “smart, capable store managers” as “confident, dependable delegators who will get the job done with or without me,” an assessment that cools her temptation to micro-manage. Her hands-off management style (“except when the workflow demands that I’m hands-on”) is also served by MMI’s retail structure, whereby each of the four stores is operated as its own profit center. “I want them to do their jobs,” she says, “and I trust them.”

Active in NASMD for years, Mississippi Music offers a strong band & Orchestra selection.

She adds that she’s learned through books and observation how to understand team members’ individual strengths and personalities and give them what they need to be successful and feel fulfilled—in essence, being different things to different people.

In the trenches, store managers hold regular meetings with discussions on employee and store performance, as well as any upcoming promotions or activities. Other meetings gather associates within specific groups—for example, combo, accessories, or road reps—from all four stores. Best practices are reviewed, department performances are critiqued, and vendors are brought in to introduce new products. The store has also organized conference calls and a webinar and included associates in trips to conventions such as NAMM and NASMD.

In addition to her role as president and CEO of Mississippi Music, Rosi Johnson served on the NAMM board from 2008 to 2010, was the first female president of NASMD from 2016 to 2017, and earlier this year received NAMM’s prestigious Believe In Music award. Yet on those rare occasions when stress or disappointment makes her wonder “Why am I doing this?” it’s her personal involvement in community music and arts initiatives and especially the start of every school band season that renew her. “I see the kids, new music makers, and I know that we’re going to have a positive influence on their whole lives.”

She is also renewed by her Mississippi Music family. “We’re only as good as our team,” she concludes. “You can have the prettiest building in the world, and all the inventory in the world, but you won’t be successful without the kind of associates that people trust and want to deal with and come back to the store to see. It’s an everyday challenge,” she admits, “but even when things are hard, we never want our customers see us having a bad day.” “Pretty dang tough” indeed.

 

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