COMPANIES TO WATCH
|SLM’s latest investment in one of its longstanding proprietary brands: an advanced new factory for the Knilling stringed instruments line.
ST. LOUIS MUSIC
SLM offers more than 300 brands and a stellar track record in value-added distribution.
IT MIGHT JUST LOOK like a knack for picking winners, but that’s only one reason St. Louis Music has never recorded a down year under current ownership. Another is what it brings to its brands once it has them. A St. Louis-based distributor with roots going back nearly a century, SLM has been riding an upward trajectory since 2008, when it was acquired by current CEO Mark Ragin and his team. It’s now best known for a lineup of proprietary brands including Alvarez, Yairi, and Austin guitars, Knilling stringed instruments, Blessing brasswinds, Hamilton stands and—most recently—HW Products and D.E.G. accessories. Besides stockpiling brands, however, the company has made its name on supporting and elevating them. In one of its latest moves, SLM opened a new workshop for its Knilling stringed instruments line, accelerating production to meet rising demand while also refining the product. Created with the help of a dedicated design engineer, the new shop delivered advanced CNC machining and other tools to customize and adjust stringed instrument outfits quickly, while offering premium U.S. setup and a comprehensive choice of product specs.
“We turned a workshop with factory-level demand into a factory with a workshop’s attention to detail,” says SLM’s Chris Meikle, senior vice president of sales, marketing, and product. “The results have been fantastic. We have massively reduced lead times on stringed instruments while raising their quality.”
An authorized distributor for around 300 brands in total, St. Louis Music increasingly represents a one-stop shop for more than 3,000 music retailers across the U.S. Notable acquisitions last year included band accessories manufacturers D.E.G., maker of the Flutist’s Friend Marching Lyre, and HW Products, known for its Pad Saver and Brass Saver instrument cleaning products. Outside of its proprietary brands, relationships with respected instrument makers have made SLM the longtime exclusive U.S. distributor of P. Mauriat saxophones, Dixon drums, and Antigua woodwinds, among many others.
For Ragin, history has shown that sometimes the best way to choose the right lines is to think like a retailer—which he was at one time. As head of Missouri’s St. Anne’s Music more than two decades ago, Ragin saw firsthand that some suppliers helped his business grow while others only seemed to get in the way. When he opened his own distribution company, U.S. Band & Orchestra Supplies, in 1999, he put that experience to work and soon became known for his “dealer first” approach, becoming a favorite supplier for full-service school music dealers.
At that time, St. Louis Music was a competitor. Dating back to 1922, SLM was established when Bernard Kornblum set up shop as a violin importer in downtown St. Louis. Under his son, Gene Kornblum, the business would expand dramatically though the end of the 20th century, adding the Crate and Ampeg amplifier lines along with Alvarez guitars and Knilling violins. In 2005, however, Gene retired, selling the thriving business to Loud Technologies, the parent company of Mackie Audio and EAW. By most accounts, it was a mismatch from the start. Finding itself ill-equipped to manage an m.i. distribution business, Loud put St. Louis Music up for sale just three years after buying it—and the opportunity wasn’t lost on Ragin, then heading up U.S. Band & Orchestra Supplies. After putting in the winning bid for St. Louis Music, he would merge the two companies under the SLM banner.
In 11 years since the acquisition, St. Louis Music has recorded gains each year and grown to more than six times its size before the sale, routinely out-performing the overall music products market. Part of that can be credited to its strength in two of the industry’s most consistent categories: acoustic guitars, where its Alvarez, Yairi, and Austin guitar lines offer a comprehensive product selection at compelling prices; and school music, where a range of brass, wind, and stringed instruments, plus accessories, place SLM lines solidly in the conversation. The P. Mauriat saxophones line, for one, has been widely recognized for delivering professional features at entry-level price points. Knilling violins, equipped with proprietary features like the Perfection Planetary geared tuning peg, are educator favorites. The addition of the Blessing brand in 2015 gave the company a strong position in the brasswinds market, while a relaunch of Zonda reeds in 2014 delivered popular new options for clarinet and sax players. The newest additions to SLM’s portfolio, D.E.G. and HW Products, are also tailor-made for the school music market.
Between its varied product mix and its grasp of business at the dealer level, SLM has also built a reputation for responding to market shifts, uncovering underserved niches, and getting the most out of every product. One case in point would be Alvarez guitars. After a slow period under previous ownership, the acoustic guitar line made a comeback in the U.S. market thanks to intensive R&D and hands-on factory work by SLM. The effort yielded a new quality standard across the line, which now runs from parlor guitars to baritones, ukuleles, and handmade Japanese instruments under the Alvarez-Yairi brand. Under the Blessing trademark, the company has found success with niche products such as double French horns, small bore baritone horns, and flugelhorns. Attractive freight programs have been designed to speed delivery and enhance retail selling margins, while a B2B web portal offers easy ordering and inventory management. SLM has even brought its approach to international markets, forming partnerships and distributing brands including Alvarez in 35 countries.
Internationally speaking, says Meikle, the issue on the company’s radar today is the ongoing trade war with China and what it means for tariffs on imported goods. “Our current challenge is managing our supply chain to allow our customers and SLM to remain profitable without pushing all the added tax onto consumers,” he says. “We’re working hard with our suppliers, and even the suppliers to our vendors, in order to achieve this.”
Current events notwithstanding, though, the big-picture goals and strategies haven’t changed, adds Meikle. “We focused on what we know best, which are acoustic guitars, band and orchestra, and accessories,” he says. “These categories have remained stable, and we have grown within them. We have made many commitments to product design and quality assurance both in the USA and overseas in our chain supply, which has helped us to offer value-added, truly ‘designed’ products. Our roadmap is to continue growing in these product groups while modernizing and raising our service levels at every opportunity—and continuing to acquire brands that can bring value to our customers and us.”