COMPANIES TO WATCH
|TKL’s family business: (l-r) Kevin, Donna, Tom, Tommy, and Laurie Dougherty.
35 years of continuous improvement and never taking success for granted.
AN INDUSTRY LEADER for more than 35 years, musical instrument case and bag manufacturer TKL had an auspicious start back in 1984, with strong OEM business fuelling its growth. Over the years, TKL built a reputation as a trusted and reliable supply chain partner with a growing list of satisfied domestic and international OEM clients. With every interaction, it accumulated knowledge and expertise to design several complete lines of value-engineered cases and bags under TKL’s own brands. They, too, have won a leading position in the accessory market.
“As [end-users] opened up their case,” says CEO Tom Dougherty, “whether it was for a Martin, Gibson, Peavey, PRS, Gretsch, Guild, Ovation, Yamaha, ESP, Takamine, Collings, Huss & Dalton, Bourgeois, or a host of other notable brands, they found the TKL brand proudly displayed, often on a customized OEM plate that said ‘Case Manufactured By TKL.’ Over the years, we trademarked three important phrases: ‘World-Class Cases,’ ‘Known by the company we keep,’ and ‘24/7 Protection.’ With these words embodying our vision, mission, and driving force, our reputation grew as consumers realized that all of our TKL-branded cases and bags were built to the same quality and durability specifications as our OEM products.”
TKL makes cases and bags for an extensive lineup of percussion, keyboards, and band & orchestra instruments under its Black Belt and Zero Gravity brands. But it is best known for serving the fretted instrument market with several distinctive product lines. Its Cedar Creek Custom Case Shoppe builds one-of-a-kind cases for celebrity artists the likes of Eric Clapton and the late Les Paul. In 1999, TKL acquired The Harptone Case Company, the oldest U.S. case manufacturer, established in 1886. Under the Harptone brand, TKL offers cases featuring exacting materials and fabrication processes and the overall look and “feel” sought by vintage guitar, banjo, and mandolin enthusiasts as well as OEM client companies making pre-War reproduction instruments. (The vintage instrument market is also served by TKL’s Geib brand cases.)
TKL’s commitment to innovation is reflected in the patents and trademarks that cover all four walls of its Virginia headquarters’ conference room. In 2018, years of R&D culminated in the unveiling of the company’s SmartCase Technology product range under the newly launched TKL Labs Division. (TKL trademarked the phrase “Where Technology Meets Tradition” as the introductory theme of its SmartCase Technology.) The SmartCase product range works in concert with TKL’s free, user-friendly Safe & Sound iOS and Android mobile app, which enables the user to monitor their instrument’s environment, inside the case, via Bluetooth communication with their smartphone. SmartCase also includes Boveda’s patented Two-Way Humidity Control System.
Such innovations are key to TKL’s success, second only to its renown for rock-solid product quality. According to Dougherty, on-time delivery and quality certification by the company’s OEM customers is crucial. Maintaining this level of quality and performance, day after day, year after year, presents challenges, but it has also been essential to TKL’s brand image and success. “We don’t take our customers or our business for granted,” he says. “That creates a mindset that makes us see every day as our first day—our customers’ first experience with our brand. We firmly believe that, as the traditional marketing theory states, ‘You only get one chance to make a good first impression.’”
In a product category where overseas manufacturing has become the norm, Dougherty attributes TKL’s sterling reputation, in part, to the focus on quality assurance, rapid response, and on-time delivery afforded by its North American manufacturing facilities. TKL’s comprehensive series of wood cases are built in both the U.S. and Canada, and the company’s Concept and Vectra branded molded cases, which Dougherty calls “some of the lightest, strongest molded cases on the market, and proudly selected by some major musical instrument makers,” are made at its headquarters factory in Oilville, Virginia.
“Although there’s really nobody in exactly our space in the U.S. or Canada, in some categories we certainly do have competition,” says Dougherty, who in this truly family-run operation is aided by his co-founder/vice president wife Donna, sons Tommy and Kevin, and daughter Laurie. “I never take for granted that the business we have today will be here tomorrow.” This culture of humility drives a pursuit of continuous improvement and investment in both internally and externally developed processes and technology. With no one creating manufacturing technologies specifically for case makers, he explains, TKL regularly draws ideas and inspiration from the automotive, aerospace, marine equipment, and apparel industries and adapts them to its needs.
Recently imposed tariffs on Chinese-made goods have increased prices on many imported products, tilting the playing field ever-so-slightly back in TKL’s direction. But since its inception, TKL has strived to offset China’s lower-cost labor advantage by focusing on its core competencies and establishing true supply-chain partnerships. It has also invested in cutting-edge technology and efficient production processes including fundamentals such as lean manufacturing, intelligent use of resources, and minimization of waste.
At the same time, TKL has pursued environmentally friendly initiatives, both internally and externally, by helping its customers become better stewards of the environment with measures as simple as its collaborative creation of a carton recycling program. And, reflecting the Doughertys’ desire to give back to the music community, it has been a devoted sponsor of Guitars in the Classroom, Guitars For Vets, and numerous regional organizations.
Tom Dougherty and his team depend on market input from every category of musician, from first-time players to accomplished artists, and from every segment of the supply chain, from builders to retailers. This knowledge helps the company develop the highest-quality products, at a variety of price points.
Meanwhile, offering innovations such as SmartCase Technology and Safe & Sound helps differentiate TKL from other brands. Combined, says Dougherty, these efforts make TKL “a vital provider of valued products and services that help protect customers’ investment and deliver an experience-enhancing component of every sale.”