COMPANIES TO WATCH
|Noted luthier Dana Bourgeois has teamed with Eastman Music to develop a new line of popularly priced guitars.
New alliance marries boutique guitar quality with popular price points and global distribution.
BOURGEOIS GUITARS, led by founder Dana Bourgeois, has a well-earned reputation for hand-building exquisite acoustic guitars that have been the choice of artists including Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, and a legion of other noteworthy flat pickers. Eastman Music Company has become a major factor in both the school music and guitar markets, with high-quality manufacturing operations in China, the U.S., and Canada that deliver products of superlative value. The recently announced partnership between these two enterprises promises to leverage these complementary skillsets for mutual benefit. Dana Bourgeois’ decades of guitar building expertise will be put to use enhancing the design and production quality of the approximately 40,000 guitars Eastman produces at its Chinese plants. Bourgeois, for its part, will gain access to Eastman’s global distribution network and the ability to reach a broader customer base with more affordable instruments.
Pairing the expertise of boutique builders with large-scale manufacturing and distribution capabilities is a strategy Eastman has utilized to great success over the past two decades. Eastman’s alliance with Wm. S. Haynes Co., the company that invented the modern flute, has flourished with a range of instruments that brought professional performance to more accessible price points. Also adding S.E. Shires, a noted custom trombone maker, to the family of brands yielded similar results—professional features and performance at lower prices. In both cases, the Haynes and Shires craftsmen also enhanced Eastman’s line of student instruments by adding features and subtle refinements normally associated with high-end professional products. Expect a similar dynamic to unfold with the Bourgeois alliance.
As a skilled custom builder and repairman, Dana Bourgeois worked in various capacities with C.F. Martin, Gibson, and Paul Reed Smith before starting his own company in 1992. Over the past three decades, his workshop in Lewiston, Maine has evolved to produce instruments that combine premium woods and exceptional handcraftsmanship with contemporary design features such as a bolt-on neck for enhanced tuning stability and a proprietary, partially scalloped bracing pattern that delivers a distinctive tonal quality, defined by a high level of responsiveness and string-to-string, note-to-note balance. However, its limited production—about 400 guitars a year—yields expensive instruments. Guitars from the Lewiston plant start at about $4,000 retail and run as high as $30,000, making them accessible to only about 5% of guitar buyers.
A new series of co-produced Bourgeois-Eastman guitars, slated for introduction in 2020, promise to make the Bourgeois playing experience accessible to the younger roots music enthusiasts who currently don’t have $4,000 to spend. Looking to the future, the company wants to capture the brand loyalty of this demographic that will sustain the guitar market in the decades ahead. More accessible price points are also critical for reaching European and Chinese guitar buyers and establishing Bourgeois as a truly global brand. Dana Bourgeois believes that European and Chinese guitar buyers are younger than their U.S. counterparts, and have less disposable income. Although the U.S. remains the top guitar market, he expects it to be overtaken by Europe and China in the next ten years. “We plan to be there,” he says.
Bourgeois Guitars built its reputation on exceptional quality—the combination of the best materials, proven designs, and attention to detail in the production process. To ensure that these core values will not be compromised as production volume is ramped up, Dana Bourgeois is adopting what could be described as a hybridized approach to production, using both automation and skilled handwork. Eastman’s array of CNC machinery will be utilized to produce precision component parts, significantly reducing the amount of direct labor required, while artisans will continue to handle the assembly process. The improved consistency of machine-made parts has the added benefit of making the final assembly process both easier and faster. Dana, justifiably compares his guitars to “works of art” and says that this hybrid approach “can also produce works of art at lower price points.” Eastman’s prior experience with both Haynes and Shires backs up this claim.
Many boutique companies fail to survive their founder. Partnership with a “big brother” will give Bourgeois Guitars an undeniable leg up after the eventual departure of Dana Bourgeois, who will be 67 in January. He is committed to continuing as CEO for at least another five years, and he has been mentoring a younger management team as part of an ongoing succession plan. During his remaining tenure, the new team will undoubtedly gain further experience, depth, and talent, and will be well poised to meet opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.