Sunday, February 2, 2003

Piano shops find success after Baldwin

Enterprise insight

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

Kathy Schwartz and Greg Kottmann have proved that there's life after Baldwin.

[photo] Kathy Schwartz applauds Bob Gervers' performance on an organ.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
The two former Baldwin Co. managers have put their retail skills to work in ventures that allow them to remain in Cincinnati and continue doing what they love. In each case, the key has been successful identification of a niche, accompanied by strategic promotion and keeping costs to a minimum.

When the financially strapped Baldwin sold its retail division in April 2001 to Biasco Co., Kathy Schwartz began gearing up to play solo. In November of that year she left her position as the company's head of retail promotions and opened a store in Northgate Mall selling organs and digital pianos.

"I had two Roland organs and a bunch of used organs that I bought from a dealer in Michigan. I took a truck and picked them up myself," she said. "I got leftovers from Baldwin and some cabinets from Biasco."

She's drew on her considerable know-how to make a go of Cincinnati's only organ dealership. By maintaining a selective retail focus and locating in a high-traffic mall store, she attracts people who are interested in her products and stroll-by shoppers who are intrigued by the sounds coming from the store.

Schwartz's promotional strategies are geared around classes and concerts, which draw people into the store and make it a livelier place for casual shoppers to visit.

Kathy's Happy Organs stocks a wide selection of Roland, General Music and Ahlborn Galanti organs as well as digital pianos and electronic keyboards. Prices start at $400 and range into the thousands of dollars.

The store hosts a free workshop, "Help with reading music," on Tuesday from 7-8:30 p.m. Reservations are needed Monday.

A free concert takes place Feb. 25 from 7-8 p.m. It features Dave McMahan playing General Music and Genesys organs.

All classes, workshops and concerts are at Kathy's Happy Organs store next to Lazarus in Northgate Mall.

Information: 245-2460.

Premier Pianos maintains about 80 instruments in its showroom at 6449 Allen Road in West Chester. There's a good mix of models, finishes and prices: Pearl River pianos start at $2,000.

Pianos made by Wm. Knabe & Co. as well as Steinway products Boston and Essex are also available. The 9-foot Steinway grand piano retails for about $93,000.

Premier's Second Sunday Concert Series is open to the public free of charge.

Information: 779-4000.

With the help of other ex-Baldwin employees, the owner transformed a storage area behind her showroom into a concert hall. Marella Broxterman, who teaches classical organ, also uses the space for her private lessons. Ronnie Dale, former organist for the Cincinnati Reds, helps with sales and gives occasional concerts.

"I'm able to sell the same things Baldwin sold for a couple thousand dollars less," Schwartz explained. "I don't have leveraged debt, I don't need to make a lot of money. I don't have any overhead except for mall rent. Everybody is a contract worker.

"The mall is my advertising: It's well-run, it's safe, it caters to families. It also does a lot of advertising. My only advertising promotes classes and concerts."

Schwartz's strategies seem to be working. Her classes are targeted at senior citizens who have always wanted to play a keyboard instrument, and her concerts feature a range of music.

"We were going by the store one day and she had a concert going on and we were nosy," said student Dessie Parkinson of Harrison. "I had been wanting to take lessons, so I signed up."

"I saw an ad for lessons and came in," said Debbie Willoughby of Colerain Township. "I practiced a couple of times and bought a keyboard."

Happy Organs' inventory is substantial, and its owner says that instruments - except the largest ones - sell within two months. She now has between 60 and 80 students per week. Sales in December 2002 were about 25 percent higher than in December 2001.

Like Schwartz, Kottmann could have stayed in the corporate music world if he had been willing to move to the West Coast. But the Cincinnati native was fortunate to have a local offer from several investors who wanted to establish a Steinway piano dealership.

Under Kottmann's management, Premier Pianos opened Sept. 1, 2001. It has grown despite the economic downturn and the fallout from Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's a challenging time to start any kind of business, let alone a piano business," said the former Baldwin vice president for retail sales. "The piano business moves with the speed of a glacier. We're not like Circuit City. The people you see today will buy a piano in several months."

With Steinway products' quality and reputation working for it, Premier Pianos began immediately to form a network within the Cincinnati musical world. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra became a Steinway house, acquiring two 9-foot grand pianos. Paavo Jarvi and Erich Kunzel have Steinways in their studios.

Premier became an underwriter on WGUC-FM, Cincinnati's classical music station. And, like Schwartz, Kottmann established a concert series in his facility.

"We get real support from Miami University, CCM and Xavier for our Second Sunday Concert Series," said piano specialist Jeff Deaton, himself a Baldwin veteran. "They have presented recitals from faculty and artists in residence."

The store has also become a mecca for piano teachers and their students.

"We've gotten a lot of support from teachers who use this facility and are interested in the same types of things we are," Kottman said. "We have a lot of people who come in and practice on our 7-foot Steinway. Michael Chertok from the Cincinnati Symphony comes in and practices a couple of times a week. The more piano enthusiasts you can get in, the better off you are."

The small recital room is one advantage of Premier's location in a free-standing West Chester office building. Cost and visibility - facing Interstate 75 just south of the Union Centre Boulevard exit - are others.

"We wanted to be where the growth was," Kottmann explained. "We wanted to have a store of a size that would facilitate a recital hall and would house a large selection of pianos under one roof. Here, we pay office space rent, not retail rent."

Kottmann saw store traffic pick up in late 2002 and believes business will continue to build. Premier focuses its marketing on families and on adults who hanker for some time at the keyboard.

"There are so many people who would love to play the piano," he said. "These are the people we deal with the best. You're going to get a good piano at a fair price. We are committed to the art of the piano, not selling boxes with keys and strings."


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