A Steinway Story

Posted: September 9, 2012 in Piano

Steinway concert grand piano, model D-274 Espa...

Steinway concert grand piano, model D-274 Español: Piano de cola de marca Steinway, modelo D-274 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I always recommend that piano shoppers visit their local Steinway dealer. The logic is simple: they will only buy one piano during their lifetime, so they might as well go see one of the finest piano lines in the world. Even if consumers are looking for a cheap used piano, I still suggest that they first go look at new, high-quality pianos.

Steinway

When you visit the Steinway dealer you will notice the store is beautiful and very clean.  The salesperson will be professional and eager to assist you. As you are introduced to the Steinway product line, you will be told that Steinway is the world’s best piano, the piano of choice for more concert halls and concert pianists than any other piano, and that Steinway has been the leader in the piano industry for as long as anyone can remember.

Steinway built its reputation by competing in the institutional market. Your salesperson may show you an impressive list of institutions that have selected Steinway pianos.  You will also see the Boston and Essex piano lines. Let me explain why these piano lines are important to Steinway.

Boston and Essex

Many years ago I sold Steinway pianos for a retailer. I noticed that a high number of customers were not good prospects for a Steinway. For one reason or another, a less expensive piano was the best choice for most of the customers who walked through the door. We were turning customers away simply because we had no less expensive brands to show them. I took a poll and found that for every ten customers who visited the store, only two were genuine Steinway prospects.

This was a very unacceptable situation.  The Steinway store was attracting the customers of our competitors, but we had no product to sell them! Clearly we needed an additional line of pianos. The owner agreed and asked me to scout for an acceptable brand.  I soon recommended that we add the Samick line. It offered lower and medium priced pianos and had no product which competed with any Steinway product. It was also not represented by any other dealer in town. Within the span of two weeks our first Samick pianos arrived and store sales increased as we were able to sell pianos to customers who could not afford to buy a Steinway.

A Plan Emerges

Several years later I went back on the road as a district sales manager. As I visited stores in the many cities in my assigned territory, I noticed that many Steinway dealers were also offering Samick pianos.  This made perfect sense to me. Steinway stores lose sales if a less expensive piano is not offered. What did not make sense to me was why Steinway management had not yet acted to provide a second and third piano line for their dealers. In time they did. They approached Kawai and struck an agreement to have the Boston piano line made for them. Critics were quick to point out that a Boston piano was just a Kawai with a different name. Steinway later approached Young Chang the same way and added the Essex brand to the offerings. Steinway mounts a consistent marketing campaign which maintains that the Boston and Essex pianos are made according to Steinway specifications. They were late implementing this product strategy, but if you consider the corporate attitude of Steinway, it is easy to imagine why they were reluctant to share their floor space with competitive products.

Steinway vs. Sohmer

Steinway dealers are the snobs of the industry. They are so gung-ho about Steinway that it is said that the owners and employees “bleed” Steinway.  This company is not without blemish and its strength is less evident in its lower priced products, especially the upright pianos. To illustrate a competitive attitude, one which does not “bleed” Steinway, let me tell you the story of Hank Burgard, a sweet man who passed away long ago who started working as a rep for the Sohmer Piano Company after his WWII enlistment ended in 1945.  Hank was a tornado of energy. I was working at a Yamaha piano store which also offered Sohmer. Hank would visit the store often because he lived in that town.  I visited his home once and was given a tour of his office in his refinished basement. There was only a ping pong table in the room, with a wall of four-drawer filing cabinets which Hank said were filled with product literature, sales records and assorted piano hand-outs Hank had written.

Hank Burgard lived in a different age. As a WWII veteran, he disliked the Japanese. By the early eighties, when I met him, Yamaha was starting to gain market share.  In the sixties, when Yamaha motorcycles first entered the U.S. market (just 15 years after WWII concluded), it was said that people protested outside those first stores frequently. When Yamaha later started importing pianos to the U.S., the motorcycle dealers expected to sell those products. Yamaha opened piano stores of course, but the motorcycle dealers felt entitled to receive the products since they had fielded complaints from protesters while the Yamaha brand was becoming established in the U.S.

Many Americans did not welcome the appearance of Japanese products in the U.S.  I had encountered the prejudice towards the Japanese in the late 1970s while working at a men’s suit store. The mall managers had sponsored a “Japanese Appreciation Day”.  It was then twenty-five years after the war and a new generation of consumers was being coaxed to become more accepting of Japanese products. The mall aisles were adorned with banners, and many of the stores participated in the promotion. The men’s store, whose employees were older men, many who were veterans of WWII, did not participate. I was young. I asked one of the elder salesmen why we were not participating in the promotion. He said, “Because those people killed a lot of my friends.”

Hank Burgard lived in that generation. He was not a malicious man though. He was full of life and was a constant dynamo when it came to pianos.  I remember one piece of literature he would pass out to salesmen. It was a drawn picture of a handgun whose barrel turned to point at the person who held it.  If you fired that gun, you would end up shooting yourself. Written across the handle of the gun in the picture were the words, “Made in Japan”.

Today we see the words “Made in China” on the label of many of the products we buy. The “Made in Japan” label was different because it provoked painful memories for veterans of WWII. Hank lived in a post-depression generation that judged a man by his haircut and his shoes.  His bias towards Japan was commonplace among his peers, but his outrage towards Steinway was driven by his resentment for their arrogant and pompous attitude.

Frank vs. Hank

This became apparent to me on the day when the new Steinway rep walked into our store. Hank was present.  The rep was Frank Mazurko, a man who would one day advance to the highest ranks within Steinway management. On that day though, he was just a rep; a very charismatic rep who had the saunter of a man who was full of optimism, ambition and confidence. As Frank walked by me (I was evidently invisible to him), he announced his presence to everyone within earshot, “I am here to see the owner because we are considering this store to become a Steinway dealer.”

CONSIDERING? Whoa! That was a slap in the face. We were the Yamaha store and proud of it!  This guy was a peacock; strutting his feathers as he moved quickly during his uninvited inspection of our store. The owner was not in, and Frank soon headed out with the same deliberate energy that guided him through the store. I was impressed! I was also ambitious. It was my first encounter with anyone associated with Steinway! I felt as if the President of the United States had graced us with a visit, and in the wake of the whirlwind, I secretly wondered if we would be deemed “worthy” of consideration as a Steinway dealer.

Hank was not impressed at all. I had not noticed, but he must have been biting his lip the entire time. After Frank disappeared in a blur through the double doors, Hank turned to me immediately and spoke, “Did you see his shoes! Did you see that ratty briefcase he had? That guy isn’t successful at all. He is just pretending to be.”

His litany about the Steinway rep continued. He soon segued into an informative history lesson about the longstanding competition between Sohmer and Steinway; close neighbors in Long Island, NY. Sohmer had the better upright piano line. Steinway had built its reputation on its grand pianos. Steinway was still recovering after escaping the clutches of CBS, a corporate invader that almost retired Steinway to the history books. The feud between Sohmer and Steinway had existed for years.  Steinway prevailed but Sohmer really did make a fine upright piano, arguably better than Steinway.  Sohmer was purchased by the Pratt Reed Company in 1982 and since then the brand has been in the hands of several owners.  Steinway remains Steinway; stronger than ever. Frank Mazurko would go on to become one of the most successful senior managers in Steinway’s history. Hank Burgard retired after a long career and soon passed away.  Neither Frank nor Hank took great interest in the presence of Yamaha, a company that was considered a non-contender.  It was instead a sleeping giant. Japan of course had a reputation for its ability to copy any product. Hank would wink when he said, “Japan only had one original idea and that was Pearl Harbor…and we all remember how that turned out.”

Steinway and Yamaha

Hank was certain that Yamaha held a Steinway concert grand in a secret room in Japan and had dissected it before creating the Conservatory line. “They are copy cats,” Hank would say. In truth, Japan was free to redesign anything. They were not obliged to protect the integrity of a history; not the way Steinway was.  Few people knew what Yamaha did to produce such a fine line of pianos, and few people realized then what a formidable competitor Yamaha would soon become. In the early 80s, Steinway thought nothing about opening dealers that also carried Yamaha products. That attitude changed quickly when Yamaha’s strategy became evident.  In the late 80s Steinway flexed its considerable muscle with dealers and insisted on marketing requirements which were not favorable to Yamaha. Yamaha had its own ideas. Today the two products are held by the two largest dealers in most market areas.

I saw both Bugard and Mazurko several times again, but never in the same room. Hank’s assessment of Frank was incorrect; Frank had the gait and posture of a Steinway employee, a tall man with premature salt and pepper hair, who was rightly accused of being able to “hold a perfect scotch.” Hank was a loyal working man, a pillar among those piano reps and respected dealers who knew him.  Frank represented the future, Hank protected the past. In the piano industry, the only constant is change.  Yamaha soon changed the stakes in the competition when it raised the prices of its concert grands to match the prices of Steinway, and to make room for its new and higher priced conservatory pianos, the “C” series. Yamaha was bending the barrel of its gun and aiming it straight at Steinway.

Steinway, Kawai, Young Chang and Samick

Now it is years later and it is ironic that Steinway shares its floor with not only a Japanese product, but a Korean line as well. Samick has become a major stockholder and sits on the Board. History seems irrelevant now. Steinway deserves everything it has earned. It is a prestigious company that survived the same perils that swept thousands of brand names into oblivion.  It is however an expensive line of pianos which is beyond the budget of most consumers. The need for the Boston and Essex piano lines should be clear now.

If there is a difference between a Kawai and a Boston, or a Young Chang and an Essex (and I tend to believe there is), the true measure of value is found in the difference between the prices of the pianos in all four lines. Do the differences in quality justify the differences in price? This is a question each consumer must answer. Some consumers are willing to pay more for a prestigious brand name.

It should not surprise anyone that after Kawai agreed to manufacturer the Boston piano, they created the more prestigious Shigeru line of pianos. Young Chang followed with its Pramberger series. The latter fell upon bad times and was purchased by Samick, but the Korean government objected and forced a second sale to Hyundai. Now Samick owns a sizable share in Steinway’s future. It is a small industry; there are few sharks, but their teeth are all sharp.

Perhaps my story is not part of the presentation you will receive from the Steinway salesman. What matters is that you should visit the dealership and learn about Steinway’s products and compelling history. You should also visit the local Yamaha dealer. Let me leave the subject of Steinway now and address Yamaha’s story. Yamaha is a unique case because there are a significant number of used Yamahas imported to this country for resale by independent piano stores.  Steinway is the champion of bravado, but Yamaha walks a very fine line between marketing hype and corporate lies. You need to know this story, and I will soon tell it to you.

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