We are looking good at 90, if we may say so ourselves.
St. Louis Music is celebrating its 90th anniversary. “I am honored to head a company that has meant so much to generations of musicians worldwide,” says CEO Mark Ragin. “I’m also pleased to report St. Louis Music is strong, creating new products, and continuing to earn dealers’ business. Part of that is that we strive to live up to the high standards set by the founders and early leaders of St. Louis Music.”
The company is starting the celebration at Summer NAMM, and will have dealer specials and other surprises at the Winter NAMM in Anaheim.
Bernard Kornblum, 19, arrived in St. Louis from Poland in 1919. The young man had lost his father, and he went straight to work so that his younger sister and brother could go to school. He would work for a short time at Shattinger’s Music (which is still in business) before embarking on the trade of importing German violins and parts. By the summer of 1922, his mother grew tired of tripping over the inventory and he was persuaded to set up shop for what would become St. Louis Music. Two years later his younger brother David would join him.
By 1926 the company outgrew its rented space and moved to larger facilities, and moved again in 1927 for the same reason. By the end of that decade, their sister Erna and her husband John were involved in the business, and they were dealing in Black Diamond Strings and Hohner harmonicas, which they still carry to this day.
Despite the Depression, the company thrived. World War II proved harder as so much of their business was European imports. Combined with the reality that many American instrument makers had converted to wartime production, they could only get by selling non-music-instrument products, like paper and pens. After the war, St. Louis Music again prospered by the end of the 1940s, and started what would be a long, successful tradition of designing and building their own products, which continues to this day.
In 1957, Bernard’s son Gene graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and was considering law school. “My father never pushed or told me what to do,” Gene Kornblum says. “But that night, he took me aside and said, ‘I know you want to be a lawyer, but I think there is a great deal of potential for you at St. Louis Music. I’d just like you to give it a try before you go into law school.” Gene did, and never looked back, becoming one of the most successful and respected leaders in the industry for the next five decades.
When the Beatles hit, “we could sell anything that resembled a guitar or drum set,” Gene observed. They distributed and created entry-level guitars that were a precursor to today’s best-selling Austin Guitar line. In 1964 at the Frankfurt Fair in Germany, he discovered Trixon Drums, which were unique and superior, and were an instant best-seller (a foreshadow of SLM’s recent exclusive deal with Dixon Drums).
The following year the company launched a more affordable drum kit, the Apollo. “My first drum set was an Apollo kit, and it was great,” says SLM’s drum and percussion manager, adding that the company hopes to revive the brand in the not too distant future.
In 1969 Gene started a relationship with “extremely gifted” Japanese guitar maker K. Yairi, and working with designs created in St. Louis, created guitars under the trademark Alvarez Yairi. “Yairi definitely knew how to make great guitars,” Kornblum says. “He just didn’t know which ones to make. All of a sudden St. Louis Music was able to sell master guitars which were respected by musicians and music stores around the U.S.”
“The Alvarez line is going stronger than ever, and our new versions are met with critical and commercial success,” says brand manager and SLM senior vice president Chris Meikle. “They are being sold in more than 20 countries, and it’s been a positive move for every dealer who hangs them on his or her wall.”
In the 1970s, the company again turned its attention to what started it all in the first place – violins. Duplicating the company’s success with guitars, SLM devoted considerable effort with its violinmakers in Germany to re-invigorate its Knilling string instrument line. Stan Morgan came on board St. Louis Music in 1976 and a few years later was product manager of strings. “I’d go over to Germany, and knock on doors, and artisans would take the time to show me one bow at a time so we could select the best.” Building the Knilling name and the reputation of St. Louis Music to the string world required patience and determination. “Our goal was to put out an inexpensive violin that were professionally adjusted. That, combined with our unique approach with how we marketed and priced the material, really helped dealers get these violins in the hands of young players.”
As is done to this day, they began to have each instrument individually set up and adjusted in the company’s newly created violin shop. It was during this time that they moved to 1400 Ferguson Avenue, which is still home today.
In the 1980s, SLM Electronics was founded, creating amplifiers and P.A. systems. Many great products came out of this era, including Crate Amps. In the 1990s a third generation Kornblum came to work for the company when Gene’s son Ted joined the operation. As a high school student he was passionate about Alvarez and got the guitars in the hands of Graham Nash, Bob Weir, Dickie Betts, and Carly Simon, among others.
The company continued impressive growth until the mid-2000s when annual sales hit $85 million by 2005. That was also the year Gene decided to retire, and sold the company to Loud Technologies. As is typical in these situations, decisions were made and jobs moved, and over the next several years most of the 150 employees in St. Louis moved on to other opportunities as Loud consolidated.
But the company would once again return to the hands of an innovative entrepreneur with Mark Ragin. The St. Louisan was working a music instrument retail counter at the age of 17, and quickly moved up the ladder to manager. In 1999 he opened a music wholesale company called U.S. Band and Orchestra, and by 2008 they were serving 3,000 dealers. He had built a thriving, profitable business in his own right. It was also that year he reached out to Loud and negotiated buying most of St. Louis Music save for some of the electronic lines like Crate and Ampeg amps. He acquired the 1400 Ferguson building, and hired many of the best workers back to the company. “It was like making phone calls and saying, ‘Hey, we’re putting the band back together,’” jokes Meikle.
The sense of loyalty of the original team and the dealers who were served by them was very sincere. “I was touched that so many came back, and we have enjoyed a great relationship with old and new dealers ever since,” Ragin says.
Today, with senior vice president Gail Rose and vice president in charge of strings Jim Eaton, growth continues, as does the desire to be that “one-stop shop” for dealers. Another recent development includes bringing on the P. Mauriat brand of horns, which is managed by Craig Denny. Recently the UnionStation line of accessories was launched, and today over 15,000 SKUs of products are available from accessories to high-end professional instruments.
“For the short period of time it’s been, Mark [Ragin] has done a remarkable job,” Morgan says. “It’s grown really well considering the economy.”
“The honest truth is as much as we appreciate the history of the company, it’s the future we spend the most time working on,” Ragin says. “Can we create better products at a good value? Can we offer better service to our dealers and help them be profitable? Can we make music-making easier for everyone? Those are the issues we’ll be concerned with for at least the next 90 years!”