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Piano men Lindeblad Piano Restoration learned lesson in how to turn internet growth into profit

Chris Wubbels, left, director of human resources; Todd Lindeblad, co-owner and sales director; Paul Lindeblad, co-owner; and Rocco Malanga, controller, Lindeblad Piano Restoration.-(PHOTOS BY AARON HOUSTON)

In many ways, you can call it an internet get-rich-quick scenario that any small business would love to have.

How’s this for a dream situation?

A multigenerational mom-and-pop shop decides to improve its web presence to see if it can increase business. It quickly finds it’s in great demand all over the country.

That’s what happened to Lindeblad Piano Restoration, a family-run company that operated locally out of its small space in Randolph for more than 80 years before going national in 2008.

There’s was only one downside: While the customers increased, the profits didn’t.

Co-owner Todd Lindeblad said the company saw 30 percent growth in the initial years following the launch of the site. But it wasn’t growth worth having.

The existing market
According to Lindeblad Piano Restoration co-owner Todd Lindeblad, there’s a great demand for the company’s piano restoration services. And a lot of it rests in brand recognition.
It’s based on the reputation of Steinway.
“If you want to buy a Steinway, one of your options is to buy new for $65,000,” Lindeblad said. “But another option is a restored piano that might start around $20,000. So, you can spend a third to half as much and get just as good or comparable quality to a new Steinway.
“And a lot of people want to own a Steinway. It’s a very strong brand.”
Chris Wubbels, director of human resources at Lindeblad, says that’s the result of the extensive work Lindeblad’s team does in its restoration process.
“When we do a comprehensive restoration, the only things that are going to be original are the exterior shell and the cast iron heart, which are expensive to manufacture,” he said. “All the hammers and mechanisms, we buy from Steinway and put all new in there: The strings have been replaced, the heart has been completely stripped and re-bronzed, the soundboard will be replaced or, at the very least, refinished and repaired.
“You’re looking at an instrument that is effectively new, so we tend to get customers who are in the market for a new Steinway and discover restoration as an option and a compromise.”
According to the company, 90 percent of its restoration sales are made with Steinway pianos.

“We had to stop because, even though revenues were growing, that didn’t mean profits were going up,” he said. “We were running so fast that we weren’t looking at certain aspects to make sure the foundation was solid.”

The company, which is headquartered in Pine Brook, discovered the secrets to its success did not play out nationally.

“Some things may work at one level, but at this level they don’t,” he said.

Lindeblad, from the fourth generation of Lindeblads to run the family business, said the company needed to take its decades of experience and combine that with more in-depth financial management.

With that in mind, Rocco Malanga was hired as controller two years ago.

“He put a lot of focus on our finances because that has not been a strength,” Lindeblad said. “We’ve been busy looking at the pianos and making the customers happy. Meanwhile, the finances didn’t get much attention and that actually came to hurt us, so we’ve gotten that in order.”

The business model is simple.

The company specializes in restoring Steinway pianos, with the iconic New York piano manufacturer’s products making up nearly 90 percent of Lindeblad’s sales.

The Lindeblads made their national push at the same time the economy went south. Suddenly, the idea of buying a refurbished Steinway — priced roughly between $20,000 and $30,000 — made more financial sense than paying around $65,000 for a new one.

Even the cost of shipping a piano, which could be as much as $2,000, made economic sense.

The company, however, didn’t take into account how much extra cost it would be to do the extra business.

Chris Wubbels, director of human resources at Lindeblad, put it in perspective.

“We went from being hyperlocal to coast-to-coast overnight,” he said. “It was a lot of fun because, all of the sudden, your revenue goes up because your customer base just went up by orders of magnitude.

A dying art
In using the internet to launch its business to the next level, Lindeblad Piano Restoration has found itself on the cutting edge of a dying art.
“My younger brother has his two sons working in it, and they’re craftsmen,” co-owner Paul Lindeblad said. “It’s tedious and it takes a special person to do it.”
Chris Wubbels, director of human resources, said the craft’s waning popularity makes talent recruitment difficult.
“It’s a tough nugget to swallow because you have to do a lot of training and the training is not quick,” he said.

“But then you realize you need more employees and all of your costs start growing unchecked because you’re excited, (but) it’s not until a couple years later you realize it’s not getting any easier.”

Wubbels said these types of business practices were foreign to the company before it experienced its recent, rapid growth.

“You tend to focus on what you’re good at, and no one in our company has ever worked anywhere but this company or a similar type of company,” he said. “So, you don’t even realize that there are areas of proper business management that you’re ignorant of.”

But, as the company experienced its growing pains, it began to ask the right questions.

“That’s what we realized as we grew and grew and we asked, ‘Why is so much more money coming in, but we’re not seeing any benefit of it?’” Wubbels said. “There’s this whole vocabulary, like ‘gross margin,’ and everybody knows about this. But because people we hire tend to come from this little industry, they’ve never had to deal with these concepts.

Biz in brief
Company: Lindeblad Piano Restoration
Headquarters: Pine Brook
Founded: 1920
Revenue: Undisclosed
Employees: 23
One more thing: In 2011, the company also launched its own music school out of its Pine Brook location in 2011. Like the piano restoration business, it has experienced double-digit growth since its inception.

“But, because we’ve grown to this size, those concepts inevitably apply to this business.”

Lindeblad said all that has changed now.

“It wasn’t until last year, but we now can project how much money is coming in,” he said.

Lindeblad said the company now looks at its finances as being a third prong in its business focus.

“I feel like one of the final pieces has been brought into the equation to actually run effectively,” he said. “We’re working toward that while focusing on the restoration and customer service.

“And if you miss out on either of those three, the business will sink.”

For co-owner and member of the company’s third generation Paul Lindeblad, it was a needed change.

“The last five years were really challenging with the growing pains of the business,” he said. “But now things are leveling out with the way we’re operating and I can breathe a little easier.”

Lindeblad feels the business is now positioned to last for many more generations.

“We’ve got some good people in place so, as long as people still want their pianos fixed, we’ll be doing it for a while,” he said.

E-mail to: andrews@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @sheldonandrewj

Andrew Sheldon
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