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Imports Dominate Piano Market : U.S. Firms Find Innovative Management Key to Survival

Christian Science Monitor

Americans once bought American-made pianos as a matter of course, just as they drove American cars. Then came Toyota and Datsun cars. Then came Yamaha and Kawai pianos.

The results have been devastating to the piano industry in the United States. Where imported cars amount to 15% of automobile sales, imported pianos represent a staggering 75% of grand piano sales in the U.S.: 70% are Japanese and Korean; 5% are German made.

At midyear, the largest manufacturer of piano plates in the United States--the metal plate that withstands the enormous tension on the piano’s strings--closed down, leaving just one plate manufacturer in the entire country.

The surviving company is capable of producing enough metal plates for 100,000 pianos annually--thus limiting the potential production of pianos wholly made in America.

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Changing Tastes

In 1984, 178,000 new pianos were sold in this country.

Foreign imports alone aren’t to blame. Other elements in the domestic piano industry’s demise have been changing economic and social trends and musical tastes, reflected in music synthesizers.

A few figures dramatically indicate the decimation of the industry: There were 160 piano manufacturers in the United States in the 1920s. As of last year, there were four: Steinway, Baldwin, Kimball and Wurlitzer. A fifth, Aeolian Pianos, went bankrupt last year.

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Most of the individual survivors, however, are doing surprisingly well. Steinway, with its “instrument of the immortals,” actually increased its sales of grand pianos by more than 20% in 1984, and grand pianos represent 7% of Steinway’s total U.S. business.

Baldwin went through a dramatic turn of events when its parent company, the financial conglomerate Baldwin-United, filed for bankruptcy in 1983. A subsequent leveraged buy-out allowed the piano division of the company to extricate itself and resume the name that it was christened with in 1862, Baldwin Piano & Organ Co.

Baldwin, the largest piano manufacturer in the U.S. in dollar volume, has incorporated several innovative Japanese management techniques into its plants. One that has met with distinctively resounding success is the “quality circle,” in which management encourages workers’ participation.

“It’s a microcosm of solving problems on the employee rather than the management level,” said Charles Faulk, quality-control manager at Baldwin’s grand piano factory in Conway, Ark. “We’re asking our employees to work with us to make a better instrument.”

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Baldwin has nine such circles in its Conway plant, with similar ones in four other plants.

“They pick the problems they want to work on and solve them through statistical means, by quantifying them,” plant manager Michael Selligman said. “There’s a sense of teamsmanship.”

Baldwin acknowledges that there are few real technological innovations in piano building, a 275-year-old craft steeped in tradition. But management, and the way in which it perceives workers, has changed considerably, a company spokesman said. The Japanese influence is perceptible.

Formerly, it was Germans and East Europeans who became skilled piano builders and technicians in the United States, handing their skills down to the next generation through apprenticeships.

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Changing Work Force

Today, piano workers are representative of what the American labor market has become. At Steinway, there are many Italians, blacks, Latin Americans, Asians and other new immigrants. The master tone regulator at Steinway’s factory in New York is Spanish. At Baldwin, piano workers are people “off the street who receive on-the-job training.” Eighty-five percent of the work force at its grand piano factory are women.

Ironically, now that the American piano manufacturing industry is being pressed to the wall by outside influences, the pianos, as well as the piano makers, are improving, according to Paul Majeski, editor of Music Trades magazine.

He notes: “Many people consider American pianos made today to be vastly superior to older instruments due to many technological factors--better wood, better manufacturing processes, better kilns and finishes. . . . Pianists have ideas they hold on to which prevent them from being objective about this, but, scientifically, it’s so.”

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