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Reed Makers Working to a Different Tune

With cheeks puffed, fingers firmly in place and eyes focused on the notes and numbers that filled the white chalkboard in front of them, five members of Rico International’s top management collectively plunged into a daring version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on their clarinets.

It’s all part of a new business strategy at this woodwind reed manufacturing company in Sun Valley that’s based on the premise that if you want better music-making reeds, you start by making some music.

At Rico that idea has taken shape in the form of clarinet lessons for almost all its 200 on-site employees.

“We set some strategies last year to refocus our company’s efforts to improve the overall quality of our reeds,” explains Marketing Project Manager George Phelps. “One way they’re doing that is by taking 180 people here and showing them what a reed actually does.”

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Phelps, who has been at Rico for two years, is also a professional trumpet player. He says he was surprised to learn that many of the production line workers didn’t know what a reed did or understand the importance its quality had to musicians. The company, he says, decided to give everybody six lessons to take them through the basics.

“We taught them how to put a reed in the mouthpiece, how to hold the clarinet and how to make a sound come out. I took the clarinet in college so it was like a refresher course for me.”

The best part of the experience he says has been to see the change in employees as they embarked upon their musical odyssey.

“I really enjoyed seeing them as they went into the conference room for their first lesson,” he says. “Some of them looked really nervous but invariably those people walked out with the biggest smiles on their faces after they discovered they could make a sound on a clarinet.”

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Of course, the worst moments have been listening to them make those few sour notes.

“I have to do a lot of traveling and over the last month I’ve come to really appreciate those trips.”

One of those first-time clarinet players was Packaging Department Manager Maria Guevara, a 17-year Rico veteran. “I really like it. It’s really been a lot of fun,” she said.

Guevara says the experience has inspired her to take clarinet lessons. She also believes it’s helped the 44 people she supervises on the line.

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“Some people didn’t think they could do it at first,” she says. “But now they’re really excited and take more care and pride in making the reeds.”

Reeds are made from cane. Rico has cane plantations in France, Argentina and California, and, according to company officials, controls about 80% of the world’s reed market. The company also sells reeds to top wind instrument players like Dave Coz, David Sanborn, Kenny G and even has provided special Presidential Inauguration reeds to President Clinton, an avid sax player.

Steve Knaub, Rico’s manufacturing operations manager, was both a neophyte clarinet player and an architect of the lesson strategy. The experience, he says, has been both fun and a long-term investment for the company.

“I believe it will pay big dividends down the road for us in terms of employee pride and participation in quality control,” he said.

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