John Packer Musical Instruments’ Rob Hanson: ‘Making the Choice that Much Easier for Music Retailers’

by Christian Wissmuller • in
  • June 2018
  • Upfront Q&A
• Created: June 11, 2018

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Born out of a retail and repair shop founded by John Packer in England in 1974, John Packer Ltd. is now a worldwide-force in the design and manufacture of brass & woodwind instruments.

With a distribution reach of nearly 50 countries across the globe, JP Musical Instruments is known by players and MI dealers, alike as a purveyor of quality student and intermediate gear.

We recently spoke with company director Rob Hanson about recent and upcoming product releases, the soon-to-be-bestowed Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, and the overall state of the musical instruments market, both globally and here in the United States.

To begin with, can you fill our readers in on your own background? How did you get involved with MI and what lead you to join John Packer Ltd.?

Rob Hanson: I grew up in a small town in the north of England where pretty much the only musical organizations were traditional brass bands. A work colleague of my parents was heavily into brass and his son started to learn to play, so naturally to keep up with the Joneses I had to learn to play also. Fortunately for me at that time, music lessons in the UK were paid for, in full, by the school as well as the free loan of an instrument. Had that not been the case I don’t think I would have ever started, as my parents could have never afforded it. I got pretty good at it, never quite good enough to make a living, but I certainly held my own in the very top brass bands in the UK as a cornet/flugelhorn player. Working in MI is something I always wanted to do and I was pretty good at selling things, so back in 1998 I called John Packer several times over several weeks to persuade him to give me a job and a chance. At the time, John Packer Ltd. was a medium-sized specialist woodwind and brass store that just did that “traditional brass and woodwind store thing” and did it very well. My idea was to go out on the road and be a road rep. This was pretty unheard of at the time in the UK, but fortunately John Packer himself, said yes and my journey in MI began.

Over the 20 years that I have been with John Packer, the company has changed beyond all recognition. John Packer is a real person and still owns the company, but has very much taken a back seat. Myself and my colleague Annie Gardner run the day-to-day company now. The retail store is still a big part of our business, however the John Packer brand of instruments is our main focus. What started as one of the very first “house brands” has grown up to be a highly respected and reliable brand sold by hundreds of dealers around the globe. I think what sets us apart from many others is, at the end of the day, we are still retailers at heart. We understand what a retailer wants and needs and a lot of that is just simple stuff: getting answers to questions, parts availability, reasonable lead times, and simple payment terms and buy-ins. All the things that frustrate me as a retailer I have tried to eradicate, and I know my dealers will agree we have done a pretty good job of that. Life is complicated enough, buying and selling horns doesn’t need to be.

Understood. Currently, what are the “hot sellers” for John Packer Musical Instruments?

The John packer catalogue is pretty extensive, and we genuinely do provide a range from flute to tuba and all points in-between. Our best seller, which is really our best renter, has got to be the JP- 251SWS BH trumpet. This is a silver plated step-up trumpet with a one-piece bell and a hard case at the price-point of most dealers’ entry-level horn. At this time of year, we are inundated with school bid requests for our euphonium line, which starts with an entry-level, three-valve, non-compensator JP074 through to a full four-valve compensator JP374 which is as good as anything in the marketplace at any price.

Our marching brass line is gaining amazing traction, and this is now joined by the JP2057, sousaphone which is an amazing beast. The new JP333 bass trombone is also gaining critical acclaim all over the globe.

You and I spoke a couple of years back at Music China. What’s your take on the changing climate for MI trade shows – Musikmesse has contracted, Music China is expanding, NAMM is growing at a steady pace, while the “online market” and digital means of communication makes some question the point of such gatherings? What’s your brand’s take on these types of conferences in 2018 and beyond? Which are you still exhibiting at and planning to attend in the future?

Being a UK company, our major trade show back in the day was Frankfurt Messe. In those days our focus was as a retailer, so we would go along every year to place our Yamaha orders, et cetera and take advantage of those “trade show only” deals and packages. We would always leave [on] the last day of the show to walk the halls searching for the latest and greatest new thing that we could make our fortune from. As our manufacturing side increased, the first ever international trade show we exhibited at was Frankfurt and we had a great show and that was the case for a good three or four years. What we saw was a shift in the audience much more towards a public event rather than a trade event. Exhibiting at a trade show for any company is a huge expense and I felt that at Frankfurt we were no longer getting value for money. Public brand awareness is important for any business, but there are much more cost-effective ways of getting it than a trade show. The changes in marketing focus for all industries with the onset of social media et cetera have come thick and fast which also hasn’t helped.

Sadly, Frankfurt isn’t on our calendar anymore in any capacity. We will be exhibiting at Music China, which is an amazing show for us as we are very strong in the Asian market, and then back to Anaheim for Winter NAMM, along with some state music conferences such as TMEA and Midwest. Sadly, this year we are unable to attend Summer NAMM, as I have to go to Buckingham Palace to collect The Queen’s award for Enterprise on the same day.

Summer NAMM for us is a great show and one that really is going from strength to strength, but we will be back in 2019. I think the long-term future of trade shows is a precarious one. I am very much old school in my way of doing business. I like to see people face-to-face and I am forever telling my staff that really, we are not in “the music business” – we are in the communications business and communicate we must. We all do too much business by email, but there is nothing to compare with sitting down with someone and just talking. That’s the strength of a trade show and the one thing that the “online market” cannot compete with. For me, one of Frankfurt’s failures by turning itself into a retail show was by increasing the noise levels it made communication impossible. Dealer meetings became shorter and shorter and eventually the dealers just stopped coming.

As you just now alluded to, John Packer very recently won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise. Can you talk about the significance of that honor to your company and brand?

The Queen’s award for enterprise is the most prestigious award that any UK company can win and the significance to the company and brand is huge. Myself and my co-director Annie Gardner will travel to Buckingham Palace on the 28th of June to collect the award from HRH Prince Charles. In a world full of celebrity endorsements, who better than ours! On a serious note, though: in a marketplace that is overcrowded with product and brands through a lot of hard work and listening to our customers wants and needs we have created a fantastic network of dealers, especially in the U.S. These dealers’ business with us is growing, along with a growing number of dealers. This award is a recognition of those achievements and one that will help accelerate that growth throughout 2018 and beyond.

To what extent is the volatility in the global market – politically and economically – affecting the UK, Europe, and John Packer, specifically?

I am married to a U.S. citizen who now lives me in the UK. As you can imagine, we both travel extensively backwards and forwards across the pond. When we are in the U.S. I am inundated with the question, “What do you think about Brexit?” When we are in the UK she is inundated with the question, “What do you think about Trump?” I think that the volatility in the global market is caused mainly by the same thing that is dominating our political landscape and that’s fear. Fear is winning. The Brexit and Trump campaigners terrified the voters with “what ifs” and in the music industry we are all terrified of not getting that deal. If your only answer is to join the race to the bottom, that’s a battle no one ever wins. I am sure there will be a lot more twists and turns in the Brexit and Trump debate. The good thing is the Brexit deal must be done in the next 12 months. Trump still has a while longer in office. Who knows what might happen.

Any significant product introductions or developments that you’d like to share with MMR readers?

New for the 2018 season is the Sousaphone along with the newJP333 Rath Bass trombone. We also have a new front action fourvalve piston tuba – the JP179B – which, along with the JP078 three valve top action, gives you a tuba option that is rentable. One of the greatest achievements over the last year has been persuading the guys at Allied to carry our spares. Our inventory there is increasing all the time, but again coming from a retail background we understand how important it is to have a reliable parts supply network and with Allied carrying all the consumables with top-ups from our stock in the UK we have achieved that. As for new products in the pipeline, we hope to have the new marching tuba along with a couple of other exciting developments just around the corner.

What are your expectations for the coming months in 2018, both as it pertains to John Packer Musical Instruments and the market, overall?

As far as John Packer Musical instruments are concerned we are more than excited about 2018. We have a solid network of dealers across the U.S. and beyond. Our dealers are all buying more this year than they did last and there are more of them each month. I am quite choosy about who we supply. We specialize is supplying small to medium and independent stores and providing them with a product that is well made, good parts availability, simple delivery from our warehouse in North Carolina, and easy payment terms.

Our dealers, in return, work very hard for us to promote the product to their customer base and in return we protect that base. Our relationship with our dealers is always a two-way thing and this is something that our dealers find not only refreshing, but also incredibly productive. There is no doubt the industry is in a little turmoil.

It’s still very strong, especially in the U.S., however the simple math is that there is too much product out there, and too many folks selling it into a market that is not getting any bigger. Back more years than I care to count as a 7-year-old my parents took me to the local music store to buy me my first cornet as the school instrument was beat up. My choice was a Besson Sovereign and I could choose between Silver and Lacquer. That was it. Things have changed a lot since those days. The choice nowadays is mind-blowing for the parent, never mind as a music storeowner who must look at products that they want to invest time and effort in for any chance of a return. At John Packer we like to make the choice that much easier for that music storeowner.

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