Passing the Torch: NLFX Professional steps up as the MI dealer of Bemidji

by Victoria Wasylak • in
  • June 2018
  • Retail
• Created: June 11, 2018

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Not all music retail stores can last forever, but they can pass the torch to the next shop suited to carry on the MI duties in their community.

That’s exactly what Overbeek Electronics and Music did when the two Overbeek brothers decided that after 30-plus years of running their Bemidji, Minnesota store, it was time to retire.

Behind the scenes, years before the store closed their doors in March, Larry and Kevin Overbeek got a coffee with NLFX Professional founder Ben Stowe, whose business is also located in Bemidji. The DJ and audio store and team travel as far as Japan and Spain to perform installations, but keep their headquarters in Minnesota. Despite being in an entire different area of musical equipment, to Stowe, seeing the area go without an MI store felt immoral.

The three men would go on to coordinate over the next three years on how NLFX could take the reins over so that nothing would be lacking from the area. When it came time for Overbeek Electronics and Music to shutter its doors in March 2018, NLFX had opened their very first showroom, complete with a proper assortment of instruments and accessories.

“We [NLFX] took a place in the backseat to work with them on a timeline so there wouldn’t be any lag of services to the community,” Stowe says. “We were basically open by the time they closed. It’s a fairly small city here, and we’re kind of an anomaly because our footprint is really more national, and our install team has even done installs internationally. We have kind of a big footprint in a small town, and so I’ve known the owners of the music store for probably twenty years, at least. We really stayed out of that [area] – we’ve been in business for 25 years and we sell pro audio and lighting and video, both through direct retail and through systems integration and that sort of thing. We felt that they were serving the community, so we said ‘you know, we’re just going to leave that alone’ … and the owners and I were friends.”

For Stowe, the goal was to make sure all players in the area – both recreational and vocational – would still have the same resources. His mission remains particularly important in that part of the country, where fellow retail stores are located on the other side of the map. Stowe affirms that if it weren’t for NLFX stepping up to the plate, players would have to drive about 100 miles to get to another MI store – easily an hour-plus drive for anyone in need of new strings or guitar cables.

“We’re 200 miles north of Minneapolis – we are in the proverbial middle of nowhere, but we have a thriving, vibrant little city,” he notes. “It’s 100 miles to the next small music store, and it’s 200 miles to the next Guitar Center… We felt it [opening the show room] was a useful and necessary way to use out resources.”

Keeping things firmly planted in Bemidji, Stowe decided to keep the showroom on the current NLFX “campus” located at 1319 Naylor Drive SE.

Seeing that Overbeek’s store had actually been an old gas station that would have been expensive to update, NLFX carved out space in their own area for the showroom. Complete with a warehouse, the I.T. department, and customer service, all the necessary features were already in one spot.

As an added bonus, the showroom is already slightly bigger than the Overbeek space was to begin with. “I said ‘we have space in our existing facility, we’re in an industrial park, we have three buildings on our little campus here.’ We’re kind of like an itty-bitty baby Sweetwater. And so we said ‘let’s remodel out existing facility and put a showroom in there,’ and that takes some of that financial pressure off.”

Due to the fact that the prior NLFX facilities, of course, were already open, Stowe likened the process to “building an airplane while flying it,” but even while in the works, the community responded to the project with excitement.

“We had customers driving for an hour away to see the progress – I think they were just excited to see name brands, which the other store just wasn’t able to do. We’re carrying Fender, DW [Drum Workshop], Remo as a direct dealer, and that just never happened in this town.”

Although the store is still in its early stages, Stowe says that the best-selling brands in the store include Roland, Fender, Yamaha, and Drum Workshop – all brands that Overbeek did not traditionally carry in their store. Customers are not only noticing, but taking advantage of the NLFX stock.

“It’s nice when you bring in a brand like that that’s got equity, that everybody knows. I’d say thus far, out best seller has been accessories, things that people need for the instrument that they already have,” he explains. “And there too, we have the best string selection our community has ever seen. We’ve sold products nationwide for 25 years, and we know what it takes to do business in that climate.”

NLFX, also 20-plus years old, is seasoned in selling sound and lighting products to both the retail and wholesale markets with a classic “Minnesota nice” attitude.

But the transition to include an MI store in the NLFX universe has been a tricky one, adding around 200,00 SKUs to their system – that’s a lot of new products.

“I never thought I’d know about reeds – or care to,” Stowe says, chuckling.

But with the expertise of their new employees – including a certified instrument repair tech and woodwind specialist, and a brass specialist – the changes have been a lot easier, especially with Overbeek’s secret weapon on board. “In fact, they only had one employee, she was there 27 years, and we’ve hired her,” Stowe explains. That one-employee tour de force was Vicki Hegg, who coincidentally has known Stowe since he was a teenager.

Hegg, who truly had been with Overbeek for close to three decades, had been working in the store back since the days when Overbeek mainly sold TVs and stereos as an electronics dealer. Four the last four years, she was Overbeek’s sole employee (aside from the two Overbeek brothers, who both worked part-time).

“I pretty much took care of the whole store,” she says of her time at Overbeek. “I guess Ben saw potential there and asked me to help with his store. I went from being the youngest [in the store] to the oldest.”

Between wanting to continue on the same career path and Stowe saying that he wanted to keep Overbeek’s “mom and pop shop” feel, Hegg was sold. By taking her on with two other employees at NLFX, the showroom already has triple the workforce (NLFX as a whole company has 32). Many of her customers have taken to Hegg so much that they’ve followed her to NLFX.

“The transition was good and exciting, yet it was kind of scary a little bit,” she says. “The NLFX crew has been great. They’ve helped me become part of the crew – I feel like I’ve been here a long time. I think it’s a great partnership.”

Hegg says that Overbeek frequently got involved in the local music community by selling “band books” – coupon booklets to raise money for local school band and orchestra groups – and tickets to local shows. On the flip side, because Stowe has noted the area as a popular vacation spot for Minnesota, he plans to do a “Camp NLFX” in the summertime.

In an effort to make sure that the NLFX showroom is as accommodating as possible, in the time leading up to the official store opening, Stowe says he’s sat down and chatted with almost every musical influencer in town to see what resources NLFX needs to provide.

“I’ve had hundreds of cups of coffee – and that’s not an exaggeration – with area musicians and music educators really to say ‘what can we build for you? How do we do this right?’

And I think we’re still learning but I feel really good about the start we’ve had,” Stowe affirms. “I’ve got a four-inch thick folder of notes from meetings.”

An operating but still developing instrument repair programs rounds out their services.

“I feel like it was the last piece to a really good puzzle – right now I don’t see anything as missing,” Stowe says of the early stages of the NLFX showroom. “We’re a pretty complete machine right now. This is a really great fit to what we already do.”

Now with the NLFX showroom wheels in motion, Both Stowe and Hegg agree that that their responsibility couldn’t be clearer.

“I think music is existential to the human process – there’s something about music that isn’t anywhere else, it’s part of our DNA,” Stowe says. “I think because music is so deeply entrenched in human DNA, having a place where you can walk in and see, touch, feel, an instrument – we want to give them that ability, to interact with these things, and also have the necessary accessories to keep those instruments playable. For us to have the resources and the industry connections and the opportunity to do this and not do it, I think would be a crime.”

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