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Jordan Kitt’s Pianos: The Legend and Legacy

by Victoria Wasylak • in
  • Features
• Created: June 14, 2017

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Chris Syllaba’s 30-plus year career with Jordan Kitt’s Music essentially started by accident.

Strolling through a mall on a gap year between high school and college in 1984, Syllaba wandered into his local Jordan Kitt’s to ask if they were hiring. Now, more than 30 years later, he’s the CEO of the legendary piano dealership with his business partner Ray Fugere.

“I was initially kind of looking to work for a year, and I wanted to take off from school for a year, work, make some money, and then go to college after that, and I just ended up falling in love with the business immediately – within weeks,” Syllaba says.

Syllaba never did end up going to college, and instead worked his way to the top of the Jordan Kitt’s ladder with Fugere over the course of three decades, learning everything possible about the piano business.

“Sometimes I say ‘I went to the college of Jordan Kitt’s,’” he says.

For Jordan Kitt’s, Syllaba and Fugere only mark the third chapter in the company’s lengthy 105-year history. Put quite simply, the legacy of the company survives – and thrives – because Jordan Kitt’s has never just been about Steinways and baby grands. The piano dealership is rooted in perseverance and a passion for promoting and continuing music education.

“I think the big thing overall is that we want to be involved in both sides of the music world – the music business as well as the education side.”

With a new location in Rockville, Maryland still gleaming from its grand opening in January, the newest chapter in Jordan Kitt’s history is just beginning.

The Jordan Kitt’s Dynasty

Even before Syllaba came into the Jordan Kitt’s picture decades ago, the company had established an impressive history dating back more than 50 years. Founded by Arthur Jordan and Homer Kitts in 1912, the company remained in the founders’ families for 60 years. It wasn’t until 1971 that the company saw a change in ownership when Bill McCormick took over as president and served until 2007. Syllaba and Fugere took over the company from McCormick’s son-in-law in 2011.

“In a way, Ray and I are really only the third major ownership of the company in 105 years,” Syllaba says.

In the time since Syllaba joined the Jordan Kitt’s team in the 1980s, the company has entered and left the markets in Virginia Beach, Philadelphia, and Chicago, downsizing to only four locations: two in the Washington, D.C. market and two in the Atlanta market under the name Steinway Piano Galleries. Syllaba himself spent a significant amount of time climbing the Jordan Kitt’s ladder. From store manager, market manager, and executive vice president, Syllaba had held almost every retail title imaginable prior to becoming CEO in 2011.

“The other thing I think is incredible is what the company has lived through, along with a handful of other companies in our industry who have done the same thing,” Syllaba says. “We’ve lived through the Great Depression, through World War II, and the Great

Recession of ‘07 and ‘08. It’s certainly been an up-and-down journey, but we’re trying to keep the torch alive.”

Their latest addition to the Jordan Kitt’s legacy is the new Rockville location, which celebrated its grand opening this past January. Located a mile and a half from the previous location, the new Rockville store has a warehouse directly next to the showroom to improve efficiency, rather than having a separate warehouse in the D.C. market.

Survival of the Fittest

The Jordan Kitt’s that hired Syllaba more than thirty years ago isn’t the same Jordan Kitt’s that’s operating in 2017, if for no other reason than the location that hired Syllaba was in a shopping mall.

Perhaps the biggest change that Syllaba has seen during his time with the company has been the significant downsizing that Jordan Kitt’s – along with many other companies – underwent after mall rent increased in the 1980s. As a result of the high rent prices, stores like Jordan Kitt’s moved to freestanding stores in order to survive. Prior to this shift, Jordan Kitt’s had almost 220 employees at 22 locations in the Washington D.C. and Baltimore area when Syllaba was first hired. In 2017, the company only has 4 locations and about 55 employees.

“The industry, along with Jordan Kitt’s, basically made a shift out of malls and into larger freestanding locations with lower per square foot rent, but you also had less locations,” Syllaba said. “For several decades in there, instead of 22 stores, depending on the period of time, we had anywhere between nine and 11 stores.”

This ability to adapt to the changes in the market and environment is what Syllaba cites as Jordan Kitt’s key to such prolonged success.

“We went through the same thing that the entire industry went through during the recession, and it’s lucky that we didn’t disappear, basically,” Syllaba says. “A lot of companies went under, and the companies that didn’t go under, they survived by downsizing, basically. That’s exactly what Jordan Kitt’s ended up doing.”

A Brand for Everyone

When a company like Jordan Kitt’s prides itself on finding the right piano for every single customer that walks in the door, variety and a highly skilled sales team are both necessities.

Syllaba says that the Washington, D.C. locations mainly carry products from Yamaha, Bösendorfer, Roland, and Mason & Hamlin, a handcrafted American piano company. Models from Cristofori offer customers a reasonably-priced alternative to more expensive brands. In the Atlanta market, both Steinway Piano Galleries carry all three Steinway brands.

“All of our stores have baby grand pianos, we have upright pianos. We have different brands that we represent,” Syllaba notes. “We carry digital pianos, we have new pianos, we have used pianos. So the goal is to try to have the best selection so when we’re qualifying a customer, we can actually find the instrument that is right for them.”

Syllaba says that the general improvement in the economy has been driving sales, which Jordan Kitt’s will use to continue their ancillary business: education, service, and piano rentals. Even with the boost in the economy, the company hosts events regularly to expose new products from brands like Steinway or Bösendorfer.

“We’re just not the type of industry that can just sit in the store and wait for customers to show up,” Syllaba says.

Dedication to Education

Despite the changes that Jordan Kitt’s has seen in its 105 years, one aspect of the company that has never changed is its deep connection and dedication to music education. Syllaba himself being a member of the National Association for Music Education and the Music Teachers National Association, education has close ties to the company.

“It’s important and it’s the right thing to do, to support music education,” Syllaba says.

All four Jordan Kitt’s stores have education centers that offer piano lessons, as well as at a small music school in Beltsville, Maryland that was erected to absorb students from the other locations. Syllaba said that the new Rockville store in particular offers an ideal space for learning.

“The Rockville one is very exciting because we put a lot of resources into that in terms of studio space. We’ve got three private studios, we’ve got a pretty large group room for Yamaha Music School. There’s a waiting area for the students, and then there’s an easy expansion – as the school grows, we can add a fourth studio – that’s already in place.”

Outside of their own stores, Jordan Kitt’s also sponsors kid-friendly orchestral concerts for over 20,000 Montgomery County public school children annually through Strathmore, a venue in Maryland.

Over a series of five days, Strathmore hosts nine to 10 short concerts for 2nd graders, and then repeats the series of shows for 5th graders. Jordan Kitt’s was the original sponsor of the event with Geico.

“Not only do we sponsor it monetarily, but we also actually attend the concerts, because it’s a lot of kids,” Syllaba says. “They’re wild – you basically go into a concert hall with close to 2,000 kids.”

Syllaba says that as a result of these concerts, Montgomery County has a very high percentage of enrollment in music classes compared to other counties in the Washington, D.C. area. Syllaba, who started playing the piano seriously when he was a little over four years old, is an advocate for the benefits of learning how to play the piano.

“It’s one of these things that’s with you forever,” he says. “If you’re learning how to play the piano, you can unplug yourself for a half an hour and make music and not have 16 things happening at the same time.”

The Push Towards Tech

Most aspects of modern life have become saturated with technology, and pianos are no exception. Syllaba says that in an effort to keep the piano relevant, many companies are incorporating more digital offerings into their product, citing Yamaha’s Disklavier ENSPIRE and Steinway’s Spirio as examples.

“I think in general, more upright piano sales are moving towards some kind of technology product, whether it’s a digital piano or a hybrid piano,” he notes.

The new trend towards technology doesn’t signify a decline in interest in playing the piano. If anything, Syllaba says that many baby boomers who are retiring now want to learn how to play the piano or get back into playing.

“I’m one of these optimists that believes that there is no less interest nowadays in music than there was before. It’s just taking on a different form,” he says. “There’s a great desire to make music out there. I think we just have to adapt to how people want to make music, because they want to make music in much different ways now than they did 30 years ago.”

Like anything else, the increased incorporation of technology is just a manner of adapting with the times – something Jordan Kitt’s has been practicing for 105 years and counting. With an eye on the trends and a hand in supporting the arts, Jordan Kitt’s is likely to be in the musical instrument game for another 105 years to come.



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