Magazine article Management Today

Yamaha Retreat Leaves Doughty Unbowed

Magazine article Management Today

Yamaha Retreat Leaves Doughty Unbowed

Article excerpt

After mastering the mores of its Japanese parent, Premier Percussion reinvented its product, bought itself back and now happily marches to its own tune.

There is doubtless a Japanese idiom for the sensation in Tony Doughty's corporate heart: something along the lines of 'joy-of-watching-neighbour-fall-out-of-cherry-tree'. Nevertheless, Doughty struggles against an obvious desire to grin when he says, 'Japanese business has begun to feel a cold wind this year'; allows himself all but the smallest of smiles as he adds, 'There's been a degree of discomfort ever since the Nikkei started to fall'; and finally only emits a discreet titter when he concludes, 'Our friends in Tokyo say the bubble has burst'. It is as virtuosic a performance of Nipponese corporate politesse as could be imagined.

But then Doughty, executive chairman of Premier Percussion, has been well taught. On 20 November last year Premier, Britain's leading manufacturer of drums, glockenspiels and other percussive instruments, announced a management buyout. Nothing extraordinary in that, but for the identity of the vendor: the Japanese musical monolith, Yamaha. Yamaha had spent the previous decade gobbling up smaller fry in the instruments business all over the world.

It consumed Premier in 1987. For five years, Doughty learnt Japanese business mores through what linguists refer to as the 'direct method'. Now the only immediate evidence of the Japanese sojourn at Premier's Leicester HQ is a set of drums in the foyer emblazoned with a large YAMAHA ('H'm, have to move those,' ponders Doughty), and a book in the chairman's office entitled, providentially, The Japanese Myth.

Yamaha's decision to draw in its internationalist horns and focus on the Pacific Basin has left him, as major shareholder, with a firm that is both numinously and tangibly better off. As befits the chief executive of the first British company to buy itself back from Japanese multinational ownership, Doughty does not bow from the waist by way of greeting.

The buyout is an unlikely culmination to what was always an unlikely story. Back in 1922, a brace of jazz-playing brothers named Albert and Fred Della Porta -- a drummer and saxophonist respectively -- set up as drum manufacturers in a Soho basement. By dint of bright marketing (including the despatch of unsolicited free drum kits to potential US dealers) and technical innovativeness (the brothers pioneered the first European electric guitar in the 1930s, a fact for which lovers of music may feel only ambiguous gratitude), the Della Porta noisy brainchild -- the Premier Drum Company -- rapidly became unofficial warrant-holder to the Jazz Age.

It was a position that Premier was to hold for half a century. The firm had a good war manufacturing gun sights, the result of a foray into high-specification light engineering. This left it well placed to cope with the new technological drumming demands of Swing, Beat and Rock and Roll after the war. When The Beatles emerged from Liverpool in the early '60s to announce the dawn of the era of peace and love, it was to the accompaniment of Premier drums. Orders from John, Paul, George and Ringo at the firm's new Leicester factory were followed in short order by others from bands with names like Status Quo and Pink Floyd. The firm's tympani and glockenspiels, meanwhile, percussed with such classical giants as the Bolshoi and French National Orchestra, while marching bands from Aden to Zanzibar oompahed to the beat of kettle and snare drums bearing the Premier label.

This sanguine state of affairs did not last, however, and the reason for its demise was, once again, Japanese. 'Their exports began to arrive in the early '70s,' recalls Tony Doughty. 'At first, no one took them seriously, thinking they were just cheap goods. What we didn't realise then was that, provided you get seven out of 10 things right, low costs matter.' Premier's costs were by no means low. …

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