Magazine article Management Today

Piano Forte

Magazine article Management Today

Piano Forte

Article excerpt

Question: when is a door not a door? Answer: when it is a piano. Such, at least, might be the contention of Mr Geoffrey Simon, sometime door manufacturer and now chairman of the world's most venerable firm of piano makers, John Broadwood & Sons Limited. If Simon's punch-line seems a trifle obscure, it may nonetheless be responsible for Broadwood's continued survival into its fourth unbroken century of piano manufacture, while many of the company's more famous European rivals - missing the joke - have blithely tinkled their way into musical history.

That the name Broadwood may need introducing to non-musicologists among you at all is some indication of why Mr Simon needs to keep his sense of humour about him. If, in these post-Walkman days, it's hard imagine, there was a time when the products of Simon's firm were, quite literally, at everyone's fingertips. When the eponymous Mr Broadwood - inventor of such useful gizmos as separate bass and treble bridges and pedals instead of knee-levers - died in 1815, he left a firm that was, in today's terms, worth millions and was the largest single employer in London. And it was not merely nicely brought-up gels who picked out Fur Elise on Mr Broadwood's pianos. Haydn and Chopin - dazzled by the technical innovativeness of the firm's products - were both devoted Broadwood fans. Nor was the firm's success based simply on its hi-tech tinkerings. Young Thomas Broadwood, at the keys from 1815, was also an early appreciator of the PR opportunity, dispatching a free piano to that dangerous Viennese avant gardiste, Ludwig van Beethoven, in 1817. Beethoven's subsequent product endorsement was fulsome: |Ich werde es als einen Altar sehen' - |I shall look upon it as an altar.'

But such was very much not the case when Simon - a keen amateur pianist (|Mine's a Steinway, actually,' blushes Broadwood's CEO) and ex-chairman of the Leaderflush door company - bought John Broadwood & Sons with a consortium of like-minded plutocrats six years ago. |The history of Broadwood had been the history of the English disease,' Simon avers. |By the end of the 19th century, both the company and the family had become very wealthy, and they had ceased to be in the forefront of piano design as a result. The running of the business had been left to the works manager, and he had clearly thought, "We've made pianos for Haydn and Beethoven and we don't need to change".'

A stint as a propeller factory during the first world war apparently had no appreciable affect on this Luddite view, and the popularisation of recorded music in the 1920s consequently caught Broadwood on the hop. |By the '50s and '60s, the designs had been around a fairly long time,' understates Simon.

As if this were not enough, the reaction at Broadwood to the challenges of the 20th century had been, says Simon, to suppress a shudder at the vulgarity of it all and carry on as though Beethoven were still experimenting with the sonata form. |There is,' notes Broadwood's CEO, |a British pride in craftsmanship that is actually a pride in unnecessary craftsmanship. Take a labour-intensive thing like a bridge. It's shaped like that' - he traces a vague rhomboid in the air - |and the grain has to go downward. Maybe it's because I'm from Birmingham, but I couldn't understand why that meant you had to have a man sitting on a stool all day with a chisel going chip-chip-chip. Piano making is highly skilled, but I couldn't see why it had to be quite as highly skilled as it apparently was.'

As if this heritage-society myopia were not problematic enough, the same logic had obviously occurred to that most unsentimental of people, the Japanese. Whatever their setbacks at Iwojima, the Japanese - and particularly Yamaha - had scaled the walls of occidental pianodom with gleeful cries of Banzai! And this particular defeat was not confined to the British. The great German firms had also fallen with scarcely a shot being fired: the once-stellar triumvirate of Steinway (now an American company), Bechstein and Bosendorfer have all suffered varying degrees of commercial unhappiness, and continue to do so. …

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