Kay Tousley and Melissa Pence are at the helm of Athens’ best-kept secret, an unassailably cool company specializing in supplies to build and repair stringed instruments.
The e-commerce business provides an expansive array of guitar and banjo parts, kits, tools, how-to guides, videos and DVDs. Its customers range from casual hobbyists to expert repair shops trusted by rock icons like Carlos Santana. They are an international community unified by a passion for music and the instruments that make it.
Working with and for musicians can be a high-profile gig, but the folks at Stewart-MacDonald always dodge the spotlight. “It was a style choice our founders made early on, and now it’s in our corporate DNA,” Kay explains. “We’re far more interested in developing quality products and delivering outstanding customer service.”
Bringing Banjos to the Masses
In 1968, Creston Stewart owned a music shop in Athens with an impressive banjo display that caught the attention of Ohio University employee and banjo aficionado Bill MacDonald. The two became fast friends and hatched a plan to manufacture a banjo they could sell for $100. To raise R&D money, they decided to sell banjo parts. Stewart-MacDonald’s first catalog was more like a flier with just 10 items, but it did the trick. Not only did the duo succeed in developing the low-cost banjo, they revolutionized the instrument with their 5-Star banjo head, the first to not pull free from its metal ring.
StewMac’s first office was a converted chicken coop a few miles outside of Athens on the aptly named Banjo Hill Road. From those humble beginnings, MacDonald moved to Bozeman, Montana, where he opened an international sales division. In 1976, the company acquired the Waverly Manufacturing Company. StewMac is the sole distributor of Waverly tuners and Sloane guitar machines, the highest quality tuners in the industry, still manufactured in Bozeman.
Stewart-MacDonald moved to its current facility on Athens’ westside in the 1980s, but the old chicken coop still houses its R&D department and manufacturing operations. Today, StewMac imports the best parts and tools from all over the world, but its own Banjo Hill shop consistently ranks among its top three suppliers.
Perpetual Personal & Professional Growth
Kay and Melissa both came to Athens in the early ’90s. Kay’s husband relocated their young family from the New England area for a job at Ohio University. After Yale business school, Kay had been working for L.L. Bean. “I never expected to move to another mail-order company, but this turned out to be a perfect fit for me,” Kay says. She worked her way up from purchasing and operations to become CFO and then president of the company.
Melissa left her childhood home in Dayton to attend OU. She quickly became the kind of Bobcat success story that makes career counselors proud. Like many smart, enthusiastic undergrads, she took a part-time job in the StewMac phone center. Having majored in Spanish, Melissa was a shoo-in for increased responsibility when StewMac moved its international sales division back to Athens. Customer Service, Purchasing and Warehouse now report to her as well in her current role as Director of Operations.
The Internet was a huge boon to the StewMac business model. “When I started here, our website was something small in the shadows,” Melissa recalls. “Now, it’s a fantastic, comprehensive resource that represents the majority of our sales and customer interaction.”
The website recently added Paypal and a ratings and reviews function, both of which Kay says have been invaluable tools. “It’s always amazing to us how in many instances [our customers] are far more eloquent and impassioned in what they say than what we brainstorm,” she exclaims. “I think when it comes from their mouths it has more credibility.”
Since 2011, the company has also joined Facebook (its number of page likes continues to grow) and reduced its catalog frequency from four to three times per year in order focus more video tutorials and targeted emailing. The icing on the cake is an enormous software overhaul behind the scenes in order to integrate each database. Kay says that the company is taking advantage of the process to also rebuild the website to be more current and mobile friendly.
Five years ago, the site added Trade Secrets, an e-newsletter that features repair tips and war stories from master craftsmen like Athens’ own Dan Erlewine, a cult hero in the world of lutherie. Loyal followers and budding luthiers can read how Erlewine repaired Buddy Miller’s guitar just 75 minutes before it had to be on stage accompanying Emmylou Harris!
Even in today’s tough economy, StewMac remains recession-proof. “People have fewer discretionary dollars right now, but they don’t have to spend a lot to get a tool they can reuse again and again or a kit to build an instrument that will be a family heirloom, a point of pride for generations,” Kay explains. “It’s not like a fleeting trip to Disneyworld, a sugary treat that fails to nourish.”
Athens’ Corporate Culture: Easygoing, Hardworking
StewMac fits so comfortably in Athens because the whole town shares its corporate culture: “We’re laid back, but we work hard, and we care a lot,” Melissa asserts.
With just over 60 employees, the company is like a family—jamming together, jogging together, and of course, enjoying Athens’ live music scene together. StewMac’s success comes from understanding its market. “We love the same things and we spend our free time doing the same things our customers do,” Melissa says.
Kay adds how “delightful it is to be here, to do business here, to have the kind of bright energetic young people that the university brings and, in so many cases, people then root in and stay. We love all levels of Athenians.”
Slow and Steady
StewMac’s way of operating has always been reliably predictable rather than in big bursts–and it has served the company well.
“We continue to introduce new products that are unique to us,” she says. “We keep coming up with really neat solutions that nobody else has, which is good for us because we’re the only ones selling these specialty tools.”
Don’t expect to see the philosophy change any time soon.