This interview is an excellent inspiration for me. Here is an extract of the interview. The whole interview can be seen here http://sitemaker.umich.edu/livingmusic/browse_interviews&mode=single&recordID=595299&nextMode=list
Shar Interview: Michael Jr. Avsharian, Owner, Executive Vice President, Shar Products Company
Bio: Michael Avsharian Jr. is joint owner and Executive Vice President of Shar Products Company, a strings shop in Ann Arbor. He is a violinist by trade, having started playing at seven years of age. He studied under Elizabeth Green until college, when he was tutored by the great Ivan Galamian at the Julliard School. Mr. Avsharian expanded on his performance diploma from Julliard with a bachelors and masters degree from the University of Michigan, then started a teaching career that saw him move to Oklahoma State University, then North Texas University. In 1964 he left his teaching position to join Shar, where he has been ever since. Michael’s role in the company is now mostly as a consultant, as his nephew Haig has taken over the reins.
Charles Wu: So first of all with these things we have to start at the top, so how did you get involved in music; just in general, how were you introduced to classical music?
Michael Avsharian Jr: Well, as a seven year old, my parents offered a violin to me, and I was mildly interested, as much as you could at seven years old, and I took it. I wasn’t in today’s environment where you have everybody playing the violin. It was in those days, when I started, a rural area. I was the only person playing the violin, but it seemed like a fun thing to do. I enjoyed it from the beginning; felt that it was my thing, especially since nobody else did it. I was the best one around; there was nobody else around.
CW: Did you live in Ann Arbor during your childhood?
MA: No, we were living in the country about eight miles west of Ann Arbor, totally rural area, farm, so it was really the only thing I had to do.
CW: So your parents weren’t musicians?
MA: No, they appreciated music and loved music, but they weren’t involved in it, either by training or business or anything else. They were not musicians in any sense, but they thought music was a good thing, and probably as much as anything else, just something to keep me out of trouble and keep me active. That’s what I think it was.
CW: Well, it seems to have gone pretty far; I’ve read about it: you went to Julliard for schooling. How did it get to that point when you decided you wanted to do music as a living?
MA: Well, we moved into town, into Ann Arbor; I think I was about 12 at the time, and my old violin teacher was drafted into the army, so I had to get a new teacher. Fortunately, Elizabeth Green had just moved into town to set up a string program for the Ann Arbor Public Schools. She had done successfully in Iowa. So my father heard about her, called her and said, “would she teach me?” So I went, and played for her.
Sure, she said, she’d do it. I was her first student her and she didn’t even want any money. She was just happy to have somebody to help her get started. And the string program, that’s really so that I would play at the school, and she was just a very humanitarian type of person, I’d say. She wasn’t commercial or anything. So she gave me lessons, and she just furthered my feelings of “the violin is special for you.” Again, I played at the school programs; there was nobody else, again, who really played much. And at one point, after a few years, as I was getting near graduation of my school, she had confidence in me; she wanted to see me go on to higher education in music. She was friends with Thor Johnson, who was the conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra. He was a well known musician, I think, at the time. He maybe taught at Julliard. So she had me audition for him, and he recommended that I go into Julliard and study with Ivan Galamian, who again was new in the country. Later on he was so busy he probably wouldn’t have taken me, he had so many brilliant students. But I was lucky there, and he took me as his student at his summer camp, and then after that he offered to take me at Julliard. So, up to that point it was still nebulous really what I wanted to do in music. I just knew that I loved the violin, and I enjoyed it, and I thought I’d maybe perform in an orchestra or something. So I went to Julliard, got a lot of good training with him, and before I finished at Julliard I came to the conclusion that I wanted to teach rather than perform. I just wasn’t a performing type; I didn’t do my best under pressure, but I loved to learn, I loved the violin, I loved music, I loved preparing things, but I was disappointed by performing, I wasn’t satisfied with it, and with students I enjoyed it much more. So that’s what I did. I came back to the University of Michigan, got bachelors and masters. At Julliard I just had a performance diploma. I got a full masters, which is all you needed to get into teaching at that time; Nowadays, you have to have a doctorate, just about, unless you’re a big name. So I got a job: University of Oklahoma. It was temporary at first, but then I ended up staying on 6 years, and I got an offer from North Texas University, which is a bigger music school, so I figured I’d move there, since it’s a better music school at the time. And I was there two years, and meanwhile, the Shar family business started to work out, and after two years I came home to be with the family in Ann Arbor, which I always wanted to return to, and the business, which I had visions of it being something very successful
CW: I guess it turned out that way!
MA: Yea, If I had known what I knew now, I probably wouldn’t have even done it, it’s a risky, difficult thing to keep a business going, and it’s a miracle we still have it going, there’s so many obstacles. But it worked, so I came here, been here even since. And I love to teach; it was a hobby, so I continued to teach. I have a few students, young students.
CW: So you’ve been doing that all the time, teaching?
MA: Yea, I’ve always had a few students, in the evening, come after being at Shar Products, and I’ve had a nice relationship with young people who want to learn the violin; they give me a lot of pleasure and excitement.
CW: When you moved back to Ann Arbor to join the family and join the company, was that very difficult for you, or was it just a natural progression?
MA: Well, it wasn’t too hard, because I’d always had in my mind that I’d like to work near home with the family, getting older and we had a close-knit family. So this opportunity came up: I’d be working with my father, and in my mind I thought, “I can still teach privately.” It wasn’t like I was teaching at Julliard or Curtis or a top-end thing. In those days it was North Texas. Outside of the big universities and conservatories in those days, we’re talking back in the fifties, most colleges were pretty involved key (?). First of all, there weren’t many violin people around, before Suzuki came along, and the few of them that were talented and good would go to Julliard and Curtis, maybe Eastman or some of these big music schools. So these other schools, Texas and Oklahoma, there wasn’t much going on there, so it wasn’t like I was leaving a great class of students. They were average kids, and I figured I could get the same thing in Ann Arbor. I had the excitement of a business and closeness to the family, so it was pretty much of a no-brainer. I was a little bit hard, because I did enjoy it over there. Anything you do for a while, you get used to it and you like it, but it was too much on the other side of the scale to Ann Arbor, so I did move.
CW: I guess we’ll move on to talking about the company. Could you explain how it got started and the kind of business you’re in, during the beginning and how’s it’s changed over the years.
MA: Well, the business got started through one of those accidental things that happen: I had a student when I was at Oklahoma at my first job, who talked to me about getting violin strings at half the price dealers in this country were selling them. I said “Well, that’s interesting, how do you do that?” He said he had a friend who was in the army in an orchestra in Germany during his time in the service, and he’d buy his strings there from a local music house, and when he came over here when he was discharged, he found it was twice as expensive over here. So he just continued to order them from Germany. And my student says, “Well, that’s what he does and he orders me a set, too.” So I said “Good, I want to get some too.” Then I would tell some of my friends at the music camp, and they said, “Get me strings too” Pretty soon we’re placing an order for a dozen sets for all our friends. But it still wasn’t on a commercial basis. It was just chancing onto a bargain at a grocery store, you know. I’ve even thought about opening a grocery store. But then my brother, who at the time he was going to Curtis on the violin, he’s more of the entrepreneur type, and he says “Good, I’ll sell to the Philadelphia Orchestra people.” Of course, the Philadelphia Orchestra is professional musicians, they get a ten percent discount. Well my brother, buying the strings at half price, could give them a thirty percent discount. So he’d go there during the intermission of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they say “Hey, Charlie is here, and they all gather around, and he’d take orders, buy strings and so on, and he was earning his way through school that way. And the third element of the picture: my father. My father was an immigrant, coming to this country from the Armenian massacres, and a struggling entrepreneur: doesn’t know the language, doesn’t know the customs, but he wanted to be in business, so he tried different things: every imaginable type of business, but of course the obstacles he had were very hard; he couldn’t get too far with them, and he was mildly unsuccessful in businesses, so he was in that mental mode, looking for an opportunity to start a business and he heard about Charlie’s experience; went to Philadelphia to visit Charlie and went to the Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal to observe. All these professional musicians, if they’re buying strings from Charlie, that’s the top of the food chain, and anybody in the country would do the same thing. So he was the one who flipped the switch over into a commercial venture, and he says “I’m going to try to sell these strings by mail to different places.” He got a mailing list, just on his own. Charlie meanwhile was finishing up at Curtis and I was teaching at Oklahoma and Dad on his own, started sending out mailings, one-piece sheet with strings “thirty percent discount” and somehow or another, he managed to get a few people interested; I think it was in Arizona. He was excited: “We had someone from Arizona order some strings!” Well, they found out that this was an honest venture. Dad was very meticulous—when an order came in, he wouldn’t sleep until he got that order out that same day. He was very anxious and eager. He was a thing—the energizer of this business, really. He worked very hard, put up everything: family, you name it. That business came first. He was going to make this thing succeed, and he did it and sure enough in Arizona, after orders from one or two people, the whole symphony down there started to order from him. And the word spread, and Dad was on the way. Symphony musicians move around, talk to each other, and somebody maybe in New Mexico, heard about it. We had these little pockets, you know: if you got one or two people starting it, then you get a lot of them from there. Meanwhile, of course, at the dealers nobody wanted to change their ways; they weren’t about to cut their profits; they continued to sell at list price, for ten percent if you were a professional, and so Dad just kept going like that, just building, getting people’s confidence, and getting a mailing list. It grew by leaps and bounds, of course, because nobody else in the country was doing it. It’s a pretty rare situation when you find a niche like that. Nowadays no matter what you think somebody’s doing it better. If you want to open a sandwich shop, you need a million dollars, because the places that are working are big, perfect things. So he kept it going and the next big thing that happened was that he got to the point where the dealers, like the dealer in Arizona, regular dealers, started to complain to the importers; the main distributors who get these strings from Germany will say, “Hey, this maverick outfit is cutting prices thirty percent, what’s going on here; we can’t do business this way.” So then the distributor, who was a exclusive importer of these strings, at that time it was Pirastro Strings, they had like ninety percent of the strings market; if you didn’t have that you weren’t in business. As for that, the kingpin of that outfit ordered all his outlets, “Don’t sell to Shar, if you sell to Shar we cut you off” So our wholesaler that we were buying from: there was a distributor that strings from the factory to them, and the distributor has an exclusive. In fact, it only ships to him in the United States. The distributor fills the orders of the dealers, and the dealers then to the consumer. So our wholesaler said “I’m sorry, we can’t sell to you anymore, because if we do, we’re going to get cut off, and this is such an important part of our business. I can’t blame them for that. So this is when dad was…apparently early only, I think I was already in the business, because I came in two years after it started. So it was a dilemma what to do. All of a sudden finally you’re building up a business and now you don’t have the strings to deliver; it’ll kill the business. So he decided “OK, the United States distributor, exclusive distributor, won’t sell it to me, I’ll try to find another distributor in the world who’s willing to do it.” So he went to Germany, I think, didn’t have any luck there; everybody’s afraid to jeopardize their exclusive distributorship. But he found a distributor in France, he must have looked it up somewhere, who was willing to take a chance and ship him the strings, Dad talked him into it. So we started to get the strings from France, directly from them. Of course what he was doing was against the rules of the manufacturer: you’re not supposed to sell outside your area. This guy, I guess he was slippery enough that he would do it, and he probably charged a little more, but still, they’re strings, at this point we’d buy them at any price; you don’t want to kill your customer’s confidence. SO we did that for a while, and then pretty soon the business was still growing that he couldn’t supply us. “If I give you all these strings you want, somebody’s going to get suspicious. All of a sudden I’m buying so many strings” so he says, “I can’t give you any more that a few strings.” So again Dad was in a dilemma what to do. So the next thing we did, we had a relative in Birmingham, just a close relative, a cousin or something, and Dad again, with his ingenuity, went up the road and said, “I want you to open a string shop: Birmingham String Shop. It’s not really going to be a storefront, it’s just going to be an address. And you can order strings, and the distributor didn’t have salesmen going out and checking on these places, see if they’re real or not. So they would routinely just ship them strings, so we now had another source. Then at one point, I think what happened was the US distributor discovered that Birmingham was just a false front for Shar, so of course that was the end of that. Then Dad went to our Senator, US Senator, went to his office and complained, said “we’re paying taxes, we’re providing employment to people, and this distributor is trying to kill our business,” and so the senator sent a letter to the d
istributor saying that this wasn’t the right thing to do, restrain of trade, can’t do this: sell to some people, don’t sell to another. They’re honest, willing to pay. So that broke the ice. (phone rings, Michael takes call)
MA: That was for a reunion, when we were in the army together, some of our army buddies, people I haven’t seen for fifty years; so that’s what that’s all about, and he’s trying to arrange it about a month from now and we’re going to New York to see these people and spend a day reminiscing about those days.
CW: Were you in the military too?
MA: Well, you really can’t say I was military in combat, but I was in a band. In a band at West Point. There was a group from Julliard who, during the Korean War; we had an opportunity to join the band at West Point, not the Cadet Corps but the band that serviced that; the cadets would march every day and they needed a band for that, so we musicians, we would go play in the band; otherwise we were just regular army, but it wasn’t in Korea where there was a battle going on, so we were very lucky, and it was that group. We got discharged, we went different places in the country, and that was the end of it. We never had a chance to get together, so I’ve been waiting for his phone, it’s hard to reach him, so I had to take this opportunity to do that.
CW: Could I just clear some things up? When you talked about the distributor, did you have the storefront then, or was it just a home business?
MA: Yea, it was just a home business. In the first three years, it was just my father’s house, the basement there.
CW: This was the same period as the distribution problems?
MA: Yea, all of those. When that senator sent the letter that broke the ice, we were able to get the strings freely and we had a short span there, but once that obstacle was broken, competitors could just in. Up to that point, nobody knew how to do this: semi-illegal and too complicated, plus people didn’t realize the potential of the business. It started to get the point where people realize “Hey, there’s a real new business model here, selling strings by mail.” Because, one of the important thing about strings is that you’ve got different gauges, hundred of different combinations.
CW: You’d want to try it first.
MA: Yea, and your typical music store, unless you’re in New York City or some of the big centers, they couldn’t afford to carry all those strings, so you’d go in and they would order them, so you had to wait a week or more to get them. And this way, with our business, we could afford to stock all the strings, because when you’re dealing with a large customer base all over the country, there’s something for everybody, so people could get them on short notice with of course the price savings. Anyway, the competitors came in and then things started to slow down. They came in, real world. Meanwhile, we had made a reputation. We had a name, and we were able to stay number one in mail order, in fact any kind of order, because even the biggest store in New York didn’t have the customers we had. And along the way, there’s been little other things along the way, but the big battles were ironed out by then. We kind of invented a whole new business model, and now there are some on the internet, tons of places, and a lot of them sell cheaper than we do, but they don’t have the reliability and the kind of name. We stay as close as we can, but somebody operating out of their home with small overhead, he can afford to sell these cheaper, but if he got bigger, he’d run into trouble. It’s just like any other business now, it’s not a monopoly. In the beginning it was wonderful! I was glad that my father lived to himself finally make a big success of business. For me, my big success was music teaching, I’m not a businessman really; I’m in it for the family, but for him it was his whole life and it’s so wonderful that he got to fulfill it.
CW: You started out in strings, so when did the company decide to start selling other things: accessories, instruments, etc.?
MA: It was a gradual thing that came along; even in the beginning. Right away with strings, logically you had to have rosin, string adjusters, a whole new thing. Early on, these things we started adding, and the customers expect your music store: “How about a violin case?” So that’s when we had to move out of the house, because the type of bulky things, and it was mainly driven by customer demand. If a customer asked for something, we added it to our list.
CW: Nowadays, what do you sell the most of? Is it strings, music, and small things, or do you find a lot more people come in, get instruments?
MA: Well, of course strings are the biggest quantity item, because it’s just like bread: Everybody has to have it, they have to replace it all the time, but that’s the one you hardly make any money off of, because they’re so easy to deal in. It’s a branded product, so people can work in a very small profit margin and the prices are so low that you carry them, and they’re complicated and take up so much space mentally, but you have to have them, just like a grocery store has to have bread and milk. They don’t make their money on that, but they have it. So you carry those, and a lot of the other products, the accessories, you don’t make a lot of money on those, but you have them to be a legitimate business, but strings are the largest quantity thing. Well, you talk about a string adjuster, just a little thing, doesn’t matter if you sell a thousand of those; it’s nothing. But cases are big business: violin cases, cello cases, you name it. Instrument cases, it’s not so easy for everybody to handle: it’s bulky and it’s expensive unless you can buy them in large quantities, and we can buy cases by the whole container, a 20-foot truckload of a case from Korea, say, buy it directly from the factory, and anybody else who wants to buy a case, he has to buy it from a distributor. The distributor orders a truckload, puts his profit on it, then sells it to the dealer. We just jump over that, like K-mart, Walmart, any of these other places; they don’t buy from a distributor, they buy from the factory. So we’re able to do that because we have the volume. When it comes to strings, it doesn’t matter what volume you have, you still sell the same price, the way it works now you can order a bunch of strings, with just a little bit of credentials, from a factory, and start a business. With cases, you need space for them, they’re more of a headache. Some cases have problems: you have to throw them out, or fix them. But we’re geared for all that, so we buy large quantities, generally directly from the manufacturer, unless there’s an exclusive distributor. That’s the other thing that’s strange: you have exclusive distributors so you can’t get those still. But cases, there are a hundred case factories in Korea, you job is to find the one that makes the best case: a reliable company, and we’ve got tons of sample cases we’ve gotten and rejected, in order to find the good ones, so it’s a lot of work looking up the cases; cases are a big part of our business. Instruments, student level instruments: Suzuki violins or… not antique violins, that’s a whole different story. But these level instruments, like computers, they’re getting better and better and cheaper and cheaper. The student violins I bought weren’t as good as the ones you’d get now for the same price or less. Instruments are good, and again it takes a lot of research, a lot of leg work, and there’s so many different factories that make an instrument, you wouldn’t believe how many: hundreds, maybe thousands. And you got to pick those and try to find the good ones. We take trips to China, Korea, look at different factories, order things, keep improving our line. We’re musicians, we’re players, you know. We’re the ones who decide. We’re not like some of the big businesses that it’s just merchandise. For us, the instruments are close to our emotions, so we look for what has the best sound, and our volume means we can order by the container-load and get a good price, and build the confidence of customers, because they know we don’t sell anything that doesn’t play or is junk. Altogether, I’d say the strings we sell a lot of, don’t make a lot of money on; cases we sell a lot of, we do make money on those; instruments, again we make some money because those are the hard items, the trouble items, we get paid for all our troubles: research cost and all. Just about everything else is knick-knacks, not a big deal. Sheet music, we got into that, and that’s a pretty good item too. Anybody can carry sheet music, but there again we’ve got seven thousand different titles that we carry in stock. No music store has that, you have to order from the publisher. We’ve got a big catalog, send it out the same day, so we don’t offer a bargain, we just charge the regular list price, because of all of the expense of handling and shipping sheet music, so that’s a big item for us.
CW: You talked about the trips for instruments. Do you handle that personally or do you have someone who is assigned to do that?
MA: Well, it started out where we would just order remotely. With our name all these people would come to us to say “Try our instruments, try our instruments” and they would send a sample to us. If it was good or not good, we’d tell them “We like this, but we don’t like the varnish” or “We like the varnish, but the tone isn’t good.” And they were anxious to do business with us, so they would send us another sample, and after a certain point, we were doing business with all these different companies, then we’d make a trip over; My brother has gone there a few times and we have Val here, who plays in the Ann Arbor Symphony, is a good violinist, professional violinist, he does a lot of this work, that’s kind of his responsibility, but the final test is that after Val gets all the instruments he can, the best ones, then myself and my brother will have a tryout session: we’ll go in there and play them, give our opinions and bottom line is, we have to think it’s good. As far as going to the factory, that’s more of a matter of interest, just to see how they do it. That’s kind of fun, plus you learn something, just get a perspective of what it’s all about.
CW: So this instrument business, about what time did it start?
MA: Well that’s been going on quite a while; I think after we were in business for about four or five years, we started to carry Suzuki violins. After that, it was just a progression. You started out with Suzuki violins, a branded product, don’t make much money on them because everybody can carry it, and then we’ve gradually been going to our own specified instruments. We have a certain factory that makes it for you, just the way you want, and it’s hard for anybody to just go there and get the same thing. It’s just an additional factor: first we had one type of violin, then we had two types, I can remember way back, and it kept escalating, you keep getting more and more, and you have to have a violin at every price point, we found that out. Some people would spend up to two hundred dollars, so we had to have a violin for two hundred, so for a better one you had to spend three hundred, and before you know you’ve got forty different violins and if they don’t sell…if a violin nobody will buy, we don’t carry it anymore, people don’t want it. We try to find a better one that people like.
CW: I guess most of your business still comes from catalogs, right? Not from walk-ins?
MA: Well, yea. The walk-in, it’s just a drop in the bucket. The people are very lucky to have something they can walk in, try out ten violins if they want to. But it’s all over the country. This is a mail-order business. If we close the whole store down, we could practically work the same way that we do.
CW: I was wondering about the trial service for instruments and bows. Where did that idea start from? How long ago?
MA: That’s been a pretty long time, almost from the beginning. We’ve always had a b guarantee. If people don’t like something, they can just take it back, and it grew out of that. You start to realize that if somebody didn’t like it they’d send it back, send him another one he’d send it back, and the logical thing: why not just send it out for approval? It’s so far back I can’t really remember exactly clearly how it happened. But don’t worry how we did it. A lot of that is confidence in people. At first you’d be afraid to send out an expensive instrument, but we found that the majority of it is honest people, and it works. We’ve had fraud a few times, some of these orders you can’t find them, and you can’t find a violin, a fraud type of thing. Occasionally this happens, but in any business you have the cost of doing business; loss for whatever reason: something gets broken, something gets stolen, you try to be as careful as you can, and keep in mind most of the time it’s OK; people are trustworthy.
CW: About the concept of your company, at least from my experience—I play violin also—classical musicians are hands-on kinds of people, especially when you’re buying things, so just the idea of a mail-order music company, how do you think that has reconciled itself: that hands-on approach and your approach?
MA: You mean from a customer standpoint?
CW: Yeah, sure.
MA: If they’re going to buy a fine instrument, they’ll want to go to a music store to play it. The idea of just sending away for one… first of all, the people we deal with are not near a music store. If they’re going to buy a really expensive violin, they’re probably going to get a flight to Chicago or someplace. But if they’re thinking of buying their child a Suzuki violin, they can’t afford to do that, and they don’t have a music store that has violins like that, or a music store might have one or two. There’s a trust factor too, the fact that they have confidence that we’re going to sell them something good. But that’s where most of them get, instruments that are not old or rare instruments
CW: So your customer base is mostly students and teachers?
MA: Students, mostly. And we sell a few more expensive ones, for whatever reason, but it’s not a big thing. We sell lots of $150 violins, like they order shoes or something, a computer. And if they don’t like it, they’ll send it back. Typically, you’ll get a situation where a teacher will see what a student got from Shar and say that’s good. If there’s another student that needs a violin, order it from Shar.; they’ll send you something good. And in case they didn’t like it, they’ll send it back and say what they liked about it, and we’ll pick out another one and send it to them.
CW: Because most of your customers are students, in the area, do professional violinists come here for services like rehairing, any kind of services?
MA: Well we sell commodity type things to professional musicians: strings or any of the accessories, cases. If you buy from us, our prices are generally competitive and we have a nice catalog of pictures they can see, and they just have more variety. You can go to a music store and see a dozen cases, but you open our catalog and they see fifty cases and we’ll get some of them. I would say professionals are not at the core of our business: we couldn’t probably survive just on professionals. Typical professional, he’s in a city like Detroit or New York where there’s a special orchestra, and wherever there’s a professional symphony, there’s usually a violin shop that is going to service them an carry the things they want. If they can’t find it there, then they’ll come to us. But if they can find it there, even if it costs a little more, they’re probably going to do it. For us, the part of our business is the student, teacher, because the teacher can be out in a small town, we’re really the only place they can come, they have to order by mail. It’s become an accepted thing. At first I think there was some resistance because it’s like changing any tradition: it’s always hard. Like online, we do tremendous business online. Foreign to me, I grew up with no such thing, but people do it, and it’s amazing what they order, how much they order online. I’d say professionals, I wouldn’t count on their business; it’s more of the students, teachers, parents.
CW: Because this is for a local project, what is your experience with musicians from the University, Ann Arbor Symphony…is this the main shop in town?
MA: I think so, if I were a student what would I do? Maybe some of them would order strings from a competitor with a lower price. For instrument service, yea, they’re going to come to us, I would think. We still do a lot of business in Ann Arbor, but I’m trying to think of who else there is. There just isn’t anybody else that has the selection.
CW: Tying this back into the Ann Arbor community, you sponsor lots of community events and make donations to organizations, what role does the company play in the music community?
MA: More than anything else, we’re probably a convenience. If we weren’t here, I think the music community would be fine, would be the same. They might have to work a little harder; if they want a violin they might have to go to Detroit or somewhere by mail, like everybody else in the country is doing. Not many places have a Shar in their hometown, so I don’t think it would matter that much. I think we just grew not much because of Ann Arbor. As I said, the store business is not our core business. We’re a mail order company that just happens to be here, and filling an order at the store is more expensive for us that by mail, actually, because at the store you have to have help there standing by. In the store, everything about it is more costly. If somebody orders by mail, it’s just a routine like all the others: it goes out quickly, actually less expensive for us. But it’s an additional business and we take pride in it. There’s no question, anything you do, it’s nice to know you have a store, people come in, they’re happy, they buy something, so it’s a good feeling to have that.
CW: Do you sponsor any local events around here in terms of service?
MA: We haven’t run too much in there, we’ve thought about it occasionally, but what we do locally is we try to support any local music group. They’re right here, we got to treat them right, just from a business standpoint too. We want people to think well of us. We don’t want anybody not to like us. If it’s local, we don’t want to lose our local customers. We do give the Ann Arbor Symphony, the School of Performing Arts, all the high schools have a music program. The Ann Arbor Public Schools, to go on a trip we give them money, whatever they ask for, and we’ve supported them.
CW: From looking at your website, there are some larger organizations, national organizations that you give to. How did that come about, and how do you decide which organizations to sponsor?
MA: Well, again it’s all related to the business. Ann Arbor is different because locally you know the people and you do things that may not be that cost effective. But you do it because you take pride and you see (tape flip) [But nationally] we have to look at it if the money we give them is going to be like an investment. In our opinion we have to think we’re going to get that much back because we donated that money. And it’s just a judgment call. You can’t be sure if you’re right or wrong, and we’ll get a request from some place that doesn’t have anything to do with the violin, and we say “Sorry, we want to save our money, give it to some place that’s in our business line.” Those judgment calls are made in meetings every week: donation meetings, we’d get hundreds of requests and a lot of them are individuals. For the individual we had to make a rule that we can’t give donations to individuals. They’ll say, “Well, I want to go to Europe to study, will you help sponsor me?” No, no, but for institutions it’s different, if an orchestra’s going to Europe on a tour, we’ll give money to them because we want the orchestra to think well of us, and we want the conductor to say Shar is OK, we don’t want anyone to say “They’re bad, they wouldn’t help us out.” So it’s like the old days, like in gangster movies, with protection money, where you pay it or they’ll blow up your store. Any business is like that; we’re no different and we have to do everything we do so the business stays alive. Otherwise, nobody’s going to be good, if you don’t manage the business right. Even General Motors, they’re in trouble, biggest motor company in the world, you wouldn’t believe it. And IBM, so I don’t care how big you are, if the initiatives aren’t right or you don’t manage it right you can go down almost overnight.
CW: I guess this has been in the Avsharian family for a long time—the whole time. I believe your son or your nephew is running the company right now?
MA: Yea, he’s the only one of all of our children, of the brothers of mine, who was interested in the business. The rest of them are all kind of art people. My son is a drummer, my daughter plays the violin…
CW: So they’re all musicians?
MA: They’re not all musicians, but most of them have some musical background because of us. But they have different things, my nephew is an artist, an advertising artist, he’s a creative person. But none of them wanted the responsibilities of the business, like a ball and chain. There’s something about a business, you got to stock there: it takes all your time every day, and you can’t just go off and leave it. Every day you got to keep there. But Charlie’s son Haig was a perfect match. He had everything it takes to be a good business manager: he was interested in business, ambitious, smart, good learner, sociable, he’d get along with customers and employees, and he earned it. At first when he started, there were all questions “well, he’s the boss’s son” but then in a short time people started to respect him, because he wasn’t afraid to get down in the dirt, do anything it took to make the business thrive. Plus he was very ambitious, learning, like I said, and he just had talent, like a violinist, what is it? Didn’t matter what school you go to, you can’t teach it. So Haig is like that, and he’s proven himself, and he’s getting better every day. He’s made some mistakes along the way, but he’s turned out to be very good, and with him doing the day-to-day operations, my brother can spend more time teaching and playing the violin, which is his first love. With me, the same thing, takes the pressure off me now, but my brother and I are still here as consultants; we’re still the violin people when it comes to the instruments. For any accessories, we can make judgments on the products, whether it’s something good for string players. Haig, he’s this businessman running an operation, handling employees, finding the right people for the job. He’s really better at that than we were, probably. We’re too soft and musical anyhow, we’re art people, but he’s all business, you know. Played a little bit of violin, but that wasn’t his main interest.
CW: Do you think the company is always going to stay in the family? In the long term, where do you think it will go?
MA: Well I think that as long as Haig is able to run it, he’s a young man. As long as he’s healthy and able to run it, I can see him running the company as long as he can. He’s what, thirty-five? He can run the company until he’s eighty years old. As far as energy, you don’t have to be a b man physically, you run it. And by that time, who knows? There might be other children interested, or at that point if there’s nobody else around the family, we’ll probably pass it into the hands of someone else. But it’s not the type of thing that’s going to get so big that you have to sell stock and all that. If we’re that type of business, some big corporation would have taken over by now. It’s a niche business; it’s just not big enough to attract Sears Roebuck or K-mart or Walmart or any of these people. Anyway, it’s just a small, small thing
CW: Talking about the growth strategy, how do you see Shar growing?
MA: Well, it’s certain about our growth is that you add products as they come on, you build your customer base. Certain areas, now, there’s a tremendous potential for growth. Schools: we do a lot of business with schools, but it’s probably one percent of the schools in the country, just a drop in the bucket. So there’s almost unlimited possibilities in schools. Also we have the wholesale division. Again the wholesale division is just in its infancy, we just have one percent of the wholesale business in the country. If you talk about the retail business, we have a good percentage, maybe it’s fifteen percent, some substantial thing, but mostly, there are all these companies much bigger than us in wholesale, and in schools there are companies much bigger than us, so it’s going to be a slow battle, but we hope to encroach on that. We are improving in schools, in wholesale, so if we just keep doing our thing, quality products, reliability we have in the merchandise and all that, it’s just the survival of the fittest kind of thing. If you fall through and somebody else does a better job, he’s going to get the business. I don’t know for sure what the future is going to bring. Up to this point, we’ve managed to keep it afloat. We’ve got a certain momentum, we got a position, which is a name, confidence of people, which is something you can’t just get overnight; they’re happy with you, and come back. For us, it’s schools, wholesale division, website. The website we have is a new thing too. We’re doing pretty well with that, but it’s a pretty limitless sort of thing. There is retail, so we probably have a good, reasonable share in that.
CW: So just slow improvement then?
MA: Yea, there’s not going to be any big explosion, just gradual things. I don’t see any big breakthroughs where you have some amazing product that everyone’s going to buy. It’s just schools and wholesale, if you work that right and are successful, that can go more.
CW: Well, I’ve just about run out of questions, so thank you very much for your time
MA: Well, you’re welcome.
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