Barnes and Mullins

Barnes and Mullins

Marcel Messner – GEWA music interview

GEWA music is one of the foremost manufacturers and distributors of musical instruments in the world. Based in Adorf, Germany, in the Vogtland area, it has been known for over three hundred years as a center for instrument manufacturing. With the rapid growth of technology in recent years, it has also expanded into a center for communication technology and software development. Back in the 1960s, during the space race, the region was famous for it’s technology, supporting the Soviet Union with parts for the Sputnik. Marcel Messner, CEO of GEWA music, sat down with MIN’s Andy Hughes to discuss his personal history with the company, his vision for its continued growth, and the exciting news that GEWA music is now appointed as worldwide manufacturers and distributors of the iconic Gretsch drum company.

GEWA music has been in existence for a very long time, since 1925. How did you become involved with the company?

My father joined the company back in the late eighties and became a shareholder. Before that, he worked with Hohner for many years. Some members of the board, including my father, left that company. While I was in school, I was always generally involved in the business. During school holidays I worked in the warehouse and from time to time, company meetings would be held at our home so I got a connection to quite a number of people from the industry. When I finished school, it was a natural progression for me to join the company. I did internships in the US for six month, at Remo and DW, to get a feel for how the industry works. During that time, I realised that this would be the right career move for me, and that’s when I started. I joined the Marketing Department, helping to build the online marketing strategy and the team. After finishing my studies, I was promoted to Director of Marketing. I ran that department for almost two years with my colleague Nicol Seidel, and then I was made responsible for Sales and Marketing. Finally, during the pandemic in 2021, I became CEO, sharing the position with my father. He is responsible for Product Management, Purchasing, Finance, and Human Resources, while I handle Sales, Marketing, Logistics, and IT. Together, we try to develop the correct strategies for the company. Having different generations offering advice has been advantageous. It’s helped us ensure the company moves in the direction we want it to follow.

Your website advises that you manufacture ‘entry-level’ products. Is this a particularly strong area of the instrument market?

Absolutely, it has been a highly successful area of the instrument market for us. More recently, we have expanded our portfolio across the entire range of instruments and accessories, especially after acquiring the Wittner brand and its production. We have always strongly believed in manufacturing good quality instruments for new musicians. Over time, we have observed that new students often start with really cheap and poor-quality instruments, which quickly leads to a loss of interest and enjoyment. Our approach has been to create instruments that can be used and enjoyed for many years, allowing students to progress to the next level.

Does the manufacturing side of the company still play a very important part?

Yes, it does. The company began primarily as a manufacturer of stringed instruments and cases. Over time, it evolved more into a distribution company, with manufacturing becoming less of a priority. However, since the early nineties, we have been steadily expanding the manufacturing side of the company again, particularly in the categories of drums, guitars, and woodwind and brass instruments. Today, we have major manufacturing operations in China for drums, guitars, woodwind, and brass instruments, along with cases and bags. We also manufacture in the USA for Adamas and Ovation guitars and Gretsch Drums, and we continue to produce in Europe, including at our headquarters in Adorf. This transformation is part of our commitment to offering reasonably priced, good-quality instruments for both students and professionals across our entire portfolio.

Instrument manufacture has always been hugely competitive. How do you advertise and attract business? What is your USP?

One of our unique selling points is definitely the expertise of our people. The Vogtland region, where we operate, has been a center of musical instrument manufacturing for hundreds of years. This heritage is a significant advantage when we are looking for production or manufacturers to supply instruments. We can pass on this level of expertise to our manufacturing bases in the USA, Europe, and China. Additionally, our manufacturing approach is rooted in the traditions of instrument making, something only GEWA Music can offer.

GEWA Digital Drums

Do you have all the major territories covered now, or is there anywhere you would like to develop?

In terms of our current markets, we are very happy with our coverage in Europe and the USA. With the recent addition of Gretsch Drums, plus brands like Ovation Guitars and Guitarras Manuel Rodriguez, and our own GEWA brand, we are now focusing on expanding our operations in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and South America. Specifically, I am working on further expanding our market reach in the U.S.

The sheer scale of an international company like yours, means having lots of things happening simultaneously. How do you manage to keep track of everything?

It always comes back to teamwork, which is the most important aspect of our company operation. With a company of our size, no one person can keep track of everything all the time. The key is having the right people running each department who can continually update you with the necessary information. We constantly keep each other informed about changes and developments. When something significant happens, we get together to discuss it and determine our strategy. Our leadership team, including my father, our CPO Sabine Six-Enders, our CDO Dennis Pelz, and our experienced sales team, ensures we stay on track.

The company has just taken on distribution and licensing for Gretsch Drums worldwide. How did that come about?

In 2015, DW acquired what I call the ‘Fender Package,’ which included Ovation Guitars, Gretsch Drums, LP, Gibraltar, and other brands. We have been the exclusive distributor for DW Drums and PDP in Europe for around twenty-five years. DW asked if we were interested in the European distribution of their brands, and we invested in the deal, gaining Gretsch Drums as part of that arrangement. We’ve been distributing them in Europe since 2015. We enjoy a kind of familial relationship with the Gretsch family in terms of product and development because many Gretsch drum sets are manufactured by our operation in China. Although we haven’t managed the American workshop in Richland, we have maintained an interest in the brand’s development. When Roland bought DW in 2022, we saw an opportunity. We began discussions with the Gretsch and Lombardi families, resulting in Gretsch Drums coming under our wing. We are now bringing innovative ideas to its development.

Gretsch is an iconic brand in drum manufacture. How does taking over the manufacture, licensing and distribution for such a well-known and respected company feel for you personally?

We now control the brand and its products, overseeing the entire Gretsch Drums operation. Everyone at GEWA music is immensely proud of the Gretsch Drums brand. It is iconic, with some of the biggest names in drumming having played, and still playing, Gretsch kits. This gives us a level of responsibility and motivation to take the brand to new heights. Our investment will help meet the massive demand for both American-made and Asian-made drums.

You will be keen to develop and expand Gretsch’s share of the market. Do you have any strategies you can share, or is it all kept under wraps?

Our strategy starts with a close examination of the American factory setup to determine necessary investments to increase manufacturing capacity and quality levels. When we acquired the license in January, our Product Manager, Director of Sales, and I visited Richland, meeting with the Gretsch team. We assured them that we were there to support, not dictate, their drum-building process. We have since hired experienced individuals in the United States to work with the Richland team, implementing our ideas. While I can’t go into too much detail now, I can confirm that exciting new products will be unveiled at the NAMM show next January.

Gretsch artist Ash Soan

Endorsements are a hugely important part of maintaining brand awareness for an instrument manufacturer. Are there any players you would like to bring into the Gretsch endorsee list, or are you happy with the roster that you currently have?

Endorsements are about a mutual fit between the company and the musician. Gretsch endorsers are extremely loyal, loving the unique sound and look of Gretsch drums. We aim for a mutually beneficial relationship where the sound and look of the drums align with the player’s style. We are looking towards new musical genres, like New Country, which is growing in America. Fortunately, we have maintained the core Gretsch team in America, who keep an eye on potential new endorsers.

Do you have any more planned brand developments for the company you can share with us?

Indeed, we do. In September 2020, at the start of the pandemic, we acquired the Ovation Guitar brand. We have reopened the manufacturing plant in the United States, producing high-end Adamas guitars and moving into Ovation guitar production in both the U.S. and Europe. In April, we acquired Wittner, manufacturers of tuning packs and accessories for the classical market. As we approach our hundredth anniversary, we also want to focus on growing our own instrument brands. We have a couple of new products under the GEWA brand that we hope to release within the next twelve months, showcasing what our company is all about.

On a personal level, what’s the single most important skill that you have, that enables you to do your job well?

It’s a mixture of elements. One of the most important aspects is having a passion for the music business. This passion drives the dedication and hours needed to excel. Listening to others is another crucial skill. While having firm opinions is essential, building teamwork and gaining input from others are vital. Experience in decision-making involves blending advice and information from others with your own opinions to make sound decisions.

What are the medium- and long-term plans for GEWA moving forward?

I have learned that it is really hard to look ahead even five or ten years, and certainly difficult to look very far beyond that. I remember, when I first started my involvement with this company, I always attended the Musikesse in Frankfurt, the major trade fair in Europe at the time  . I went every year from about 1994 to 2015. I experienced the massive growth of the event, and I also saw the downfall, caused by so many changes in our industry. So, you need to be aware that things can change at any time. You always need to be moving forward, that is vital, and also be aware that sometimes you have to take left and right turns as well within the moment. It is our long-term plan to retain control of manufacturing and distribution, and work with a large range or retailers who are out there. We need good, well-educated retailers to sell our products. We know that is a challenge, with the difficulties faced by the retail sector in Europe and of course in the UK. But this is the challenge for us moving forward to find, and keep the right partners to work with us. There are excellent retailers out there, and we are looking forward to helping them grow and develop, which is to our mutual benefit. The biggest challenge of all for us, is to create more musicians, more music makers. Young people today have so many demands on their time, so many options for things they can do with their time, and creating music with an instrument is a really small part of that potential experience. So, the challenge is for us to create more music makers, who will want and need more instruments to play. That is our challenge, and we are very much looking forward to it.


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