Visit to SMC and the Knabe Assembly Line

Last Friday my father picked me up very early and we ventured to Gallatin, Tennessee where Samick USA is located.  We had about 4.5 hours of driving ahead of us then a tour of corporate headquarters, their 200,000 sq foot piano and guitar distribution and most importantly the Knabe assembly line.  Somewhere in there I hoped to have lunch before driving back later that night.  But for now it is early and I’m not a morning person.

Despite my plan to finish my night’s sleep on the ride up, I stayed awake to keep my father company.  My father, Don Bennett, is an RPT turned business owner and in the last few years I’ve learned even more about what it takes to have a small business.  This day was about that, about trading a day-off for a long day of pianos to learn more for our customers and hopefully translate that into doing better business.  We spent the morning discussing pianos, our current sale, future plans.  And the drive has a few highlights like crossing the Tennessee River as well as the climb over Monteagle.

Gallatin, Tennessee is about 40 minutes NE of Nashville.  The town is certainly small by Atlanta standards and Samick’s headquarters is located in a sprawling business park away from the center of town.  Our trusty GPS guided us to their front door of what looked like a stately municipal building except for the compact and intricate sidewalk and landscaping out front.  Inside, the lobby is spare, hardwood floors, a receptionist greeted us and tucked under the grand staircase was a lovely Knabe piano.

Jane Jones, Piano Service Manager, greeted us while we waited for Baik Lee, CEO of Samick USA and Mike Sweeney, our Knabe rep, to meet us.  I saw their extensive lines of guitars in one showroom as well as some new models they had set up for photos.  Baik and Mike joined us in the piano showroom as we saw their different lines: Samick, Kohler & Campbell, Kohler Digitals, Pramberger, and Knabe.  I saw an original antique Pramberger, a piano that was featured in a recent Hollywood movie and a Knabe that Ellen DeGeneres picked out.  It had a big white handwritten sign on it that said “Ellen’s Piano.  Don’t Touch”  Dear Ellen, I promise I resisted the temptation.  I saw a few prototype Samick uprights with etched glass front panels and a lovely

I also met Roger Jolly for the first time.  Roger is a great technician brought in as a consultant by Samick to improve their piano lines overall but mostly to focus on the American assembly of the Knabe grand pianos.  He has great excitement and energy, and as an outside consultant he was blunt about some deficiencies of past pianos and specific about the many areas of steady, committed improvement over the last few years.  He and my father immediately retreated into their own world of touchweights and voicing.  After touring the office and meeting the staff that moves such a large operation, we headed into town for lunch.

After lunch, we headed straight to the distribution center.  Calling it a warehouse is inadequate.  It is a huge space divided into 3 large but not equal rooms.  To the left are mountains of guitars, the middle is stacks of pianos, and to the right is still more pianos in a general prep facility being uncrated, checked, prepped and re-crated.  Beside this is Knabe’s assembly.

My immeadiate impression is that this operation is more like a large piano workshop than a piano manufacturing plant.  The bodies of the pianos come in and are set on shop dollies and the Knabe crew sets about building the actions and finishing the pianos.  They have workstations as well as voicing rooms set up but you get an overwhelming sense of the tremendous amount of hand work that goes into each piano.  Instead of CNC machines, you see drill presses, hand tools, nearly all of the jigs are made of wood and piano parts, simple, practical, and efficient only on this scale…5-8 pianos each week.  Demand is strong so they have plans to hire and train more workers, but the scale of the “piano shop” can’t be ignored.

For the first time, I saw the new 7’6″ Knabe grand.  With Baik overseeing, Roger Jolly shared his charge, to make a piano better than a Yamaha C7 for less cost.  The C7 is a flagship model and that is a tall order, but from what I saw, the new Knabe piano is already there with still more improvements to come.  They started with a Bechstein scale.  For several years, Samick partnered with Bechstein and this scale is one of the results.  While full and powerful, the piano still seems to have more European roots than American roots that the 5’8″ and 6’4″ models possess so clearly.  The use of US and Canadian woods shades that identity, but Roger admitted that he is struggling with which voice to give the piano.  In many ways, these pianos are now his children and he draws his experience from many great piano manufacturers.  From what I heard, Knabe has developed another piano that I would want.  My father selected a warm and full sounding 7′ model off the line for our showroom as well as a 5’8″ to replace some of our recently sold Knabe pianos.  We’re looking forward to displaying them in the coming weeks.

The drive home seemed longer, but then Saturday was the beginning of our Labor Day weekend sale.  I think my next visit will see even more steady improvements as this company builds here in America.  Only Steinway, Mason & Hamlin and Knabe produce grands here (very notably, Charles Walter builds fine uprights here), so even on a small scale, I was proud to see one manufacterer coming to the US after all the others have left.

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