Virtually everyone who plays guitar or has been involved in the music industry is familiar with Ibanez guitars.
The brand was made famous in America in the 1970s when its owner, the Japanese company Hoshino Gakki, began a partnership with Main Line music store owner Harry Rosenbloom, who began to distribute the imported guitars from a headquarters in Bensalem.
Ibanez guitars began to flood the American market during a decade when many of the American brands began to drop in quality. Ibanez “copy” guitars replicated the staple products of the American brands such as Gibson and Fender and proved to be of a higher quality, which led to an explosion of sales.
Needless to say, American guitar manufacturers were less than pleased by the new competition, and sued Ibanez for its replicas, but the brand’s name already had made its mark on the music landscape. The company settled the lawsuit out of court and began to focus on its unique models, which were already being played by artists like Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Paul Stanley of KISS.
Hoshino Gakki has retained its Bensalem headquarters as the hub of its American distribution and quality control, and currently, Ibanez is the third highest-selling brand of guitars. Feasterville native Bill Reim is the current CEO of Hoshino Gakki’s U.S. operations.
A musician himself, Reim got his start at Ibanez as a graphic designer and “rabid music fan.” He worked his way to the top after serving as an art director for Ibanez’ promotions department.
Reim described himself as a “George Bailey-type guy,” who always thought he’d leave the area, but added that he’s content with his current post. Reim sat down with the Northeast Times to talk about what it’s like to work in the music instrument industry.
Northeast Times: How did you first get involved with the company?
Bill Reim: I think it started just being a musician. The funny thing is I’m not a guitar player, I’m a drummer. I think it was my entire youth just growing up and watching guitar players the whole time, even more than bassists. I was a rabid music fan my entire life, and I was doing promotions for Electric Factory Concerts before I started up here.
NET: How does operating out of Bensalem impact Ibanez’ business model?
BR: It’s a good proximity from the East Coast between New York and Washington and, of course, Philadelphia is something of a hub itself. It’s right where the action is without being right in the heart of Philadelphia itself. So we’re close enough to be tied into the general metropolitan corridor here.
NET: I’ve read that working in the guitar industry requires a certain amount of “laid back-ness.” Is this true?
BR: Not really .. .I mean, most CEOs don’t dress the way we do, so in that respect we’re more laid back. Most of the people here are musicians or they have a lot of that in their blood anyway, but it definitely is a lot more aggressive and competitive now than it was even 10 years ago. As things have become much more boxed out by chain stores, that kind of business acumen is seeping into this industry. So it definitely is becoming much more of a stricter business environment.
NET: So you guys are the distributors and you manage quality control, but you’re owned by a Japanese company. What’s the dynamic there?
BR: They determine the direction of the product and a lot of the manufacturing. They have to try to think a little differently for each market, so we have a certain amount of input. Their teams over there interface with the factories and they do everything from conception of the design all the way to quality control. Our job is to get it into the stores and try to make people aware of it and interface with musicians.
NET: What kind of stuff do you play?
BR: I started out playing regular rock, I guess what you’d call classic. Then I kind of moved into more European and avant garde stuff and then alternative and jazz and that kind of stuff.
NET: Rock ’n’ roll is often about “fighting the man.” Do you feel like you’ve sort of become him?
BR: Well you know what, it sometimes feels that way because I grew up during that period when music really was the embodiment of a form of vocalization and was very key in driving a lot of the revolutionary changes that took place in the ’60s and ’70s. I try to adhere to that in my approach to that on the business end of it. I don’t adhere to the typical business management doctrines that most managers do. I want to try to do the right and fair thing for customers and employees. I am not about cutting people’s throats, you know? I want to be able to sleep at night. I try to bring in instruments at reasonable prices.
NET: Do you have any advice for a young guitarist or musician who would want to rise the ranks and “become the man?” Or, at least become CEO of a company that deals guitars?
BR: I think you have to try to be smart about things. There’s a difference between being intelligent and being smart. I think the thing is to stay focused and try to stay true to your ideals. Even in business, you’ve really gotta be creative. Someone said to me lately that, “Business is the last creative form.” Now whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but I think you definitely have to be able to think outside the box to keep a business viable these days. ••