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Featured Business: Monaghan Music & Piano Centre
Name: Niall McClean, owner, Monaghan Music & Piano Centre and Steinhoven Pianos
Employees: 5 (excluding specialist staff called as required)
If any business was to have a worst nightmare scenario, it would be to put stock in temporary uninsured storage, only for it to be flooded by freak summer rain.
That’s exactly what happened to Monaghan Music & Piano Centre in 2008. “The company had its biggest stock ever,” recalls Niall. And as new premises were being built, he chose to store €800,000 stock for the busy back-to-school season in 10,000 sq ft of mushroom houses. “I always had insurance, we just put the stock into storage temporarily and thought ‘Who would insure mushroom houses anyway, they’re made of plastic’.”
One Saturday night that August, water came in and he lost stock valued at over €100,000. The stock included 200 upright pianos and about 50 fully reconditioned grand pianos as well as various other instruments. Luckily, Niall had another warehouse full of pianos and continued on. It was six months down the line that the cashflow issues really hit them. An overdraft with AIB helped the company get back up on its feet again.
The business is definitely back up on its feet now – proof includes winning the Outstanding Small Business category at the SFA National Small Business Awards 2014, and this year Monaghan Music & Piano Centre is moving to a 24,000 sq ft premises.
This all started from rebuilding and selling on one piano. Over the years Niall has not only moved his business from pianos to supplying all musical instruments to consumers – he has moved into wholesale too and has his own piano brand – Steinhoven – as well as the musical instrument brand known as Koda.
Niall and his father had originally started out buying old English and German pianos, doing them up and selling them on. When the market moved to younger Japanese pianos, Niall decided to cut out the middle man and buy them directly from Japan. He then began working with a Chinese company, which manufactures pianos to Niall’s specifications under the brand name he has developed – Steinhoven. They are the only European business this Chinese company deals with.
Despite international ties, the company is firmly a family business, with a small family-like team as well as Niall’s wife Catriona working in admin and accounts. Niall’s brother spent three years training as a piano tuner and has his own business doing that. Niall and Catriona’s three daughters play the piano – and if they want the business, they will be welcome to take part too. The new premises will have rooms for piano lessons if they want to start with their own business – the support is there.
Interview with Niall McClean
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
I went to work for my father who was a cabinet maker and was selling the odd piano; we’d buy and touch them up, then sell them. Then we went into the better pianos like Japanese ones and started going to England to buy them. I said to my father “We really need to go further afield, to Japan or China, to buy these ourselves” and he’d always agree but it would never happen. Anytime we were looking for a piano and the company in England didn’t have the stock, we were losing business. About 12 years ago I jumped on a plane and went to Japan, got the yellow pages in the hotel, looked for dealers and visited them.
How did you initially fund your business?
When I decided to go out on my own I got my first piano free – from a Methodist Church. We did it up and I sold it for STG£700. With the money I got from the piano I went out and bought two pianos. That’s where it started. I put the money back into buying new stock.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
We’ve really diversified a lot. Sometimes you need a lot of little businesses working well together to keep the business running. We do a lot of wholesale e.g. piano stools, piano covers etc, basically everything to do with the piano. We do a range of other instruments and we also provide pianos for concert hires. A year ago we introduced a rent-to-buy scheme. This is proving to be very popular with customers.
What have been the highlights to date?
To see the company grow year on year and our brand improving. Our own brand piano – a Steinhoven white baby grand – featured on the TV show ‘Bruce Forsyth’s Dancing with the Stars’.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
Seeing the business grow. I like the employees to be happy at work. I think that’s a very important part of the business. Also seeing customers happy. We did a survey last year; we sent it to 800 customers and we had 98% satisfaction – we couldn’t believe it. It tells us we’re doing something right with our customers.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
It’s very difficult really. Sometimes my work doesn’t start till the shop closes. At the same time I like to have time for my kids and my wife. I don’t know if anyone can run a business and leave at 5 o’clock. I think if you want to grow the business, you really have to put the effort in.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
Michael O’Leary – he’s in business to make money. Sean Quinn, who’s not too far from us here, I like how he managed to build it up from nothing.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
We use a cloud-based accounts system where customers can go in and see their accounts and pay online. We do a big range of digital pianos; it’s unbelievable the difference each model has. We decided to put all the information on our website. The customer can find everything they need to know about digital pianos on our website now.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
Nowadays with online sales, customers really want to see value in the product, good guarantees, good service, and after sales service. If a customer comes back to us with a problem, we deal with it straight away. It takes the goodness out of it when it takes a long time to help your customer. If there’s a problem, you have to attend to it promptly or get a tuner/technician in the area to deal with the issue.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
From selling everything in between a plectrum and a grand piano, it has been how to manage 3,000 stock items.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
I know the biggest challenge to a music shop at the moment is online sales. All over Europe is your nearest competitor. You have to sell at online prices. Our biggest competitor is a company in Germany. We try and add more value.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
From going to Japan and China, I’m good at negotiating and buying the right stock. I also like to make sure my staff are well treated and respected; this results in a productive working environment.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
Seeing the company grow in the last eight years, increasing our sales throughout the recession and seeing our stock grow, and improve in quality. Our new showroom will be very rewarding.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
Going to Japan and China to source new companies and new products.
How did you scale/grow your business?
By finding the best products at affordable prices. It has taken up to 10 years to do that. I’m not so good at marketing but I’m capable of getting a good product and building on it – the product can speak for itself. Also employing good loyal staff helps. You’re only as good as the people that work for you.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
Cashflow is the biggest one. The flood and losing 10,000 sq ft of mainly pianos was an obstacle. Our biggest sales are in September when the schools are back. We get everything ready in the summer months and by the end of August, if you have your stock ready, that’s when you can do well. The flood came in the end of August just when we were ready….
How do you get ideas to further your business?
We go to international trade shows in the US, Germany and China. We also keep an eye on what other companies of a similar nature are doing and try to stay one step ahead. A lot of people have good ideas and don’t do anything about it.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
To improve the business and to achieve a higher standard of living for my wife and kids. If you have a goal, it keeps you motivated to try to get there.
What’s your vision for the future?
To grow the business further and to infiltrate the UK market more. Sales to the UK are important to us. I’ve a good agent there who is managing to bring more and more new customers on board. I can see growth there.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
I’ve never had a mentor and I’ve never read a business book in my life.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
If you’ve anything on your mind and you keep putting it off, deal with it first thing in the morning and you’ll feel great for the rest of the day. My favourite quote is “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Be honest and up front so you don’t have to look over your shoulder. If you can do that, you’re on the way. If you don’t get off on the right foot, you’ll be caught out eventually. Run it respectfully and honestly. Bad news spreads like wildfire. Other advice would be prepared to work hard. That 9-5 job is out the window. If you want to leave at that time, go work for someone.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
Never look back and regret your failures, put your energy back into the next big venture. A setback is not a bad experience, just a learning curve.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
A lot of things. In the Celtic Tiger I bought a lot of expensive stock – a lot of which I still have, so I wouldn’t have done that. Not to be giving out so much credit where you give people an inch and they take a mile. That was the biggest problem we would have changed. We’re stricter on credit control. You do buy a lot of products you shouldn’t have bought, but that’s just a learning curve.
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